Animal husbandry and pastoral practices

The geologies and soils over large parts of South Yorkshire are too acidic for bone preservation, and even on Magnesian Limestone bone condition may still be very poor, hindering identification, ageing and sexing of animal remains. Bones from neonates, juveniles and smaller species rarely survive; and yet such information is vital to considerations of past husbandry and butchery practices. Most excavations of Iron Age and Romano-British rural sites in the wider Yorkshire region produce less than 1000 bone fragments (Richardson 2001), but such samples are thought too small for meaningful statistical analyses (Hambleton 1999; Huntley and Stallibrass 1995). Animal bone was often not retained or analysed during older excavations. Variations in analyses and data presentation mean that even recently published assemblages may not be directly comparable. An overview of faunal assemblages from northern England ignored South Yorkshire (Huntley and Stallibrass 1995), whilst a study of British Iron Age animal remains did not examine any sites in South or West Yorkshire; as samples were considered too small (Hambleton 1999: 16).

Cattle, sheep and pigs were the main livestock in Iron Age Britain. Goats are rarely identified, as their remains are too similar to those of sheep. It was once thought that sheep were the most numerically important animal, kept for milk and wool (Grant 1984), but an analysis of Iron Age faunal assemblages from around Britain found most had roughly equal counts of sheep and cattle (Hambleton 1999). Cattle were probably exploited for milk, traction, breeding stock and for their manure (Albarella 2007; Maltby 1996). Northern bone assemblages are generally more varied than those in south-central England, with cattle and sheep ranging from 20–70% for both species (Hambleton 1999: 47). This reflected a broader range of husbandry practices. On most Iron Age sites there was a low incidence of pigs, but higher percentages of pigs on ‘high-status’ Iron Age settlements and in East Yorkshire Iron Age burials suggests that pork was a delicacy (Maltby 1996; Parker Pearson 1999).

Iconography suggests a regard for wild boar, deer, and more rarely, horses and domestic cattle, especially bulls (Green 1992). Only small quantities of deer, hare and other wild animal remains are found on Iron Age sites (Grant 1981; Hambleton 1999), suggesting that hunting was infrequent, and/or that there were social prohibitions on certain species. Horses might have had connotations of long-distance movement, speed and hunting, and required considerable time and resources to breed, train and equip them. This would have given them high status associations. Dogs often occupy liminal positions within human societies and may be reviled as much as they are appreciated. Such ambiguous and complex beliefs seem to have afforded the special treatment of their remains during the Iron Age and Romano-British periods (q.v. Black 1983; Serpell 1995; Smith 2006). The dog remains frequently found in Romano-British wells might have reflected the potential role of dogs as intercessors with the gods; and perhaps also referenced Cerberus, guardian of the underworld (Woodward and Woodward 2004: 78).

Romano-British faunal assemblages usually feature lower proportions of sheep and higher percentages of cattle and pigs than Iron Age remains (Albarella 2007: 396-7; Grant 1989: 136; Hambleton 1999: 44; King 1991: 17), the latter perhaps due to increased pork consumption. Livestock and domesticates gradually increased in size during the Roman period, particularly cattle and horses but also sheep, pigs and dogs – though some Roman ‘lapdogs’ were considerably smaller than Iron Age hounds. These changes were a consequence of importing new breeding stock and greater mobility of livestock, though might not have become pronounced in some areas until the 3rd century AD (Dobney 2001; Minniti et al. 2014; Rizzetto, Crabtree and Albarella 2017). Slight increases in height and changes in horn core shapes in Romano-British cattle might nonetheless have signified marked variations in appearance compared to native cattle, with differently coloured coats, smooth rather than longer hair, and different temperaments, milking qualities or productivity (Stallibrass 2000: 69-70). Some indigenous farmers might have regarded such introductions with resentment or disdain, others with enthusiasm.

