Bective excavations Blog

Report on Faunal Material from Bective Abbey, Season 1 (2009) by Fiona Beglane MSc
June 28, 2010, 9:01 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

1       Introduction

This is a preliminary report on the faunal remains recovered from Season 1 of the excavation of Bective Abbey, Co. Meath, Licence No E4028 carried out in July 2009 by Geraldine Stout and Matthew Stout.  This is a multi-year project so that full analysis and interpretation of the recorded data has not been carried out, as this will be undertaken as part of the final faunal report for the site once excavation is complete, thus minimising duplication of effort.  Specifically, no analysis of meat values, no detailed analysis of butchery, burning and gnawing, no ageing by toothwear, no metrical analysis or analysis of pathologies and non-metrical traits has been undertaken.  Nevertheless, this data has been recorded and will be incorporated into the final report.

The aim of this document is to provide data on which decisions can be taken regarding the upcoming season of work in 2010 and to give a summary of findings to date.

2       Methodology

2.1       Introduction

This is a preliminary report on the faunal remains recovered from Season 1 of the excavation of Bective Abbey, Co. Meath, Licence No E4028 carried out in July 2009 by Geraldine Stout and Matthew Stout.  This is a multi-year project so that full analysis and interpretation of the recorded data has not been carried out, as this will be undertaken as part of the final faunal report for the site once excavation is complete, thus minimising duplication of effort.  Specifically, no analysis of meat values, no detailed analysis of butchery, burning and gnawing, no ageing by toothwear, no metrical analysis or analysis of pathologies and non-metrical traits has been undertaken.  Nevertheless, this data has been recorded and will be incorporated into the final report.

The aim of this document is to provide data on which decisions can be taken regarding the upcoming season of work in 2010 and to give a summary of findings to date.

2.2       Methodology

Contexts were phased as follows on the basis of the stratigraphic report supplied by the excavators (Stout and Stout n.d.) and personal communication with the excavators.  Phasing is provisional at this stage of the project and is likely to be refined and revised in the light of future results.

Mammalian faunal remains were identified using comparative collections and by reference to Hillson (1992) and Schmid (1972).  Remains were quantified using a method modified from that described by Davis (1992), using selected skeletal elements where at least 50% of the diagnostic feature is present.  This avoids the possibility of counting the same element on multiple occasions.  Elements quantified were as follows: antlers and horncores where these join to the cranium and at the distal end, parietal cranium and cranium at the maxilla if at least two teeth are present, mandibular hinge or toothrow if at least one tooth is present and loose teeth, atlas (VC1) and axis (VC2), scapula at the glenoid process, pelvis at the ilium or ischium of the acetabulum, patella, calcaneus and astragalus, ulna at the articular surface and long bones where at least 50% of the proximal or distal articulation was present.  Ribs and vertebrae apart from the axis and atlas are not included, since these can be difficult to identify to species, however these were quantified as number of fragments in categories of large mammal (LM), medium mammal (MM) and small mammal (SM).  Topsoil material was scanned for species not previously recorded in the assemblage and for items of interest.

The number of identified specimens (NISP) was calculated for each species based on these identifications.  The minimum number of individuals (MNI) was calculated taking into account the side of the body but not states of fusion, sizes of bones and toothwear.

Sheep and goat bones were separated where possible using Boessneck (1969), Kratochvil  (1969) and Payne (1969; 1985).  Rabbits and hares were separated on the basis of size and cranial differences by comparison with reference material.  Sexing was carried out using the shape of canine of pigs (von den Driesch 1976) and the presence of developed canines in horses.  For cattle the distal breadth (Bd) of the metacarpal (McCormick 1992) was used, as was the form of the pelvis (Greenfield 2006).  In the case of goats sexing was based on horncore shape (Stampfli 1983).  Horse and donkey were separated using the dimensions of the first phalanges (Davis 1982) and the metacarpals as well as the form of the molar the molar teeth (Davis 1987, 34 – 35)

Fusion data was based on Silver (1963), Schmid (1972, Table IX) and Reitz and Wing (1999, 76).  For cattle and pigs, toothwear was recorded per Grant (1982) and Higham (1967) after Silver (1963).  For cattle horncores Armitage and Clutton-Brock (1976) and Armitage (1982) were used.  Toothwear in sheep was examined using the method described by Payne (1973; 1987).  Equids were aged as described by Levine (1982), dogs were aged using the data shown in Schmid (1972).

