Biological Evidence: The Animal Bone

Claire Ingrem

Methodology | Data | Interpretation and discussion | Conclusion

Animal Bone Tabular Data: PDF (67 KB). References to Tables and Figures in the text refer to this document.

The animal bone recovered from deposits associated with the 'House 1' sequence at Insula IX, Silchester, Hampshire, includes both domestic waste and animal burials, in an assemblage totalling 1,910 identifiable bones. The sequence with animal bone reported here consists of three periods: 2-4. Three timber buildings are associated with Period 2, c. 70/80-125/50 and are numbered according to their location in the north-east, centre or south-west of the site respectively. Timber Building 4, located in the north-east corner of the insula, and two masonry town houses (1-2) are associated with Period 3, c. 125/50-200. A single masonry town house (3) occupied the site in Period 4, c. 200 -250. Additional material of late 1st to mid-3rd century AD date has been recovered from pits and wells elsewhere and will be the subject of a future report.


Anatomical elements were identified to species where possible, with the exception of ribs and vertebrae which were assigned to animal size categories. Mandibles and limb bones were recorded using the zonal method developed by Serjeantson (1996) to allow the calculation of the minimum number of elements (MNE) and individuals (MNI); this is based on the most numerous zone of a single element, taking into account side. Percentage survival of selected elements is based on the minimum number of elements (MNE) calculated as a percentage of the maximum number possible according to MNI. In addition, all bone fragments over 10mm in the hand-recorded material and over 2mm in the sieved samples were recorded to species or size category to produce a basic fragment count of the Number of Identified Specimens (NISP). Fragments categorised as large mammal are likely to belong to horse or cattle, those in the medium mammal category to sheep/goat or pig.

The presence of gnawing, butchery and burning, together with the agent responsible, was recorded. Measurements were taken according to the conventions of von den Driesch (1976) and Bull and Payne (1982) for mammals, and Cohen and Serjeantson (1986) for birds. The wear stages of the lower cheek teeth of cattle, caprines and pig were recorded using the method proposed by Grant (1982) and age attributed according to the method devised by Payne (1973), Legge (1981) and O'Connor (1988). The fusion stage of post-cranial bones was recorded and age ranges estimated according to Getty (1975). Measurements of the crown height of horse teeth were recorded and age estimated according to the method of Levine (1982).

A selected suite of elements was used to differentiate between sheep and goat (Boessneck 1969, Payne 1985), the distal humerus, proximal radius, distal tibia, metapodials, astragalus, calcaneus and deciduous fourth premolar. It is likely that the birds identified as ‘galliforms’ are all domestic fowl. None of the characteristic features of pheasant were present on tarsometatarsi of femurs (Cohen and Serjeantson 1986). Duck have been assigned to species on the basis of size in comparison to reference specimens and using the criteria of Woelfle (1967).

Data [top of page]

A total of 7,730 fragments of animal bone were recovered by hand collection of which 24% are identifiable to taxa (Table 1a). Overall the assemblage is dominated by the remains of domestic mammals – cattle (32%), caprines (29%) and pig (26%) – which are fairly equally represented (Table 1a). Horse (1%) and dog (3%) are present in small numbers. Wild species constitute a small percentage (2%) of the identifiable assemblage but include roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), red deer (Cervus elaphus), hare (Lepus europaeus), mallard (Anas platyrhyncos), woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), pigeon/dove (Columba sp.), jay (Garrulus/glandarius)/jackdaw (Corvus monedula), raven (Corvus corax), thrush (Turdidae spp.) and amphibian. Galliform (2%) is the most numerous bird. A single unidentifiable vertebra fragment belonging to a large specimen is the only evidence for fish.

Soil samples produced an additional 1,693 fragments of animal bone of which four per cent are identifiable to taxa, most belonging to caprines. A narrower range of wild species are represented in the sieved assemblage, with rodent the only addition to the list recovered by hand collection (Table 1b).

Tables 1a and 1b include specimens belonging to partial skeletons or articulated remains which are also listed separately in Table 1c.