A limited survey of faunal assemblages from northern England, mostly from military and urban sites, indicates the presence of small numbers of particularly large, non-native cattle throughout the Roman period (Dobney 2001: 39). These could have been draught animals used to pull heavy wagons, especially for the Roman military. Cattle dominated Roman military faunal assemblages in Britain, with animals killed at the prime meat age of 3-4 years (Cool 2006: 82-84; Dobney 2001: 37; King 1999: 189). Military sites and urban centres imported most of their cattle as adult beasts, either as carcasses or live animals. More sheep were killed when sub-adult or adult in the Romano-British period than during the Iron Age, which might imply that meat and wool production were emphasised. Particularly in urban centres and forts, slaughtering patterns and butchery techniques may have changed considerably following the Roman conquest. These may have included the introduction of cleavers, the hanging of large joints for curing or storage, and the production of smaller portions as ‘snack foods’ (Cool 2006: 89-91; Dobney 2001: 39-41; King 1984: 214, 1991: 17; Meadows 1997: 26-7). Wool also supposedly became finer, and the appearance of donkeys, mules and new breeds of horse, dog and domestic fowl again suggest an increasing interest in animal breeding (Grant 1989: 146).

Faunal analysts quantify remains as NISP (Number of Identifiable Specimens), and as MNI (Minimum Number of Individuals). The latter is usually more informative. The known evidence for animal husbandry and butchery in Iron Age and Roman-period South Yorkshire up to 2008 was again summarised by Chadwick (2008: chapters 5-6, appendix C). Most Iron Age rural sites have produced little or no animal remains at all. Only 385 animal bone fragments from stratified contexts were recovered at Sutton Common, and even despite the wholly inadequate excavation and sampling strategy, the bone was heavily fragmented and in poor condition. In terms of the NISP values cattle formed 34.9%, sheep/goats 61.7%, pig 1.8%, horse 1%, roe deer 0.6% and red deer 0.3% (Outram 2007: 139). The apparent high proportion of sheep/goat is unusual when compared to the later Iron Age sites, but there may be many taphonomic and contextual biases in the limited data. The age profiles of the sheep/goat remains suggested most were slaughtered for meat (ibid.: 141).

At Pickburn Leys approximately 1200 animal bone fragments were recovered, with no complete bones (Berg 1985: 11). Although these were not quantified, cattle formed the majority of animals, followed by sheep/goat, with some evidence of pig and horse. Skull and foot bones were probably disposed of and buried relatively quickly. At Hazel Lane Quarry, Hampole, the fragmented and weathered bones of sheep/goat and pigs were identified, but the majority of remains were from juvenile cattle. This might reflect the maintenance of particular herd structures, and even the culling of young male animals (O’Neill and Brown 1999: 108).

At Topham Farm, Sykehouse only 374 animal bone fragments were recovered, and preservation biased larger bones and robust teeth from bigger animals (Richardson 2003: 26-7). In the late Iron Age Phase 1, identifiable remains produced NISP values of 37% for cattle, 3% sheep/goat, 2% pig, 5% unidentified ‘cattle sized’ animals, and 53% of ‘sheep sized’ animals. In the late Iron Age/Romano-British Phase 2, cattle were 21% of NISP counts, horse 9%, sheep/goat 1%, pig 1%, cattle sized animals 29%, and sheep sized animals 39%. There was slightly better bone preservation at Balby Carr. Of 539 bone fragments from one AS WYAS project, cattle and ‘cattle-sized’ animals accounted for 73% of the assemblage NISP (Richardson 2005b), though this was biased because of a partial cattle skeleton or ABG buried in a ditch. A partially articulated group of sheep/goat bones from the First Point site at Balby Carr may also be a placed deposit (Richardson 2006). Sheep/goat were 21% and pig 5% of the bone fragments, with some deer and horse bones also recovered. Most cattle and sheep/goat remains were sub-adult suggesting the slaughter of younger animals for meat, although some older animals were probably retained for secondary products. A largely complete but fragmented cattle skull was found along with other animal bone in the base of a ditch at Balby Carr during the D2 phase of work (Muldowney 2008: 4). This work is not fully published. Further work at the Balby First Point site recovered poorly preserved remains of cattle and sheep/goat in almost equal proportions (Higbee 2016: 13). There was also one unstratified long bone from a horse. The inner enclosure ditch produced a small group of immature sheep/goats, and the skull and jaw of a dog which returned a radiocarbon date of 358–105 BC – these ABGs are like possible placed deposits excavated elsewhere in Yorkshire (q.v. Chadwick, Martin and Richardson 2013).

