Book Review–Food, Craft, and Status in Medieval Winchester: The Plant and Animal Remains from the Suburbs and City Defences

 Dale Serjeantson and Helen Rees, Food, Craft, and Status in Medieval Winchester: The Plant and Animal Remains from the Suburbs and City Defences. Winchester: Winchester Museums 2009. 276 pp. (PBK) ISBN: 978-0-86135-018-6. £17.00.

The environmental archaeology of mediaeval cities has a somewhat chequered publication history in Britain, where it is nevertheless considerably more established than elsewhere.  A pioneering study of vertebrate remains in Exeter[1] now more than thirty years old, has been followed by volumes focused on York[2] and Lincoln.[3]   Such a small sample can hardly be said to be representative of affairs in Britain, much less in Europe.  In this context, the recent contribution by Serjeantson and Rees occupies an important place in the study of urban society and economic development in Britain, and shows several developments in the subgenre of urban environmental archaeology syntheses.

The first of these developments is apparent from the title; this is the first volume to incorporate plant remains alongside animal in considering the economy of mediaeval cities.  It is not unreasonable to wonder why this has not happened before – surely in considerations of economy, food history or status as represented by diet, all available evidence should be considered together in order to reach firmer conclusions and more substantial  interpretations.  The reason it has not been carried out previously is revealed by a glance at the contents: whereas previous syntheses of this type have essentially been monographs, this is the first to, in effect, have been edited from various specialist reports, with a total of eleven contributing authors.  In addition to providing a more integrated perspective, this approach suggests a solution to the sporadic nature of publications of this type, by spreading the writing responsibilities among more authors.

The book is structured around seven chapters, the first being an introduction which presents a history of the gestation of the volume (Qualmann, pp. 1-2) together with short sub-sections which broach the succeeding individual parts by  situating them within the history and archaeology of Winchester.  This overview of the framework is important not only for understanding the volume but also for cross-referencing, since it is but one in a series of publications concerning the archaeology of Winchester.  The introduction also features a brief overview of the environment, as interpreted on the basis of molluscan remains (Thomas, pp. 5-6).  This is a welcome addition to the usual discussions of vertebrate and botanical remains but it is afforded little room and it is a pity that such an important line of evidence in environmental studies should continue to languish in the shade of its more famous brethren.  The strengths and weaknesses of environmental archaeology in an urban context, particularly zooarchaeology, are also assessed here and are particularly relevant for any non-specialist who may approach the volume.

The six remaining chapters divide the material in such a way that the specialist report parentage of the volume is obvious and it may well prove of more use to other specialists than to those looking for an overview of the development of Winchester, who may wish for a more chronological structure to the book.  Specifically, the chapters deal with the plant remains recovered from excavations in Winchester (F.J. Green), Late Saxon and mediaeval vertebrate remains from the western suburbs (J.P. Coy), Late Saxon vertebrate remains from the city defences and northern and eastern suburbs (J. Bourdillon), mediaeval and early modern vertebrate remains from the same locations (D. Serjeantson and P. Smith), pathologies recorded on sheep bones recovered from the sites analysed above (K.M. Clark) and a general concluding chapter which aims to bring together the various authors’ arguments and contextualise them with comparisons to other cities, some of which were published fully only after the progenitor reports had been written.

The passage of time has been particularly unkind to the chapter on the plant remains.  This chapter is of considerable importance by virtue of its offering a complement to the vertebrate studies.  The analysis offered here was largely carried out in the 1970s, however, and archaeobotanical modelling and statistical investigation have developed considerably since then,[4] as the author admits (pp. 14 and 18).  The various assemblages curated from the sites discussed appear to leave something to be desired in terms of representativeness, with the author readily acknowledging the difficulties presented by differing statuses as well as time depth.  Nevertheless, industrial activity (malting, p.19), exotic food stuffs (lentils, p.19) and unprocessed crops (p.20) were all identified and aid our understanding of life in mediaeval Winchester as experienced by its people.  Indeed, in spite of its shortcomings, Green believes it to be one of the most extensive and consistently excavated archaeobotanical urban collections from Britain and suggests that future recovery efforts should be focused on pits as the most likely sources of useful samples.

