Advent Playlist 2018

It simply cannot be December 1st today. I know it sneaks up on me every year, but especially so this year – I’ve only just seen Show of Hands on the autumn tour, it can’t possibly be time to get the decorations up, start avoiding town on weekends, and spend upwards of an hour slowly congealing in the Minster to the glorious strains of the Advent Procession service. It cannot be the case that, yet again, I’ve missed the chance to get my Christmas shopping done in November.

Ok, no, to be fair, I can believe that last one.

Anyway, presented below please find this year’s antidote to twenty-four days of Mariah Carey, Wham!, Paul McCartney, and all the other usual suspects. The playlist is available on Spotify (Clare Rainsford: Advent 2018), and thanks to everyone who’s suggested songs for it.

1 – Hills of the North (hymn). If I don’t get to sing this in one of the two services I’m going to tomorrow, I will be terribly disappointed.

2 – E’en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come (choral). I know this from the magnificent Advent Procession service at York Minster. It crops up on average every other year, and we had it last year, so prospects aren’t fabulous for tonight’s service.

3 – Jack Frost – Eliza Carthy (folk). Actually, I don’t know this song well, but it was one of last years’ suggestions and I’m keen to hear how it pans out.

4 – When The Thames Froze – Smith and Burrows. Confession: I’ve been listening to the album this is from since about October.

5 – Angel of Harlem – U2. Okay, this isn’t a Christmas song per se, but it’s probably my favourite U2 song, and it probably will be a cold and wet December day on the 5th.

6 – Dormi Jesu – Rutter (choral). Sorry to everyone who can’t stand Rutter – at least this is better than Candlelight Carol.

7 – Winter King – Ninebarrow. Hunting the wren is an old English folk tradition, which usually took place somewhere in the Twelve Days of Christmas. Like all English folk traditions, it is both worth remembering and utterly baffling.

8 – The Snow – Elgar (choral). Even though it will probably not be snowing on the 8th.

9 – Light The Night – Ilan Eskari / Andy Burrows. The soundtrack to the “Snowman and Snowdog” has been my absolute favourite discovery this year while making this playlist. Go away and listen to the whole thing – it’s an hour well-spent.

10 – River – Joni Mitchell. 

11 – Fairytale of New York – The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl. Still the best popular Christmas song.

12 – It Feels Like Christmas (from the Muppet’s Christmas Carol). NO APOLOGIES.

13 – Lux Aurumque – Eric Whitacre (choral). Translated, the lyrics to this are: “Light / warm and heavy as pure gold / and angels sing softly / to the new-born babe.”

14 – Innocent’s Song / Gwithian – Show of Hands. I was very tempted to put this in last year, too. We spend most of Advent anticipating Christmas and Epiphany (when the Three Wise Men visited Jesus – celebrated on Jan 6th, and the end to the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas), so this is an anticipation of Holy Innocents (when Herod massacred the children in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus – marked by the church on the 28th December). Also, it’s a cracking song.

15 – The Three Kings (choral). As I say, anticipating Epiphany.

16 – Gaudete – Erasure. Gaudete Sunday, in the traditional church calendar, is a break in the season of fasting and penitence which is Advent and an invitation to reflect on the joy that is Christmas. What better way to celebrate than with a synth-pop version of a 16th century Latin carol?  Translated, the chorus runs: “Rejoice, for Christ is born of the Virgin Mary – Rejoice!”. Also, the video for this song is fantastically creepy – recommended.

17 – Mary Did You Know – Pentatonix. This was my favourite discovery of last year’s playlist.

18 – The Christmas Goose – Kate Rusby. If you are of a folky bent and haven’t discovered Kate Rusby’s Christmas albums, go discover them. She’s got about four by now and does a Christmas tour each year which is well worth going to.

19 – Bethlehem Down – Kings Singers. 

20 – Mele Kalikimaka – Bing Crosby. I’m surprised this song isn’t much more popular. It is, however, an earworm, so when you spend the rest of Christmas singing it, sorry. I will be too.