More indirect evidence includes dung beetle remains that suggest the large-scale grazing of animals. Remains of beetles and other insect species associated with the dung of large grazing animals were recovered from the waterlogged ditches at Balby Carr (Smith and Tetlow 2007: 44). More detailed data will hopefully come with full analysis and publication of insect assemblages recovered from samples taken from the waterholes and ditches at the various Rossington i-Port and FARRRS sites.

Despite the extensive nature of the FARRRS and i-Port archaeological investigations, comparatively little animal bone was recovered from these projects, with the poorly preserved and fragmented remains numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands. Full NISP and MNI details are not yet available, but the remains were mostly of cattle, with some sheep/goat, and occasional horse and red deer (Daniel 2017: 30-1; Daniel, Harrison and Powell 2014b: 16). Only a few teeth and some burnt and /or calcined bone fragments from cattle and sheep were excavated at West Moor Park II, Armthorpe (Richardson 2008: 51). Similarly, very little animal bone was found at Rossington Grange Farm, and that was from mostly later Roman phases (Richardson 2016: 27). At Billingley Drive, Thurnscoe, bone preservation was extremely poor. Only a few cattle and horse teeth fragments were identified (Gidney 2004: 58-59). No animal bone at all was identified at Pastures Road, Mexborough (Williams and Weston 2008), and a probable Anglo-Saxon inhumation burial on the site had no surviving bone either. Other sites on Coal Measures or Sherwood Sandstone geologies have produced similar negative results.

Assessing the impact of the Roman conquest upon pastoral practices (cf. Allen et al. 2017) is difficult given the problems with preservation. It is possible that the apparent expansion of field systems during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD in South Yorkshire, especially on the Sherwood Sandstone areas, might have reflected an increase or extensification of pastoral production (Chadwick 2008a, 2008c); but this is hard to prove. One interesting possibility to investigate in future is whether the opening-up of larger areas around Rossington and Doncaster during the Romano-British period for grazing and the development of field systems might have been partly an unplanned consequence of the clearance of woodland initially for timber and fuel.

An exciting avenue for future research concerns isotope and ancient DNA (aDNA) analyses. Although isotope studies undertaken on human remains have been able to provide fascinating insights into the movement, diet and identities of people in the past, these techniques are now being applied to animal remains with often remarkable results (e.g. Gan et al. 2018; Madgwick, Lamb et al. 2019; Madgwick, Lewis et al 2019; Madgwick and Mulville 2015; Minniti et al. 2014; Towers et al 2017; Viner et al. 2010). South Yorkshire has great potential despite the often-poor bone preservation; as the different geological and topographic zones and soils should be conducive to examining whether animals were moved between these different areas. In the future, it might prove possible to determine whether livestock were moved between lowland floodplains in the east and the Magnesian Limestone or Coal Measures hills to the west. The nature of dairying practices could be researched, and the supply of livestock to urban areas such as Doncaster and to Roman military garrisons investigated (q.v. Gan et al. 2018; Madgwick, Lewis et al 2019; Stallibrass 2000, 2009). Some existing archive faunal collections could be utilised for this.

