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9.1.7 Evidence of Butchery

There was plentiful evidence on many of the bones of the types of butchering implements which had been used to prepare the carcasses of cattle, sheep/goats and pigs. As at medieval sites throughout the north-east of Scotland, the main tools used for dismembering animals were axes or cleavers. In general, the use of saws in everyday butchery does not seem to have been at all common, but was reserved for removing particularly valuable parts of the carcass, such as the antlers of deer, or the horn cores of cattle, sheep and goats. Even in the post-medieval period the use of saws was uncommon, and sawn limb bones in an assemblage are usually an indication of a relatively recent date for the material. At the Carmelite Friary, there was no evidence for sawing at any period earlier than the 18th century. Even the most recent phases of the site (including unstratified material) contained little of this kind of evidence; only five instances of sawing were observed from the 18th century onwards. One example, a cattle femur from Phase 5 at 12 Martin's Lane (Context 156), was both sawn across the shaft in a medio-lateral direction while the opposite end was chopped across. Such a bone may have been sawn by the butcher, then chopped by the purchaser before cooking.

Besides the butcher's axe, a further tool which was commonly used was the metal bladed knife; numerous bones bore fine knife cuts, either around the articular ends, on the shafts of long bones and ribs or on the lateral processes of vertebrae. Many of these marks were probably caused by stripping the meat from the bones and properly belong to the last (tertiary) stage of butchery. A good example is an 18th century sheep/goat radius from the Green. Its surface was peppered by at least 35 separate knife cuts made with a very sharp blade (Area H, Phase 10). In a few cases, however, there was some evidence that an axe or perhaps a cleaver, rather than a knife, had been used to strip meat roughly from the bones. A cattle radius shaft with multiple dorso-ventral hacks, which had removed part of the outer surface of the bone, had probably been stripped roughly of flesh by an axe (the Green, Area B, Phase 6). Presumably the resulting filleted meat would have contained many small slivers of bone.

Several deposits of bone from the Green provide particularly good evidence of butchering activity confined to specific locations of the site. Notable in Areas A and B were deposits containing numerous small chips of well-preserved bone. Two 13th-14th century contexts (282 and 291; Phase 4) contained many heavily butchered small bone fragments. Epiphyses of cattle were chopped into small pieces, as were long bone shafts. Two of these shafts showed evidence of knife cuts on their internal trabecular surfaces, indicating that bones were split lengthwise (sagittally) before the marrow was scooped out with a knife. All of the vertebrae, from both large and small ungulates (cattle and sheep) were clearly chopped, most frequently in the median sagittal plane, indicating division of carcasses into sides. Equal halving of the animals was, however, not the only method of carcass division, as the presence of a few vertebral centra chopped along both lateral edges indicates. Chopped lateral processes of vertebrae were also present. One large ungulate vertebra was chopped sagitally as well as twice dorso-ventrally, the effect being to produce a slice of bone highly reminiscent of that found in a modern meat chop (as in a lamb cutlet or a T-bone steak). Evidence that bones from the above two contexts came from the same source was provided by the right fore leg of a pig; the distal epiphysis from the ulna was found in Context 291, while the shaft was recovered from Context 282. It is quite likely that this source was the Friary kitchen.

Another, chronologically later, deposit of bone with very similar characteristics to the 'kitchen' deposit came from Area A, Context 7 AB (15th century, Phase 5). This deposit was also characterised by heavy fragmentation, caused by repeated chopping of both epiphyses and long bone shafts. Good preservation was also notable and small elements of the carcass, such as cattle sesamoids and sheep/goat phalanges, which are often lost during burial and subsequent excavation, were relatively abundant. In addition, a partial skeleton of a foetal piglet was also recovered. Possibly this animal had been served up as suckling pig, a delicacy favoured from Roman times to the medieval period, although as there was no butchery evidence on the carcass, it might have been a natural casualty.

This deposit most probably also originated as kitchen waste, and indicates that meat from beef, mutton and pork as well as from hare was prepared and probably enjoyed at the Friary. Such deposits characterised by the presence of 'butchers' chips' also occurred elsewhere on the site in Phase 5 (e.g. Area B, Contexts 354 GP and 362).

