Zooarchaeology, Improvement and the British Agricultural Revolution

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This paper seeks to revisit the debate concerning the nature and timing of the British Agricultural Revolution. Specifically, it considers how zooarchaeological evidence can be employed to investigate later-medieval and post-medieval “improvements” in animal husbandry. Previous studies of animal bone assemblages have indicated that the size of many domestic species in England increases from the fifteenth century—an observation that has been used to support the writings of those historians that have argued that the Agricultural Revolution occurred several centuries prior to the traditionally ascribed date of 1760–1840. Here, zooarchaeological data are presented which suggest that the size of cattle, sheep, pig and domestic fowl were increasing from as early as the fourteenth century. However, it is argued that the description of these changes as revolutionary is misleading and disguises the interplay of factors that influenced agricultural practice in the post-Black Death period. This paper concludes with a plea for greater awareness of the value of collecting and analysing faunal data from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to enable the historically attested productivity increases of the traditionally dated Agricultural Revolution to be examined archaeologically.

This paper was originally presented at the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference in November 2004 at the University of Leicester, UK.