21 – Carol of the Bells. Much nicer to listen to than to sing alto in.

22 – Big Brave Bill Saves Christmas – Kate Rusby. For further, non-seasonal adventures of the Barnsley Superhero, check out Ms Rusby’s album Life In A Paper Boat. I’m amazed Mrs Dobbins hasn’t learnt her lesson about going abroad yet.

23 – O Magnum Mysterium – Poulenc. Props to the lovely person who finally gave me the title of this piece. It’s cropped up on Carols from Kings previously and I’ve never remembered to add it to a playlist. Until now!

24 – Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.  And so it shall.

Merry Advent, all. 9923CF82-D222-415F-8B10-067DD2371600

 

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Bonfire Pyres

So it’s almost bonfire night and I’m going to tell you a story about a hedgehog. Since I am a zooarchaeologist, I think you can all guess how it’s going to end. However, come follow me to the 5th century in Norfolk, a time just after Britain had left the Roman Empire and was seeing serious economic decline and a good deal of Germanic immigration in the east of the country. We call them Anglo-Saxons and Victorian history pointed to this period as being when “England” originated, which possibly says something about nationalism.

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Left: Sheep on a cremation pyre. Image credit: Faye Worley. Below: Cremated bone. Image credit: C. Rainsford. 

At this time, the main burial rite in eastern England was cremation. There’s a lot we don’t know about the process of cremation, but the dead were clothed, quite possibly in special funerary clothes, and placed on a pyre, which, as far as we can reconstruct, was loosely-stacked wood laid on the earth and then lit. In about four out of every ten cremations, one or more animals were sacrificed and added to the pyre to be burnt. What animals? Across 3000-4000 cremations, we’ve identified horses, sheep, cows, pigs, red deer, roe deer, dogs, chickens, bear claws, fox, hare, beaver, goose… It’s generally said that horse was the most often included (in about 10% of cremations), but, depending on how you calculate it, bits of sheep were probably actually the most common offering.

Most of what we know about animals in Anglo-Saxons cremations comes from a single cemetery in Norfolk: Spong Hill. Over 2000 cremations were excavated from this site in the 1980s, and there have been ten volumes published on this site alone. (And that’s not including the academic articles about it). The original report on the cremated animal bones is extremely good, but in there were a handful of bones from birds which Julie Bond wasn’t able to identify. (This was fair enough – there’s not much worse than cremated bird bones, except probably cremated fish). So in 2015, armed with access to the archive, Julie’s blessing, permission to use the excellent reference collection based at the University of York, and help from Terry O’Connor, I dug out these mysterious bird bones and got the identifications tidied up.

For the most part, the answers weren’t stunning. Of eight bones, one turned out to be goose, two were mallard-size ducks, one was probably yet another chicken, and one we couldn’t get any further than “large bird”. One was a type of plover, which was quite unusual – they’re one of the more common types of game birds found on Anglo-Saxon and medieval settlement sites, but it’s the first found from a cremation. One was a passerine (something like a blackbird), which surely must have ended up in the pyre by accident. And one bone, from cremation [2121], wasn’t from a bird at all. It was, instead, the very burnt foot bone of a hedgehog.

It’s fairly straightforward to see what happened. Large, loose pile of wood on open ground; absence of effective “check your pyre-site before lighting” campaign; crispy fried hedgehog. However, it does tell us a couple of quite interesting things about this cremation. Firstly, the young man whose pyre this was must have died and been burnt in the autumn. That’s when hedgehogs are looking for a good place to hibernate. And secondly, the pyre must have been built and left – maybe not for long, but for long enough that a hedgehog living in the vicinity of Spong Hill decided that this was a good place for a kip. When the pyre had burnt out, the ashes of the young man were collected and placed in a pottery urn, along with one telling, accidental, remnant of burnt hedgehog foot. Together, they were taken to Spong Hill for burial, and there they stayed for the next fifteen-hundred years. Until they were dug up.

To my knowledge, the earliest example of a bonfired hedgehog in Britain.

