News - August 13, 2015

The secret history of a horse

Roelof Kleis

Some news tickles your curiosity. And that sets you off on an investigation that gets a hold on you. This is the story of such an investigation. A story about a long-dead mare, Wageningen heritage and bygone times.

On 1 April last year a bulletin in the newspaper De Leeuwarder Courant drew my attention. The Frisian Agricultural Museum in Eernewoude had a mare of 2000 years old. A gift from Wageningen UR, which was getting rid of it after ‘clearing out an attic’. And no, it wasn’t an April Fools’ joke. A recent C-14 dating definitively established the great age of the ‘hynderke’ (horse in Frisian). Great news for the Frisian Agricultural Museum, which made much of it in the runup to the national museum weekend.

A gift, an attic clearance, 2000 years old? I wanted to get to the bottom of this. My quest began with museum director Henk Dijkstra. Over the phone he confirmed the origin of the skeleton. Dijkstra was tipped off in 2011 by the renowned (and now elderly) Wageningen emeritus professor of livestock Rommert Politiek. Was the museum interested in the (equally renowned) stud bull Adema’s Athlete. The stuffed head of this bull graced the wall of the canteen of Zodiac, which was moving onto campus. Management didn’t know what to do with the head, for which there was no place in the new building on campus. After years of good service, the bull was killed in 1943 and the head was kept, stuffed and given to the then livestock professor Wieger de Jong. As an honorary member of De Veetelers study association, Politiek has warm relations with Wageningen, which is why he was so well-informed about the move and the heritage dilemma. Politiek is also a welcome guest at the Agricultural Museum. So he put Dijkstra in touch with Gesina Noordewier, policy advisor at Zodiac, who was made responsible for the décor of the new building.

Noordewier responded eagerly to the interest from Eernewoude. She saw in it a solution not only for the bull’s head but also for another thorny problem. Because there was all sorts of stuff up in the attics at Zodiac, including a whole collection of skulls and bones ‘in various states of decay’. And amongst all the clutter was the hynderke. On a brass holder at the foot of the frame was a yellowing piece of paper bearing the words ‘Horse from the dwelling mounds’. Dijkstra was sold. No matter that these five words on the label were the only written documentation about the mare at that point. Neither Dijkstra nor Noordewier knew more about it than that.

An online search in the Forum library produced a few leads. On 27 March 1927, a certain Paul Cesar Labouchère got his doctorate at the then agricultural college in Wageningen for a thesis about the Belgian carthorse. In that thesis Labouchère devotes two chapters to horse skulls from collections in Wageningen and Groningen. Aha! At that time, according to Labouchère’s book, Wageningen had a collection of 32 horse skulls from Frisian and Groningen dwelling mounds. The majority of the skulls came from Ferwerd in Friesland. On page 52 of the thesis there is even a photo of a horse skeleton on a frame, which bears a striking resemblance to ‘my’ mare. The label states that this horse came from the mound at Wierhuizen, which is in Groningen province. Ferwerd is in Friesland. Did Labouchère make a mistake on the label, or is this a false trail?

Meanwhile, museum director Dijkstra referred me to Egge Knol, curator of the Groninger Museum. It was Knol who dated the skeleton. He was preparing his 2013 exhibition, ‘Drowned land is fertile’, about life on the dwelling mounds of the northern Dutch coast, when he heard about the latest acquisition at the Frisian Agricultural Museum. ‘That skeleton made the perfect eye-catcher in our exhibition,’ explained Knol on a lovely April day last year. But he had one problem: nothing was known about the skeleton. Curators don’t like that. So he decided to do carbon dating, and asked the Centre for Isotope Research at the University of Groningen to extract a piece of tissue from the underside of the skull. ‘Just one cubic centimeter, so that you hardly notice it.’ The result was a surprise. It showed with scientific accuracy that the horse lived between 187 before until 25 after Christ. This meant it came from the late iron age or the start of the ancient Roman era. Knol used the teeth to establish that the skeleton was that of a 23 to 25-year-old mare. Its great age and the fact that the mare was buried and not eaten suggest that she meant a lot to her owner or fulfilled a special role, says Knol.

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So, my mare is old and special. But how did she end up in Wageningen? Knol knew more. He had been delving into the history of Wageningen dwelling mound research for some time. That history started with the interest of Luitje Broekema, a teacher and later director of the National Agriculture School, the forerunner of the College of Agriculture. Broekema taught livestock among other subjects and was interested in the ancestry and development of our Dutch livestock. ‘In 1850 scientists found Neolithic settlements in the Swiss lakes, in which bones had been fantastically well preserved,’ says Knol. ‘Zoologists immediately saw the possibility of using that material to get closer to the ancestry of domestic animal breeds.’ Broekema, who was born and bred in Groningen, realized, says Knol, that there were similar locations in our country where bones from the past have been preserved in large quantities: the mounds of Groningen and Friesland. In 1908 Broekema started to collect animal bones and proceeded to publish a small series of articles about them in the journal Cultura. One of these, in 1909, was about the horse skulls found in the mounds. But Wageningen mound research never really got off the ground, says Knol. Broekema was overtaken by a young biology student in Groningen, who later became Professor Albert van Giffen. Van Giffen threw himself into the archaeology of the mounds and became Holland’s most famous archaeologist of the 20th century. But Wageningen academics were too busy setting up the Agricultural College, of which Broekema was a founding father. In 1918 he became the first professor of Livestock.

