On the Trail of the Elusive Fallow Deer…

Research paper, desk, keyboard, Archaeologist mug

I am a part-time postgraduate student, currently working towards an MSc in Archaeological Research at the University of Nottingham, which will take two years to complete. I’ve come back to archaeology after a long break, during which time I have pursued my career in research and academic computing. However, I am still in love with archaeology so my long-held ambition to do a further degree in the subject is at last being realised and I am really enjoying it, despite all the late nights reading and working on essays after I’ve finished my day job. As a mature student, I was concerned at first that I would find it difficult to fit in. However, the staff and my fellow students have been really encouraging, which is helping to make the whole experience very satisfying.

The taught part of our course has finished for this year, so it’s now time to get down to preparing for the research work which will form the basis of the 15,000 word dissertation we must submit and which accounts for a third of the credits on our course. I’m interested in the application of scientific techniques in archaeology, which has influenced my choices of modules, including archaeobotany and zooarchaeology, and my research will be using a fascinating technique, stable isotope analysis, to try to answer some interesting archaeological questions. I am lucky that a new project based in our department has recently started — Dama International: Fallow Deer and European Society, 6000BC to AD1500 — so my research work is part of that project, analysing samples from fallow deer antlers which have been found on Iron Age and Roman sites in Britain, to see whether the results can suggest the diet consumed by the deer while the antlers were developing and possibly to infer whether they were local in Britain during that time. This has interesting implications for trade, especially during the Iron Age, when fallow deer were not living natively in this country and the antlers could have been imported as a commodity, as well as for the reintroduction of the species during the Roman period, when one or more small breeding populations are thought to have been established, for example, at the prestigious Roman villa at Fishbourne in Sussex. The results from archaeological specimens will be set against samples taken from modern fallow antlers from a known location, as a control. I’ll be doing the analysis at the NERC Isotope Geoscience Laboratory, at the British Geological Survey in Keyworth. NIGL has an established and illustrious track record of work in archaeological isotope work and luckily, it’s not far from where I live.

However, I first have to track down some of the known archaeological specimens, which is how I spent my Day of Archaeology. It’s proving to be an interesting challenge, as some of the excavations which have reported finds of fallow antler took place 50 or more years ago, so I have to hope that once I locate where the finds are archived, they still have the antler and that it has been correctly identified! By following connections from the literature and making enquiries by e-mail, I’m currently on the trail of some pieces excavated from an Iron Age site near Cambridge in the 1960’s and an antler found in the well of a Roman villa in Norfolk.

I must pay tribute to the helpful people I’ve contacted who are responsible for archives of material such as this, who take their time to look through their collections for obscure finds at the request of university researchers like me. Some enquiries have drawn a blank, either because of mis-identification or, while fallow bones were found, as at the Roman fort at Binchester, County Durham, the antler itself turned out to be from red deer. However, that’s all part of the research process, which is fascinating.

Assuming I can get some archaeological samples to analyse, I hope to report back next year on what the results tell us!