Period 2 (c. 70/80-125/50)

Period 2 produced 605 identifiable fragments. According to NISP sheep/goat are slightly more numerous than cattle and pig but this is due to the inclusion of fragments belonging to three partial skeletons (Table 1c). Cattle and pig are almost equally represented according to both NISP and MNI with a minimum of seven caprines, five cattle and five pigs represented (Table 2). The remaining mammal taxa include horse, dog, red deer, roe deer, and hare. Domestic fowl are the most numerous birds (2%) whilst mallard, woodcock, jay/jackdaw and thrush are each represented by a few fragments. The single fish bone came from this phase.

The cattle, caprine and pig assemblages include elements from all parts of the body – head, major limbs and feet (Table 3). According to NISP and excluding the numerous loose teeth, cattle are best represented by bones from the lower limbs and mandibles whereas mandibles and major limb bones (humerus, radius, femur and tibia) are the most numerous caprine elements. Pig bones show a more even representation although metapodials, radii and calcaneum are the most frequent elements. These patterns are supported by MNE calculations (Table 2). The large and medium mammal categories contain a large number of a vertebrae and ribs (Table 3).

Horse is represented by part of a mandible and dog by a radius, ulna and two metapodials. Wild animals are more numerous than the minor domesticates. Several roe deer bones were recovered including two mandibles and also a metacarpal, first, second and third phalanges, which together comprise an articulated foot. Hare bones belong to the forelimb, hindlimb and feet.

Galliform are represented by bones from the limbs, trunk and extremities but cranial bones are absent (Table 4). Several mallard bones – a humerus, radius, ulna and carpo-metacarpus, conceivably belong to the same individual. Similarly, the thrush humerus, a matching pair of tibio-tarsals and a tarso-metatarsus may represent a single skeleton.

Ageing data, particular tooth eruption and wear, is scarce in this phase. One cattle tooth belongs to a young animal with an estimated age of between six and twenty-six months whilst a lower third molar is from an animal with an estimated age at death of between twenty-six and thirty-six months (Table 5).

Epiphyseal fusion data suggest that a large proportion of cattle survived into adulthood (Table 6). Dental data suggest that caprines were slaughtered at various ages with young, immature and adult animals all represented. This is supported by the fusion data which suggests that a third of the population died in their first year and another third had been culled between the ages of one and three-and-a-half years. Dental data provides evidence for the culling of both immature and adult pigs whilst bone fusion indicates that most pigs died before reaching two years. In addition, a few bones belonging to foetal/neonatal lamb/kid and piglet are present. Of five pig canines that can provide an indication of sex, four belong to females and one to a male. Of the two galliform tarso-metatarsals neither has a spur – usually seen only on male birds (Sadler 1991).

Both the condition of the bone (Ingrem 2006) and the frequency of loose teeth (Table 1) suggest that the assemblage has been affected by density mediated taphonomic processes. In order to investigate the effect of this, percentage survival has been calculated for the bones of cattle, caprines and pig (Figure 1) to reveal the extent to which the skeletal elements present are those expected if whole animals were killed and eaten on site (Brain 1969). Some of the densest elements, such as the mandible and distal humerus, are under-represented in cattle suggesting that it is the product of process other than those related to bone density. This suggests joints of meat were purchased (Figure 1a). The caprine assemblage is closer to the pattern expected when bone density is the sole process responsible with mandibles, distal humerii, distal tibiae and proximal radii – all dense elements – best represented. As for pig, relatively dense mandibles and distal tibiae are notable under-represented whilst proximal radii, pelves, calcanea, proximal tibiae and proximal humerii are more numerous than expected, suggesting, as with cattle, that carcasses were bought and heads rarely eaten (Figure 1c).

Surprisingly few bones display evidence for gnawing (Table 9a) with less than one per cent of the identifiable assemblage affected. A small proportion (1%) display obvious butchery in the form of cut and chop marks (Table 9b). Cuts occur on two caprine bones – a femur and an astragalus – and on a red deer metatarsal; all indicative of disarticulation. Most of the other cuts occur on rib fragments assigned to the large mammal category. Heavy chops were seen only on two cattle bones (pelvis and calcaneus) and three pig bones (occipital condyle, humerus and radius), similarly located close to joint articulations. An unusually large proportion of the assemblage (7%) is burnt; but most of the burnt fragments are calcined and are from the caprine cremations discussed below.

