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:


Neanderthal Funerary Practices: Too savage to mourn?

My name is Sarah, and I’m a PhD student at the University of Southampton. I would love to be able to tell you I’m scrambling around in the dirt playing with some real archaeology, but right now I’m sat at my desk reading about how other people played around in the dirt and feeling a little envious. I’m actually reading excavation reports and articles about Neanderthal remains from across the world, from the famous La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France to Kebara in Israel.

Cast of a Neanderthal skull on display Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. Taken by Sarah Schwarz (@archaeosarah)

Cast of a Neanderthal skull on display Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. Taken by Sarah Schwarz (@archaeosarah)

My PhD project focuses on Neanderthal funerary practices – which, in short, is anything and everything that Neanderthals could have done with their dead. (This is normally the point where the entire dinner table goes quiet and I’m left trying to decipher whether the faces staring back at me are confused, intrigued, or terrified). I’m looking for evidence of any and all types of funerary practices, such as burial/inhumation; funerary caching, curation, defleshing and disarticulation. This involves me going through every record I can possibly find of every scrap of Neanderthal remains across the world and examining each individual for characteristic signs of each type of funerary practice – for example, a pit feature for a burial or cut marks for defleshing.

But why is that important? The treatment and honour of the dead through funerary practices and rituals is a key part of our society, and although a culturally sensitive issue it’s something every society does in some way. It is a key emotional display of our humanity, and the cognitive ability to understand the concept of death and being aware of one’s own mortality is quite a realisation. The ability to be able to understand that death will come to us all one day, and to understand that intervention in the lives of others can at least stave off the inevitable for a little longer is an obvious conclusion for us – but it is clear in the Neanderthal world too. For example, the ‘Old Man’ of Shanidar (Shanidar 1, Iraq) was an elderly individual with several traumatic injuries and deformities, which could have required the assistance of others to survive, shows that Neanderthals had this understanding. And understanding how this evolved in Neanderthals helps us understand how the same characteristics, emotions, and rituals evolved in modern humans.

What struck me was how easily the concept of a Neanderthal burying a relative or friend could be so easily dismissed, and how the idea that Neanderthals were a bit brutish and slow still seems to be the popular stereotype for this species. The idea that Neanderthals were a bit daft and weren’t capable of the same things as modern humans also frustrates me – just because we haven’t dug up a Neanderthal who died in middle of updating his Facebook status on his iPad, it doesn’t mean they were stupid. On the contrary, Neanderthals appear to have been routinely honouring their deceased loved ones well before Homo sapiens ever decided to join them in Europe.

Neand Facebook

A hint that things might not be looking up for Ned…


Although I’m still in the early stages of my PhD, so far the pattern emerging appears to be that the early Neanderthals began by defleshing and disarticulating individuals (I am deliberately avoiding the use of the term ‘cannibalism’ because I cannot conclusively prove they were routinely consuming the remains), and from around 115,000 years BP the later Neanderthals begin burying them. And it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, old or young, everyone is treated in the same way across the Neanderthal world. What a lovely thought.

I still have a lot of work to do on my research, so hopefully by next year’s Day of Archaeology I will have more to tell you. But in the mean time I’m sure my cheery topic will continue to destroy dinner party conversations for some time to come, and maybe, I will be on my way to mastering the art of discussing taboo subjects without scaring the general population.

Sarah Schwarz

PhD Student, CAHO, University of Southampton

Follow me on Twitter: @archaeosarah

Or read more about my research on my blog: http://archaeosarah.wordpress.com/

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

I worked at the Museum of Zoology at the University of Cambridge from February – May 2013 as part of an AHRC Connecting with Collections internship.  I loved every second I spent here, and the museum and staff were fabulous.  The museum is now closed for refurbishment, but I wanted to share with you my experience of a very special space and an incredible collection – one used regularly by zooarchaeology researchers worldwide.

You need to have the sound turned on for this.

Mystery, Diversity and the Joy of Archaeology

Human beings are odd beasts. So much more than political animals, our ‘habits’ are so varied that they sometimes seem far from habitual. Capable of action on all scales, from building enormous monuments that take millions of people over many generations to a single individual caring for a companion in the face of incurable illness.

Yet, go with any person to the place they sleep and you will learn much about them, their society, economics, politics, aesthetics and so on. You can learn from the materials of that space – Do they sleep on a bed? under blankets? are they clean? Do they have Justin Beiber posters? Picasso prints? Turner originals? Is there water by the bed? is the cup glass, pottery or metal?