Juvenile hedgehog by David CooperImage taken from: https://www.hedgehogstreet.org/mythbusters/

 

Footprints

My shower is big. Lots of plate glass. So when I shower, water collects on the glass, but so too, at the top, does condensation. Tonight, I was joined in my bathroom by a tiny fly. I didn’t pay him much attention – no more than I pay the couple of long-legged spiders who’ve taken up residence too.

But the fly left me footprints, in the condensation.

Like any other animal would leave tracks in snow.

I watched him make a few, turning round like he wasn’t sure where he was going. And then I saw the rest of them, leading up the glass, turning round, coming back.

I never knew a fly could leave footprints.

Maybe that’s because most people clean their compost bins out a bit more regularly than I do. And maybe it’s because most kitchens aren’t right next to the bathroom. And maybe it’s because most showers aren’t big enough to share, even with a tiny fly.

Anyway, there’s no point to this. It isn’t the sort of thing that makes a point. It doesn’t say anything about the world we live in, or solve any of the problems in my life. It doesn’t remind me of things I’ve done or haven’t done or ought to do. There’s no story in it, no moral, no purpose, no money. I’m just glad I noticed.

Because, like sand blowing in patterns across the surface of a beach, it was something I’d never seen before.

And almost too beautiful to wipe away.

 

 

Birds and the City

A little while ago, I promised a friend I’d write a blog on unexpected birds that have been found in archaeological assemblages from medieval York. I’m currently revisiting the glories of my past (and sort of my present) as a commercial archaeologist working mainly on York assemblages, so it seemed like the time to make good on this promise. For the most part, the birds that you find in urban assemblages are no great cause for excitement – mostly they went “cluck”, sometimes they went “hiss” (geese, for those who don’t live in York), and every so often they went “quack”. If it didn’t, it was probably the kind of thing that you’d see on your bird feeder or in a sad feathery heap by the side of the road. However, for every 50 or 100 bones of chicken, goose, duck, pigeon, crow and blackbird, something else crops up which – to those used to the modern city – is rather more unexpected. Something like…

 

Cranes, Snipes and Peacocks

What did people eat before turkey was the posh bird of choice? The answer, apparently, is everything. From the 10th century through to the 19th, game birds show up on a fairly regular basis in the archaeological record. Snipe are just the tip of the iceberg – from Hungate alone, we have identified woodcock, black grouse, pheasant, golden plover, lapwing, four types of duck, and a partridge in a pear tree. These are the kind of birds which would be caught in the countryside outside the city, maybe by hawking, and for the most part would have graced relatively well-off tables. Some birds, though, graced posher tables than others. Peacocks were introduced to Britain from India via the Mediterranean in both the Roman and Norman periods, and have always been captive bred birds, valued as much for their plumage and the status of owning or serving one as for their uninspiring taste. Mute swans, on the other hand, were native but subject to legislation designed to keep them from the tables of the common people. From the late 15th century onwards, all unmarked swans belonged to the Crown, with penalties for taking a swan which wasn’t yours. Licenses could be held from the Crown to lay claim to a certain number of swans per year, which was done by marking their beaks or “swan-upping”. If you really want to eat swan today, St John’s College in Cambridge still holds the right to serve swan from the Crown, along with a few other places.

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Common crane (Grus grus). Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_crane

The other bird which deserves a mention is the crane, a lanky, heron-like bird which was inexplicably popular over the early part of the medieval period. Unfortunately, a combination of decline of its wetland habitat through drainage of the Fens and its popularity for medieval feasts meant that the crane’s numbers declined sharply and – despite legislation by Henry VIII aimed at its conservation – by the 19th century the British population of cranes was effectively extinct. Happily, efforts by the RSPB to reintroduce them are having some success, with breeding pairs established in Norfolk and the south-west.

