Even Isidore of Seville knew that snakes always remain angular and are never straight by nature. He said, relying on observations of snake behavior: “All snakes can be coiled and twisted, thus their name (anguis), because they are always angular and never straight.” Surprisingly, when archaeologists discovered several straight snake skeletons at the Ravna–Slog site (in Eastern Serbia) from 1994 to 1996, they did not even attempt to correlate the remains with the archaeological record, treating them as a purely natural phenomenon and, therefore, of no analytical consequence. Consequently, only ephemeral drawings of graves with the positions of the snakes remain to provide data on which to base an analysis and interpretation.
Snake remains came to light in seven graves (dated variously to the Roman and medieval periods). The snakes had either been laid straight along the side of the deceased or partially wrapped around their waists and continuing straight alongside the upper arm (humerus). Since snake skeletons are so uncommon in archaeological contexts, one important goal of this paper is to examine whether their occurrence at the Ravna–Slog site is attributable to natural deposition or not. Thus, this article has three objectives: 1) to review the positions and conditions in which the snakes were found from a herpetological perspective; 2) to compare other instances of snake remains in their respective archaeological contexts; and 3) to offer further interpretations of the snake remains from Ravna–Slog. By re-examining the original data, the article addresses incongruences in the existing interpretation of the graves containing snakes as dating to both the Roman and early medieval periods. Instead, the data strongly suggest that such remains are found only in early medieval graves. The phenomenon of reusing material culture as grave goods along with the manipulation of animal bodies in burial rites in times of social change is also discussed.
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This research was undertaken for project No 177008, funded by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development of the Republic of Serbia. For key points, based on bioarchaeological methodology, appreciation is expressed to Ivana Živaljević from the Laboratory of Bioarchaeology in Belgrade as well as to my colleagues from the ZOOARCH mailing list (covering academic discussions of zooarcheology). Additional thanks go to herpetologist Rastko Ajtić and to the “Milutin Radovanović” Serbian Herpetological Society. I would like to express my gratitude to Sofija Petković for assistance with the unpublished excavation documentation. A final note of thanks goes to Danijel Džino for providing support for my writings on the reuse of material culture in the Middle Ages in Serbia.
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Milosavljević, M. (2021). Always Angular and Never Straight: Medieval Snakes in Human Graves?. In: Bartosiewicz, L., Choyke, A.M. (eds) Medieval Animals on the Move. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-63888-7_6
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