Measurements were carried out to an accuracy of 0.1mm per von den Driesch (1976), Boessneck (1969), Payne and Bull (1988, Fig. 1), Payne (1973, 296), and Davis (1992, Fig. 2).  Estimated withers heights were calculated using Fock (1966) and Matolcsi (1970) for cattle, Vitt (1952) for equids, Teichert for original (ur) and early (früh) or unimproved sheep, and Teichert (1966/69) for pig, all cited by von den Driesch and Boessneck (1974).

Evidence for chopping, cutting and sawing were recorded, as was gnawing by carnivores and rodents.  Burnt material was classified as singed for bone with only partial blackening, burnt for blackened bones or calcinated for those bones that were predominantly white/blue-grey in colour.  For non-countable fragments these aspects were only recorded where obvious on a cursory inspection.

Where pathologies, developmental defects and non-metric traits were identified on bones these were examined and recorded in further detail.

Throughout the text the common names for species have been used.  A translation of common to Latin names is shown in Table 1, based on Schmid (1972) with additions.

Common Name Latin Name
Cat Felis catus
Cattle Bos sp.
Deer (not identified to species) Cervus elaphus/Dama dama
Dog Canis familiaris
Fox Vulpes vulpes
Horse Equus sp.
Hare and Rabbit (Lagomorphs) Lepus timidus and Oryctolagus cuniculus (Lagomorpha)
Mouse (not identified to species) Apodemus sylvaticus/Mus musculus
Pig Sus sp.
Rat Rattus sp.
Sheep/Goat Ovis/Capra

Table 1: Translation of Latin to Common Names

3       Results

3.1       Species present

A total of 3396 fragments of bone were examined from archaeological contexts as well as 282 fragments from topsoil.  As expected, the most commonly identified bones were those of cattle sheep/goat and pig, with smaller numbers of horse, dog, rabbit, fox, rat and mouse bones.  Cat contributed a large number of bones to the medieval deposits due to the presence of an articulated individual and a number of semi-articulated groups of bones.  In addition to the mammal bones, 62 bird and 6 fish bones were recovered and separated out for specialist analysis.  292 rib fragments and 224 vertebral fragments were also recorded.  Tables 2 and 3.

When the three main meat species are considered, during the medieval phase sheep/goat bones were most common, yielding 103 to 93 countable cattle bones, but by contrast in the post-medieval material cattle bones were more common yielding 133 bones versus 88 for sheep/goat.  In both cases pig was the least common of the major meat species.

Cattle Sheep / Goat Pig Horse Dog Cat Deer Hare and rabbit Fox Rat Mouse Mammal Total Bird Fish
Medieval 95 103 53 6 5 56 1 6 1 2 3 331 46 6
Post-medieval exc. F11 124 82 52 10 16 1 0 0 0 2 0 307 16 0
Med Ditch F30/31 17 9 5 1 0 1 0 3 1 0 0 37 3 1
Med Building 4 3 2 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 10 0 2
Med deposits F21, 22, 24 8 12 5 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 27 14 0
Pit F11 – 17thC 9 6 3 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 20 3 0

Table 2: Number of identified specimens present (NISP)


Sheep / Goat Pig Horse Dog Cat Deer Hare and rabbit Fox Rat Mouse
Medieval 28.7 31.1 16.0 1.8 1.5 16.9 0.3 1.8 0.3 0.6 0.9
Post-medieval exc. F11 43.2 28.6 18.1 3.5 5.6 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.7 0.0
Med Ditch F30/31 45.9 24.3 13.5 2.7 0.0 2.7 0.0 8.1 2.7 0.0 0.0
Med Building 40.0 30.0 20.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 10.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Med deposits F21, 22, 24 29.6 44.4 18.5 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 7.4 0.0 0.0 0.0
Pit F11 – 17thC 45.0 30.0 15.0 0.0 0.0 5.0 0.0 5.0 0.0 0.0 0.0

