Fancy a butchers?

“Bubala! Bubala! Venite et emite bubalam!” Echoes down the streets of Roman London swiftly followed by the sound of a cleaver hitting wood, or so we would like to imagine!

One of the more abundant types of material we collected from our site – after pottery – was animal bone, which can give us an insight into the diet of early Roman Londoners as well as the production of other important commodities.  But how can we tell if an animal was destined for a Roman Michelin-starred restaurant, or to become this season’s must-have handbag? The answer lies in the butchery and processing marks we find on the bones themselves; these can range from rather large chop marks and puncture holes to very fine knife cuts or judder marks made as a knife runs down the bone,  all of which can tell a story.

The assemblage from site has produced many scapulas with a hole punched through the centre of the blade, and no not from over enthusiastic digging! These are thought to have been made to hang the joint of meat, most likely for display in the butchers shop. From others, we have evidence of the chopping off of the scapula spine which creates a larger and un-separated cut of meat, as size was as important then as it is now!

Butchers premises with hanging joints. Ralph Westwood MOORE, The Roman Commonwealth, London, 1943, pp. 81.

Butcher’s premises with hanging joints. Reproduced from “The Roman Commonwealth” by Ralph Westwood Moore

One of the more impressive signs of butchery present from site comes in the form of a large number of articulating groups of spines found dumped up against a timber fence.

A spine against a timber fence (c) MOLA 2014

A spine against a timber fence (c) MOLA 2014

In all, twenty groups of articulating spines were recovered heaped on top of each other. The spines at their longest run from the Atlas (first vertebrae which attaches to the skull) down to the end of the thoracic vertebrae (those to which the ribs attach) and all have been butchered in the same way. All spines exhibit chops either side of the spinal column which results in the effective filleting and splitting of the carcass.

A spine against a timber fence (c) MOLA 2014

That spine is holding me back… (c) MOLA 2014

This type of butchery is achievable quickly and easily by hanging the carcass by the hind legs and chopping downwards towards the head removing the ribs in one go along with their articulation to the spine. The feet may have been removed prior to being hung to easily skin the animal as they went. This whole process is quite physically demanding but requires a lot less actual cutting, speeding up the butchery for an ever-increasing demand.

Cleaver (c) MOLA 2014

Cleaver (c) MOLA 2014

The articulated vertebrae indicate the spines weren’t taken elsewhere for further processing, such as boiling to extract grease. It appears the spines have been simply dumped, perhaps in the butchers’ yard, or just over the fence if the neighbour was particularly annoying.

As work moves forward with analysis more will be understood about these bones, such as the species, and hopefully other equally exciting  butchery practices will come to light.


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