History Stories

When archaeologists began to excavate an abandoned cellar in the medieval section of Tulln, Austria, in 2006 to make way for construction of a new shopping center, they made an extraordinary find. Along with coins, remnants of ceramic plates and scattered trash, they unearthed the complete skeleton of a large mammal. Given their central European location, the archaeologists naturally thought the bones to be that of a large horse or a cow. Closer inspection, however, revealed the beast to be something quite unexpected.

“One look at the cervical vertebrae, the lower jaw and the metacarpal bones immediately revealed that this was a camel,” says archaeozoologist Alfred Galik from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.

How did a “ship of the desert” come to be in an Austrian town on the banks of the Danube River? According to a study published last week in the journal PLOS ONE, Galik and fellow archaeozoologists and geneticists have determined that the camel likely belonged to Ottoman invaders who besieged nearby Vienna for two months in the summer of 1683.

The presence of a coin depicting French King Louis XIV and a medicinal bottle containing the remedy Theriacum buried near the camel led researchers to date the find to the 17th century during the second Ottoman-Habsburg War and coinciding with 1683’s Battle of Vienna, in which the combined forces of European powers halted the Ottoman Empire’s westward incursion. The failure to capture the Austrian capital signaled the start of the Ottoman Empire’s waning influence in Europe.

Researchers found no evidence of strain on the skeleton to show that the camel had worked as a beast of burden. However, the bone defects found on the camel led them to believe that it had worn a harness and was ridden by Ottoman soldiers, who relied on both camels and horses for transportation and fighting in battle.

While in the past archaeologists working in Europe have found scattered camel bones and partially preserved camel skeletons dating back to Roman times, the complete camel skeleton unearthed in 2006 is the first to have been found in central Europe. The reason for the lack of intact skeletons is because the ultimate duty performed by Ottoman “war camels” was a gastronomic one. With food scarce in wartime, Ottoman soldiers butchered their dead camels for sustenance.

Since the skeleton found in Austria was intact and did not bear any butchering marks, researchers believe the war camel they discovered was likely abandoned by the Ottoman army—which surrounded Tulln in 1683 but never captured the town—or exchanged in a trade with local townsfolk, who naturally saw the animal as a curiosity. “The animal was certainly exotic for the people of Tulln,” Galik says. However, the Europeans’ lack of knowledge of camels probably resulted in its natural death and burial soon after its arrival. “It seems quite conceivable that being not familiar with behavioral and feeding habits, the scarcity of food in wartimes, people did not keep it for long,” says the report.

Researchers believe the camel was a male, likely castrated, and around 7 years old at its death. DNA testing confirmed the initial visual analysis of the camel’s skull that determined that the beast was a hybrid, with a one-humped dromedary for a mother and a two-humped Bactrian camel for a father. “Such crossbreeding was not unusual at the time. Hybrids were easier to handle, more enduring and larger than their parents. These animals were especially suited for military use,” Galik explains.

The only other complete camel skeleton to have been found in European territories under control of the Ottomans was a dromedary recovered from the sediments of the Theodosius harbor on the European part of Istanbul, much closer to the empire’s former heart and camels’ native lands.

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