Sheep, Horses, Swine and Kine

The Adventus Saxonum, or the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England, in the 5th century AD, was one of the most significant events in British history since it resulted in profound changes in settlement patterns, political organisation and language. These changes included the withdrawal of Roman military power from Britain, the decline and depopulation of many of the Romano-British towns and cities, and the replacement of the British language by Anglo-Saxon.

Sources such as Gildas, Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provide a general outline of the political history of the conquest of Britain. However, they provide little evidence for the ways in which such changes affected the countryside. How did the Anglo-Saxons adapt their agricultural practices to the new environment? Did they introduce new breeds of animals and new husbandry techniques? Crabtree (1989) sets out to examine some of these questions through the archaeological evidence provided by the excavations at West Stow.

West Stow is an early Anglo-Saxon settlement site located in Suffolk, eastern England. It was occupied between the early 5th and mid-7th centuries AD, as indicated by artefacts such as pottery found at the site. Excavations revealed 69 sunken-feature buildings clustered around seven small timbered halls. It is likely that only three halls and their outbuildings were in use at any one time, and it is suggested that the settlement housed three or four family groups.

Over 180,000 animal bones were recovered from the site in an excellent state of preservation. This were recovered from a wide variety of contexts. The lack of wet screening, not uncommon during the period of excavation, has, however, probably led to the under-representation of bird and fish remains. The recovery of large mammal remains would be less affected.

For all phases, the vast majority of identified mammal bones belong to the main domestic species: cattle, sheep and goat, pig, horse, dog and cat. Bones of wild animals such as red and roe deer are relatively rare, indicating that hunting played only a limited role in the settlement’s subsistence. Similar results were obtained by a separate analysis of the recovered bird bones, most of which were domestic goose (Anser sp.) and chicken (Gallus sp.). This suggests that farming, rather than foraging, was the mainstay of the economy.

Sheep and goats, followed by cattle, were the most common domestic animals. This is not uncommon for sites of this region and period in Britain and is part of a marked trend towards sheep-rearing that continues into the Middle Ages. By the time of the Domesday Survey (AD 1086), sheep were the predominant animals in the West Stow region. This does not appear to be a result of continental Anglo-Saxon influence; at coastal sites in North Germany, sheep are generally poorly represented.

A decreased use of horseflesh is also evident at the site. Horse is poorly represented in the Anglo-Saxon period at West Stow. In contrast, they are quite common at sites in the Anglo-Saxon homelands. Pigs, meanwhile, are third in relative importance behind sheep and cattle. There does, however, appear to be a slight increase in pigs over time. Again. this does not appear to reflect continental influences. It has been suggested (Crabtree, 1989: 210), that the high proportion of pigs in 5th century contexts is a reflection of their being ideal animals for colonisers; sheep mature and multiply rapidly.

In conclusion, therefore, the evidence for West Stow suggests that the Adventus Saxonum did not result in marked changes in animal husbandry practices. Ageing, measurement and butchery data from 5th century contexts suggest broad continuities with the earlier Anglo-Saxon and Roman periods. The one clear change that can be deduced is the use of a larger number of pigs in the early 5th century when the village was being established.

How can this be interpreted?

On the one hand, it could be suggested that substantial elements of the Romano-British population survived in the West Stow area. The Anglo-Saxons could then be a warrior elite who introduced a new language and elements of a new culture, but who otherwise had very little effect on native animal husbandry. Alternatively, the Anglo-Saxons may have replaced the native Britons in this area, but found it to their advantage to preserve most of the old system of husbandry.

Reference: Crabtree, P.J. 1989. Sheep, Horses, Swine and Kine: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on the Anglo-Saxon Settlement of England. Journal of Field Archaeology 16 (2): 205-213

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2 responses to “Sheep, Horses, Swine and Kine

  1. Pingback: Four Stone Hearth XXXII « Testimony of the spade

  2. Pingback: Blog Carnival Time Again « Archaeoporn

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