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:

A day in the life of the Archaeological Research Project at Dobri Dyal, Bulgaria

On Friday 29th July 2011 I was working as site surveyor on a site at Dobri Dyal, a Roman fortified hilltop camp believed to date from the early 6th century AD and located in the central region of Bulgaria approximately 200km east of the capital Sofia. The Dobri Dyal project has about 50 participants mostly students from Nottingham and Cardiff universities but also with a smattering of students from Edinburgh, UCL a couple from Oxbridge and some from other places. There are a dozen or so supervisors, mainly professional archaeologists, covering all the main field functions, finds and environmental management, surveying and digital documentation, under the direction of Professor Andrew Poulter of the University of Nottingham. The British part of the project works in co-operation with a Bulgarian team organised through the regional museum at nearby Veiko Turnovo.

The Dobri Dyal team….

Project Background*

From northern Italy to the Black Sea coast, the only identified human impact upon the landscape during the early Byzantine period is the appearance of countless hill-top fortifications; only a few have been partially excavated, and none has been subjected to systematic archaeological research, employing the full range or modern techniques. The function of these sites and the character of the countryside during the final years of Byzantine rule, central as they are for understanding the period, remain unknown.

It is generally accepted that the early Byzantine Empire was at its height during the 6th century: Justinian retook North Africa and Italy and the emperor Maurice campaigned on and beyond the Danubian frontier. The lower Danube was of fundamental importance; it represented the economic hinterland and frontier, supporting and protecting the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Literary sources for the region, describing the second half of the century, have generated opposing interpretations; on the one hand, that this period witnessed a revival in Byzantine military strength or, on the other, that this century saw the progressive collapse of the empire’s economic and military power (Whitby and Liebeschuetz in Poulter 2007a). In particular, there is no agreement as to the veracity of The Buildings written by Procopius: a key reference point for any discussion of the period. However, book 4 (which covers the eastern Balkans) is unique in that the text was never completed and, in its rough form, it can be demonstrated that the author relied upon a variety of different sources, including itineraries (Poulter 2007a, 9-11). Although this conclusion does not necessarily discredit Procopius’ narrative, it raises suspicions about the authenticity of his detailed descriptions which can only be tested by targeted archaeological research.

The project requires the total excavation of the well-preserved 6th_ century fortress of ‘Dobri Dyal’ in north central Bulgaria. The objective is to discover the economic role of the type site during the 6th century. Essential projects will include zooarchaeological, archaeobotanical, small-finds and ceramic research, providing datasets which can be directly compared with the substantial results from the first two programmes (cf. 24,000 bone fragments from Nicopolis and 10,000 from the late Roman fortress). The excavations will explore the functionof the site during the 6th to 7th centuries.


* written by project director Professor Andrew Poulter and cribbed from the project handbook

5am…..I leave the farm in Nicup and walk the kilometre or so into the middle of the village We have commandeered a restaurant in the middle of the village to provide us with food, starting with coffee and a snack at 5.30 each morning, before we leave for site at 6am. The site at Dobri Dyal is about 45 mins drive south of Nicup, so today like most days we are standing at the bottom of the hill at about 6.45am. The Nottingham team opened 5 excavation areas on the top of the mound last season. Three of these areas (A, B and E) are being dug again this year and two new areas (J and K) have been opened in locations where the 2010 geophysical survey indicated areas of high resistivity. A Bulgarian team from Turnovo museum are opening a trench on the southern downslope of the hill where they think the main gatehouse and approach road to the hillfort are located.

7am….The actual change in level from the bottom to the top of the hill is only about 30 metres, but some days it seems much much higher. Especially when you are carrying tools from the caravan to the top, or in my case two tripods, a total station, a prism pole and a box of assorted grid pegs, tapes, club hammer and nails. I am the site surveyor at Dobri Dyal. Most of my recent archaeological work has been in Norway and Qatar although I have been involved in a couple of English Heritage projects back in the UK in the past 3 years. Today I am assisted by two student volunteers (Hannah and Jade) and the main task for the survey team is to locate grid pegs around trench E to enable the students to practice their planning skills.

In addition to laying out grids we are 3-D locating small finds, as and when they are discovered and plotting the defensive walls on the south side of the fort currently being uncovered by a Bulgarian archaeological team. We are using two Leica 400 total stations for the day to day survey work. These are fairly straightforward machines to use and so far all of the students I have tutored have learnt to set up the machines and carry out simple survey functions (point location, setting out grid-pegs and trench locations using the stake-out function). I of course miss the robotic Leica 1200 machine that I normally use in Norway, but for training purposes it is probably more useful for the students to get acquainted with the simpler machine……For some reason I have not been able to work out, we are burning through batteries today and by lunch time have used 4 sets…..hopefully there is just enough left in the last set to see us to the end of the day…(there was – just!!)