Metrical data are given in the appendix and has been compared with measurements held on the Animal Bone Metrical Data Project (ABMAP) ( Most measurements fall within the range recorded for specimens from contemporary sites with the following exceptions: the greatest length of the glenoid cavity of a cattle scapula is slightly smaller by 2.3mm; the breadth of a caprine distal humerus is also very slightly smaller by 0.3mm; two pig radii also have marginally smaller proximal breadths by 0.6mm and 1.3mm; and a cattle metatarsal has a proximal breadth 1mm smaller. Two sheep bones provide an estimate of withers height, a metacarpal suggests a height of 602 mm and a metatarsal gives a similar height of 593 mm (Teichert, in von den Driesch and Boessneck 1974)

Some of the animal bone from this phase came from pits and post-holes but the majority derives from miscellaneous layers, spreads and deposits (Table 10a). There is little variation in the distribution of the major domestic animals according to the type of deposit. All three are most numerous in material from miscellaneous layers, spreads and deposits whilst only very small proportions of cattle and pig came from pits and post-holes. The apparent abundance of caprines in the pits results from the inclusion of the sheep skeletons (Table 10bi).

The relative percentages of cattle, caprines and pig according to spatial grouping (Objects) are shown in Table 11. In the north-eastern area, Room 2 of Timber Building 1 (Object O50030) produced an unusually high proportion of pig bones (53%). Cattle have a particularly high frequency in Period 2 deposits of Timber Building 2 (Object O50017) in the central area. Timber Building 3 (Object O50010) in the south-western area contained a high frequency of caprine bones resulting from the recovery of two partial caprine skeletons

Cremated remains of sheep/goat from shallow pit 6064, Object 50010
Cremated remains of sheep/goat from shallow pit 6064, Object 50010

The percentage of ‘other taxa’ that occur in the various Objects, including both minor domesticates and wild animals, are given in Table 12. More than half of these specimens, including the roe-deer foot, came from Timber Building 2, and a third came from Timber Building 1, Room 2 (Object O50030).

Roe deer foot bones
Roe deer foot bones

The partial skeletons belonging to two caprines came from two small pits (C5589 and C6062) in Timber Building 3. Both comprise charred and calcined remains so have been burnt at temperatures exceeding 600ºC, suggestive of cremation (Shipman 1988; David 1990). Immature caprine humerus and pig metapodial specimens were among the contents of a placed pot (FSF03729) within another pit (C6602) in the same building. A pit in Timber Building 1, Room 1 (C6030) produced the partial skeleton of a sheep.

Partial skeleton of an immature sheep from pit 6030 C4111 Articulated Roe Deer foot
Left: Partial skeleton of an immature sheep from pit 6030
Right: C4111 Articulated Roe Deer foot.

The roe-deer foot referred to earlier and the matching pair of thrush tibio-tarsals came from a levelling layer in Timber Building 2 (C4111).

Several contexts produced bones belonging to foetal/neonatal animals including three caprine specimens from Timber Building 1, Room 2 (Object O50030): a pelvis from context C5872, and a radius and scapula from context C5340. A lamb or kid metatarsal came from context C5427 in Timber Building 2, Phase 3 (Object O50034). Timber Building 3 (Object O50010), context 6093 produced a piglet pelvis. All of the foetal/neonatal bones came from layers or spreads of material and do not appear to come from burials or articulated joints.

Period 3 (c. 125/50-200)

The assemblage from the 2nd-century town houses and Timber Building 4 is slightly larger than that recovered from the earlier phase, comprising 813 fragments. Cattle (36%) are the most numerous taxa with caprines and pig almost equally (26%) represented according to NISP (Table 1). However, cattle and pig are each represented by a minimum of eight individuals and caprines by only six (Table 2). The presence of goat is attested by a horncore. The remains of other taxa again make up only a small proportion of the assemblage with dog (3%) the most numerous. Other differences between the two periods in terms of taxa representation include the absence of red deer and the presence of pigeon/dove and raven (Table 1).

The few fragments of horse that were recovered derive from the head, forelimb and hind foot. Cattle are represented by elements from all parts of the body (Table 3b). In general the calculation of MNI confirms this pattern but with mandibles slightly less frequent (Table 2). Caprines and pig are also represented by elements from all parts of the carcass. As in Phase 1, fragments assigned to the large and medium mammal categories contain rib and vertebra fragments. Several bones that conceivably represent a partial dog skeleton were recovered from Timber Building 4 (C4151) and a forelimb came from Masonry Building 1 (C4152). All of the other dog remains came from Timber Building 4; they include two bones from a small dog the size of a fox (Clark, pers. comm.).