Table 3: NISP percentage

It was notable that whereas bird and fish elements made up a significant proportion of the total numbers of bones from the medieval phase, they were much less prevalent in the post-medieval phase.  Table 4.  This is of interest since until the fourteenth century the Cistercian dietary rules forbade the consumption of meat by anyone other than those in the infirmary.  After this the rule became more relaxed with meat eating gradually being extended to all members of the community (Greene 1992, 147).  Nevertheless, the number of bird and fish bones was low considering the documented presence of fish-weirs and dove cotes belonging to the abbey in 1380 and the sixteenth century (Stout and Stout n.d., 11, 13) and the presence of the dietary rule.  It may be that excavation in other areas of the site will yield much higher proportions of non-mammal bones.  Taphonomic and recovery factors are important in the preservation of small bones (Hamilton-Dyer 2007, 104-6), so that bird and fish bones are less likely to be identified than those of mammals, however the difference between the two phases is likely to be significant, especially as it is the more recent phase that has less of these delicate bones.

Mammal Bird Fish
Medieval 86.6 12.0 1.3
Post-medieval exc. F11 95.7 4.3 0.0

Table 4: Percentage of elements by taxonomic class

3.2       Spatial distribution of elements

Contexts were divided into groupings depending on where they were present.  The number of bones of each type from each of these areas was then calculated.  Table 5.  From this it can be seen that bird and fish bones were most commonly found in Square B, with area E least likely to yield these species.  By contrast, mammal bones were more common in Square A.  Overall this suggests that the excavation areas closest to the abbey contain more faunal remains than Cutting E, which lies further from the excavated and upstanding buildings.  A more detailed analysis will be conducted in the future when more material becomes available.

Area Mammal Bird and Fish % Bird and fish
A 91 13+2 14%
B 36 14+3 32%
E 26 0+1 4%
A/B 140 15+0 11%
A/E 38 4+0 11%

Table 5: Spatial distribution of different taxonomic classes for the medieval period

3.3       MNI

The minimum number of individuals (MNI) is a statistical technique that identifies the minimum possible number of individual animals that could make up the assemblage.  As such it assumes that carcasses can be distributed across a site so that all features of broadly contemporary date must be considered as a group.  Small numbers of bones of a particular species can also skew the results since even one bone will result in an MNI of one for that species.  For both the medieval and post-medieval periods, cattle make up the largest number of individuals, closely followed by sheep/goat and then pig.  Tables 6 and 7.  This is in contrast to the NISP values which showed that sheep/goat was the most common type of bone identified.  This is likely to be a feature of preservation, since in many cases the cattle bones were highly fragmentary, so reducing the likelihood of positive identification.

Cattle Sheep / Goat Pig Horse Dog Cat Deer Hare / Rabbit Fox Rat Mouse
Medieval 6 5 4 1 1 3 1 1 1 1 1
Post-medieval exc. F11 5 4 3 1 2 1 0 0 0 1 1

Table 6: Minimum number of individuals (MNI)

Cattle Sheep / Goat Pig Horse Dog Cat Deer Hare / Rabbit Fox Rat Mouse
Medieval 24.0 20.0 16.0 4.0 4.0 12.0 4.0 4.0 4.0 4.0 4.0
Post-medieval exc. F11 27.8 22.2 16.7 5.6 11.1 5.6 0.0 0.0 0.0 5.6 5.6

Table 7: MNI Percentage

Since the three most important food species are cattle, sheep and pig, the proportions of these were compared in isolation.  Table 8.  The proportions of the three species stay almost constant between the medieval and post-medieval periods, however the assemblage is relatively small so that these figures are likely to change with further excavation.  At 33% for the medieval period the percentage of sheep is relatively modest.  Values of 40-50% have been obtained at a range of medieval urban sites such as Drogheda and Waterford and at other areas with high levels of Cistercian activity (McCormick 1991, 46; McCormick 1997, 820).  High values for sheep have been linked to the development of a wool export trade, and it is interesting that the values from Bective are modest since the Cistercians have been credited with expansion of the wool trade and selective breeding to improve wool stocks (McCormick and Murphy 1997, 200).