 

Eagles and other Predatory Birds

The archaeological record is unequivocal. In the 10th-11th century, white-tailed eagles scavenged around York. Their bones crop up infrequently, but they’ve been identified from both Coppergate and Hungate, showing that they were about in the city. There are a few things about the past that I still find genuinely mind-blowing, and one of them is that the white-tailed eagle – which is a bird of prey bigger than a swan, which looks like a plank when in flight, which went extinct in Britain in the 20th century and after being reintroduced, is still critically rare – scavenged in cities around the time of the Vikings and the Norman Conquest. Urban areas, of course, were a lot smaller and within easy commuting range of the countryside for the enterprising bird, as well as having more available food and butchery refuse to support a thriving ecosystem. In addition to white-tailed eagles, York supported and attracted buzzards, red kites, owls, and sparrowhawks. A single white-tailed eagle or red kite can consume around 500g of food per day – a thriving population could eat its way through two or three tonnes in a year. Were white-tailed eagles in the city all year? Carrion is a more important part of their diet in the winter months, when other food is scarce, so it’s possible to envisage hunger bringing them to the most likely food source when the weather turned colder. Were they welcome? Later records about red kites are more generally concerned with methods of keeping them away from chickens and other livestock, so attitudes were likely to have been ambivalent at best. A pair of peregrine falcons nests on the Minster today, and has made it into the list of “100 Best Things To Do in York” – a small and welcome reminder of the city’s past.

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White-tailed eagle (Image source: https://www.facebook.com/rspbhighlands/

If the commensal birds of prey weren’t enough, there are a few – like goshawks, and maybe sparrowhawks – which were probably introduced to the city as tame falcons for falconry. And there’s the occasional bird of prey where we really don’t know how it got here. The only identified bone of golden eagle found in York came from medieval deposits at Hungate. Was it a trophy bird, brought back to the city for display or for its feathers? Or was it another unlikely urban scavenger? With its rarity, it’s hard to tell.

 

Auks: Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin

If you’ve been to Flamborough Head (between Bridlington and Filey on the Yorkshire Coast), you have probably seen guillemots and puffins, together with a few others – cormorants, gannets, razorbills and the like. What these birds have in common is that they breed during the spring and summer and make their nests in large, cliff-top or cliff-side colonies, and spend much of their lives at sea. But for a few centuries, from around the 10th century through to the 14th century, they crop up at various sites in York – Hungate, Coppergate, Tanner Row – and also in Beverley from a similar date. What are these seabirds doing in the city? Butchery marks on the bones suggest fairly unequivocally that they were eaten, a practice which was far from unknown even up to comparatively recently. The community of St Kilda off the west coast of Scotland, famously, maintained their precarious existence on the island by harvesting the populations of seabirds which came to breed in the spring; and the great auk, the large flightless relative of the razorbill, was hunted to extinction by the end of the 19th century for its meat and its feathers. In York, with the breeding grounds at Flamborough nearby, these birds may have been a good cheap option for a low-status diet, particularly since the meat preserved well.

(Below) Puffin – a tasty snack? Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_puffin

Puffin

Another possible reason for their popularity is the medieval dietary laws. Under Church law, medieval Christians were not permitted to consume meat on “fasting days” – which, including every Wednesday and Friday, the whole of Lent and the whole of Advent, took up about half the year. However, the definition of meat proved to be somewhat flexible, with dolphins, porpoises, and beaver tails designated as “fish” in a sleight of hand which then let you eat them on a Friday. Is it possible that auks were similarly exempt from being meat? The monastery of Le Tréport in northern France argued in the 17th century that puffins were fish, successfully enough to convince their archbishop, and it is no stretch of the imagination to suppose that similar debates had occurred earlier in Yorkshire.

Sadly, however, there’s as yet no evidence from York for a different and rather marvellous use of seabirds – getting cormorants to fish for you. The idea was imported to England in the 17th century from China, and there are both woodcuts and training manuals which describe how you capture, keep and train your cormorant. The manuals do make clear, though, that however well-trained your cormorant, it would still a) smell and b) bite you in the face at any given opportunity, which may explain why the practice was short-lived.

