A flight through the history of human interactions with birds in Britain and Ireland
Soar through time and discover what a little bird can tell you about the lives of people in the past.
In this blog, Dale Serjeantson flies readers back to the mid-first millennium, a moment when human attitudes towards birds changed completely. Explore these changes and the reasons behind them, and uncover the insights that the interpretation of bird remains can provide into an archaeological excavation.
By Dale Serjeantson, author of The Archaeology of Wild Birds in Britain and Ireland | 3 min read | Originally appeared on Oxbow’s Blog
From the Neolithic period onwards people in Britain and Ireland rarely or never ate birds. Ravens and crows, eagles and buzzards were sometimes caught and given ritual burial, but they weren’t eaten.
The only exception was those who lived by the coast or in the Fens and the Somerset Levels. Coast dwellers caught gannets, puffins, cormorants, great auks and other seabirds which they preserved to eat in winter. The inhabitants of the Fens caught swans, geese, ducks and other waterfowl.
Then, in the mid-first millennium three things happened which completely changed people’s attitudes to birds.
The first was falconry. Petty kings in England, eastern Scotland and Ireland and their kindred learned the skill of falconry and once their hawks started to catch birds, they began to serve and eat wild birds at feasts. The favourite prey was the crane, which they hunted with goshawks, but hawks also caught ducks, geese and shorebirds. By the end of the first millennium wildfowlers were using all sorts of methods, including nets and traps to catch birds to supply the dining tables of those of high rank.
The second influence was the spread of Christianity. In the seventh century St Benedict decreed that monks and others who wanted to follow Christian teaching should avoid eating flesh meat, especially on days of fasting. So, the question arose: were birds meat or fish?
Birds did not count as flesh meat, so they could be eaten by the religious and secular alike. Barnacle geese did not hatch from eggs but from barnacle shells, so they were more fish than fowl and could be eaten even on fast days. Puffins, like fish, swam and caught their food in the ocean, so an obliging pope decreed puffins too could be eaten on fast days. The quantity of chickens and wild birds eaten increased hugely.
Monasteries and Minsters
The third influence was a result of the foundation of monasteries and minsters throughout Britain and Ireland. The role of the monks and priests who lived in them was to spread the gospel, and the gospel had to be written down. Accounts had to be kept and laws were promulgated and codified. All of these were written on vellum made from calfskins with quill pens made of the primary wing feathers of geese. For the first time we find bones of geese in large numbers.
Symbols of Status
For the next thousand years, the remains of the birds eaten at a site are an excellent indication of its social status and connections. The presence of hawks – from the expensive imported gyrfalcon to the little sparrowhawk – also show up the status of the household and its occupants. The food remains from castles include bones of birds from the size of cranes and swans down to those the size of thrushes and finches. The appropriate species were served to men and women and to those of higher and lower rank. Some birds were served at feasts just for fun. Swans and peacocks were skinned and cooked and then served to those at the top table with the plumage restored. For an entertainment between courses of a feast, diners might even be served with a pie from which four and twenty live blackbirds emerged.
The bird bones from a medieval abbey can indicate if we are looking at remains from the abbot’s table, or from the meals of the lowlier monks who mostly got to eat chickens and an occasional goose or pigeon. The urban and rural poor who had chicken flocks kept them for eggs and to sell and rarely ate the chickens or any other birds.
The Archaeology of Wild Birds in Britain and Ireland provides insights and guidance on how to interpret those lists of identified birds (usually found towards the very end of an excavation report). As well as showing how people caught, kept and ate birds, the different species can reveal people’s beliefs, social rank, and even their familiars, pet birds and companion animals.
About the Author
Dale Serjeantson is a Research Fellow at the University of Southampton. She was the Director of the Faunal Remains Unit and was one of the founders of the MA in Osteoarchaeology. As well as early farming in Britain her research interests include medieval food and its connotations and the interpretation of bird remains.
The Archaeology of Wild Birds in Britain and Ireland is available to preorder from Casemate Academic at a special pre-publication discount for a limited time.