10am…..Lunch!! Each day we are supplied lunch by a local supermarket. Like most archaeological projects we have a mix of carnivores and veggies, a smattering of vegans and the occasional allergy sufferer as well as the downright awkward, making the supply of suitable ‘off the shelf’ sandwiches fraught with difficulty. Today’s vegetarian offering is just about inedible, but I have a large jar of pickled chilli peppers in the site hut that disguises the tastlessness of the cheese and peps up the cucumber. And an apple. And a litre and a half bottle of water. The temperature in central Bulgaria gets into the high 30s in July…which is very nice, but does require drinking plenty of water if you are out on site.

10.45am…back to work. We try to make sure that all of the students cover the basic skills needed to work as a field archaeologist (digging, recording, planning, section drawing, surveying) and in the store (finds processing, environmental processing, sieving, sampling etc etc)…..but this is a real research excavation and we try and maintain a high standard of work. Our research aims are to establish the plan and phasing of the settlement, its development and demise using all the facilities and methodologies available to us. The Bulgarian team use a more traditional method and are constantly amazed at how slowly we work. Attempts to explain our ‘single context – stratigraphic excavation’ methodology are met with blank looks by our host archaeologists. It’s about time that someone translated ‘Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy’ into one or more of the eastern European languages…..

1.45pm….Well that’s it for today. We pile back into the minibuses and return to Nicup for lunch. Soup and some baked cheese dish for me, some kind of sausage for the meat eaters. Our restaurant has a bar where drinks are very cheap. A 500ml beer costs 1 lev (45 pence). A double gin and tonic 1.5lev (67 pence). A quadruple gin and tonic 1.9 lev (85 pence), a 330ml glass of local wine 0.60 lev (27 pence)……the local speciality is ‘oblek’ a mixture of green mint liquor and ouzo much loved by men of a certain age (described by one non-archaeological acquaintance in the village as a cross between viagra and laxative!!) and rakia, the local plum or apricot brandy. Being sensible abstemious folk we tend to stick to a small gin and tonic and the occasional beer. Some students sit at the tables outside the bar playing cards, some return to their houses to sleep. Meanwhile….

3.45pm…..A surveyor’s work is never done!! I spend a couple of hours most days downloading the site survey data and preparing maps etc. Today a number of students are working extra hours in the finds store to make up time lost on other occasions during the week or as we like t call it ‘detention’. I slip along to Ann’s digital documentation office to print out a couple of maps. I use Leica Geofffice to download today’s site data. Normally I would use ArcGIS to process the data, create the survey database and make the maps, but as this is a ‘free’ project for me, I am using as far as possibly freely available open source software (not least so I can make the site data available to any students who request it). At present that consists of the Quantum GIS (QGIS) and the ProCAD (AutoCAD clone) packages. I am not a great fan of using AutoCAD for archaeological puposes, but find ProCAD useful for coverting GIS-based shapefiles to dwg and dxf formats for those that want them. The students in detention seem to be fairly happy with their punishment and are discussing whether universities should ‘give up’ student protesters to the Metropolitan Police…..No way!!

6pm….back to the house for a cold shower and then down to the Directors house for a pre-dinner gin and tonic. The gin on sale in the local bar is cheap, but it’s not Bombay Sapphire …. unfortunately Andrew is out of tonic so I end up with gin and lemon.. I manage to struggle through two glasses!! The project works on Saturday mornings so Friday nights are not as relaxing as a normal weekend, but we always manage to have a reasonable time. The nearest large town (Veiko Turnovo) has a culture festival on at the moment with ballet and opera performances most weekends. We have been offered cheap tickets (10lev circa £4.50) for all performances and some staff are going tomorrow to see the opera. Weather permitting, as the performance is open air….

12am……The bars are closed. Some folk drift off to houses, others to sit and chat for a while. Some of us are thinking that we have to be up again in 5 hours…

Field schools are fun, especially when the students are as nice as the bunch we currently have at Dobri Dyal….. Not so sure that many of them will end up with careers in archaeology though. Not through a lack of willingness but just the haphazard way that archaeology is organised in the UK and the failure of the profession to respond in any meaningful way to the current economic and political situation. It may be that in future years, training schools such as Dobri Dyal just won’t be available to UK students. One of the current student participants told me that next year, the archaeology department of his university plan to carry out a series of test pitting exercises in the gardens of houses close to the university campus instead of offering a field school through a project like Dobri Dyal. I think that is very sad….but if this is to be an end to a long standing archaeology tradition, we hope that the next 3 weeks at Dobri Dyal will provide long and happy memories for all those taking part…

Kevin Wooldridge, Bulgaria, August 2011

The Dobri Dyal project staff have a Facebook group called ‘Never Mind the Balkans – Summer Excavations in Bulgaria 2011’


Jetlag and a very full day – GIS manuals, Egyptology and conference preparation


Yesterday was a very busy day, thus I am only now able to submit a post here!


