Plymouth Archaeology Society

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Lecture Reports


Prehistoric animal exploitation in the South West of Britain

Clare Randall

2nd April 2007

Clare Randall treated us to a fascinating insight into her speciality of zooarchaeology. The enthusiasm she has for her chosen field of study was abundantly apparent as she took us through the subject with elements of biology, geology, zoology – through to ritual practice.

Sites in the Southwest which have provided areas for study are South Cadbury Hill Fort, and the TR19 area of Cornwall, where there is evidence of Bronze Age feasting. Archaeological excavations from the Iron-Age Sigwells pits at South Cadbury have yielded 400 boxes of animal bones.

Data obtained from bones can be the key to understanding more about man and animals in prehistory. What species there were, where and when, and the age of the animal. Methods of butchery provide clues as to which animals were being cooked and eaten, and whether they were kept for milk, meat or according to seasonality.

According to the statistics that Clare showed us, sheep and goats were high on the list with 1755 identified fragments, representing 63.82% of the domestic species. Cows and pigs followed with 460 and 397 items respectively. There were 104 fragments of horse, whereas only 34 fragments of dog were identified (1.24%). At the bottom of the list were bird bones with only 14 fragments being identified.

The age of animals can be determined by looking at dentine wear in sheep, pigs, cows and horses. The fusions of epiphyses in younger animals are often fragile and tend to survive less. Older females indicate they were kept for wool and milk production. Pigs appear to have been killed as soon as they reached meat weight. There were peaks and troughs of between 6, 18 and 30 months, with seasonal culls in Autumn. Juvenile horses are rarely found on Iron Age sites but at Sigwells more horse bones were discovered than those belonging to dogs.

Larger mammal bones in the Iron Age ended up badly broken due to marrow extraction which left 72% of bone unidentified at Sigwells.

Broad indications of the local environment and seasonality in amphibians can be ascertained from remains of rodents and small creatures. A handful of buzzard bones are present, so remains of voles and woodmice could be the result of buzzard kills. There were a few corvid bones and a whole raven, a couple of sawn antler bits, one teal sized duck bone and two bits of weasel. Despite sieving, no fish bones have been found at Sigwells.

Clare pointed out a variety of problems encountered during her research. The Southwest has been poorly represented in comparative literature for all periods. How typical is Wessex with a wide variety of habitats and topography. How do different landscapes affect animals in archaeology, and how do tribal boundaries affect the overall picture? Preservation on Dartmoor and Bodmin is poor due to the type of soil. Other areas have been affected by man’s intervention, continual ploughing, road improvements or lack of excavation for example.

South Cadbury hillfort has been well preserved but study is incomplete. The 400 boxes of recovered bones (excavated in the late 1960s by Alcock.) have not been published (this could be Clare’s next project). The most notable material was published in 2000 showing numerous calf burials and two cows adjacent to a late Iron Age square building – a shrine by association.

The nearby specialist site at Sigwells has revealed evidence of metalworking and feasting in the Middle Bronze Age. Odd combinations of material have been discovered in postholes – human, quern, etc. An unearthed cooking pit produced

Continued .....

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