Bournemouth University

Tastes Like Chicken

I am Julia Best a post-doctoral researcher on the Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions Project which involves researchers from six UK universities. I am a zooarchaeologist at heart and my role in large this large AHRC funded project focusses on investigating the spread of domestic chickens in Europe and how they have been exploited in different periods and regions. As such my work involves collecting data from across Europe for inclusion in a large project database. I am also conducting research into the history of egg production, analysing eggshell from archaeological sites, and working to refine and develop our knowledge of the formation, duration and extent of medullary bone in chickens.

This morning (Friday 11th) started with a cavernous yawn and a very large coffee. It has been a busy few weeks. Yesterday some of the Chicken Project team met in Nottingham to finalise our sample strategy for key case sites and to refine the searching/querying side of our database work. This involved over nine hours on a train for Bournemouth University based me, but the meeting was very productive and I even managed to get quite a bit of work done on the train. Today is what I like to call a ‘bits and pieces Friday’. There are lots of bits to write up and work on as a result of yesterday’s meeting, it is the last day for the placement student who has been working with me for several weeks, and I also am finishing off a lot of blogs and reports on public engagement.

I get into the office, answer emails, give Nicola (the placement student) some data to work with, type up notes from yesterday, and then phone a Chicken Project colleague to discuss our on-going data collection and fill them in about yesterday’s meeting. I work in an office that contains a wide range of researchers from different scientific disciplines. As such, some of the conversations regarding our chicken work must seem a little strange. Quotes of the day so far include: “coracoids mean nothing to me”, “I’m happy to give you Norway”, and (my favourite) “the Buff Orpington was being a bit of a sex pest”. To translate: coracoids are not one of my target elements for medullary bone analysis, Norway shall be one of the countries that I gather zooarch data for, and the later concerns the story of how a farmer decided which of his birds to cull.

After a small flurry of meetings I settle down to search out and collate zooarchaeological chicken data and finish my plethora of outreach reports. Two weeks ago I was in a muddy field, namely Glastonbury. Myself and Jackie Pitt (a PhD student at Bournemouth University) were representing the Chicken Project by running a stand in the Science Tent in the Green Futures field. We pitched up with our skeletons, interactive charting, archaeological finds and a variety of other materials and awaited the arrival of the public. They came thick and fast.

Visitors debating when the chicken was introduced to Britain (Photo by J. Best)

Visitors debating when the chicken was introduced to Britain (Photo by J. Best)

A selection of the handling finds and skeletons on offer to explore skeletal differences and how we investigate chickens via archaeology, science and anthropology.

A selection of the handling finds and skeletons on offer to explore skeletal differences and how we investigate chickens via archaeology, science and anthropology.

We had around 800 visitor interactions and since the audience at this festival was exceedingly varied we had people interested for every reason under the sun; from vegan caterers, permaculture enthusiasts, and sustainable food trust members, to farmers and people who worked as chicken vaccinators! People were very interested and large numbers engaged in detailed discussion and debate. Average interaction time was between 5 and 10 minutes, but there were some participants that remained for much longer too. If I had a pound for every time someone said something along the lines of “oh cool, I didn’t know you could do/tell/see/find that” I’d be rich. The visitors were very engaged and enjoyed the activities/handling opportunities, including one slightly worse-for-wear individual who flumped over the table and dramatically yelled ‘tell me about the chickens!’, which was rather comical, but even they were keen to investigate the project. The interactive mapping of the visitors’ perceptions and relations with chickens is looking very interesting, for example, most people knew someone who keeps chickens and many want to keep them. Less people knew where in the world their wild ancestors came from. Overall we certainly widened people’s knowledge of chickens, archaeology, science, and anthropology and how they can all come together to explore the past, understand the present, and look to the future. As an archaeologist I get a privileged look into the past every day, but if we do not share the past with public then our work is sometimes limited.

Julia talking rather enthusiastically about chickens (Photo by J. Pitt)

Julia talking rather enthusiastically about chickens (Photo by J. Pitt)

Well, time is pressing on and I had better return to my work, so I shall leave you with a contribution from undergraduate placement student Nicola Batley:

“Not all of archaeology involves digging – which, for some of us, is a relief! I’m a student currently doing a placement on The Chicken Project, focusing mainly on the extensive database as well as other odd jobs. The archaeological story for chickens can only been seen by stepping back and looking at the entire picture; a picture than can only be painted with a lot of data! This is why I am entering into a database a wide array of information about chicken bones found from a variety of sites. Today, I finished entering in information from roughly 160 Scottish sites, on top of some of English and Czech sites I’d previously done. Database entry involves making records of the site location (not just the country, but including specifics down to the 6th decimal point of the longitude and latitude) and then constructing records of assemblages based on date, from Prehistoric to Post-Medieval. The data flow continues for these sites right down to the measurements of individual chicken bones. Once the database is complete (which won’t be for a while yet!) a global picture of how the humble chicken traipsed from its point of origin and into our supermarkets will be clear to see.

While more data is collected and studied for database entry, the current information is shared through outreach programmes. This includes events such as the Festival of Learning held at Bournemouth University and even going to, and braving, the soggy Glastonbury Festival. To make the research more engaging to the festival goers and attendants of future outreach events, who may have no archaeological background, I created some less serious and more fun informative posters and documents. These included a poster with some of the ‘facts’ and tips suggested by Roman source Columella for chicken rearing (such as the ‘fact’ that chickens will die if they are breathed on by a snake) and recipes involving chicken and/or eggs from the Roman Apicius and several Medieval texts. A day on this project for me involves a variety of different tasks and each has its purpose in the greater scheme of things – it is, after all, a massive worldwide project with several contributors, which range from Universities and independent researchers, to our partners in Practical Poultry magazine.”