Of the wild animals, roe deer are represented by bones from the head (including antler), forelimb, fore and hind feet. Hare bones are from the head, fore and hind limbs.

Apart from a duck sternum and a woodcock coracoid, all of the bird specimens are limb bones (Table 4b). Galliform is represented by both fore and hind limbs as is woodcock, while the three raven specimens are from the leg. Mallard and pigeon are represented by just one fragment each.

Ageing data is slightly more numerous than in Period 2. A single horse tooth provides evidence that the animal was older than 18 when it died (Table 5b). Dental data from cattle are scarce but provide evidence of the death of both immature and adult animals. The larger sample of data obtained from epiphyseal fusion indicates that while a small proportion of cattle were culled between one and three years of age, most survived into adulthood (Table 7a). In contrast, dental and epiphyseal data indicate that most caprines were slaughtered when aged between two and four years (Tables 5b and 7b). According to the small sample of dental data, most pigs were adult when slaughtered but again, this contradicts the larger sample of fusion data which indicates that pigs were generally culled between the ages of two and three years (Table 7c). A few bones belonging to foetal/neonatal piglets are also present. An unfused proximal humerus is from a dog less than fifteen months old (Silver 1969; 285). Male and female pigs are equally represented, by three canines each. The single galliform tarso-metatarsal does not have a spur.

The frequency of loose teeth and general condition of the bones again suggests that the assemblage from this phase too, has been affected by density mediated destruction. Comparison with Brain's goat data, however, indicates that density is not the only factor affecting bone survival (Figure 2). Many of the densest cattle elements are well represented, although mandibles are less numerous than expected (Figure 2a). As in Period 2, the caprine assemblage adheres more closely to Brain's data (Figure 2b). In respect of pig, mandibles are better represented in this phase (Figure 2c).

Evidence for gnawing is again scarce (Table 9a). A small proportion of the identifiable assemblage exhibits clear evidence for butchery in the form of cuts and chop marks, with cut marks more numerous than chop marks and mostly occuring around joint articulations (Table 9b). Caprines and roe deer exhibit only cut marks.

Most measurements fall within the range recorded for specimens from contemporary sites except for a cattle metacarpal whose distal breadth is smaller by 2.4mm, and a caprine metacarpal with a proximal breadth smaller by 0.4mm.

Almost two-thirds of the assemblage came from miscellaneous layers, spreads and deposits (Table 10a) with most of the remainder derived from floors and occupation deposits (Table 10a). The major domesticates display a very similar pattern with regard to their distribution in the various deposits (Table 10bii). In respect of spatial distribution, the relative percentages of the major domesticates are similar with the exception of Masonry Building 2 (Object O50019) which, produced a particularly high proportion of cattle fragments (Table 11). Most of the ‘other taxa’, including all but three of the dog bones (Table 12), came from Timber Building 4 (Object O50037).

Several dog bones, including a pair of tibiae, were recovered from an occupation layer (C4151) in Timber Building 4 and probably represent a partial skeleton. It is also conceivable that the three fragments of dog recovered from a clay floor in Masonry Building 1 (C4152) belong to a single animal. A few foetal/neonatal piglet bones were recovered and include a tibia from an accumulation layer (C3858) in Timber Building 4 (Object O50037); a humerus and pelvis from the clay floor (C4152) and another tibia from a band of clay (C3247) in Masonry Building 1 (Object O50018)

Period 4 c. 200-250

Period 4 deposits produced a total of 502 identifiable fragments. The NISP and MNI figures are again slightly contradictory. According to NISP, caprines (36%) are the most numerous taxa even when a partial skeleton is discounted. Cattle (29%) and pig (24%) are fairly evenly represented. MNI also shows sheep/goat as the most numerous taxon with a minimum of seven individuals whilst cattle and pig are represented by a minimum of four and five individuals respectively (Table 2). Horse, dog and domestic fowl continue to be present in small numbers. The range of wild animals is narrower than was observed for the earlier, Period 2 with only roe deer, duck and woodcock represented.

