Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Dr. Emily Murray: Farming and animals | Drumclay Conference 2014 | Review

[If you like what I write, please consider throwing something in the Tip Jar on the right of the page. Alternatively, using The Reading Room portal (top of page) for shopping with Amazon brings in some advertising revenue and costs you nothing]

Following Dr. Eileen Reilly’s excellent presentation on on the insect and parasite evidence, session chair, Jackie McDowell, invited Dr. Emily Murray to the podium. Dr Murray was introduced as an experienced field archaeologist and zooarchaeologist, based at Queen’s University, Belfast. She noted that the Drumclay assemblage is extremely important for a number of reasons, not least of which is the rarity of large collections of animal bone from crannogs. While important crannog excavations were carried out in the past, there were largely undertaken in the period before the development of modern methods and techniques. The size of the assemblage also makes it important – animal bone is frequently recovered from excavations, but rarely in such quantities, making it unfeasible to determine genuine trends and patterns in the data. Also, the sites that have produced useful assemblages from the Early Medieval period are chiefly found on the east coast of Ireland, so the addition of an inland example from west Ulster is a rarity.

Turning to the methods that she and her colleagues use, Murray noted that one of the common differences between the study of animal remains from archaeological sites, rather than human remains is that the latter (including the skeleton recovered from Drumclay) were (typically) deliberately buried. Thus, when a specialist examines the recovered skeletal remains, they are usually dealing with all the surviving elements of single individuals. In this way, individual-level histories can be established for each of the human burials. For example, research by Dr Eileen Murphy on the Drumclay skeleton has identified the individual as an 18 year old female and has examined the skeleton for evidence of pathologies and trauma suffered in life. However, animals are an economic resource and are treated differently in the archaeological record. Typically, the skeletal remains are butchered and dumped with no segregation by individual. Thus, the first task in dealing with a large-scale assemblage like that from Drumclay is to identify the range of species present. Based on the surviving elements, a calculation of the minimum number of individuals (MNI) is derived. Thus, if an assemblage has seven dog radii the smallest number of dogs present is seven, even if all of the other elements do not survive. The exact body parts present are also recovered as this data can be used to understand how the animal was utilised. Murray gives the hypothetical example of rummaging through a domestic bin and finding specific bones such as chicken wings and lamb legs, but no skulls and toe bones. This would indicate that the meat is being purchased from a market, rather than being butchered at the place of consumption. Information on age at death can be determined using eruption data from teeth and epiphyseal fusion. The sex of the animal can be determined using biometrical and morphological shapes of the bone, though this can be difficult. However, there are a number of clear gender-specific attributes in some animals, such as pig’s tusks or deer antlers. The zooarchaeologist also looks at the stature of animals as one way to examine the development of breeds over time. As she says: “we want to know if we’re dealing with Alsatians or are we dealing with lapdogs!” Where the evidence exists, zooarchaeologists are keen to examine palaeopathologies to understand the diseases animals suffered from in their lifetimes. Finally, evidence of surface modification of the bone from butchery, burning etc. is important to understand the post-slaughter treatment of the animal.

Once all this data has been collected and entered into a database it is possible to reconstruct trends for a particular assemblage. The corpus of animal bone from Drumclay was presented to the zooarchaeologists in 750 A4-sised sample bags and nine rubble sacks. At the time of this presentation (September 2014), they had managed to get about half-way through it all and have counted something in the region of 3,000 elements. All this taken together, Murray notes that the Drumclay assemblage fits well within the general trends for the period as it is dominated by cattle and pig, making up over 80% of the total. Other animals include sheep/goat, red deer, and horse, along with a small range of other species. Comparing the Drumclay assemblage to those from other Early Christian sites, including crannogs, Murray notes that the general trend is repeated with a dominance of cattle and pig. The reason for this is that cattle were the single most important animal in Irish Early Christian society. They were the only available form of currency; and wealth, social status, and economic status were all expressed in terms of cattle - specifically dairy cattle. Animal food, particularly dairy produce, was very important and Murray notes that the Drumclay cheese press is tactile evidence of this form of animal exploitation. One aspect that she is hoping to investigate is a noted trend of larger animals being found on high status sites. As Drumclay is a high status site, the expectation is that this trend will be noticed here too. From both the zooarchaeological evidence and the surviving early literature, we can identify the closest comparable extant breed are the short-horned Kerry cattle.

