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Human-bird interactions from the Roman period to the end of the Middle Ages: Italy and England in their European context

Final Report Summary - HUBIR (Human-bird interactions from the Roman period to the end of the Middle Ages: Italy and England in their European context)

The study of bird remains from archaeological sites – ornithoarchaeology – provides direct evidence of bird exploitation by past human populations. Birds played a prominent role in the life of ancient societies. Over the centuries people have been interested and fascinated by birds. The HUBIR project investigated changes in human-bird interaction from the Roman period to the end of the Middle Ages, as part of our wider understanding of human society at that time.
This study was based on the analysis of Italian and British bird remains from archaeological sites. In particular, urban and rural sites have been considered in Italy, while ecclesiastic sites were investigated in England. A new methodological approach to the study of bird remains and state of the art ornithoarchaeological methods (diagnostic zone analysis, observation of butchery marks, biometric analysis and innovative sexing analysis) have been adopted. The specifically built recording protocol relied on a selection of anatomical elements considered particularly suited for further quantification and analysis. Sex ratios were innovatively assessed through a study of frequencies and quantity of medullary bone. This is a temporary deposit of calcium within the bones, which is required for the formation of egg shells during the laying season. It occurs in anatomical elements with a good blood supply and, in particular, it is most common in femurs and tibiotarsi (Figure 1).
Figure 1: femurs of chickens from Tarquinia (Italy) drilled to assess the extent of medullary bone.
Among birds, chicken (Gallus gallus) has played the dominant role as the key farmyard bird in the history of humanity. In Italy and England, it became widespread in the Roman period, when it began to be exploited as a valuable meat source. Although chicken was an important source of food in the Middle Ages, there are no medieval written sources detailing the husbandry practices adopted at that time in Italy.
Our evidence indicates an increased importance of chicken as a food source in late medieval Italy. Chicken was bred at rural sites throughout the Middle Ages, but from the 13th century onward, anatomical parts and age data point to an increase in chicken breeding in urban contexts too. At rural sites, hens were mainly exploited for egg production and were preferentially slaughtered when they were not laying eggs. In fact, in a traditional outdoor poultry farm, it is only convenient to kill hens when their egg productivity has declined. Conversely, in towns there is greater evidence for the consumption of hens that had been slaughtered when ‘in lay’. These must have been specifically slaughtered to be sold in the urban market. Egg production probably occurred mainly in the countryside, though the urban population would have acquired them through the market. Evidence from ecclesiastic English sites shows a management of chickens similar to the Italian rural sites.
Variations in chicken size have been identified at different Italian sites. It is not surprising, considering the well-known existence of distinct chicken breeds that are mentioned by Roman written sources. We know less about medieval chicken types, but it is likely that some of the diversity recorded for the Roman periods was maintained and, in fact, may even have been increased. It is interesting that the largest chickens that have been recorded derive from the Italian early medieval phases. Promising results seems to suggest an overall decrease in chicken size in the course of the Middle Ages (Figure 2). In this regard, it is noteworthy that an increase in chicken frequency is not reflected in an equivalent increase in size. Chicken sizes probably reflected the needs of different markets, and it is possible that a larger size was not necessarily regarded as desirable. In England, an increase in chicken size starts in the last centuries of the Middle Ages and continues through the Post-Medieval period.
Figure 2: Italian sites. Comparison of chicken size between sites using a scaling index technique (log ratio). The mean of each site, indicated by the triangles, suggests a decrease in chicken size through the Middle Ages.
Further analysis of bird assemblages disclosed important information about the management of goose, duck and pigeon. Goose importance increased in the course of the Middle Ages both in Italy and England while duck and pigeon represent only a marginal occurrence. In Italy, juvenile bones of this three species, often recorded at rural sites, can be interpreted as demonstrating local breeding. Age at death indicates specialised forms of exploitation. While chickens were sometimes slaughtered when still young, geese were generally kept alive longer for the exploitation of feathers.
In England, there are surprisingly few records of pigeons in the Early Medieval period, but they become more common in domestic waste from the 11th c onwards. From this time, both in England and Italy, they became a routine part of the upper-class diet.
In the Middle Ages in Italy, goose and pigeon husbandry was well known as showed by their wide spread and by the occurrence, for goose, of domestic individuals at almost all sites (as indicated by biometrical analysis). Furthermore, it is interesting that changes in size of chickens seem to correspond to those of geese and pigeons, thus suggesting similarities in the management of domestic birds.
Finally, it is noteworthy that of the almost 13,000 Italian bird remains considered c.18% (c.3,000 specimens) of these belonged to wild species. In total, more than 100 wild species have been identified. Most of the remains of wild species were found at high status sites. Also British ecclesiastic sites produced quite a few wild species. Of particular interest are the remains of birds of prey usually associated to a variety of wild birds, both in the Italian and English assemblages analysed for this project. The occurrence of raptors and other wild birds increases considerably in the late medieval period due to the spread of falconry. At that time, this activity was performed by high status people both in Italy and England as indicated by the collected evidence.
The results obtained by the project emphasise important links between the organisation of human societies and the management of birds in the past. The exploitation of domestic birds has been subjected to variation and was also not the same in all site types. The use of wild birds can largely be explained with an urge to reinforce social status.