Archaeologists working in northern England have uncovered a stone-lined cess pit that was filled with dozens of bones from deer. The evidence suggests that they were dumped here by poachers.
The story is revealed in the article “Making a Fast Buck in the Middle Ages: Evidence for poaching from Medieval Wakefield,” by Matilda Holmes, which appears in the recently published book Deer and People. Holmes examines a site near the northern English town of Wakefield, where in 2008 archaeologists uncovered a domed, stone-lined cess pit dating to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Over a hundred bones from fallow deer were discovered in the cess pit, most of which were lower leg bones but also included skulls and antlers. This represented at least 13 animals. Furthermore, by examining the size of the bones, it was determined that these were mostly young deer and fawns that were killed between May and July. Holmes notes that in medieval England, the official hunting seasons for deer took place between late summer and February, in order to protect the animals when they were in midst of their birthing season.
Holmes also noted that the bones deposited in the cess pit were unusual compared to other archaeological sites, as she notes “there are considerably fewer meat-bearing bones, and greater numbers of lower fore leg bones.”
This leads Holmes to conclude:
at sometime during the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the evidence suggests that someone received the poached carcasses of at least thirteen fallow deer, the skins were removed and disposed of and the carcasses cut up and sold on as meat. The highly conspicuous antlers and the lower limb bones which contained little meat or marrow were put into a cess pit and rapidly backfilled to keep the evidence hidden. Those who lived here must have been willing to risk a fine and imprisonment for this act, which suggests they were not above living outside the law.
It is not surprising to find evidence of illegal poaching. Holmes notes that “during the Medieval period restrictions on hunting game, and particularly deer, were not rigorously adhered to, so that by the end of the sixteenth century poaching was rife. Poaching was prevalent amongst the upper classes that did it for sport and social engagement, and the peasant classes who supplied a prolific black market in venison and deer skin. The act of poaching itself was a potent social statement, reflecting an unwillingness of the peasant classes to accept a law that considered wild creatures as possessions of the gentry.”
The article “Making a Fast Buck in the Middle Ages: Evidence for poaching from Medieval Wakefield,” appears in Deer and People, edited by Karis Baker, Ruth Carden and Richard Madgwick and published by Windgather Press in 2014. The book contains 24 articles about deer and how humans hunted and managed them from prehistoric to modern times.
Dr. Matilda Holmes is a consultant archaeozoologist who has written numerous articles and just published her first book – Animals in Saxon and Scandinavian England: Backbones of Economy and Society. You can learn more about her research and services on her website archaeozoology.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @archaeozoology