Feasting on Royal Renders

Dr Julia Best, Lecturer

The crannog in Llangorse Lake is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Wales – as explained in Alan Lane’s post this morning (do go look at it!). It is a unique example of a crannog, which also is able to give us some unique insights into food, feasting and provisioning.  Associated with the kings of Brycheiniog, this short-lived royal site appears to have been in use between 890 and 916 AD. Excavation revealed a rich array of artefacts including 40,679 animal bone fragments. The animal bone was studied by Jacqui Mulville, Adrienne Powell and Julia Best, and is currently the largest (and one of the only) analysed bone assemblage in Wales from this date.

The bone we analysed could also be compared with historical sources such as Cyfraith Hywel (the Law of Hywel). These lawbooks cover everything from hospitality and hunting to punishment and pageantry. Their compilation is often attributed to Hywel Dda (a tenth-century king of Deheubarth), although the earliest physical copies of the texts date from the mid-thirteenth century. Nevertheless they still are a useful reference point as they do appear to contain a good body of earlier material.

So what did we find in the bones? Lots of pigs. Pigs, cattle, sheep/goats (we can’t tell them apart very well by their bones, but we think they were mostly sheep!) are all very well represented, but pigs win the race. No matter which way we count up the bone bits, pigs are most common. This is important as pigs provide no secondary products such as milk, wool or traction – only manure. As such pigs are an animal often raised with the sole purpose of eating them, and these animals can be raised in almost any location and on a diverse range of foods. We also discovered that there is a surprisingly high number of wild animals in the bone assemblage, in particular, red deer, followed by roe deer.

We know from the measuring the pig bones that these are domestic animals rather than wild boars (although there might be one or two hybrid animals!). There are very, very few young animals found at the site (for pigs and for cattle and sheep) indicating that they were probably not being raised there. What we did find is that there is a lot of variation in the size of the pigs at Llangorse, suggesting that they might have come from a range of different populations. Despite this, many of them are quite large indicating that maybe the biggest, most impressive pigs were being brought to the crannog site as a gift or a render of food.

So it looks like we are seeing domestic animals coming into the site from elsewhere, alongside hunted wild animals such as the deer. Interestingly the lawbooks record that food renders were due to kings in Medieval Wales. These were also known as gwestfa (given by free men) and dawnbwyd (given by bondsmen). The age and sex of a required food render animal are specified in the lawbooks (with some regional variations). For example, they say the rendered animals should be animals such as a sow of 3 years, a fat cow, a cow of 3 years, a fat wether, or a 3 year old wether.

Analysis of the Llangorse animals shows that many pigs were indeed killed in their third and fourth year, and that most of them were female. The cattle were significantly older, but again mostly female. Llangorse suggests that the guidelines were sometimes stretched and that payments were made of older, less useful stock, in this case probably exhausted milkers at the end of their useful life. Interestingly, wider lawbooks suggest that female cattle are in their prime until the ninth calf and males until their sixth season ploughing, which does fit rather nicely.

By examining which parts of the body are best represented in the bone assemblage, we have been able to suggest that whilst it looks like sheep entered the site as whole animals/carcases, some of the animals may have been processed differently. Heads and forelimbs are the best represented bits of pigs, meaning perhaps these were the favoured elements brought onto the site, or that maybe the hindquarters were given away as gifts. But most noticeable was the pattern seen in the red deer, where hindlimbs and particularly the bones in the hock are by far the most common.

The lawbooks suggest that hunting, whilst not entirely restricted to the nobility, was highly associated with them. The stag in particular wise a prized kill. The lawbooks record that a quarter of any killed animal was due to the owner of the land where the kill was made, unless it were a king’s hart. We almost did a little dance for joy when we read that whilst this ‘land quarter’ is not detailed in some of the manuscripts, in others it is specified as …. a hindquarter!!!

So perhaps our abundance of red deer hindquarters at Llangorse is a pattern caused by no land quarter being given away from the royal deer. Other privileged joints such as the neck or shoulder may have been distributed from a royal kill to members of the hunting party as a symbol of reward. Alternatively, maybe people were giving this special, favoured hindquarter of the deer to the site’s elite occupants as a gift of honour, or as tribute from kills made on royal land.

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