Human Remain Detection Dogs Help Archaeologists Find Unmarked Graves

As you probably know by now if you have been following us on twitter (@FPANNrthCentral), we have been out at Munree Cemetery in Tallahassee today. We have been working with specially trained dogs called Human Remain Detection Canines, or HRD dogs. They have been helping us to find unmarked burials that are at minimum 100 years old! The Munree Cemetery is a historic African American cemetery with over 250 known burials, most of which do not have any type of marker present. Some of the graves are visible at the surface, but some areas we were unsure about. Of course, we wanted to avoid excavating in a cemetery, so we brought in the dogs! Two of the dogs and their handlers came all the way from Louisiana to help us out today! We also had a local dog handler and her HRD dog volunteer  to help us out. The dogs were able to identify several areas that possibly contain human burials. Tomorrow morning we are going to bring out the ground penetrating radar (GPR) to see if we can find any anomalies in those areas. The cemetery is five acres, and it would take us days to GPR the whole thing, and even longer to process all that data, so the dogs have helped us narrow down the areas to those that have the greatest probability of containing burials.

Jada and Dixie, both specially trained HRD canines, traveled all the way from Louisiana with their handlers to help us today!

Texas Hole Droppers

Welcome all to a day in CRM archaeology in Texas! Today the heat is West Texas has reached over 104°F. My crew is currently working on surveying a large 4,000 acre area where a potential reservoir will be located. Our day starts off in the cooler hours, with breakfast at 6:00 AM and to work by 7:00 AM. We began by laying out transects using a Trimble Unit within previously portioned off grid squares.

Then it is on to shovel testing, which as all those who have experience in this know that it is very hard work. Shovel test units in Texas are generally 30 CM X 30 CM and go to depths of 80 CM.

Around 9:30 AM we take a well deserved snack break, which today includes some yummy summer sausage (venison). Sadly, a few crew members were unable to partake in the break since they were attending to one of the many flat tires we have had so far in the seven weeks of work.

Of course, we do have time to take in the lovely West Texas scenery between shovel tests!

We generally end our work day around 2:00 PM due to the heat. Today we did not find any cultural materials but we are still in high spirits! At least we got to see a few wild hogs, wild turkeys and a lone coyote!

Scouting museum collections for teaching

The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New MexicoHad to interrupt the morning identification to head over to the Maxwell Museum.    Every time I head in to the Maxwell I wonder, why don’t I come here more often?  It’s a terrific museum – definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in the Albuquerque area.

I visited the Maxwell this morning to look for a collection for my zooarchaeology class to work with this fall.  I need an assemblage small enough that students can manage it as a part of the class but large enough – and identifiable enough – for students to learn from.  Fortunately there are several options at the Maxwell, and they are well-curated  (not always a given) and so will be easy to work with.  Dave Phillips, curator of archaeology, kindly interrupted his morning to show me some possibilities.

I think we’re going to go with the faunal material from the Tijeras Pueblo archaeological site – there’s plenty of it, there’s good chronological control, and there’s the potential for the students to come up with some interesting research questions.

A Day of Zooarchaeology

My days tend to involve a lot of different projects because, well, I’m involved in a lot of different projects!  So to put my posts in some context, I figured I’d start by introducing myself and the projects that I’m currently working on.

My name is Emily Jones, and I’m a zooarchaeologist – in other words, my specialty is looking at animal bones from archaeological sites to learn about past human-environment interactions.  (You can learn lots more about zooarchaeology at the website for the International Council for Zooarchaeology).  I do go into the field from time to time, but most days I’m either 1) in the lab, identifying animal bones; 2) in the office, doing statistical analyses of the data generated by (1); or 3) in the office, writing up the results of (1) and (2), for technical reports, for scientific publications, or for the public.  Right now, I have two major projects in process: I’m working on the statistical analysis of a collection from Spain (stage 2), deposited about 15,000 years ago, and I’m in stage 1 (that is, identification) on a collection from Navajo-affiliated sites (dating to the 16th and 17th centuries A.D.) here in New Mexico.  I’ll be doing some work on both these projects during the Day of Archaeology!

As well as being a zooarchaeologist, I teach.  In a month, I’ll be teaching a class in introductory zooarchaeological analysis for the University of New Mexico’s Department of Anthropology, here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.  And as the time till class begins is getting shorter and shorter, I’ll be working on this as well.

I’ll be posting on the blog, but you can also follow what I’m doing on Twitter (I’ll mark posts with #dayofarch).

Photo copyright Emily Lena Jones, 2011