Post-Workshop 1 Reflections by “Tyr” Fothergill

Following Workshop 1 (18-19 September 2014), we asked participants to write a summary of their thoughts and reflections on Workshop 1. Below you find “Tyr” Fothergill’s reflections on the two-day workshop.

1. Poultry, Palaeopathology and the Public

As the Palaeopathology Post-Doctoral Research Associate on the AHRC Science in Culture Project: Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions at the University of Leicester, much of my time is currently spent either examining archaeological chicken remains for signs of disease and injury or seeking out reports of pathology in excavated material.

The processes of describing ancient chicken pathologies, attempting to diagnose them and collating or synthesising these data are at the heart of my work on the Chicken Project. Lesions in animal bone are analysed within the framework of zooarchaeology, which is broadly defined as the study of past relationships between humans and other animals. These relationships, and any skeletal signs of injury or disease, are most meaningfully interpreted within the appropriate social and historical context. On the research side, this can often translate into pursuit of diverse lines of enquiry which are seemingly unrelated to archaeology. Positively, many of these approaches are linked to my personal research interests; one specific focus is the link between past animal health and husbandry, which can sometimes be directly connected to the development of certain diseases or high frequencies of injury types. I have researched animal husbandry and agriculture, early veterinary medicine and agrarian history in attempts to contextualise the archaeological evidence of past animal disease as deeply as possible.

The data and interpretations generated by my research are not only intellectually valuable to the zooarchaeological community, but also of potential interest to the public. Research in Translation caught my attention because I wanted to improve my research communication skills and develop a wider profile of impact. I also thought that it would be beneficial to my career. In fact, activities from the first workshop (especially discussing the development and installation of “Qalam: the art of beautiful writing”) have made me realise that engaging with communities outside of academia, sharing and reciprocating knowledge and spurring wider conversations is arguably more important than ensuring that other specialists are aware of my work. In my case, these exchanges would be about the archaeology and history of animal disease and welfare, the link between animal disease and human health and changing human perceptions of animals, all of which have present and future relevance. I have also begun to consider the ways in which I could make accessible guides or “label text” versions of certain pathologies and themes in zooarchaeology.

This is ideal not only with regard to my own research profile, but also within the context of the Chicken Project. Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions was designed from its inception to engage with (and occasionally delight) a dizzyingly broad spectrum of communities ranging from breed specialists, members of the general public, back-garden chicken-keepers, the British Poultry Council, charities, schoolchildren and so forth. I am sure that creating a display for Research in Translation which captures the attention of the public and offers a tantalising, nuanced glimpse of past chicken-human relationships will be challenging but ultimately rewarding.

2. A Challenge I Can’t Refuse

In the process of accumulating archaeological and other evidence with the aim of more brightly illuminating past animal-human relationships, certain challenges have arisen. These include an implicit anthropocentric bias in perspective (the viewpoints and agencies of non-human animals are not common features of most zooarchaeological writing) and a lack of consideration for the role of gender in animal husbandry (narratives of past hunters and farmers interacting with animals only rarely include women). But in researching the past health and husbandry of poultry species, I found that women are a subject which cannot be overlooked: in these Isles, chicken-keeping has, until recently, been considered “women’s work”. Although archaeological portrayals of poultry (especially cockerels) abound, there is little in the way of material culture that is definitively linked to poultry husbandry apart from skeletal remnants. Housing for chickens is often archaeologically ephemeral and highly specialised tools were not required for successful poultry-keeping. Expert knowledge, skills and techniques, however, would have been essential for success, but are not easily traced through the archaeological record. Although I have wanted to communicate the vital contributions of women to the origins of the modern poultry industry and make their overall role in past animal husbandry more visible, I have been at a loss as to how I could accomplish this.

The Research in Translation programme is granting me two important opportunities: 1.) to gain the necessary skills and training which are needed to communicate effectively with the public on my research in an accessible, visual manner, and 2.) the chance to present an exciting aspect of the human past which does not easily lend itself to traditional dissemination within my discipline. In presenting this research, I will use a display to weave together the stories of diagnosed, pathological bones from poultry species and the lives of known, documented individuals in the past by linking poultry health with the innovative husbandry methods used by those specific women. The questions raised by the images of pathological bones can, at least in part, be visually answered by the display showing how three individuals ‘improved’ their poultry.

In reflecting upon the lectures, activities and experiences of the first workshop, the curatorial examples of exhibits which included painstaking care, community outreach and, in more than one case, literal translation, were inspiring and transformative. I am now more confident that (with substantial support and guidance) I could create a display that visually demonstrates the concepts behind the title: “Innovators and ‘Improvers’: Women and Poultry Husbandry AD 1500-1900” in a way which is accessible, meaningful and interesting to a range of audiences. I look forward to the second workshop with great anticipation.

Dr B. “Tyr” Fothergill
Post-doctoral Research Fellow, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester

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