Glastonbury Abbey Symposium 9 June 2011 Abbey Shield

Animal bone, by Lorrain Higby

Freelance archaeologist & Wessex Archaeology

The assemblage comprises 981 fragments of hand-recovered animal bone; the majority of this material is from mid-12th century contexts located within the cloister. Bird bones dominate the assemblage (61% of the total number of identified bones or NISP) and at least thirteen separate species have been identified. Chicken is the dominant species in the assemblage (c.32% NISP) and the remains from the cloisters are almost entirely composed of dressed carcasses. Less common birds include goose, duck, pigeon/dove and a range of wetland species, including teal/garganey, woodcock, plover, grey heron, mute swan and snipe. While these wetland birds do not represent a significant food resource it is clear from historical sources that these particular species were amongst the most highly prized birds served at elite and monastic sites.

Pig is the most common mammalian species (21% NISP) and the second most abundant species after chicken. The available age information indicates a preference for the tender meat from suckling pigs. Sheep bones are also fairly common in the assemblage (11% NISP) and most are lambs just a few months old. Less common mammalian species include cattle, horse, dog and deer. The latter is mostly represented by antler off-cuts from object manufacture.

The basic pattern of relative importance outlined above, that is an abundance of birds but few mammals, is characteristic of monastic diets and linked to the Rule of religious observance as defined by St Benedict. Following this Rule, fish and the meat of birds was permitted but the meat of quadrupeds was forbidden to all except the sick. The dietary evidence from Glastonbury Abbey suggests that the monks cheated a little to get round these rules by consuming fish- substitutes. These substitutes included animals that were considered to have a similar anatomical, physiological or ecological (i.e. aquatic habit) resemblance to fish and included newborn lambs and piglets from the water environment of the uterus.

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