Cattle Sheep / Goat Pig
Medieval 40.0 33.3 26.7
Post-medieval exc. F11 41.7 33.3 25.0

Table 8: MNI percentages of three main meat species

3.4 Survival of elements

Survival of the different skeletal elements was examined by relating the quantity of a particular bone to the MNI for that phase.  Theoretically it should be possible to recover all parts of animals butchered on a site, however, some elements may be used in craft-working, joints of meat may be brought to or removed from the site, soil conditions may lead to differential levels of preservation and butchery techniques and gnawing by animals may result in fragmentation or removal of some elements (Davis 1987, 27-28).  Brain (1967) compared the proportions of different goat bones from the waste disposal areas around a Hottentot village in Namibia and found that the more robust bones survived best, and so would, in time, become part of the archaeological assemblage.  As a result comparison with Brain’s figures allows discrepancies to be examined.

Cattle – For cattle, with the exception of horn-cores and skull fragments, all parts of the carcass are represented and the patterns between the medieval and post-medieval periods are similar to each other.  This suggests that slaughter took place on site rather than prepared cuts of meat being brought into the site, and indicates self-sufficiency.  In both cases the small robust bones of the foot are over-represented compared to Brain’s figures.  This is probably a result of the fragmented nature of the cattle bones, with these elements being most likely to be preserved.  The absence of skull fragments is not significant since teeth from the upper jaw were found as loose items, suggesting that the skulls were present but highly fragmented.  The presence of only a single horncore in the assemblage probably means that these were removed from the site to a specialist horn-worker for use in craftworking.

Sheep – Again, for sheep the patterns of survival for the medieval and post-medieval periods were similar to each other and all body parts were present, indicating on-site slaughter of the animals.  The absence of skull fragments is likely to be for the same reasons as those given for cattle, while, due to their fragility sheep horncores are rarely found in excavation.  One difference from the expected pattern is the post-medieval absence of elements from the hind foot.  These may have been removed with the hides and retained on them to identify the species and to allow for stretching of the hides during processing for leather and sheepskin goods (Cherry 1991).

Pig – For pig the results are again consistent across the two phases of activity and closely follow the results obtained by Brain, suggesting production of pork and bacon on-site.

3.5       Butchery and Craftworking, Burning, Gnawing

Few bones exhibited signs of burning, although a substantial number in F2 were slightly singed, or possibly stained with charcoal, since some parts of F2 overlay charcoal spreads.

Two bones had been gnawed by rodents, one each from the medieval and post-medieval phases.  These support the bone evidence for rats and mice being present in both phases, which can be problematic due to the burrowing nature of these species.  More common was gnawing by carnivores, probably dogs.  Table 9.

Number of gnawed bones
Carnivore Rodent
Medieval 37 1
Post-medieval exc. F11 39 1

Table 9: Gnawed bones by phase

A full analysis of burnt, butchered, worked and gnawed bones will be included in the final report.

3.6       Cattle Data

For both the medieval and post-medieval periods the vast majority of cattle were adults, suggesting that these were aged milk cows and draft oxen that could no longer perform their primary function and so were slaughtered for meat.  This would have been meat of relatively low quality, more suitable for stews than roasting, with only relatively small quantities of prime meat available.

An assessment of ageing by toothwear, metrical analysis and sex determination will be carried out in the full report.

3.7       Sheep data

Interesting differences are apparent in the management of sheep stocks between the medieval and post medieval periods.  In the medieval period there is a peak of slaughter at an age of 15-36 months, suggesting animals killed to produce prime meat, and a further, small peak of older animals, probably aged females that were no longer producing sufficient lambs.  This type of pattern is identified by Payne (1973) as associated with prime meat production.  By contrast, in the post-medieval period the vast majority of sheep were older animals, suggesting a flock managed for wool production.  Flocks managed for dairy products should show females killed in old age with males slaughtered in the first few months.

Again, these results contrast with the expected results given that the Cistercians were renowned for their wool flocks.  One possibility is that in the medieval period the Abbey was running separate flocks with males retained for prime meat and females for breeding and dairy production.  This is a possibility since dairy foods were allowed as part of the dietary rules of the order (deVenuto In press).

A full assessment of ageing by toothwear and metrical analysis will be carried out in the full report.  One of the main uses of metrical data for the sheep/goat category is to identify specimens of goat.  Full analysis has not yet been carried out, however to date two possible goat elements have been identified in the post-medieval contexts F2 and F11.  These are subject to confirmation.

