Glastonbury Festival

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:

Digging into the Social History of Archaeology at Verulamium

hypocaust currently in Verulamium Park

Hypocaust currently in Verulamium Park

The museum archaeologist’s lot can be varied and since being restructured to the role of Collections Manager my role is broader than pure archaeology. However, this has given me the scope to develop some really interesting and exciting projects and one of them is to do oral history interviews with as many archaeologists who have dug on our site at Verulamium as I can. There are several aspects to this project, a bit of hunting around and trying to track people down, then going along and interviewing them using our digital Marantz recorder and then coming back to the museum transcribing interviews.In the morning I found myself looking through the transcript of an interview in order to try to find some quotes to go with historic photographs. I’m slowly pulling together all of this research for a book which I hope to publish, we have interviews with archaeologists who worked with Mortimer Wheeler right the way through to our present day District Archaeologist. Many of today’s most respected archaeologists worked at Verulamium and these interviews are a record of their experience, life as a digging archaeologist and the town at the time.It’s fascinating work, not the least seeing some of our most interesting and exciting objects being excavated. For example, the image to the top left is from the 1930’s of the hypocaust currently in Verulamium Park
and here is one of the excavators talking about it:

“…we were all rather excited about the hypocaust… and I was one of those who had the fortunate opportunity to crawl along the channel, under the pavement, between the pilae which supported it. I struck matches to see where I was going, and found myself under the centre of the mosaic…”
Helen Carlton-Smith 1980

Another aspect of my work is to work on the museum documentation system. I am currently trying to improve the records by adding photographs and as much additional information about objects as I can. The afternoon was spent taking photographs of metal medieval and post medieval artefacts and then integrating them into the database.Of course, in between this there was the usual stream of public enquiries which are rich, varied and interesting. I tracked down a map which detailed all the WWII air raid shelters in St Albans and did a bit of research on the local dairy for someone. I was also part of the team which considered some new objects for acquisition- some historic CND banners.I often wonder what an oral history interview with me would sound like in fifty years!