As in earlier phases, although there are few bones of horse, the head, forelimb and hindlimb are all represented (Table 3c). The three major domesticates continue to be represented by elements from all parts of the body. The metatarsal is the best represented cattle element (Table 2b). Both methods of quantification indicate that caprines are best represented by mandibles, radii, tibiae and metacarpals. The mandible is also the best represented pig element. At least two dogs are represented, one of which is again fox-sized, but exhibit a slight degree of torsion (bowing) and are therefore assigned to dog (Clark, pers.comm). As in earlier phases, a considerable number of rib and vertebra fragments are assigned to the large and medium-mammal categories.

The greatest length of the duck humerus indicates that it belongs either to teal (Anas crecca) or garganey (Anas querquedula).

A single horse premolar indicates that the animal was aged between six and seven when it died (Table 5c). Cattle teeth indicate the consumption of both immature and adult animals. All of the cattle bones that provide fusion data are fused except for two metatarsals that are evidence for the death of at least one animal below three years of age (Table 8a). Ageing data for caprines is contradictory; most of the caprine mandibles and loose teeth belong to animals that died after reaching three years of age whereas bone data suggests that a considerable proportion of caprines were culled in their first and second years (Table 8b). Two caprine bones belong to foetal/neonatal animals. All four pig molars are from adults although bone fusion data again show that most pigs were under three years of age when slaughtered (Table 8c). Five pig canines provide an indication of pig sex, three belong to males and two to females. Of three galliform tarso-metatarsals, one has a spur.

Again, loose teeth are fairly numerous, suggesting that density-mediated taphonomic processes have played a part in assemblage formation although clearly other factors have also had an effect. Percentage survival of cattle bones shows distal tibiae, distal metatarsals, the calcanea and first phalanges to be notably over-represented compared with elements of similar density. On the other hand, proximal metacarpals and proximal and distal femora are relatively scarce (Figure 3a). In respect of the caprine assemblage, proximal and distal metacarpals and distal radii are notably over-represented whilst distal humerii, scapulae, pelves and astragali are under-represented (Figure 3b). Density is clearly not the only factor that has affected the pig assemblage either as relatively dense radii and ulnae are clearly under-represented compared with the less dense pelves, calcanea, proximal tibiae and distal femora (Figure 3c).

As in previous phases only a small proportion of the assemblage displays gnaw marks (Table 9a). Evidence for butchery is visible on a few bones belonging to the major domesticates. Cut marks are again more numerous than chops but both types occur on the three main taxa and most are associated with disarticulation. A few fragments assigned to the small and medium-size mammal categories are burnt (Table 9c).

All measurements are within the range recorded for specimens recovered from contemporary sites.

A single structure, Masonry Building 3 (Object O50046) occupied the site during the third century phase (Table 10a). As in earlier periods, most of the assemblage derives from miscellaneous layers, spreads and deposits within this structure. A partial sheep skeleton (see below) was recovered from a pit. Almost a fifth of the assemblage came from ‘other’ deposits which include robber trenches, walls and slump deposits. The largest concentrations of animal bone came from two clay levelling deposits (C3396, C4454) that produced 165 and 88 identifiable specimens respectively; pig is the most numerous species in both.

Several deposits are worthy of note. This includes the partial skeleton of an immature sheep, aged between twelve and twenty-four months, recovered from a shallow pit (C2006). Several cattle foot-bones that might represent the disposal of feet came from an occupation deposit (C2471) and a robber trench (C3636). A number of small dog bones came from a clay levelling deposit (C3396) and are probably all from a partial skeleton.

Partial skeleton of an immature sheep from pit 2006 Dog bones from context 3396
Left: Partial skeleton of an immature sheep from pit 2006
Right: Dog bones from Context 3396

In addition, another levelling deposit (C4454) produced a scapula and metacarpal belonging to a foetal/neonatal caprine.