3.8       Pig data

Since pigs are kept only for meat the majority are usually slaughtered as they approach full size, with only a few sows and even fewer boars retained for breeding.  Piglets were normally born during the spring, although this can be increased to twice per year, by careful herd management (McCormick 1987, 103-105).  Compared to cattle and sheep, relatively few females need to be retained for breeding because pigs will produce a litter of eight or ten piglets at a time compared to one or two calves and lambs per year.  In both the medieval and post-medieval periods the age at slaughter of the pigs is consistent with meat production, although the peak of slaughter comes at an older age amongst the post-medieval material.  In addition to the pigs identified by this method, both the phases included very small piglet bones suggesting that animals were reared on-site and died at an early age.

Both male and female pigs were present in the assemblage, although the numbers of sexed teeth are insufficient to make any interpretation of herd demographics.  Table 10.

Phase Male Female
Medieval 2 2
Post-medieval exc. F11 4 0

Table 10: Distribution of male and female canine teeth of pigs

An assessment of ageing by toothwear, metrical analysis and sex determination will be carried out in the full report.

3.9       Minor species

A full interpretation and discussion of the minor species will be undertaken in the final report, however a few items of interest are discussed here.

A small number of rabbit bones were identified as well as some lagomorph bones that could not be split between hare and rabbit.  Given the absence of positively identified hare it is likely that these are rabbit bones.   Rabbits were introduced to Ireland by the Anglo-Normans, and initially were a rare species (McCormick 1991), however many manors established rabbit warrens as a source of meat.  Care must be exercised in interpreting rabbit remains since these animals will readily burrow into existing landscape features such as banks and hill-slopes.

A single fox bone was positively identified.  As well as this a number of bones that could not be split between dog and fox have been included in the dog figures.  Only a very small number of dog bones were found, however the presence of gnawed bones suggests that these were common at the site.

While the field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) has been present in ireland since at least the Mesolithic (Preece, Coxon et al. 1986), rats were probably introduced to Ireland during the Anglo-Norman period since they appear to be absent from Viking Dublin (McCormick 1991).  Both rats and mice are burrowing animals so that care must be exercised in interpreting the presence of these species.  Nevertheless their genuine presence is supported by the finding of rodent-gnawed bones from both the medieval and post-medieval phases.

The remains of at least three cats were found dating to the medieval period.  Cats would have been used to control vermin, but were also a kept as companion animals, calling to mind the cat Pangur Bán who is mentioned in an eighth century poem written by an Irish monk while working in a scriptorium (Stokes and Strachan 1903, 293).

3.10     Pathologies and non-metric traits

A full interpretation and discussion of these will be undertaken as part of the final report.

3.11     Individual features

A number of features were identified by the excavators for specific analysis, however in all cases the assemblages from these were relatively small so that interpretation is difficult.

Medieval deposits F21, 22, 24

With the exception of one element in F22, all the identified elements from this group of contexts were in F21.  A total of 116 fragments were contained in this group, of which 27 mammal bones were identified, there were also 27 vertebral and rib fragments and 14 bird bones.  Sheep/goat was the most common species identified, followed by cattle, pig and two rabbit bones, and a variety of body parts were present.  One of the pig bones was from a small piglet suggesting that pigs were reared on site.  Table A3.

Medieval building F23, F26, F27

This group of contexts yielded a total of 39 fragments of which 10 were identified as mammal elements from cattle, sheep/goat, pig and rabbit, with 11 vertebral and rib fragments as well as two fish bones.  Table A4.

Medieval ditch F30/31

This feature contained a total of 196 fragments of which 37 were identified as mammal bones from cattle, sheep/goat, pig, horse cat, rabbit and fox. In addition there were 28 rib and vertebral fragments, 3 bird bones and one fish bone.  A wide range of body parts were present, and the wide range of species present may suggest both deliberate disposal and potential accidental inclusion of wild material.  Table A5.

17th century pit F11

This feature yielded 81 fragments of bone of which 20 were identified as mammal bones from cattle, sheep/goat, pig, cat and rabbit and from a range of body parts.  There were also 15 rib and vertebral fragments and three bird bones.  Table A6.

