Alternate fortunes? The role of domestic ducks and geese from Roman to Medieval times in Britain

Alternate fortunes? The role of domestic ducks and geese from Roman to Medieval times in Britain

By Umberto Albarella

Documenta Archaeobiologiae III. Feathers, Grit and Symbolism, ed. by G.Grupe and J.Peters (2005)

Abstract: Zooarchaeological evidence indicates that birds played a smaller role in the economy of Roman than medieval Britain. Ducks are more common than geese in Roman sites while the opposite is the case for the medieval period, the change occurring soon after the end of the Roman period (i.e. the Anglo-Saxon period in England). Documentary, iconographic and archaeological evidence from inside and outside Britain indicates that while the goose was probably already domesticated by the 3rd millennium BC, a proper system of duck husbandry was only developed rather late and was not yet fully in place by Roman times. Bearing in mind the higher frequency of duck bones in Roman Britain, we must conclude that in this country goose husbandry was also little developed and that all anatid bones found in British Roman sites probably derive from wild rather than domestic birds. Goose husbandry increased in importance in medieval times but most duck bones found in this period may also be wild, particularly in the earlier part of the Middle Ages.

Introduction: Ducks and geese have been hunted by people for millennia and husbanded for centuries. Though they only rarely reached the economic importance of the domestic fowl, the domestic forms of these birds have represented for many societies a useful and occasionally important source of meat, eggs, feathers and companionship. The story of their relationship with people is, however, still very incompletely understood, partly because these ‘minor’ domesticates are rarely mentioned in historical documents, and partly because it is very difficult to attribute goose and duck bones found in archaeological sites to their domestic or wild forms.


In this paper the relative frequency of duck and goose bones found in archaeological sites of Roman and medieval times in Britain will be discussed. No attempt is made to discriminate between different wild species of ducks and geese or between wild and domestic forms of these birds. This might be attempted on the basis of biometrical and genetic evidence, but it would require a major re-analysis of a large number of archaeological assemblages, which is beyond the aims of this research. The evidence concerning the abundance of these birds in animal bone assemblages will rather be interpreted on the basis of what we know about the status of wildfowl hunting and husbandry from the onset of domestication up to the period discussed in this article.

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