Interpretation and discussion [top of page]

There is some variation in the frequencies of cattle, caprines and pig throughout the sequence but in general the major domestic animals are fairly evenly represented. When differences in body size are considered it is likely that most of the meat eaten was beef, with pork probably consumed more often than mutton. Sample sizes from House 1 are fairly modest but there is a clear contrast with the Late Roman assemblage (Ingrem 2006) from Insula IX, which was dominated by cattle. The material has more in common with assemblages recovered from Early and Mid-Roman (Periods 4, 5 and 6) deposits in the Forum Basilica although even here cattle were slightly more numerous (Grant 2000, 426). At Exeter, Maltby (1979) has shown that frequency of taxon varies according to location within the Roman town and it is probable that much of this variation results from differential butchery and disposal practices (Maltby 1985a). Other previously excavated Early Roman deposits at Silchester suggest that the first stages of cattle butchery took place on the outskirts of the town with the waste discarded in ditches (Maltby 1984), a practice that would result in the deposition of relatively fewer cattle bones in central areas and would account for the relatively few cattle jaws in the 'House 1' sequence.

Relative frequencies of the major domestic animals are generally believed to reflect settlement type and the degree of ‘romanisation’. Highly romanised sites tend to be dominated by cattle and pig, while native, rural settlements are more often associated with a high proportion of caprines (King 1992). The proportions of caprines in the House 1 assemblages is high but nowhere near as high as those seen at rural Iron Age sites in Hampshire: at Danebury (Grant 1984) sheep/goat account for over sixty percent of the Late Iron Age assemblage and at Winnall Down (Maltby 1985b) they comprise almost fifty per cent of the Middle Iron Age assemblage. Consequently, in terms of cattle and caprine representation, the 'House 1' material displays patterns midway between those generally associated with native and highly romanised sites. If, as Hamshaw-Thomas (2000, 168) believes, changes in taxa frequency are the result of the general economic intensification of agriculture, the animal bone from House 1 may reflect an early stage in this process.

The relatively high incidence of pig throughout the House 1 sequence is interesting because of the contrast with both the Insula IX Later Roman phase (10%) and the rubbish deposits from the town defences (Maltby 1984). This does not appear to reflect continuity with the Late Iron Age as pigs are not generally as numerous on Iron Age sites in this region. Grant (2000) also notes the existence of an unusually high frequency (24-26%) of pig bones in Early and Mid-Roman deposits at the Forum Basilica at Silchester and suggests that pigs were bred to supply the towns. An abundance of pig remains at sites such as Skeleton Green, Essex (Ashdown and Evans 1981) and Fishbourne, Sussex (Grant 1971), is associated with high status and wealth during the Iron Age and Roman periods. More recently, Grant (2002) suggested that the high proportion of pig from the Basilica area at Silchester is 'confirmation of the importance and comparative wealth of the settlement'. Given its role as an indicator of status and wealth, the high frequency of pig in Early Roman (Period 2) deposits from Room 2 of Timber Building 1 (Object O50030) might reflect the importance of the inhabitants, or the occurrence of feasting.

Major meat-bearing bones belonging to cattle are fairly well represented throughout the sequence, which implies that good-quality meat was eaten in House 1. However, the presence of cattle lower-limb bones is an indication that poorer cuts of meat were also consumed and it is possible that, as was suggested for Exeter (Maltby 1979), all parts of the carcass were distributed to the town's inhabitants. It may be that the servants ate the less desirable parts of the carcass such as cattle brains (Serjeantson, pers comm.). A scarcity of mandibles suggests that joints of beef were imported in all periods and joints of pork in Period 2 and perhaps Period 3 also. In contrast, caprines were brought to the site whole. Other anomalies in terms of body-part representation indicate that bone survival is not solely density-dependant; human activities such as butchery, disposal practices, industrial processing and perhaps also ideology are also likely to have played a part in determining which bones survive.

The small sample of cattle mandibles and loose teeth indicate that some animals were slaughtered for meat before reaching adulthood but cannot provide detailed information on husbandry practices beyond the town. The larger sample of epiphyseal fusion data suggests that throughout the sequence most cattle survived into adulthood and that secondary products such as milk, blood, traction and manure were more important than the production of high quality meat. At the Forum Basilica, the Period 5 and 6 assemblages similarly consisted mainly of adult cattle (Grant 2002), a pattern commonly seen throughout the Roman period and thought to reflect the organisation of cattle marketing (Maltby 1981, 182).