4 Discussion

This project provides a unique opportunity to examine the faunal remains from a Cistercian monastery and subsequent secular manor.  Since this is the first year of a multi-year project no detailed comparison with other sites or interpretation has been carried out as this will inevitably be superseded as work continues.  Nevertheless, a brief overview of the dietary rules practised in medieval Ireland and Europe provides a background for an initial interpretation of the material and a number of relevant faunal studies will be introduced.

Different monastic orders had differing dietary rules and these changed over time and varied by country.  In early medieval Ireland the Rule of St Columbanus provided for a diet of ‘vegetables, beans, flour mixed with water, together with a small loaf of bread’ and at Tallaght the diet consisted of ‘bread with a condiment of fish, butter, cheese or hard boiled eggs’ as well as cabbages and leeks served with milk but not butter (Murray, McCormick et al. 2004).  The Carthusian order, founded in 1084, abstained from meat and poultry so that only fish and ‘fish-like’ species such as otters, dolphins and diving ducks could be eaten (Galik and Kunst 2004).  The Cistercians were among the strictest of the orders following the rule of St Benedict, which as practised by them up to the fourteenth century meant that only the sick in the infirmary could consume meat, with the monks and lay visitors being limited to fish, dairy products, fowl and vegetables (deVenuto In press; Ervynck 2004; Greene 1992, 147).  The rule states: ‘carnium vero quadrupedum omnimodo ab omnibus abstineatur comestio praetor omnino debiles aegrotos’ which has been translated as ‘everybody should abstain from the meat of four-footed animals, except the weak and the sick’ (Ervynck 1997)

Ervynck has argued that the dietary rules were a way of creating monastic identity by demonstrating the piety and moderation of the monastic orders as a contrast to a northern European aristocratic ideal which valued gluttonous consumption of large quantities of meat (Ervynck 1997; Ervynck 2004).

Ervynck (1997; 2004) has demonstrated that in Belgium monastic sites from a range of Orders show high levels of fish bones and moderate levels of cattle and sheep bones.  He found that large game was absent and there were very few pig bones.  Even for newly founded monasteries adherence to the rule was often more of an ideal than an actuality, with non-obedience being identified by proportions of mammal bones present.  When a range of excavated sites across Europe were examined it was found that the levels of these species were often too high to be accounted for by consumption by guests or the sick.  Despite the non-observance of the strict rule, the monastic sites of Ename and Brugge in Flanders were characterised by a relatively large proportion of fish bones, varying between 75% and 90% of the identified bones.  Also identified at Ename were the bones of very young rabbits, this is probably because coming from the watery uterus they were considered to be more fish than mammal at that stage of their lives.  At the early medieval monasteries of Iona in Scotland and Ilaunloughan, Co. Kerry, wild foods were important.  Red deer were a key food source at Iona whereas at Ilaunloughan wild birds and fish were more more significant than at nearby secular sites.  Nevertheless quantities of bones from the large domesticates were also identified from these sites, again suggesting that the rules were not always adhered to (Murray and McCormick 2005; Murray, McCormick et al. 2004).  At the Augustinian site of Kells Priory only a very small faunal assemblage was recovered, with McCormick (2007, 478) particularly noting the presence of marine shells at this inland site.  He makes brief comparison with the unpublished assemblage from the Cistercian Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford, which was small, but dominated by sheep, probably as a result of sheep rearing by the Cistercians.

The strict Cistercian rule was gradually relaxed so that meat-eating became extended over time to include the monks and their guests, and by the sixteenth century, meat was commonly served in Cistercian establishments, so that for example by 1520 at Whalley Abbey in Lancashire, England the accounts demonstrate that approximately two thirds of the abbey income was spent on food, including a wide range of meats (Greene 1992, 147).  During the counter-Reformation of the seventeenth century in Europe many orders reinforced their food rules, for example at the Carthusian monastery of Mauerbach in Austria during the seventeenth century the small faunal assemblage was dominated by the bones of fish and fish-substitute species, including tortoises imported from the Mediterranean (Galik and Kunst 2004).  Similarly, in seventeenth and eighteenth century Rome the Carthusian monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli was dominated by otter (53%) and fish (22%) bones with the common domesticates yielding only 15% of the elements identified (deGrossi Mazzorin and Minniti 1999).