So, welcome to the wonderful and sometimes weird world of everything chicken. For continued updates and information please follow the project on our website and twitter:

Eastbourne Ancestors Day of Archaeology 2012

This is the first ‘Day of Archaeology’ that we (Eastbourne Ancestors) have taken part in and so we are quite excited to be involved!

I’m also excited as this is my first full time job in archaeology as the Project Co-ordinator for Eastbourne Ancestors. I work in the commercial world of archaeology as an osteoarchaeologist (human and animal remains) in my spare time too, as well as excavating with a local society and the Eastbourne Museum Service. Archaeology is for everyone and I strongly believe in the community aspect, getting hands on.

You can follow our progress here:

Although the ‘Day of Archaeology 2012’ fell on 29th June, I was in meetings which wouldn’t have made for exciting reading…but today is a different story.

We are a Heritage Lottery Funded project run by the Eastbourne Museum Service in East Sussex. Our aim is to To fully examine all the human skeletal remains in our collection from the Eastbourne area in order to produce a demographic profile of the past populations that were living here.

The skeletal analysis will include determining the age, biological sex, stature, metric and non-metric traits, ancestry, health, diet, handedness and evidence of pathology. We will also be conducting research into migration studies using isotope analysis, physical appearance using facial reconstruction and family connections, DNA and C14.

As part of this project, we will be giving volunteers the opportunities to participate in artefact conservation, osteoarchaeology workshops, field work, study days, talks and demonstrations and much more. We will conclude the project with academic and public published material as well as an exhibition.

On Friday, Jo (the boss) and I took a road trip to Bournemouth University to deliver 30 skeletons to students to study for their MSc dissertations. We also have a student from Exeter University studying clavicles for two weeks with us for her research. In a few months time we will be taking some of the collection to Canterbury University to be studied by their MSc and BSc students too.

Today is our first volunteer day, we have 5 volunteers busily cleaning skeletal remains from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery site in Eastbourne. Each day for a month, volunteers will be helping to get the remains ready for analysis, which they will also receive training for as part of the Project.

By the 2013 ‘Day of Archaeology’ I hope to have some interesting findings to write about: Where did these people come from? Are they local? How did they live and die? What did they wear? What did they look like?

Radicarbon dating samples

Was able to escape the thrills of writing about pigs diets and isotopes, as I was just dragged off to advise on, and select samples for radiocarbon dating from the Banjo enclosure at North Down, Dorset. This is a large Bournemouth University dig, which had a team of up to 160 excavators and specialists. The 2011 season finished only a couple of weeks ago and post-ex is now in full swing. As for the samples, there wasn’t a lot to choose from. It’s crucial to pick a bone (or whatever else) that you can be confident has not been kicking about for long periods prior to ending up in the deposit you want to date. You don’t want to waste your money dating something that was dug out of a much earlier pit before finding its way into your deposit. One bone, a cattle radius, was about three quarters complete and although it had evidence of weathering showing it could have been on the surface for some time I’m confident it will provide a good date for the ditch from which it came.

Being a post-doc

Today, technically I’m not at work, but I’ll still be doing some archaeology! In March I started a post-doc (a research position design for someone fresh from their doctoral thesis) in the Netherlands. It was all very sudden- once I accepted the job I had about 5 weeks to up sticks and move to another country that I’d only visited once, and could only manage the absolute basics linguistically. The role is part time- four days a week, which is great because on my day off I can do some work on my own research- a PhD doesn’t stop when you graduate! I need to write papers based on my research, and get them published. This will be good for me; publishing lots is key to getting (and keeping) academic jobs- and ultimately I want to be a lecturer. It’s also very important for the subject. We’ve got an obligation, whether we work in commercial or ‘university’ or community archaeology, to get our results published and into the public domain.


Me doing borehole geophysics in Calabria

Me doing borehole geophysics in Calabria


So it’s finally here!

The Day of Archaeology is finally upon us. A day when the world can learn just what us archaeologists get up to and how much more there is to it all than scrabbling around in the mud!

I’m Richard Madgwick, a lecturer at Bournemouth University. I specialise in the analysis of animal bones and recently completed a PhD at Cardiff University (I had my Viva only two weeks ago).

I wish I could say that my day of archaeology is going to be a thriller but sadly that’s looking unlikely. Whilst the departments is like a ghost town as most other people are away on glamorous field projects, including locations such as Malta, Russia and Stonehenge; I am confined to principally working on grant applications, papers for publication and preparing lectures for the new year. More exciting bone- and field-work is to come in the next couple of weeks: trips to the dig at Ham Hill, assessment of a bone assemblage from a Mesolithic cave in North Wales and an engagement event at Green Man, a music festival in the Brecon Beacons.

First task of the day is to finish writing a paper on reconstructing the diets of Bronze Age pigs through isotopic analysis of sites in South Wales (Llanmaes) and Wiltshire (Potterne). I processed 150 samples of animal bone, which retains a chemical signature of the animals’ diet. Results demonstrate a wide-range of foddering regimes. Some pigs were entirely herbivorous, others had diets which included lots of animal protein, perhaps as scraps from meals. It also seems likely that several of the pigs were fed on that cornerstone of a healthy diet – poo!