At 12 Martin's Lane, there was perhaps less evidence that butchery took place in particular locations. However, the bones amply demonstrated different stages of the butchering process. For example, a cattle axis chopped medio-laterally across the odontoid process was evidence of removal of the head (decapitation), which usually occurs during the primary fleshing process (Phase 5, Context 295). Next, the lower limbs are often removed. A sheep goat tarsal, an astragalus, was chopped across in a medio-lateral direction, indicating the point at which the lower limb had been removed, just above the proximal end of the metatarsal or cannon bone (Phase 3, Context 157). In most cases, however, sheep lower limbs were probably removed by chopping through the distal end of the tibia, near the joint which articulates with the astragalus. A sheep/goat tibia, for example, bore at least five medio-lateral hack marks near the distal end (Phase 2a, Context 122).

Disjointing of the carcass is a further stage of butchery for which bones provide the evidence. A chip of bone was struck from the posterior face of a cattle patella, probably during the separation of the femur from the tibia (12 Martin's Lane, Phase 2a, Context 109).

Tertiary butchery, the stage at which meat is stripped from the bones, and the bones themselves split open in order to extract the marrow, also left some evidence. Many cattle and sheep/goat bones bore small knife cuts, particularly around the articulating ends, such as a cattle metatarsal with parallel cuts near the proximal end (12 Martin's Lane, Phase 2c, Context 227). Marrow extraction was demonstrated by many long bone fragments which had been split open either sagittally or dorso-ventrally. One cattle tibia shaft from 12 Martin's Lane was split sagittally, then cut again in the medio-lateral plane, the subsequent cut appearing on the internal trabecular surface (Phase 5, Context 162).

Other species besides cattle, sheep/goats and pigs were butchered at the Carmelite Friary: several bones of horse showed definite evidence of man-made cuts and hacks. Butchered horse metapodials were found at 12 Martin's Lane in Phase 2c (Contexts 207 and 215). One example (215) was very cleanly chopped sagittally through the distal articulation and the shaft chopped medio-laterally. In Phase 5 (Context 173/4) a horse humerus was chopped in the sagittal plane. A scapula from Context 167 (associated with SK18) was most revealing, showing at least eight parallel fine knife cuts on the anterior surface of the blade. The cuts ran parallel to the scapula neck and ran from the caudal edge of the scapula towards the spine of the bone. These cuts were probably associated with stripping of the meat from the bone.

However, at the Green, the evidence may point to skinning of horses rather than meat preparation. Here, a horse phalange (toe bone), from an 18th-century layer (Area A, Context 2) bore three knife cuts on the anterior aspect of the midshaft region, while a horse metacarpal (an unstratified find from Area H) had also been cut with a knife on the anterior midshaft. Both bones from the Green could have been cut during skinning out of the hide. These horse bones were otherwise intact and thus were not butchered in a similar way to the cattle, as they had been at 12 Martin's Lane, suggesting that the animals were not prepared as food. Thus butchery of fallen horses at the Carmelite Friary would have had two purposes: hide production and food preparation. Although it cannot be determined with certainty whether the horse meat was intended for human consumption or for dog-food, in times of food shortage, either possibility is likely.

Dog/fox and cat bones were also affected by butchery. At the Green, a butchered humerus, possibly from a fox rather than a dog, bore two deep medio-lateral hacks on its distal shaft, indicating a degree of dismemberment of the carcass (Area B, Context 388, Phase 2a, 13th-14th century). Perhaps the meat may have been used to feed other animals, although if the bone was indeed from fox rather than dog, it would have had a markedly strong flavour. By contrast, knife cuts on a cat skull from the Green may have been associated with skinning rather than meat production. Three parallel knife cuts were situated on the frontal bone of the skull just behind the orbit of the eye (Area H, Context 1138, Phase 5, 13/14th-15th century). Cuts in this position are relatively common in cat skulls of the medieval period and have been noted at sites in Perth (Smith 1998a; Hodgson et al. 2011). These cuts would have been associated with careful skinning of the animal for its fur and probably indicate the point at which the furrier would have stopped his work.


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