During the medieval monastic phase at Bective sheep bones were the most commonly identified species, closely followed by cattle.  When these were converted to the minimum number of individuals cattle yielded a minimum of six individuals compared to five for sheep and three for pig.  Mammal bones were most commonly found in Square A and were less concentrated in Cutting E, further from the upstanding and excavated structures.  The proportions of sheep were relatively modest when compared to locations that have been linked to the wool export trade, a finding that is surprising in light of the Cistercian emphasis on wool production.

Bird and fish bones contributed 13.2% of the medieval material, mostly concentrated in Square B.  This proportion is relatively low when considered in the light of other monastic sites around Europe, however the excavation is still in the initial stages so that this may change, and test excavation in 2006 yielded substantial quantities of bird and fish bones, mainly from soil samples (Stout and Stout n.d., 16).  Taphonomic and recovery factors are important in recovering the relatively small bones of birds and fish (Hamilton-Dyer 2007, 104-6) so that the importance of continuing with fine-mesh sieving of substantial soil samples cannot be overemphasised for the upcoming seasons.

In the post-medieval period cattle were the most common species both by number of elements and by MNI.  Sheep were the second most common species and there are two possible goat bones from this period.  The proportion of bird bones is much less in this secular phase of occupation and fish are entirely absent from the assemblage.

Interestingly, the relative proportions of the three main species change little between the medieval and post-medieval periods, suggesting a continuity of land-use.  Nevertheless, sample sizes are relatively small at this stage and the picture may become clearer with further excavation.

The age distributions of the different species is of interest.  Although results are preliminary they suggest that for both the monastic and post-medieval phases cattle were normally killed as older individuals, suggesting an emphasis on dairy production and the use of oxen for traction.  For sheep, during the medieval period there is an emphasis on the production of prime meat, with animals killed at 15-36 months and a smaller number of individuals, presumably mainly breeding females, being retained into adulthood.  These females would also have provided dairy products so that flocks of both dairy (female) and meat (male) sheep may have been retained.  Again, these results contrast with the expected results given that the Cistercians were renowned for their wool flocks but it is possible that sufficient wool was collected from the flocks to satisfy demand.  By contrast, the post-medieval data suggests an emphasis on wool production.

5       Recommendations and areas of future research

A number of areas of future research and research questions have been raised by this assemblage.

One key question is to examine how the results of the excavation compare with those from other monastic communities both in Ireland and overseas.  This will shed light on the lifestyle of those in the Irish Cistercian order, which has some notably unusual features in a European context, most notably the use of decorative ornament in ecclesiastical buildings.

The relative role of mammal versus non-mammal foods will be an important feature, and it is suggested that any marine molluscs be included with the faunal remains for analysis in future assemblages.  Futhermore, it is suggested that fine-mesh sieving of substantial soil samples should be continued, or if possible expanded in coming seasons as the importance of this cannot be overemphasised for the retrieval of fish bones.

Chronological changes in the diet and in farming practise are of importance in assessing the faunal remains from Bective Abbey, since it has a documented period of occupation of at least 600 years (Stout and Stout n.d.).  The transition from a monastic to secular manor and the effect of this on herd management and on the diet of the inhabitants are of particular significance.  Some preliminary findings have been presented here, suggesting that there were changes of emphasis over time.  Similarly, if sufficient deposits of varying dates associated with the monastic community can be identified then changes in the diet and the stringency of adherence to the monastic dietary rules may be examined, and potentially the use of different parts of the monastery for different groups of inhabitants may be identified.

6       Conclusions

This examination of faunal remains from the first season of excavation at Bective Abbey, Co. Meath has identified the remains of a range of species including the typical meat-bearing domesticates as well as working animals such as cat, dog and horse and some limited evidence for wild species.  In addition a number of bird and fish bones have been separated for specialist analysis.  The assemblage suggests that red meat was consumed at the Abbey, although the extent of this is not yet clear.  There is evidence for change in the human diet and in the management of livestock between the monastic medieval period and the secular post-medieval occupation of the site.

7       Bibliography

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