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July 2003-July 2010InteractiveDig Sagalassos
The archaeozoological team: from left to tight Erol Dilekçi (a local workman who specializes in sorting faunal remains from the flotation residue), Wim Van Neer, Anton Ervynck, and Bea De Cupere
Bea and Anton with the sorted small animals found inside pellets puked out by the eagle owl in the ruins of the Roman Baths

Photos courtesy Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project. Click on images to enlarge.
by Marc Waelkens

Archaeozoology: August 7-11, 2005

During the seventh century A.D., because of epidemics, warfare (in the 640s the first Arab raids), and earthquakes, life had become very insecure at Sagalassos, finally causing the total abandonment of the site. However, when the last town inhabitants had left, life did not disappear completely from the derelict buildings. Wild animals, once chased away by the noise and turmoil of city life, regained old territories and explored every corner of the unfamiliar environment created by humans. Last week, evidence for this recolonization has been excavated at the location of the Roman Baths.

Amid the destruction debris that now fills the "northern six-piered hall" of the bath complex, several concentrations of small animal bones were encountered. These were carefully sampled, washed, sorted, and then studied by the specialists on site (at the moment Wim Van Neer, KULeuven and Museum of Natural Sciences, Brussels; Anton Ervynck, University of Ghent and Flemish Heritage Institute/VIOE; Bea De Cupere, Museum of Natural Sciences, Brussels). The bone assemblages proved to derive from small mammals and birds, among which hare, hedgehog, squirrel, mole rat, jerboa, migratory hamster, a vole, partridge (or chukar), pigeon, and some ducks and passerines could be recognised. Strikingly, all species identified represent medium-sized wild animals. The remains of domestic species were absent, while the same was true for the bones of freshwater fish. The contexts also contained no evidence for large game or imported foodstuffs, such as marine animals. Clearly, this pattern indicates that the bone concentrations do not represent the leftovers of human consumption.

Who then deposited the wild bird and mammal remains? Several clues point to the perpetrator. First, the bones proved to represent complete, though disarticulated skeletons. Second, the skeletal elements showed some damage but no gnawing traces or severe fragmentation. Finally, the terrestrial animals are all of roughly the same size (of the largest species, the hare, only very young, small individuals were found). Together, these observations lead to the conclusion that the bones represent the prey remains of a large avian predator, more precisely an owl. Eagles and other day raptors leave their prey remains at the killing sites, owls concentrate them at their resting place. In the case of the Sagalassos finds, the size of the prey items indicates the activity of the largest owl occurring in the area: the eagle owl (Bubo bubo).

Owls swallow their prey whole and regurgitate the parts they cannot digest in the form of pellets, compact clusters of undigested material, i.e. feathers, nails, hair and bones. They do so while sitting at their resting place, where, since they always rest at the same location, the prey remains accumulate. Once the pellets, sometimes forming a thick deposit, become buried and end up in archaeological layers, the hair dissolves but the bones can stay preserved.

Although people did not interfere with the deposition of the Sagalassos owl pellets, the finds provide useful information about the final phase in the history of the Roman Baths complex. They corroborate the stratigraphic interpretation that the bathhouse was not destroyed abruptly but only gradually fell into ruins. It was already known that, now and then, people revisited the site to party on the rubble (see Roman Baths, August 14-18). It is now clear that, for decades or centuries after their abandonment, owls also used the ruins as resting site, preying on the small animals that inhabited the city's ruins. At that time, the commotion and clatter of the city's nightlife had long become history. At night, one only heard the lonesome cry of the eagle owl. Perhaps it is no coincidence that owls, be it of a smaller species, inhabit again a window in the west facade of the huge building.

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