Kerry Cow (Source)
In terms of pigs – the next most important animal – we should not imagine them as particularly similar to modern breeds. Instead they were probably closer to the Greyhound Pig that existed in Ireland until the 19th and early 20th centuries. While the Greyhound variety may not have been genetically related to the medieval Irish pig, they would have been a much more athletic animal than the modern breeds we’re most familiar with. We know that in Early Medieval Ireland that pigs were common (for example St Patrick was enslaved as a swineherd) and they would have been taken to suitable foraging grounds during the day and returned to the safety of the farm at night. At both Deer Park Farms and in Dublin, a number of pens, suitable for pigs, were identified, though this has yet to be ascertained for Drumclay. Like the pigs, Early Medieval sheep were probably much more athletic animals than contemporary breeds. Certainly, descriptions of wool and woollen cloaks from that period indicate that sheep wool was much coarser and hairier than modern examples. For the most part, Early Medieval wool was a brown or black colour and it appears that selective breeding has resulted in the common white wool we see today.

Age slaughter trends for this period show that cattle were killed at all ages. Murray notes that a free farmer or Bóaire was expected by law to keep a bag of salt prepared at all times to salt beef if a cow was killed. Nonetheless, there are trends within the Irish data and peaks can be seen where cattle are slaughtered at just under two years old and another for animals that are over three years. This is taken to indicate that the older animals, for the most part, are female and they are being kept for dairying and for breeding and they are killed at the end of their useful life. Thus, the presumption is that the peak of younger cattle is dominated by bullocks killed for meat. This patterns differs slightly from the evidence from Fishamble St in Dublin and at the monastic site at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, and a number of other similar sites. Here she argues that in these proto-urban settlements it’s a sellers’ market for meat where the only available cattle are the older, knackered individuals, at the end of their working lives rather than the prime beef animals. This is in contrast with rural sites like Drumclay where there would have been easier access for a smaller population to the better cuts of meat. While the age slaughter trends at Drumclay show the same peaks at under two years and over three years, there is a third peak indicating the slaughter of much younger animals. Murray suggests that this may be an indicator of the high status nature of the site, where the inhabitants can afford to dine on young, succulent flesh.

Age slaughter trends for pigs are similar across much of Ireland where the average is 17-23 months. She sees this as a result of the fact that pigs do not produce secondary products such as hides, milk, fleece etc. Thus, it makes sense to slaughter them once they reach their optimum weight for their meat, only holding back a small breeding population of older animals. At Drumclay the evidence shows pretty much the same peak at the 17-23 month mark, thought here again there is an anomalous early peak where some 40% are killed at 6-12 months. While these ‘young peaks’ may individually be dismissed as an artefact of recording methods, Murray stresses that their presence in both cattle and pigs suggests a genuine trend for the exploitation of young animals at Drumclay. Most sheep were exploited for their meant and wool and the pattern from Irish sites is for their slaughter in their second year or older (12-18 months). At Drumclay there is another ‘young peak’ where sheep were slaughtered at 5-12 months, though it otherwise conforms to the general trend. In terms of the exploitation of domestic animals, Murray argues that the patterns of proportions of animals kept and how they were slaughtered broadly conforms to the overall Irish trend. Where it deviates from this is in the high numbers of very young animals slaughtered. She suggests that this may be a product of the high status nature of the site. 

Throughout this series of posts I’ve largely striven to remain in the role of reporter, rather than commentator. However, I’m going to slip between the two for a moment to address this point. I don’t disbelieve Murray’s point that the inhabitants of Drumclay had a taste for (and the wealth to pursue) succulent delicacies such as piglet, lamb, and veal, but perhaps more can be added to it. In the period after the conference, I was in correspondence with Colette Galvin, a fellow conference attendee. She mentioned a point made by noted calligrapher and historian Timothy O’Neill (author of The Irish Hand) that the finest velum came from calves slaughtered at around 5-7 months. He was surprised at the absence of young skeletal remains from the monastic site at Clonmacnoise, which may have been presumed to have been involved in the production of illuminated manuscripts. In the open forum at the end of a previous session Dr Nóra Bermingham was asked if there was any one type of artefact that she would have liked to have found, but had missed out on. Her response what that she would love to have found a book – a velum manuscript. I would suggest that (perhaps) the faunal evidence indicates that Drumclay was a centre for the production of velum, if not the illuminated manuscripts themselves. Back in my IT day job, I was discussing this very point with a colleague who has a background in the food industry. She informed me that (coming from a non-archaeology perspective) young age at slaughter evidence for calves shouldn’t be a surprise in a dairying economy. This is because cheese making requires the addition of the enzyme complex rennet to separate milk into solid curds and liquid whey. While today this is achieved using artificially produced versions of the enzyme, in the past it would have been done through the harvesting of stomachs of young ruminants, up to the age of weaning. The other important idea that was brought to my attention is that cheese making would not have been a year-round occupation, but an event dependent on seasonality. It would have tied in with milk production and animal slaughter patterns where cheese making is used as a means of foodstuff preservation at the end of calf weaning (ideally 7-8 months).

