Accessibility statement

Livestock and deadstock in medieval towns


The aim of this long-term project is to take forward research into the provision of livestock for medieval towns in northern Europe, the utilisation of those livestock and the products derived from their carcasses, and the deposition of their remains.

Animal bones are a particularly abundant and widespread category of archaeological ‘find’. Excavations in medieval towns commonly accumulate large archives of bones, but much of the published analysis has been at the level of site-by-site ‘bone reports’.

This project sets out to find out more about the animals and their utilisation by medieval people, and to inform future research designs, to make best use of this important material evidence. Zooarchaeology has been preoccupied with animals as dead resources. Important though that is, livestock featured as a part of the everyday life of towns, neighbourhoods and families. 


  • to model in theory, and to validate in practice, taphonomic trajectories of livestock remains in urban deposits; this research is essential, as higher-level interpretation of the data depends upon a clear understanding of assemblage formation
  • to develop an overview of regional and chronological trends in livestock production and exploitation
  • to test the effects of large-scale and long-term regional and historical influences, as against short-term, small-scale agency
  • to investigate regional variation and chronological trends in butchery and carcass utilisation, testing the data against models of resource optimisation and of the influence of ethnic and social identities (status?)
  • to refine the interpretation of urban livestock mortality profiles in order to improve the quality of inferences made about husbandry regimes in rural catchments
  • to examine inter- and intra-population phenotypic and genotypic variation in cattle and sheep in urban samples, using the biometrical size-scaling techniques to make optimal use of incomplete data, and testing innovative biomolecular techniques

Project boundaries

  • chronological – from the archaeologically-problematic 5th-6th centuries through the 16th century to the early modern period, where the documentary record becomes the major source of evidence
  • geographical – the ‘Viking world’ of northwest Europe: east to the Vistula; including the North German Plain, Low Countries, and northern France; Britain and Ireland; and Scandinavia
  • material – primarily animal bones; secondarily other material evidence relating to livestock husbandry, trade, butchery, and economic role; excluding documentary historical sources other than to test specific inferences derived from the archaeological evidence.

Results to date

This project has its roots in research that has gone on in York since the early 1980s, much of it reported in The Archaeology of York vol 15. Recent papers include:

O'Connor, T.P. 2010. "Livestock and deadstock in early medieval Europe from the North Sea to the Baltic", Environmental Archaeology 15(1), 1-15.  This paper sets out to summarise major regional trends across northern Europe, with the particular aim of demonstrating that work published in the early days of urban zooarchaeology can be made to yield useful information.

O’Connor, T.P. 2010. “Animal Husbandry”, Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, D. Hinton & H. Hamerow (eds), Oxford; Oxford University Press; 363-378.  Self-explanatory, with particular attention paid to two regions for each of which we have a number of sites and so information regarding spatial variation in husbandry and diet. 

Hammond, C. and O’Connor, T.P. 2013. Pig diet in medieval York: carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. Online DOI: 10.1007/s12520-013-0123-x.  This paper resulted from a BSc project undertaken by Hammond in which she proved that O'Connor's earlier presumptions regarding the diet of pigs in medieval York were probably wrong. 

O’Connor, T. 2013. Livestock and animal husbandry in early medieval England, Quaternary International,  An overview paper originally written as a conference keynote, emphasising the topics that remains significantly under-researched, and emphasising the contribution that new techniques may be able to make. 






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