Four chapters detail the vertebrate remains, divided both by period and by location; betraying the book’s report-based origins (extensive use is made of the appendices to provide biometrical data and other tables of zooarchaeological analysis figures).  These chapters probably contain few revelations for those who are familiar with mediaeval British urban zooarchaeology, as they follow a similar pattern overall to studies already published for other cities.  Some points are notable, however: a collection of around fifty domestic cats is one of the larger assemblages of this type recovered thus far and for once displays clear evidence of that animal’s use in the furrier industry (Serjeantson, pp.146-149); we also learn that professional butchery became established in Winchester in the Late Saxon period, about the same time as in York (Bourdillon, p. 81).  One of the more contentious revelations is Coy’s identification of hippophagy (long a topic of heated debate in British mediaeval studies) in early mediaeval Winchester (p. 40).  However, the criteria used for this identification is not explained fully; the author opting instead to reference a grey literature report written by herself and Bourdillon in the 1980s[5] where I would have liked to have seen this argument in full.  The other striking find is also reported by Coy (pp. 43-44) that of at least two gyrfalcons and a sturgeon in high mediaeval Winchester; both animals normally reserved, in their different ways, for the king.

This last group of finds helps to illustrate both a particular strength and weakness of the volume: through no fault of the authors, it is concerned with archaeological finds from the suburbs of the modern city.  The sites discussed then are not always truly urban but are instead best referred to as the city’s hinterland, with specific sites varying between a farmstead, an abbey, sites possibly associated with the royal manor and others more likely associated with low-quality housing and industry.  Throughout the book, comparisons are drawn with other mediaeval archaeological sites in Britain of all types – villages, manors and towns.  It is a pity that the archaeology of Winchester city centre remains unpublished, preventing direct comparisons between life in the city proper and its immediate surroundings but the light that this volume has shone on those environs is important in its own right: here is a book specifically examining an aspect of the mediaeval world so often neglected by contemporary chroniclers and modern historians alike.

One chapter stands out from the others as being of perhaps less interest to the general medievalist, but of great interest to zooarchaeologists.  Clark’s chapter describes a thorough examination of two well-known pathologies of sheep bones – ”penning elbow” and horn-core ”thumb-prints”.  Both conditions have been observed by zooarchaeologists for some time now but their precise cause is still debated and this chapter provides an analysis of one of the larger assemblages of either types of pathology to have been published so far.

This book then, is of obvious importance for urban environmental archaeologists but also offers something for the general zooarchaeologist and the medievalist.  Its report-based origins are obvious throughout, and although it is never going to appear on the set-text reading list of undergraduates, it nevertheless provides a valuable contribution to several specialist fields.

Lee Broderick

Lee G. Broderick is a zooarchaelogist and ethnoarchaeologist with extensive experience working on projects in several different countries (for more information  He is currently completing a PhD at the University of York examining the development of cities in Medieval Britain, and their relationship to their regions, using the faunal record from Exeter as a case-study.

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Book Review–Food, Craft, and Status in Medieval Winchester: The Plant and Animal Remains from the Suburbs and City Defences by Lee Broderick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

[1] J.M. Maltby, Faunal Studies on Urban Sites: The Animal Bones from Exeter 1971-1975 (Sheffield: University of Sheffield, 1979).

[2] T.P. O’Connor, Bones from Anglo-Scandinavian levels at 16-22 Coppergate (York: Council for British Archaeology for York Archaeological Trust, 1989); T.P. O’Connor, Bones from 46-54 Fishergate (The archaeology of York) (York: Council for British Archaeology for York Archaeological Trust, 1991); T.P. O’Connor, Bones from the General Accident Site, Tanner Row (York: Council for British Archaeology for York Archaeological Trust, 1989).

[3] T.P. O’Connor and M. Wilkinson, Animal Bones from Flaxengate, Lincoln c.870-1500 (Nottingham: Council for British Archaeology, 1982); K.M. Dobney, D. Jaques, and B.G. Irving, Of Butchers & Breeds: Report on Vertebrate Remains from Various Sites in the City of Lincoln (Lincoln: City of Lincoln Archaeology Unit, 1996).

[4] G. Hillman, Interpretation of Archaeological Plant Remains: Ethnographic Models from Turkey, in W. van Zeist & W. Casparie (eds.) Plants & Ancient Man, Proceedings of the Sixth Symposium of the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany, 1983. (Rotterdam: Balkema, 1984, pp.1-41); G.E.M. Jones, Interpretation of Archaeological Plant Remains: Ethnographic Models from Greece, in W. van Zeist & W. Casparie (eds.) Plants & Ancient Man, Proceedings of the Sixth Symposium of the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany, 1983. (Rotterdam: Balkema, 1984, pp. 43-61); G.E.M. Jones, A Statistical Approach to the Archaeological Identification of Crop Processing Journal of Archaeological Science, 14, (1987) 311-323.

[5] J. Bourdillon and J. Coy, The Animal Bones, in P. Holdsworth (ed.) Excavations at Melbourne Street, Southampton (CBA Research Report 33. London: Council for British Archaeology, 1980, pp.79-121).


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