Greyhound Pig (Source)
Finally, an analysis of the percentages of domesticates relative to other animals may be an indicator that the site was of particularly high status. At Drumclay something like 95% of the assemblage is made up of domesticates. She compares this with lower status settlements where horse and other non-domesticates make up a higher percentage of the animal bone assemblage.

Turning to the other animals, she notes that although there are examples of horse bones, none show evidence for butchery. Although there was a long-standing taboo in Ireland against the consumption of horse meat, the archaeological evidence frequently shows that it did occur, though possibly only in times of great necessity. There are also examples of dog and cats on the site, though the cat is represented by a single element, so very little can be said about it. Cats are well attested in the literary sources and were kept to hunt rodents that would otherwise feed on the corn. The dogs are hardly better represented with two only bones, both from young animals. Owing to their age at death, it is impossible to identify them by species or even give an estimate of their expected adult sizes. However, there is ample indirect evidence of dogs at Drumclay through chewed bones. These include a couple of otter bones with chew-marks, and Murray speculates that these were caught and brought to the site by a dog. The single hare bone from the site may well have been the result of hunting activities. Both antler and post-cranial bones of red deer were discovered at Drumclay. The presence of a burr on one piece of antler indicates that it was a naturally shed antler that was collected and brought to the site, rather than a hunted animal. Although the presence of the post-cranial bones indicates that some hunting must have taken place, they appear to represent only a small number of animals and indicate that hunting was not a particularly common activity. She notes that the Early Medieval Irish were not overly fond of hunting and fowling, so the low incidence of wild animals is not unusual.

Both bird and fish are represented at Drumclay, though they are particularly rare. Only four bird bones have been identified along with “a handful” of fish bones. While the literary evidence suggests that the Irish did not care terribly for hunted wild animals, there is the attendant problem that they are so delicate that they rarely survive in any numbers. The other issues is that, in the course of normal excavation, they are exceptionally difficult to identify and recover. For this reason large bulk samples have been retained from the site and it is hoped to begin sieving them for small-scale artefacts and ecofacts. The four bird bones that have been recovered from the site are most probably from domestic fowl. Although present on most sites of this period, they were never common. While the females are thought to have been chiefly kept for eggs, males were probably kept for cockfighting. While the legal references to fish in early Irish sources are all to do with inland or riverine fish, the fish bones from excavated sites are all from maritime sources. The fish bones from Drumclay are a series of articulated salmon vertebrae recovered from under the floors of one of the houses.

Murray is quick to point out that, at this stage (September 2014), the site has not been phased and she is dealing with the faunal remains as a single sample. When the Phasing of the site has been completed, it will allow her and her colleagues to break the animal bone assemblage down and see if these trends are representative of the entirety of the life of the site, or if there were changes in practice over time. She’s also keen to see if differential patterns of exploitation can be revealed between houses within Phases. She notes that their work so far has included the recording of data on pathologies, metrical data, evidence for butchery and burning etc., but until the Phasing and chronology of the site is complete it is too early to begin analysis. Examples of pathologies include one pig fibula that shows evidence of having been broken and subsequently healed. There is also evidence at Drumclay of cattle phalanges that show the degeneration of the foot bone of an individual, possibly through age-related wear.

In conclusion, Murray addressed the question previously asked of Dr Nóra Bermingham: was there anything that she would like to have found on the site? As they were only half-way through their analysis of the assemblage, with many more sacks to open, she admitted to being hopeful of discovering an exotic animal given to an Early Medieval nobleman as a pet. While a Barbary Ape is known from Navan Fort, she’s set her sights high and is hoping for a giraffe!