Archaeology and Ancient History


Animal Palaeopathology

A core research interest of the zooarchaeological team at Leicester is animal palaeopathology (the study of disease and injury in past animal populations) using macroscopic, radiographic and biomolecular approaches. This research includes advances in theory, method and application to individuals and populations (archaeological and modern). Recent research in this area includes: refining methods for identifying traction cattle in the archaeological record, revaluating periodontal disease and ‘penning elbow’ in sheep, understanding zoonoses in evolutionary perspective, and reconstructing the biographies of dogs, cats, elephants and animal mummies.

Site-level zooarchaeological analysis

We are continuously involved in the animal bones from archaeological sites. Current work includes: an Iron Age hillfort (Burrough Hill, Leicestershire); an early Roman fort (Alchester, Oxfordshire); an early-late medieval site (Worcester Cathedral, Worcester); and a post-medieval elite household (Bradgate Park, Leicestershire).

FEEDSAX (Feeding Anglo-Saxon England) (2017-2022)

Between the 8th and 13th centuries, the population of England grew to unprecedented levels. This could not have happened without a major expansion of arable farming, a development that culminated in the emergence of open field agriculture. As well as feeding more mouths, the production of large cereal surpluses sustained the growth of towns and markets. It also fuelled wealth inequality and the rise of lordship.

Early medieval England thus witnessed a golden age of cereal farming - but when, where and how were the crucial developments achieved?

FEEDSAX was an ERC-funded research project between the University of Oxford and between 2017 and 2022, which generated new evidence to address these age-old questions by using new methods of analysing bioarchaeological data such as preserved medieval seeds, animal bones and pollen.

The project digital archive has now been published open access via ADS and a list of the project publications can be accessed here.

Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions (2014-2017)

bone research

Leicester, in partnership with Bournemouth, Durham, Nottingham, York and Roehampton were awarded £1.94 million from the AHRC in 2014 to pursue a large grant research project, entitled 'Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions'.

The chicken is native to Southeast Asia but over the last 8,000 years it has been transported by people around the world - no other livestock species is so widely established: today there are over 20 billion worldwide. The chicken's eastward spread from Asia to the Americas has been the subject of many studies; however, its diffusion to the West has received much less attention.

There have been a few small-scale surveys documenting the spread of chickens across Europe but there has been no comprehensive review about the rapidity of the spread and its cultural and environmental impacts. No ancient (and little modern) DNA work has been published for European chickens, nor have there been any isotopic studies focused specifically upon their diets or whether they were bred locally or traded. 

Given the social and cultural significance of this species (whether as a provider of meat, eggs or feathers, its widespread use in cockfighting or its association with ritual, magic and medicine), a detailed analysis of the natural and cultural history of chickens in Europe is long overdue and this has genuine potential to provide cultural data of the highest quality and relevance for a range of disciplines and audiences.

To realise this potential and elucidate the circumstances and meaning of the westward spread of the chicken from the late prehistoric period to modern times a trans-disciplinary team - composed of experts in European archaeology, anthropology, genetics, zooarchaeology, and other branches of archaeological science - will integrate the evidence from their specialist studies.

Leicester research arising from this project includes a study exploring the potential of separating chicken.

Tracking domestic livestock ‘improvement’ in London (AD 1300-1800)

A City of London Archaeological Trust funded project, undertaken by Richard Thomas, Matilda Holmes, and James Morris (UCLAN), explored size and shape change in domestic livestock in London. The first paper arising from this research, examined size change in cattle, sheep, pig and chicken, and was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The project team followed this up with a study of size changes in medieval and post-medieval horse published in the Journal of Post Medieval Archaeology.

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