Department of Archaeology

Beastly Question: Animal Answers to Archaeological Issues

Beastly Question

Naomi Sykes

In archaeology the study of animals (zooarchaeology) is widely considered to be a niche specialism, providing little information beyond ‘what people ate’. This is bizarre given that other disciplines – e.g. anthropology, sociology and cultural geography – recognise human-animal interactions as a key source of information for understanding cultural ideology. The situation is made stranger still by the fact that the archaeological record is composed largely of debris from human-animal relationships, be they in the form of animal remains, individual artefacts or entire landscapes.

This project sets out to demonstrate how animal studies (e.g. the examination of evidence from animal remains, artefacts, texts, iconography, anthropology and cultural geography) can provide vital new insights to understand past societies.

This project is fully-integrated with the teaching of the third-year module of the same name (V63354 Beastly Questions) and a linked book, due for publication with Duckworth in 2012.

Other projects within this theme include:


Living la vida local

In western culture we are perhaps the least well placed to understand past societies. Anthropology is an important tool for broadening our minds and, in an attempt to gain greater insights into human-animal-plant-landscape relationships, we are conducting a one-month experiment where we will live off the produce raised and produced in our local village. You can watch a short film on this experiment on the BBC website. The experiment itself will be documented and the results used as a teaching resource for V63354 Beastly Questions.

Animalscapes and Empire

With funding from the AHRC's Landscape and Environment Programme and in collaboration with the Sussex Archaeological Society this collaborative PhD project, undertaken by Martyn Allen, investigated the Animalscapes of the Iron Age/Romano-British transition: can zooarchaeological evidence inform on if or how the Conquest of AD 43 impacted the way people perceived and engaged with the world around them? Results of this project are currently being prepared for publication.

Wild animals in Farming Societies

Cultural responses to wild animals betray a society’s attitude to the ‘natural world’. In farming societies, hunting is a form of social intercourse through which identity (be it ethnic-, religious-, gender- or status-based) is negotiated. This long-term project is examining how the relationship between humans and wild animals can inform on worldview.

Animal Husbandry and Breeding

No-one would deny that domestication and selective animal breeding were extremely important episodes in human-animal history. However, most interpretations have focused almost exclusively on the economic significance of these ‘revolutions’ rather than what they mean in terms of daily practice, experience and ideology. This project is developing new zooarchaeological sexing and ‘breed’ detection methods to enable more nuanced interpretations of past animal management, and thus past societies.



Sykes, N.J. and Carden, R.F. accepted. ‘Were fallow deer spotted in Anglo-Saxon England?’ Medieval Archaeology.

O’Connor T. and Sykes, N. J. 2010. Extinctions and Invasions: A Social History of British Fauna. Oxford: Windgather.

Sykes, N. 2010. ‘Worldviews in transition: the impact of exotic plants and animals on Iron Age/Romano-British landscapes’. Landscapes 10(2), 19-36.

Sykes, N.J. 2009. ‘Animals, the bones of medieval society’, In Gilchrist, R. and Reynolds, A. eds. Reflections: 50 years of Medieval Archaeology 1957-2007, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 30.

Sykes, N. J., 2007. ‘Taking sides: the social life of venison in medieval England’. In: Pluskowski, A., ed. Breaking and Shaping Beastly Bodies: Animals as Material Culture in the Middle Ages, Cambridge. Oxbow Books.

Sykes, N. J., 2007. ‘Animal bones and animal parks’. In: Liddiard, R., ed. The Medieval Deer Park: new perspectives. Macclesfield: Windgather Press, pp. 49-62

Sykes, N. and Symmons, R., 2007. ‘Sexing cattle horn-cores: problems and progress’. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 17, 514-523.

Sykes, N., White, J., Hayes, T. and Palmer, M., 2006. ‘Tracking animals using strontium isotopes in teeth: the role of fallow deer (Dama dama) in Roman Britain. Antiquity, 80(310), 948-959.

Sykes, N. J., 2006. ‘The impact of the Normans on hunting practices in England’. In: Woolgar, C., Serjeantson, D. and Waldron, T., ed. Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition. Oxford University Press, pp. 162-175

Sykes, N. J. 2006. 'From cu and sceap to beffe and motton: the management, distribution and consumption of cattle and sheep AD 410-1550', in C. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson and T. Waldron, (ed.) Food in Medieval England: History and Archaeology Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sykes, N. J. 2005. ‘The dynamics of status symbols: wildfowl exploitation in England AD 410-1550’, Archaeological Journal 161, 82-105. 



Department of Archaeology

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

Contact details