I got back from a two-week holiday to Western Australia on Thursday. My Dad and I went to visit his brother who moved to Perth from the Isle of Man 40 years ago, and his family. We had an awesome time, saw lots of places and wildlife: Roos, Quokkas, Koalas, the lot 🙂

A herd of Kangaroos at Rockingham Golf Course

A herd of Kangaroos at Rockingham Golf Course

Myself and a hungry Quokka on Rottnest Island

Myself and a hungry Quokka on Rottnest Island

My family out there is lovely! I am still rather tired and recovering from a long journey back, which commenced on Wednesday afternoon: 5h flight from Perth to Singapore, then 13h Singapore to London-Heathrow. Then another 3h back to Liverpool by train. My poor Dad had to fly back to Hanover, which is close to Peine, Germany, where I am originally from!

The thing that struck me, whilst visiting Australia, however, is the general attitude towards archaeology. Whenever I mentioned my interest in visiting a particular museum, or seeing anything related to archaeology, I was told that “Australia doesn’t have very much history at all”, and that “surely, there is not very much archaeology around”… I was rather shocked and saddened by this, given the huge amount of aboriginal culture in Australia. I did point this out, and obtained some understanding, but the attitude of Australians towards Aborigines is a very problematic topic in general. When visiting the Western Australian Museum in Perth, however, I saw a very well-displayed and super-informative exhibition on aboriginal culture in Western Australia. Shame it didn’t seem to be too-well visited! 🙁

Back to work!

I had to get up extra-early yesterday (29th July), as I had to get straight back to work: I work as a Supervisor in Geomatics for Oxford Archaeology North, specialising in open source GIS. I totally love it and really do think it’s the way forward, especially given that proprietary software can “lock in” archaeological data, which can lead to data loss – something that should be avoided, I guess we all agree! Over the past couple of years we have been using open source GIS software, such as gvSIG (both the “original gvSIG” and the OADigital Edition), Quantum GIS, GRASS,  in addition to some 3D GIS visualisation tools, such as Paraview. Furthermore, we have been testing and using database software, such as PGAdmin (PostgreSQL and PostGIS), and illustration software, such as Inkscape successfully. I must say that all of the software we used has come a long, long way in those past two years, and at OA North, we use open source tools more or less as a standard and I can confidentially say that it is replacing the proprietary software previously used, such as AutoCAD and ArcGIS.

My friend and colleague Christina Robinson and I were given some time to document our combined knowledge in order to make it accessible to both colleagues within the company, and also the wider archaeological community – what is better than a free guide to open source GIS, which allows you learn to use free, powerful GIS software, and edit and analyse your own survey data! 🙂 We have produced guides and manuals during the past couple of years – they are available for free download on the OA library website and released under the creative commons license. Here are the manuals we released so far:

Survey and GIS Manual for Leica 1200 series GPS

Survey and GIS Manual for Leica 1200 series GPS

Hodgkinson, Anna (2010) Open Source Survey & GIS Manual. Documentation. Oxford Archaeology North. (Unpublished)

Hodgkinson, Anna (2011) Using the Helmert (two-point) transformation in Quantum GIS. Documentation. Oxford Archaeological Unit Ltd.. (Unpublished)

Robinson, Christina and Campbell, Dana and Hodgkinson, Anna (2011) Archaeological maps from qGIS and Inkscape: A brief guide. Third edition. Documentation. Oxford Archaeology North. (Unpublished) – this is the third edition, re-released today!

And here are two brand new guides, produced on the Day of Archaeology and made available today:

Robinson, Christina (2011) QGIS Handy Hints. Documentation. Oxford Archaeological Unit Ltd. (Unpublished)

Hodgkinson, Anna (2011) Download of the Leica 700 and 800 series Total Station. Documentation. Oxford Archaeological Unit Ltd. (Unpublished)

Please download and  use these and extend your skills; please burn them and let us know, we are grateful for your feedback! Some more guides/manuals are currently in production and will be added to the library, so please watch this space!