 

Past Diversity, Present Lives

I’m finishing off writing this blog after a week spent in the Orkney Islands. If you haven’t been to Orkney, the bird life there is astounding. Beyond its multiple types of breeding seabirds, we got used to tripping over oystercatchers, skylarks and curlews on a daily basis. Coming back to the modern city – with its lack of any birds except pigeons, gulls and magpies – has been a shock.

The medieval period is for the most part nothing to aspire to, but it’s worth remembering that the diversity of birds which were on their streets, in their skies and on their plates is considerably different, and considerably greater, than in modern York. Medieval York was smaller, dirtier, and with more available rubbish – altogether a different ecology to the modern city. The past, as they say, is a different country. With white-tailed eagles in the sky.

 

 

Sources

Bond, J. & O’Connor, T. 1999. Bones from Medieval Deposits at 16-22 Coppergate and Other Sites in York. AY fascicule 15/5. York Archaeological Trust.

Macgregor, A. 2012. Animal Encounters: Human and Animal Interaction in Britain from the Norman Conquest to World War One. London: Reaktion Books.

Steel, T. 1988. The Life and Death of St Kilda. Harper Collins.

Watts, S. 2011. Enlightened Fasting. In K. Albala & T. Eden (eds.) Food and Faith in Christian Culture. Columbia University Press.

Orkney

First off, I’m going to be terribly British and start this post with an apology that I’ve been away from blogging for six months. I wish I could say there’s a good reason for it, but frankly there isn’t – it was winter, I was busy, I didn’t feel that I had anything pressing to say. Anyway, hello, I’m back. I won’t be updating weekly any longer, but hopefully it won’t be another six months before the next post.

Anyway, about two weeks ago I was on holiday on Orkney. As an archaeologist, I’m in maybe the only profession where, if you are going to Orkney, you have to specify that you’re going on holiday or everyone assumes you’re going up there for work. I’ve never been to Orkney before, never dug there, but I spent much of the week tripping over sites where people I know had excavated, or exhibitions curated by friends, or friends of friends. Archaeology is a small world; Orkney is a small archipelago; and there is a lot of archaeology on Orkney. My very patient non-archaeologist friend and I made our way round two stone circles, several ancient settlements, at least one broch (defended Iron Age stone tower), one medieval castle, about three former churches, two museums, and 8 chambered cairns. She did, however, stop short of letting me break into Mine Howe, which was probably just as well. Incidentally, if anyone is thinking of visiting Orkney and wants to know a good chambered cairn to visit, Maes Howe is the famous one, but I preferred Taversoe Tuick on Rousay, or Cuween Hill above Finstown on the Mainland. Cuween Hill has a lovely view from the outside, and inside is what Historic Scotland call “evocatively gloomy” and the rest of us call “bloody dark”. Take a torch.

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Rousay. On the south side of the island, there is really good archaeology. On the north side of the island, there are seals.

Curiously, though, it wasn’t the archaeology of Orkney which captivated me nearly so much as the landscape, the light, the ecology of the place. Upland heather gives way to farmed land gives way to sea, all within a few miles, in a way I’ve not seen on the English mainland. You’re never more than about ten minutes drive from the sea. And the fact that these islands are sparsely inhabited chunks of highland and farmland dropped in the North Sea means that the bird life is unlike anywhere I’ve been before. We didn’t go a single day without falling over an oystercatcher. I finally got to see a skylark in full display flight, and heard a cuckoo for the first time since I was a child. There are probably more fulmars than people on Westray. Come to that, there are probably more puffins than people on Westray. I made the mistake of assuming that a lot of the seabirds I saw were some sort of gull, because you just don’t see skuas or terns or fulmars that often and in that kind of quantity. Well, no. Not unless you’re on a Scottish island, that is. Coming back to a city and exchanging that biodiversity for a dense collection of humans is a disorientating experience.

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The Watch Stone, by Ingrid Grieve. Along with my walking boots, which carried me from one side of Hoy to the other.

