Chickens from Beyond the Grave

We’re continuing our series of posts this month with a piece by Elizabeth Farebrother, who is currently working towards her PhD at University College London investigating changing animal use in Western Asia during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Here, she shares her MSc research, which was part of the ongoing, multidisciplinary Chicken Project. Thanks to Liz and the Chicken Project Team for contributing!

An Integrated Faunal-centric approach to Stable Isotope Analysis at Wien-Csokorgasse Cemetery   

The integration of zooarchaeological research and stable isotope analysis can be incredibly insightful, allowing us to go beyond traditional research questions, and investigate, where relevant, socially-grounded questions from a scientific perspective. My introduction to the world of stable isotope research came through the AHRC-funded Chicken Project, and my MSc formed part of this ongoing collaborative research initiative to investigate human-fowl interaction.

Belle, a Nottingham local
Belle, a Nottingham local.

Wien-Csokorgasse – an Avar-period (6th-8th Century AD) cemetery site – is located in Vienna, Austria, and was excavated as a rescue operation in the 1970s. Zooarchaeologist Henriette Kroll carried out the faunal analysis for the site, and noted that the deposition of chickens within human burial contexts was both sexually, and hierarchically stratified; cocks were buried with males and hens were buried with females. Significantly, the length of each cockerel’s tarsometatarsus spur also corresponded with the inferred status of the human burial (Kroll, 2013).

Chicken bone is demineralised in order to extract the collagen for isotopic analysis.
Chicken bone is demineralised in order to extract the collagen for isotopic analysis.

To investigate the potential reasons for the inclusion of chickens within burials at Wien-Csokorgasse, carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios from the bone collagen of each bird were analysed and compared with the existing stable isotope study of the humans they were buried with (Herold, 2008). Prospective indicators for dietary differentiation, including biological sex, age, and cemetery chronology were explored. Perhaps the most striking result was the dietary correlation represented by δ15N values. This dietary signature would have built up in the bone collagen over differing life spans between human and chicken. To this end, the data suggest a significant overlapping period of time where each chicken may have lived alongside the human individual they were buried with.

Preliminary carbon and nitrogen isotope results for human burials and associated chickens.
Preliminary carbon and nitrogen isotope results for human burials and associated chickens.

The results of dietary stable isotope analysis were viewed through the lens of anthropological analogy, and interpretation included a diachronic survey of published and grey literature of contemporary bird iconography and bird diet in Europe. This meant that the wider social implications and behavioural patterns amongst the groups who used Wien-Csokorgasse were also considered in the study.


Thank you to all involved in the production of this MSc dissertation. This study would not have been possible without the help and expert guidance of the AHRC-funded Chicken Project, Dr Naomi Sykes, Dr Holly Miller, Dr Henriette Kroll, the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory (BGS Keyworth) and the University of Nottingham.


Herold, M. (2008) ‘Sex Differences in Mortality in Lower Austria and Vienna in the Early Medieval Period’ Doctoral dissertation, University of Vienna.

Kroll, H. (2013) ‘Ihrer Hühner waren drei und ein stolzer Hahn dabei: Überlegungen zur Beigabe von Hühnern im awarischen Gräberfeld an der Wiener Csokorgasse.’ in von Carnap-Bornheim, C., Dörfler, W., Kirleis, W., Müller, J. and Müller, U. (eds.) Festschrift für Helmut Johannes Kroll. Offa 69/70.

Rethinking Mycenaean Economy

Stable isotope analysis in zooarchaeology is an exciting–and growing–research area, with the potential to inform and expand on  a multitude of questions about humanity in the past, present, and future.

Part of the mission of the working group and the purpose of our blog is to share ongoing research in this area with a wider audience. To that end, we’re launching a series of posts on current projects combining zooarchaeology and stable isotope analysis in innovative ways around the world and in all time periods. If you would like to contribute a post on your research, you can email suzanne_birch [at] Comments and questions on posts are welcomed and encouraged!

Our first post is by Gypsy Price, who is currently a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Florida. Her research uses stable isotope analysis to reveal differences in faunal economies in early complex societies, specifically Late Bronze Age (LBA) Mycenae, Greece. Thanks Gypsy!

Faunal Economy at Petsas House

View of Mycenae, with a plan of the citadel and location of Petsas House indicated by the red circle.
View of Mycenae, with a plan of the citadel and location of Petsas House indicated by the red circle.

Five years ago I got involved with the Petsas House Project, a domestic/industrial structure located downslope from the citadel of Mycenae dating to the Late Helladic III A2 (circa 1300 BC). Around the same time I had become increasingly captivated by Galaty and Parkinson’s “Rethinking Mycenaean Palaces” series which critically examined the extent, degree, and manner of economic authority engendered by Mycenaean palaces. Bottom line, the majority of our knowledge about Mycenaean economy is based on Linear B tablets, which are geographically, temporally, and topically restricted: they have only been recovered from a handful of palatial sites, and record only transactions of interest to palatial administration occurring in the months prior to their deposition. As a result, economic models have been constructed from the top down, resulting in a myopic sense of the movement of resources within the larger society and an artificial inflation of the influence of the palace.

Through isotopic survey, we can discern feeding groups that may be indicative of disparities in provisioning or foddering strategies, and patterns of importation of animals. It was here where I realized that the extremely well-preserved and extensive faunal assemblage at Petsas House could offer a unique, micro-scalar perspective on management and distribution of faunal resources in an extra-palatial industrial/domestic context with a palatial settlement. Furthermore, there was an available contemporaneous faunal assemblage which had been previously excavated from the Cult Center, an ideological complex located within the walls of the hilltop citadel.

Gypsy Price with Petsas House materials
Gypsy Price with Petsas House materials.

Thus, with the invaluable support of Dr. Kim Shelton (UC Berkeley) and my committee chair, Dr. John Krigbaum (University of Florida), my PhD research was born. My sample set includes four main species known to have been purposefully managed during the LBA: goat, sheep, cow, and pig/wild boar. I am using carbon (δ13C), nitrogen (δ15N), and oxygen (δ18O) ratios from bone collagen and bone apatite fractions to identify discrete inter- and intra-taxonomic feeding groups. Strontium (87Sr/86Sr) and oxygen (δ18O) isotope ratios from bone and serially sampled teeth are being used to identify season movement patterns and to look for evidence of extra-local individuals which may be indicative of importation. I am currently in the process of interpreting the structured variation in these data to elucidate some of the nuances of LBA Mycenaean faunal economy, allowing us to develop a “ground-truthed” model of management and distribution between disparate sectors of a single LBA Mycenaean palatial settlement for the first time.