On the 2nd of April, the UCD Archaeological Society were host to Dr Julia Best from Bournemouth University. Her talk, “Matters Most Fowl: Investigating Chickens in the Archaeological Record” was part of a wider project “Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human – Chicken Interactions.” Various universities are working together on this project, including the universities of Bournemouth, Cardiff, Southampton, Oxford, York, Nottingham, Leicester and Roehampton. I have to say I never knew there was so much to know about chickens!
Today there are approximately 20 billion chickens on earth, and they serve a variety of purposes. They are food, pets and even in some places have religious importance! However, their role in the past has been overlooked, partially because of the difficulties involved in recovering and identifying chicken remains.
Chickens were domesticated in South East Asia, from jungle fowl. There is a lively debate surrounding their exact origins, but it most likely took place in China in 8000BC and spread westwards. There are remains in India dating to the 3rd millennium BC, and the first reliable European dates are found in Bulgaria, in 1000BC. They reach Britain by 100BC, although there are some rare remains before this.
Chickens are also represented in the archaeological record by material culture. A chicken brooch has been found in Reinhem Hesse dating to the 4th century BC. It was included in a high status burial. In Britain, a collection bronze coins dating to the Late Iron Age are inscribed with chicken imagery. These objects give us an insight into the importance of chickens in ritual and cosmology. In West Deeping, a whole bird was recovered from under a doorway, it has been hypothesised that this is linked to fertility. Chickens have also been recovered from mortuary contexts, and sometimes represent exotic trade links.
In Roman Britain, chickens were hugely important. They are frequently included in burials, either on platters to serve as food, cremated or whole in pots. In other burials chicken ornaments are included rather than the chicken itself. The cockerel is linked to Mercury in Roman mythology. Mercury helped people to move from life to the otherworld, and is also connected with the coming of the day. This may explain the presence of chickens in burials. In Uley there was a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury, and significant amounts of male chicken bone has been recovered from the site, possibly linked to ritual activities.
Chickens in the past had different morphology from modern chickens, as they were not bred to be as large as chickens today. The osteological remains show that morphology also changed in the past, which can tell us about disease and living conditions. Following domestication, there are higher levels of osteopetrosis, as chickens were kept in close proximity and disease spread quickly. At a site in Lyminge, Kent, chicken remains show evidence for viral arthritis, probably a result of the marshy living conditions. At a Roman site in Belgium, hundreds of broken bones have been found, that may represent a cockfighting arena.
Osteological features can also tell us about what features were important in the past. Crested skulls , five toed legs and yellow legs were all seen as rare and therefore important. Today these traits are more common as they were bred for in the past. Indeed it is rare to see a chicken with grey or red legs, which were originally the norm.
The presence of a spur, in either male or female chickens was seen as high status. Larger spurs were preferable, and was related to display and prestige. However, it may also be related to the advantages it presented in cockfighting.
Scientific analysis of the composition of bone can also reveal a lot. A burial site in Vienna dating to the 7th century AD, shows that chickens with higher levels of protein were associated with higher status burials. The people they were buried with also had higher levels of protein. This suggests the chickens were fed scraps off the table.
When talking about chickens it is important not to forget eggs. A wild jungle fowl will have a clutch of 4-7 eggs per year. However, this was increased due to selective breeding during and after domestication. Originally eggs probably played a small part in diet, however that increased significantly under the Romans. The Chester Amphitheatre in Britain (70-80AD) shows that eggs were sold as snacks during plays and were important in the diet.
The medullary bone in hens is made of calcium for the eggshell, which depletes and replenishes as the hen goes through the different stages of laying eggs. This can allow the bird to be sexed, as well as revealing how important eggs were in the diet. An assemblage with high levels of medullary bone represents a society that used eggs regularly, lower levels suggests eggs were less important.
An interesting study in the Outer and Inner Hebrides Islands, Scotland compares the levels of wild seabird and chicken bones. A settlement at Bornais shows a gradual increase in chicken following their introduction at 400-800AD. However, there was still a reliance on wild seabirds. Following analyses, it was found that 40% of the chicken bone was medullary. This suggests that chicken were exploited for eggs, while seabirds were used for meet.
This seminar covered a wide geographical and chronological range, with a focus on the osteology. The project covers many other areas, including material culture, genetics and many others.
If you are interested in finding out more, they can be found at scicultchickens.org or on Twitter @Chicken_project.
Many thanks to Dr Julia Best for a truly egg-cellent seminar.
By Patricia Kenny