Anyway, I have two more points to make about archaeology on Orkney and then I promise I’ll shut up. One is a plea – again – for archaeologists to take seriously artistic engagement with their sites. Often, what is left on the ground is not that exciting to the casual visitor, even if that casual visitor happens to be in the profession. I took home with me a print of a painting of the Watch Stone, near Stenness, which frankly I value a good deal more than actually seeing the thing in the flesh (or stone). Orkney is really rather good at artistic engagement with archaeology – lots of artists, lots of archaeology – although it would have been nice to see a bit more of it at the actual sites. If you’re wondering how effective these things are, I had British Sea Power’s song Carrion – which mentions Scapa Flow – as an earworm for the entire holiday.

In a somewhat related story, my friend and I happened to be out at Mull Head at the end of a day, and climbed over to the Brough of Deerness. It’s a tiny peninsula, almost an island, which you can only access by climbing down a steep cliff path, and up again on the other side. Excavations have shown there was a small Norse settlement, now vanished beneath the turf, but there remains the foundations and walls of a chapel. My friend is a curate, and some good angel reached down and tapped her on the shoulder so she said, “I’d like to say evening prayer here.” And that’s what we did. To the sound of the waves and the seabirds, we recited the psalms and prayers which – although in translation – would have been familiar to those who first used the chapel in the 11th century. And just for a moment, the present touched the past.

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The Brough of Deerness, taken from Mull Head, with the path and chapel just visible.

 

Great Haywards: A History of a Wealden House

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This Christmas is going to be rather a strange one for me. As of two weeks ago, my family no longer own the house in which I grew up. After twenty Christmasses at Great Haywards, we will instead be celebrating instead less than 100m up the road, at my grandmother’s house.

Twenty years, though, is a drop in the ocean when you’re talking about a house which is more than half a century old. When Great Haywards was built, Sussex was not the wealthy middle-class London-commuter-belt we know and love today, and the bustling metropolis of Haywards Heath was basically fields. Sussex in the 15th century was a large woodland rich in oak trees, iron and charcoal, with a few useful ports on the coast. No-one from London bothered coming down here, and when they did, they mostly complained about the roads. Land, justice and sovereignty were still inextricably linked, with local lords holding and administering land from earls and barons, who held their land by gift of the King. Great Haywards was the manor house of the Manor of Hayworth & Trubwick, the scattered farmland which preceded Haywards Heath. It was built somewhere around 1400AD as a timber-framed building on the plan of a standard Wealden hall house – open hall, solar (family chambers) at the south end, buttery and pantry at the north end. The centre of the house was the open fire in the middle of the hall. It was built large but not fancy – no use of excessive timber to show off wealth, no jetties, little decoration or carving within the house, except for the moulded beam on the south side of the Great Hall, to mark where the lord of the manor would sit in feast or in justice.

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Plan of a typical Wealden hall house. Source: https://www.wealddown.co.uk/explore/buildings/further-reading/general-information-bayleaf-wealden-house/

And so things changed. In the 16th century, lands were sold, the administrative function of the house dissipated, the open hall was floored and chimneys were inserted to make a more private dwelling. By the 18th century, Great Haywards was a farm of about 80 acres which belonged ultimately to the Sergison family, who owned the nearby Cuckfield Manor. The railway came to Haywards Heath, a new stately Edwardian house was built on land just up the road, and Great Haywards was split into two cottages, tenanted by cowmen (for the farm) and coachmen (for the house). It wasn’t until the late 1940s that the almost-derelict building was bought and renovated and restored to a single house by a family called the Mundays.

