Vindolanda Roman fort stages chicken history day this Sunday

Universities unveil results of project to trace thousands of years of hens and humans joint history

Chris Radburn/PA Wire Lohman Brown chickens
Lohman Brown chickens

Heard the variation on that old nugget of why did the chicken cross the road?

On Sunday visitors to Vindolanda Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland will be able to find out why the chicken crossed the globe.

The fort near Bardon Mill will be taken over for the day from 10am-4pm for an event which explores how the history of chickens has been tied to that of humans for thousands of years.

At the admission-free event at Vindolanda will be the Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded team running a three-year project looking at the place of hens in human culture.

Recent manifestations range from songs like Lay a Little Egg for Me and Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens, to the film Chicken Run and KFC. There was even a Tyneside band called Last Chicken in the Shop.

Researchers from universities around the country will descend on Vindolanda for family-friendly interactive talks, handling sessions, workshops, art and craft activities and experiments to explain how and why the chicken has conquered the world.

The event is being run in collaboration with HenPower, a project run by North East charity Equal Arts which supports older people in hen-keeping to help tackle loneliness and isolation, and Practical Poultry.

Mike Urwin Roger Goodwin from Eachwick near Ponteland pictured with his hens
Roger Goodwin from Eachwick near Ponteland pictured with his hens

It will make clear the importance of chickens not only for understanding the past but also their role in future human and animal health, well-being and environmental sustainability.

The Government is funding the Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions project - Chicken Coop for short – in which Durham University has been involved .“We’re really excited to present our work to the public at this event at Vindolanda,” says team member Dr Julia Best.

Today, billions of people rely on mass-produced chickens as a source of sustenance. Indeed, 52 billion chickens are consumed annually.

Event organiser Dr Naomi Sykes says: “Why on earth should we care about chickens? They are comical, stupid and their only purpose is to provide us with meat and eggs, right?

“While this may be the common perception of chickens today, it is a very recent attitude. Prior to the 19th Century, chickens were viewed variously as gods, companions, medicine and as the focus of religious and magical rituals.

“The chicken is as much a part of our cultural heritage as Stonehenge, yet few people are aware of it.”

Alongside the archaeological and historical story, the team will show how their findings are of relevance to some of the biggest challenges facing society today, such as food security, antibiotic resistance, biodiversity, health and wellbeing.

Dr Sykes says: “Over the last few hundred years, human culture has forgotten how connected the fortunes of people and animals are.

Some of the chickens at the Hop Garden in High Spen
Some of the chickens at the Hop Garden in High Spen

“Our work, which is examining thousands of years of evidence, is revealing that if you treat animals badly, feed them badly and give them large quantities of antibiotics, you need to expect that this will transfer down the food chain, often with dire consequences.”

Film-maker Danielle Giddens, who is working with both HenPower and the Chicken Coop project, will be running a “chicken booth” at Vindolanda where people can go on camera to talk about their hen stories.

“We are looking for people to tell us their hen tales for this research project on the social history of hens and how people interact with them,” she says.

Chickens are native to South East Asia but today they have a worldwide distribution.

This is almost entirely due to human-assisted transportation and, as such, their natural history is a reflection of human history.

Modern chickens are descended primarily from the red junglefowl.

Members of Chicken Coop are tackling analysis of the diet of ancient chickens, using chemical isotopes in their bones and egg shells, to reveal the resources available to the humans who kept them.

Vindolanda’s Dr Andrew Birley says: “Some of our Vindolanda chicken bones have been analysed and the results are expected this weekend.

“Chickens were big business at Roman forts like Vindolanda, They were considered a luxury food with their eggs consumed by rich families. They also make an appearance in the famous Vindolanda writing tablets, and Vindolanda eggs would have been on the menu when the Emperor Hadrian came to our area to inspect his Wall.”

Chicken Coop project explained

One of the senior scientists on the Chicken Coop project is Dr  Greger Larson, who for six years worked as a geneticist  in the archaeology department at Durham University.

Some of Anne-Marie Trevelyan chickens
Some of Anne-Marie Trevelyan chickens

Dr Larson, who last month left Durham for Oxford University, says that the chickens which would have been running around in Britain a few centuries ago would have been very different from those we know today.

Most would have had grey legs, and not the yellow of today.

“They would have also been significantly smaller and skinnier,” says Dr Larson, who will be at Vindolanda on Sunday.

Dr Larson and his team examined DNA from chickens from archaeological sites across Europe, spanning the period from around 280BC to AD1800 and found that none of the ancient fowl would have had yellow legs. It is only in the last 50 years that chickens with heavy loads of breast meat have been bred.

Dr Larson says that researchers studying domestication tend to overlook chickens in favour of other domesticated animals, such as dogs, cows and pigs.

But no domestic animal has been moulded and remoulded by humans as extensively as chickens, he says.

The animals have been bred for eating, egg-laying and fighting. And in the case of one particularly vocal breed, cockerels have even been strapped to the masts of Indian Ocean boats to act as foghorns.

“Their calls carry a long distance and they like to communicate with each other so you would know where other boats were,” says Dr Larson.

There is archaeological evidence that Vikings prized hens for their eggs, and the same would have been true for most travelling populations.

Eggs keep for a long time without refrigeration and so are a very portable source of food. Hens are also easily transported and controlled.

Dr Larson believes that chickens were domesticated around 6,000 years ago and probably first appeared in Britain 2,500 years ago – to the astonishment of those who saw them for the first time.

The relationship between people and poultry has also changed.

“Today chickens are largely kept together in big barns until they end up in a sandwich,” he says.

“But for most of history everybody would have had their own chickens, which lived closely with people and would often be treated as part of the family.”

Excavations of some Iron Age graves have shown that individuals were buried with their –probably favourite - chicken.

And the higher status the person, the better fed was the chicken, suggesting a close relationship.

“The recent return to popularity of keeping chickens is re-establishing a link which people have had with the birds for centuries,” he says.


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