During Early Roman Period 2 the caprine-age profile suggests a mixed economy in which animals were slaughtered at various ages in order to provide a range of products - good quality meat, milk, wool and manure. During Period 3, a peak in slaughter between the ages of two and four years of age is evident and suggests a more focused strategy aimed at the production of mutton from animals that had previously produced several clips of wool. An increasing emphasis on secondary products, not only wool but probably also manure, is suggested by the increasing age of caprines in Period 4. In the Basilica area, caprines from Period 4 and Period 5 were also killed at a wide range of ages and in Period 6 most of the animals were slaughtered after reaching skeletal maturity (Grant 2002). This pattern is not confined to Silchester, Romano-British deposits at Winnall Down (Maltby 1985) and Balksbury (Maltby 1995) have both produced a higher proportion of older caprines than their Iron Age counterparts and according to Maltby (1981b) the culling of caprines for meat when they were approaching full size is a feature of many Roman assemblages. The presence of foetal/neonatal caprines is evidence that animals were raised locally and it is possible that the household was engaged in sheep-rearing outside the town. This would account for the relatively high frequency of caprines, the whole carcasses and the sacrifices (Serjeantson, pers. comm.).

Inconsistencies between the pig dental and bone-fusion data render interpretation of age profiles problematic, although clearly both immature and adult pigs were slaughtered throughout the House 1 sequence. The sample of canines on which the sex ratio is based is fairly small but the proportion of boars to sows may have increased over time. In the Basilica area most Late Iron Age and Early-Roman pig canines are from boars, a pattern Grant (2002) sees as indicative of a consumer economy whereby towns are supplied with surplus males from local farms. That pig-rearing took place locally during both phases of the Early-Roman period is indicated by a few bones belonging to foetal/neonatal piglets in the House 1 sequence. No such evidence is associated with the Mid-Roman occupation which may be due to the importation of pigs or pork, but equally it may be a consequence of poor preservation associated with young porous bone.

The similarity between the assemblages recovered from the 'House 1' sequence and the Basilica area (ibid) extends to wild animals - roe deer, red deer and hare. They were occasionally hunted and eaten, though clearly made only a small contribution to the diet. It would seem that hunting took place for occasional sport rather than as an activity which produced meat, but the fact that game is present at all is suggestive of a romanized household (King 1991).

Most of the poultry eaten was domestic fowl although the 'House 1' sequence had fewer chicken bones, and fewer cocks than the Forum Basilica (Serjeantson 2000). Locally caught wild fowl – duck and woodcock, typical game birds of the period – were also hunted and eaten. Pigeons and thrushes are often found living around human habitation sites and their presence in the 'House 1' sequence may be either incidental or the result of their being caught and consumed.

Raven on the other hand had symbolic associations and was not considered suitable as food. Green (1992, 126) suggests that ravens and crows were seen as “messengers from the Otherworld because of their black plumage and habit of feeding off dead things”. At Jordan Hill, Weymouth the remains of ravens were found set between tiles in a dry well associated with a Romano-Celtic temple (Green 1992, 104). The articulated remains of a raven were also recovered from Late Iron Age (Period 3) deposits at the Forum Basilica and interpreted by Serjeantson (2000, 485) as a deliberate deposit. In this instance, without contextual evidence to suggest otherwise, there is no reason to assume that the few raven bones recovered from Period 3 floor contexts are anything other than the result of natural fatality and accidental incorporation, or bones from a commensal bird.

Horse remains are generally scarce on Roman urban settlements but more numerous on rural sites such as Barton Court Farm (Wilson 1986) and Winnall Down (Maltby 1985b). In Britain this has been explained by Maltby (1994; 89) as the result of an increased emphasis on the acquisition of beef by the urban population, while horses were kept and later disposed of at rural settlements. In the Netherlands the military and native populations disposed of horses in different ways. Horses were buried inside native settlements but not at military sites (Lauwerier 1999). No evidence of butchery is visible on the horse bones from the House 1 sequence although the occasional consumption of horsemeat in the town, is attested by a cut-marked humerus from the Forum Basilica (Grant 2002, 467). Lauwerier (1999) suggests that horsemeat was the subject of taboo in the Roman military world but not among the native population. If the European evidence applies to Britain then the low proportion of horse remains seen at Silchester may reflect the romanization of the town, where a taboo against horsemeat was already in existence.