Six hundred years. From when Haywards Heath was a wasteland, an area of poor land not cultivated, its one moment of fame as the site of a small skirmish in the Civil War. Throughout the 19th century, when the modern town of Haywards Heath flooded the land around it, built around the twin centres of the railway station and the Sussex County Lunatic Asylum. We have the names of the many families who owned the house: Coverte; Maskell; Roberts; Hardham; Warden; Sergison; Jeffery; Munday; Spencer; Eldred. It lost land, acquired a brick frontage, had the high-status end move from the south to the north of the house, had a couple of extensions built on the back, acquired indoor plumbing, changed value with almost every owner to shape its purpose. To a house that remembers wassailing, perhaps twenty years isn’t so long. We retiled the roof and planted an orchard in the patch of ground between the stream and the north end of the house, and were inundated with apples every autumn. Anyway, we’re off – to find somewhere with floors that don’t slope and doorframes that don’t take the scalps off 6ft tall relatives and walls with a little more insulation from the outside world, somewhere where we’re less likely to get woken up at dawn in spring by a bemused hornet or accidentally take a hibernating butterfly into school in winter. Above all, I’m looking forward to a warm Christmas. I wish you all the same!

From The Bones of the Land will be back in mid-January.

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Eating Roman Fish in Wiltshire

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Red sea bream. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_seabream

So it’s been one of those bloody weeks. Excuse the language, but you know the sort of week I mean – as soon as you’ve dealt with something, something else comes up, and there hasn’t been a whole lot of time to settle down and do some decent work. It’s been great for getting on with admin, but that’s about it.

Anyway, one of the things that has come in this week – and I’m very happy that it has – is some results about some Roman fish. (It just so happens that every site I’m working on at the moment is Roman. Go figure). Between about the 8th century AD and some time in later prehistory – not quite sure when, but at least 1000BC – most of the population of Britain did not really go in for eating fish. Fishing in the Iron Age was so minimal as to be almost non-existent, and fishing in the early Anglo-Saxon period similarly seems to have been limited to a very small amount of freshwater and coastal fish, caught and consumed locally. Along with the re-introduction of Christianity to Britain in the 8th century came new dietary proscriptions against eating meat on fasting days (Fridays, Lent, Advent – sorry guys) or, if you were a monk or a nun, at all. The fish economy consequently received a boost. By about the 9th/10th century, there was a substantial trade developing in marine fish and preserved marine fish – especially cod and herring – which fed Britain throughout the medieval period.

Roman fish consumption is interesting because it sits right in the middle of this period where no-one local was bothering much with eating fish. However, in the Roman period, of course, there were plenty of non-locals around – not just from the Mediterranean, but also from elsewhere on the Continent, where eating fish was much more common. The evidence suggests that in Roman Britain, fish consumption became a mark of status or of an urban, Romanised palate. Towns, especially London, show evidence for the consumption of a diversity of fish from both marine and freshwater sources – eel, but also plaice / flounder, cod, herring, carp, salmon, trout, and so forth. While the majority of fish derive from freshwater sources, marine fish – generally from coastal or estuarine fisheries – were more valued. Rural villas, as well, often were consuming a range of fish. But in rural local settlements and farms, where the Roman period passed by somewhat unnoticed, so did the fad for eating fish.

I work as the zooarchaeologist for three separate Roman sites across a relatively small of Wiltshire. One (Teffont) is a local late shrine site; one (which shall not be named) is a high-status late shrine site; and one is a large and potentially rather posh villa. Over many years at Teffont we have had no fish – at all – but the continuing long process of post-excavation analysis at the others has thrown up a small handful of slightly unexpected, nicely stratified Roman fish remains. Mostly, they’re eels. Mostly, they’re freshwater fish. But there’s just a few – one bone from one site, two from another – of grey mullet, red sea bream, European seabass – fish I last ran across when I was working on a site from Croatia, by the Adriatic. Odd as it seems to me, these Mediterranean fish like hanging out off the South-West Coast (well, who doesn’t?), and were probably supplied to my sites from local coastal fisheries. All well and good, except my sites are around 50 miles inland. The ability to transport these marine fish, with their associations with Roman culture and Mediterranean tastes, all the way inland to serve them at dinner, is as strong an indication of the identity of the people at these sites and the wealth they commanded as it would have been in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

 

Many thanks to Dr Harry Robson, who identified the fish for me. For further information about all things Roman and fishy, the best starting plaice is Locker (2007) In piscibus diversis: The Bone Evidence for Fish Consumption in Roman Britain, published in the journal Britannia, vol 38.