Lunch Break – (not really) time for some Egyptology

I briefly escaped work at lunchtime in order to go to the bank – I had to make an international transfer, the only way (annoyingly) to pay for my speaker’s fees for the upcoming 16th International Conference on Cultural Heritage and New Technologies, Vienna, November 2011. My paper on “Modeling Urban Industries in New Kingdom Egypt” was accepted for presentation, my abstract an be found here. I will be presenting my current research on the distribution of (mainly) artefactual evidence from Amarna, ancient Akhetaten, in Middle Egypt. Using open source GIS (naturally), I am studying the distribution and density of artefacts relating to high-status industries, such as glass, faience, metal, sculpture and textiles within the settled areas of Amarna, in order to establish how products and raw materials were controlled and distributed.

Distribution of the evidence of glass- and faience-working within the North Suburb at Amarna

Distribution of the evidence of glass- and faience-working within the North Suburb at Amarna

This paper presents part of my PhD research on high-status industries within the capital and royal cities in New Kingdom Egypt, Memphis, Malkata, Gurob, Amarna and Pi-Ramesse. I have now completed my third year of part-time research and am hoping to finish the whole thing within the next two or three years. We will see, thought I’d better get on with it!! 🙂

I am a member of the fieldwork team at Gurob, and I am very much looking forward to our next fieldwork season in September this year! Check out the project website for reports of past fieldwork seasons and my work in the industrial area, which I also presented at The Third British Egyptology Congress (BEC 3) in London, 2010.

After-work seminar and more open source GIS

We had an in-house, after-work seminar at 5pm, at which Christina and I gave our paper on “Open Source GIS for archaeological data visualisation and analysis” to colleagues, which we presented at OSGIS 2011 in Nottingham. You can watch the webcast of the original talk online (scroll down until you find it), unfortunately it only works for Windows, though. :'( The paper, which was presented on June 22nd 2011, is about our successful case study, moving Geomatics at OA North to open source GIS and away from proprietary software. We even won the prize for the second-best presentation! It went down well with colleagues, and after a discussion we moved on outside for a barbecue, which was very nice, as it stayed warm all day (unusual for Lancaster). I had to eave rather early unfortunately, as the commute back to Liverpool takes about 1.5 hours. At least I was able to relax and read George Martin’s “A Dance with Dragons”on my Kindle!

Our Presentation for OSGIS 2011, Nottingham

Our Presentation for OSGIS 2011, Nottingham

Charity begins…

I spent yesterday searching through boxes (musty cardboard “bone boxes” very familiar to UK archaeologists) in Nottingham Museum’s storage room (many thanks to Ann Insker), looking for C19th mass-produced miniatures. I found just one example (which might be earlier than the C19th, although the accompanying ceramics were certainly from the first half of that century) which was better than none! Indeed I found very little C19th material compared with medieval and Roman, which probably reflects the cavalier attitude of many/most archaeologists in the past (myself included) to all that rubbish in the “overburden” which was almost always either removed by machine or chucked in a big bag labelled “unstratified.”

I’ve lived to regret that, as now I study and research the very material we then ignored, and often perhaps still undervalue in the UK, especially as I see how important it is to archaeologists outside Britain, where a single clay pipe stem or sherd of transfer-printed pottery, things I rootled through by the score in unlabelled bags in the museum, can be of tremendous archaeological value.

So today I’ve begun to research my single discovery, an unglazed miniature of three figures labelled “CHARITY” (see below). Not Faith, Hope and Charity, unless those words were on the now lost upper part of the ceramic. The central figure appears to be male. It was excavated in 1966 from a pit on the north side of Newdigate House, Castle Gate, Nottingham, now a posh restaurant but important as the place where the growing of celery in England was apparently first promoted. That’s all I know at present…

Charity figurine

2. Getting started in Archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

Getting started in archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

I’m going to explain how and why I came into archaeology (which will discuss volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student), and why I went into the field of early medieval archaeology. I hope this will show the positive effects of history and archaeology in schools, the role of museums in stimulating interest, and the significance of public access to archaeology. It will also hopefully provide some insight into the value of education, and the challenges of studying archaeology as a mature student.


Finalising Bull Ring henge talk

Having checked my emails and replied to those that can’t wait until Monday, I’m finalising my notes for a talk I giving tomorrow about the Bull Ring henge, near Buxton. I’m more used to talking to children about archaeology (and making it interactive) so giving a straight talk to adults will be a new experience. If anyone reading this is coming to the Open Day tomorrow, be nice!

I’m off to Nottingham later to attend a briefing session on the new Accreditation standard for museums. Accreditation is a scheme that sets minimum standards for museums to achieve in relation to caring for collections, organisational management, visitor services etc. It’ll be interesting to discuss how the changes might affect us.