The use of aDNA analyses is providing new evidence for animal domestication, sexing, and origins of recent breeds (e.g. Davis et al. 2012; Flink et al. 2014; MacHugh, Larson and Orlando 2017). Such work is currently expensive, time consuming and often relies on uncontaminated samples being taken in the field; and to date has not been used for many faunal studies in Britain. In future however, it might provide insights not only into animal biogeographies and connections between animals at different settlements, breeding and herd management; but also by extension evidence for links between different human communities. Such work could also inform research into Roman ‘improvement’, the likely physical appearance of Iron Age and Romano-British livestock, and livestock diseases and pathologies.

Research questions

  • Can any geoarchaeological or palaeo-environmental techniques investigate whether Iron Age and Romano-British communities spread midden material or manure onto the land, or were animals grazed on stubble after harvests and over winters?
  • Can any archaeological, geoarchaeological or archaeozoological evidence be found for practices such as stalling animals in pens and within buildings, or keeping animals within infields? Were livestock kept primarily for milk and traction, or for meat? Did this vary between communities?
  • Can theoretical ideas concerning human-animal relations prove useful for future studies? How might such approaches be combined with faunal and archaeological data?
  • Can we identify livestock improvement over time, especially after the Roman occupation? Would isotope and aDNA analyses of livestock remains shed light on herding practices, trading and the exchange of livestock for breeding? Can we identify dairying and transhumance through such techniques?
  • Where did the livestock supplied to Roman army garrisons at Templeborough, Doncaster, Rossington and other military sites come from? Were the military farming their own livestock, or were animals supplied by local producers? What implications does this have for understanding interactions between military and civilian in Roman South Yorkshire?
  • Can any correlations in the deposition of animal burials and Associated Bone Groups or ABGs be found with similar contexts or with artefacts? Can we discern any social or ideological aspects of how particular animals were regarded in the past?

Priorities and implementation

  • There needs to be better standardisation of recording and analytical techniques for animal remains, and better publication and dissemination of the results of the analyses;
  • On-site retrieval rates for animal bone need to be improved, through more extensive sampling of enclosure ditches and pits. More rigorous sampling of features on site, with larger numbers of hand-dug sections followed by the use of machines to excavate controlled spits from ditches, will improve bone retrieval rates and thus increase the statistical data available. This has been successfully tried elsewhere, in West Yorkshire for example (Chadwick 2009; Chadwick, Martin and Richardson 2013; Martin, Richardson and Roberts 2013), and allows for more placed deposits and ABGs to be identified;
  • In conjunction with archaeozoological researchers based in a university department and faunal specialists working in the region, there could be a database maintained and regularly updated on published and unpublished faunal assemblages from South Yorkshire. This should include information on species, overall bone fragment frequencies (NISP, or Number of Identified Specimens) and minimum number of individuals (MNI) recorded. This data should be available online for research.
  • Phosphate sampling on settlement and enclosure sites might be able to detect where animals were stalled within buildings or pens, and recent soil aDNA and soil lipid analyses being developed may be able to detect animal faeces and urine by species (see above). Detailed soil micromorphology on features around enclosures and fields may also be able to identify where animals were kept and where manure was deposited;
  • Improved spatial analyses of faunal remains from sites allied to detailed metrical analyses will help draw out any distinctions and changes in butchery and disposal patterns over time. In addition, more nuanced ‘biographical’ approaches to faunal remains (q.v. Morris 2008) might flesh out the life histories of specific animals, their deaths or butchery, and the taphonomic and social practices involved in the deposition of animal remains including complete burials, placed deposits and ABGs;
  • Isotope and aDNA analyses of animal bone should be undertaken where possible in order to investigate changes in domesticates between the iron Age and Roman periods, links between animals on different sites and breeding, herd demographies and identities, sexing and disease. This could also form the basis of Masters and/or PhD research at a university department, and existing archive collections of faunal remains from rural sites, Doncaster, the Doncaster Roman fort and more recent investigations at Templeborough could be used as part of such a study;
  • Biosocial and theoretically informed approaches can allow Iron Age and Romano-British settlements, trackways, fields and buildings to be examined from the perspective of human-animal relations and allow animal geographies of the past to be explored (q.v. Chadwick 2016b).