Horse remains have been associated with foundation deposits during the Roman period (Luff 1982, 190) and are commonly found in Iron Age deposits where the skulls in particular are believed to have a symbolic association (Grant 1991). According to Green (1992, 98), one way of minimizing economic loss was to bury deposits consisting of parts of animals rather than whole carcasses, consequently ritual sacrifices and offerings need not consist of entire carcasses. In graves, individual bones such as a tooth, a toe, or a mandible have been interpreted as the symbolic representation of the animals concerned (ibid, 108). In the 'House 1' sequence a few of the horse remains from Periods 2 and 3 came from occupation deposits, walls and gullies. The possibility therefore exists that even these isolated bones might represent symbolic offerings. However, without firm evidence for deliberate placement, it is equally plausible that the equid remains result from more routine disposal practices.

Dogs are common components in Roman assemblages and were kept for hunting, guarding and perhaps as pets; it is also possible that feral dogs lived nearby in order to take advantage of the rich pickings offered by human habitation sites. The fact that few bones show signs of dog gnawing suggests that bone waste was not generally available to scavengers.

Throughout the 'House 1' sequence there is evidence to suggest that animal carcasses were disarticulated by cutting through the soft tissue surrounding joint articulations. This is a similar pattern to that seen on Iron Age sites and contrasts with the Late Roman assemblage which had suffered a much higher incidence of butchery, with limb bones chopped through in a manner suggestive of intensive processing (Ingrem 2006). The increased ratio of chop to cut marks in Period 4 compared with the Early Roman Period 2 assemblage suggests a move away from the Iron Age tradition, toward more romanized practices involving the use of metal chopping tools.

In addition to the more mundane animal bone there are the deposits of a rather unusual nature already described. The cremated remains of two caprines found in shallow scoops on the periphery of Timber Building 3 are not the only placed deposits recovered from shallow pits on the edge of the south and south-east side of this Period 2 structure; others include the remains of a human neonate and the intact lower half and joining fragments of the upper half of a Silchester ware vessel. The deliberate placement of the cremated caprine remains alongside other rather unusual deposits is suggestive of a sacrifice. This can be difficult to identify, especially if followed by consumption, but it is documented in the Roman period at temple sites such as Uley (Grant 2002; Levitan 1993), and should not be discounted as an explanation for the deposits in Timber Building 3.

The only other deposits worthy of mention here are the probable burial of an immature sheep burial from a pit in Room 1 of Period 2 Timber Building 1 and the partial skeleton of another from a pit of Period 4. All of the other articulating remains derive from layers and spreads and are therefore less likely to have ideological associations. Burials of domestic animals and articulated remains are not unusual on sites of Iron Age and Roman date but their interpretation, particularly those from Iron Age sites, has been controversial (Grant 1984; Wilson 1996; Wilson 1992; Hill 1995). Ethnographic studies have since led to much wider acceptance of the possibility that disposal of animal skulls, skeletons and articulated remains were intrinsically linked to ideology (Szynkiewicz 1990; Tambiah 1969; Wilson 1999). In the absence of contextual evidence to suggest otherwise, the circumstances surrounding the deposition of the unburnt partial skeletons from the House 1 sequence are uncertain and it may be that they simply reflect routine activities involving the disposal of old or sick animals that had died of natural causes.

Conclusion [top of page]

The animal bone assemblage from the 'House 1' sequence displays clear similarities with contemporary material previously recovered from the site of the Forum-Basilica at Silchester.

Taxa frequency, age profiles and butchery all suggest that the diet and economy of Roman Silchester developed from its Late Iron Age origins. Evidence for economic intensification is suggested by the age profiles of the cattle and caprine population although the reliance on beef had not yet reached levels seen in the Late Roman period. The possibility that Insula IX was home to people of some wealth and importance is suggested by the frequency of pig bones and the presence of hunted species. Previous excavations have indicated that the characteristics of animal bone assemblages vary according to the area of the town from which they are recovered, so it will be interesting to compare the evidence from the 'House 1' sequence with the entire Early and Mid-Roman assemblages recovered from Insula IX as well as those from other areas and phases at Silchester as a whole. As excavation progresses and further assemblages of animal bone become available for study, spatial and temporal comparisons will continue to shed light on social, economic and cultural practices at Silchester.


I am very grateful to Kate Clark for examining some of the dog bones and Dale Serjeantson for commenting on the text.


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Last updated: Wed Sept 12 2007