There was little to show for Wageningen’s dwelling mound research for a couple of decades. Until doctoral student Labouchère devoted part of his thesis to the horse skulls taken from the mounds by the avid collectors Broekema and his successor Dirk Leonard Bakker. But it really came to life in the years following Labouchère’s graduation, thanks to the LEB fund. The LEB (the agricultural export bureau) was set up in 1926 and still finances agricultural research to this day. The secretary of the fund at that time was Professor Bakker, Labouchère’s promotor. Up until 1945, the fund spent as much as 50,000 guilders on dwelling mound research, calculated journalist Leo Klep in his jubilee book about the fund. Under Professor Bakker’s leadership, from the summer of 1928 there were further digs in the Burmania mound at Ferwerd, the village north of Leeuwarden where many of the Wageningen horse skulls that Labouchère was interested in came from. Curator Knol’s guess is that the ‘Wageningen’ mare came from these excavations. This theory gained credibility when archivist Wim ter Beest got involved at my request. Ter Beest is a member of the Wageningen UR committee on preserving academic heritage, formed a few years ago. At that time he was working on digitalizing Wageningen UR’s photo collection so as to make it available online. He is certain that he has seen photos of a collection of skeletons and bones. As he told me this, he got out a file of photos of the horse of Auzoux which had just come in. This life-sized papier maché model was recently put on display in the library. The photos were taken in the attic of the farm at Duivendaal, home to the livestock department before it moved to Zodiac on the Haarweg. This attic was where the department kept its teaching materials. One of the photos shows a man in a cloth jacket posing proudly beside the skeleton of a horse, his right arm draped loosely over the creature’s bony neck. The Auzoux horse is next to the skeleton. But Ter Beest had more knowledge up his sleeve. He knew the archives of the LEB fund and thought there must be more information there about the dwelling mound research. A few months later, after getting permission to look through the dossiers, Ter Beest handed me a little bundle of papers consisting of annual reports on the mound research written in a shaky hand. Eagerly, I deciphered the handwriting.

In 1928 the LEB fund tasked recent graduate T.C.J.M. Rijssenbeek with the zoological research on the mounds. In April of that year, Rijssenbeek travelled to Ferwerd to supervise excavations at the Burmania mound, which were in full swing. Every week that summer, 2000 tonnes of fertile soil were carted off. The Burmania mound proved to be a goldmine in archaeological terms, too. ‘Up to now about 100 bones a week have been found in Ferwerd, on average,’ Rijssenbeek wrote to Professor Bakker in July. The summer of 1928 produced a total of 1600 bones and bone fragments. Rijssenbeek also mentions a mare. Which is striking, because that find had taken place earlier, as Bakker reported proudly in his 1931 report on four years of dwelling mound research. According to Bakker the ‘entire skeleton of a pony’ was found in 1928. ‘A find of very great value, since to date only one such specimen –neither as good nor as complete – is known, which is in the collection of the Biological Archaeological Cabinet at the University of Groningen.’ The digs of that summer also produced another horse skull and two pig skeletons, according to Bakker.

Group photo of the livestock department of yore, with (from left) Professor Bakker, Douma, Bosma, Zander and Reitsma
Group photo of the livestock department of yore, with (from left) Professor Bakker, Douma, Bosma, Zander and Reitsma

The success of 1928 encouraged Bakker to carry on with the work of collecting. The question was who should do it now that Rijssenbeek had a real job: he became deputy livestock consultant to the government. It was decided to involve the dig superintendent, who then received 40 guilders a month to retrieve bones as well as he could and send them to Wageningen. ‘This is not a failsafe system of course,’ acknowledged Rijssenbeek, but he hoped it would ‘prove to be a good solution under these less than satisfactory circumstances.’ An early modern form of ‘citizen science’. The dig superintendent worked for Wageningen for two years until 1931, when science graduate Gerrit Gjalt Reitsma took over the work. Reitsma was Rijssenbeek’s successor. He was asked by the LEB fund to study and describe remains of farm animals found in mounds. That led to two publications in the years that followed: booklets about the sheep (1932) and the pig (1935). Further installments about the horse and the cow were planned but never came out. Reitsma moved to Ferwerd in the spring of 1931 and hit the jackpot straightaway. That very summer, according to Bakker’s report, he found a second ‘practically complete’ horse skeleton. And to crown it all, one year later at the nearby mound at Arum, another ‘largely complete’ skeleton of a pony was found. Suddenly there were three candidates for the identity of the mare at the Frisian Agricultural Museum.

So which of the three is the ‘Horse from the mounds’? The mare on the Duivendaal photo looks like a prime candidate for the, in Professor Bakker’s view, so ‘extraordinarily valuable find’ by the young Rijssenbeek in the summer of 1928 in Ferwerd. The man on the photo turns out to be amanuensis W. Geurtsen, who held the post until spring 1932. The first two skeletons were found during that period. But there remain serious doubts. The frame on the photo does not match the skeleton’s current frame. What is more, the mare in Friesland is missing part of the right knee joint, which has been replaced with a wooden block. On the photo with the amanuensis, that joint is whole. Nor do other photos from the attic collection at the farm at Duivendaal offer conclusive evidence on the identity of the ‘Horse from the mounds’. I am probably not going to get any closer to the truth. An inventory of former collections at Duivendaal would provide answers, but it has been lost. The same goes for Reitsma’s study of the horse, which was written but never published.

When he visited Zodiac, museum director Dijkstra could not take the mare away with him straightaway. He had actually come for the impressive bull’s head, which weighs over 100 kilos. So the skeleton was first moved to the campus where it stood for months in the corridor of the new Zodiac. And on 23 March 2012, Dijkstra drove once again to Wageningen with a trailer behind his car. And so the ‘hynderke’, well-wrapped in packing material, moved house again after 84 years. Back home to Frisian soil.

Photo: Guy Ackermans