Archaeology: CHICKENS lived longer in the Iron Age because they were seen as sacred and not as food

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Chickens lived significantly longer in the Iron Age, Roman times and Saxon periods because they were considered sacred rather than a food source, a study found.

In modern Britain, poultry birds typically live around 33-81 days, but their ancient counterparts often survived until they were two to four years old.

The findings came after researchers led by the University of Exeter developed the first method for reliably finding the ages of birds that lived thousands of years ago.

It has long been difficult to get a poultry’s age from its remains because the tests used on mammals — such as bone fusion and tooth wear — don’t work on birds.

Instead, the team found that roosters can be dated by measuring the length of the “tarsometatarsal spur” that doesn’t develop on their legs until they reach adulthood.

Taking advantage of this fowl dating back to the Iron Age, the team found that the birds often lived to old ages — suggesting they were used for sacrifice or cockfighting.

Chickens lived significantly longer in the Iron Age, Roman times and Saxon periods because they were considered sacred rather than a food source, a study finds.

Chickens lived significantly longer in the Iron Age, Roman times and Saxon periods because they were considered sacred rather than a food source, a study finds.

The researchers found that roosters can be dated by measuring the length of the

The researchers found that roosters can be dated by measuring the length of the “tarsometatarsal spur” that only develops on their legs (as pictured) when they reach adulthood.

“Pets were introduced in the Iron Age and probably had a special status, where they were considered sacred rather than food,” said author and archaeologist Sean Doherty of the University of Exeter.

“Most chicken bones show no evidence of slaughter and were buried as complete skeletons rather than with other food waste.”

“The study confirms the special status of these rare and highly prized birds, showing that from the Iron Age to the Saxon period they survived well beyond their sexual maturity.”

‘Most lived longer than a year, and many lived to be two, three or four years old. The age at which roosters started dying then becomes younger after this period,” he added.

In their research, Dr. Doherty and colleagues first applied their new aging technique to leg bones of modern domestic fowl and red jungle fowl of known ages and sexes — confirming that the bony spur only develops in older birds.

Of the 71 roosters less than a year old studied, only 20 percent had developed a track, while all birds six years and older had developed a track.

However, once the tarsometatarsal spur has developed, its length and size increases in proportion to the length of the rooster’s leg – and so the size can be used to estimate the age of the bird in question.

However, the researchers cautioned that the delayed track development means archaeologists may misidentify cockerels without the bony protrusions as chickens.

In their research, Dr.  Doherty and colleagues first applied their new aging technique to leg bones of modern domestic fowl and red jungle fowl of known ages and sexes — confirming that the bony spur only develops in older birds.  Pictured: a jungle fowl seen in Sri Lanka

In their research, Dr. Doherty and colleagues first applied their new aging technique to leg bones of modern domestic fowl and red jungle fowl of known ages and sexes — confirming that the bony spur only develops in older birds. Pictured: a jungle fowl seen in Sri Lanka

After confirming the validity of their technique, the team then applied it to 1,366 chicken leg bones collected from sites in Britain dating from the Iron Age to early modern times.  Pictured: An Iron Age (4th-3rd century BC) rooster from Houghton Down, Hampshire.  Analysis of his tracks suggests he was at least two years old

After confirming the validity of their technique, the team then applied it to 1,366 chicken leg bones collected from sites in Britain dating from the Iron Age to early modern times. Pictured: An Iron Age (4th-3rd century BC) rooster from Houghton Down, Hampshire. Analysis of his tracks suggests he was at least two years old

During the Iron Age and Roman periods, the team found that there were significantly more roosters than chickens (pictured) — a trend Dr.  Doherty and colleagues attributed to the then popularity of cockfightinggevecht

During the Iron Age and Roman periods, the team found that there were significantly more roosters than chickens (pictured) — a trend Dr. Doherty and colleagues attributed to the then popularity of cockfightinggevecht

After confirming the validity of their technique, the researchers then applied it to 1,366 chicken leg bones collected from sites in Britain dating from the Iron Age to early modern times.

For each leg bone, the team determined the bird’s sex and — where possible — age at death.

The researchers reported that of the 123 Iron Age, Roman and Saxon bones they analyzed, more than half came from chickens that were at least two years old and about a quarter had reached three years of age.

Of the 123 Iron Age bones, Roman and Saxon bones, more than 50 percent were from chickens over two years of age and about 25 percent were over three years old.

This, the team wrote in their paper, is consistent with Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar’s “mysterious observation that Britons did not keep chickens for food, but ‘animi voluptatis’, a statement widely translated as for spiritual and secular pleasures.” .’

In addition, during the Iron Age and Roman periods, the team found that there were significantly more roosters than chickens — a trend Dr. Doherty and colleagues attributed to the then popularity of cockfighting.

The full findings of the study have been published in the International journal of osteoarchaeology.

Pictured: An ancient Roman mosaic depicting a cockfight.  The birds face a table, on which lie a caduceus staff, the winner's purse and a palm of victory

Pictured: An ancient Roman mosaic depicting a cockfight. The birds face a table, on which lie a caduceus staff, the winner’s purse and a palm of victory

“Pets were introduced in the Iron Age and probably had a special status, where they were considered sacred rather than food,” said author and archaeologist Sean Doherty of the University of Exeter.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT IRON AGE BRITAIN?

The Iron Age in Britain began when the Bronze Age ended.

It started around 800 BC and ended in 43 AD when the Romans invaded.

As the name suggests, this period saw large-scale changes thanks to the introduction of ironworking technology.

During this period, Britain’s population was probably over a million.

This was made possible by new forms of agriculture, such as the introduction of new varieties of barley and wheat.

The invention of the iron-tipped plow made it possible for the first time to grow crops on heavy clay soils.

Some of the major advances during the period included the introduction of the potter’s wheel, the lathe (used for woodworking), and rotary quern for grinding grain.

There are nearly 3,000 Iron Age hill forts in the UK. Some were used as permanent settlements, others were used as venues for gatherings, trade, and religious activities.

At that time, most people lived in small farms with extended families.

The standard house was a roundhouse, made of wood or stone with a thatched or turf roof.

Funeral practices were varied, but it seems most people were removed by ‘excarnation’ – meaning they were deliberately exposed.

Some bog bodies have also been preserved from this period, showing evidence of violent deaths in the form of ritualistic and sacrificial murders.

Towards the end of this period there was increasing Roman influence from the western Mediterranean and southern France.

It seems that before the Roman conquest of England in AD 43. already had connections with many tribes and could have exercised some political influence.

After AD 43, all of Wales and England became part of the Roman Empire under Hadrian’s Wall, while Iron Age life in Scotland and Ireland continued for longer.

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