Butchery – Variation through Time and Space

Butchery at Tell-el-Amarna:

  • The animal bones are extremely well preserved, some still showing skin and hair, and there is little evidence of dog gnawing.
  • Pig is the most commonly represented animal, followed by goat and then cattle.
  • Pigs appear to have been slaughtered locally and even raised nearby as all skeletal elements, both sexes and a wide age range at present. Preferred age at slaughter 2-8 months and 14-24 months.
  • Goats also kept at WV since all parts of the animal were recovered. Goats bred mainly for meat, but many had not reached fully body weight being slaughtered at 6-12 months. Husbanding of goats and pigs together invaluable as whey by-product of cheese manufacture invaluable as animal feed.
  • Few cattle reared at the sites since most slaughtered at less than 4 years, and limb bones dominated the sample.
  • Butchery marks can describe a wide variety of activities in community; slaughter methods, carcass dressing, food processing, horning, skinning, tanning, tawing, glue making, grease production, bone working.
  • It also gives some idea of competence. A fine membrane, the periosteum, surrounds bone and knife marks are therefore less likely to be seen than cleaver marks. However, a tired or less knowledgeable butcher might leave such knife marks.
  • The pig provided most of the meat supply and would not have been easy to rear in such an arid setting. It is reasonable to suppose that great effort would be expended to retrieve as much usable produce as possible. There is little evidence of burning, but much of dismemberment with some filleting marks. It seems likely that meat had been prepared for consumption, drying or salting.
    • Butchery at shoulder and elbow joints has specific patterning. As a lower level of competence would give more random orientations, it is proposed that a few or even just one person involved in this secondary butchery activity.
    • Under-representation of back limbs compared to forelimbs of both pig and goat suggest these were exported to Main City.
    • Extremely low perinatal mortality impressive and reflects skilful animal husbandry.
  • Goat butchery very similar to pigs in that mainly involved knives. Main difference is greater evidence for elbow joint being butchered in goat. Either goat butchers more skilful, or more goats butchered when still warm. Since knife cuts at shoulder are very specific it is more likely that the latter is true.
  • Cattle mainly butchered by heavy cleavers.
  • Knife butchery more labour intensive, but allows for more controlled extraction of meat by inexperienced butcher. This suggests animal raising and butchery not main occupation of villagers.
  • Cattle butchery very inefficient in comparison. It is proposed that cattle limbs were imported from Main City to village.

Butchery in Romano-British Hampshire:

  • Maltby’s model of cattle butchery showed a knife-cut tradition of butchery occurred in the countryside, whereas the use of heavy cleavers and choppers was dominant in towns. This was related to the need for faster processing in a growing urban populace.

Butchery at a Medieval French Monastery:

  •  Cleavers and knives were the medieval butcher’s tools.
  •  Remains show two ‘schools’ of gross butchery existed, depending on whether one decided to split the animal’s spine length-wise in two or to separate it from carcass with two parallel cuts close to spinal cord and breaking transverse processes. The first method is usual today for beef, mutton and pork. The second separates vertebrae which can be used to make broth and is still practiced in rural France (e.g. Corsica, Corrèze).
  • By 14th century the single central split had become a hard-and-fast rule, constraining the previously more flexible cuts of mutton. Similar developments can be seen at the English sites of Portchester and Exeter between 14th – 16th centuries.
  • Except for this basic alteration in cut, beef butchery remained unchanged for centuries. Different qualities of meat were subject to scrupulous discrimination, differentiating between fleshy cuts and the joints and lean pieces. The shank or shin meat was of secondary quality to the upper foreleg and they were carefully separated. The feet were boned for consumption and opened obliquely to extract the marrow.
  • These three principles of division, discrimination and recovery of every part can be observed even more clearly in mutton.
  • Unlike beef, the butchery of mutton changed between the 11th and 17th centuries. Whereas beef consumption remained constant over the six centuries of occupation at the site, almost 50% of meat, mutton increased continually, from a mere 10% in the 112th-12th centuries, to one-third of meat supply in 16th century.
  • The discrimination very visible in mutton. A leg of mutton in present form would not be found. Instead the hind limb was broken into at least six pieces. Care was taken to separate the small rib eye from the rib. Feet metatarsi cutmarks suggest feet were consumed. However, a complete absence of heads suggest these were not consumed and may have been passed onto tenant farmers.
  • Pork was to undergo the greatest changes in butchery practice, however. At La Charité in 11th-12th centuries it provides almost half the main meats consumed. In the beginning it is almost completely boned and entire series of whole, discarded bones can be found. The proximity of disjoined epiphyses prove these are not cooking leftovers as they would have completely separated from one another. Instead meat was boned when raw.
  • From 14th century onwards pork consumption decreased. A large number of bones were broken; disjointed and divided scapulae, humeri, and radii, as well as fractured tibias are reminiscent of the small cuts used for mutton.
  • Such a change did not mean sausages and salted meat disappeared from the menu, they could still be bought from the market, but it may mean that the establishment of a more regular food supply had caused the preservation of meat to become less of an objective for the stewards. The new cuts indicate more moderate consumption of pork, oriented towards a more immediate use.


Audoin-Rouzeau, F. 1987. Medieval and Early Modern Butchery: Evidence from the Monastery of La Charite-sur-Loire (Nievre). Food and Foodways 2: 31-48.

Luff, R. 1994. Butchery at the Workmen’s Village (WV), Tell-el-Amarna, Egypt. In Whither Environmental Archaeology? Edited by R Luff and P Rowley-Conwy. Oxbow Books: Oxford, pp 158-170.


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