Richard Thomas – zooarchaeologist

My interests in the impact of the Black Death and the 14th-century crises on animal husbandry, diet, and human-animal relations in general, stemmed from my doctoral research (completed in 2002). This research involved the analysis of a large assemblage of animal bones from a castle site located in central England (Dudley Castle), with material dating from the 11th to the mid-18th century. This analysis revealed some major changes in animal exploitation, most especially in the 14th century. Firstly it was apparent that a statistically-significant increase in the size of domestic livestock (cattle, sheep, pig, chicken) occurred in the later 14th century. Other notable changes in this period included increased consumption of wild birds, and altered hunting strategies as the aristocracy sought to maintain social boundaries in the face of social climbers. I have argued that each of these phenomeon reflects socio-economic and environmental consequences of the Black Death (and prior crises of the 14th century). These arguments are laid out in the following publications:

Thomas, R. 2005. Animals, Economy and Status: The Integration of Zooarchaeological and Historical Evidence in the Study of Dudley Castle, West Midlands (c.1100-1750). British Archaeological Reports British Series 392. Archaeopress,Oxford.

Thomas, R. 2005c. Zooarchaeology, improvement and the British Agricultural Revolution. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 9 (2): 71-88.

Thomas, R. 2006. Of books and bones: the integration of historical and zooarchaeological evidence in the study of medieval animal husbandry, pp. 17-26, in Maltby, M. (ed.), Integrating Zooarchaeology. Oxbow,Oxford.

Thomas, R. 2007. Maintaining social boundaries through the consumption of food in medieval England, pp. 130-151, in Twiss, K. (ed.), The Archaeology of Food and Identity. Center for Archaeological Investigations Occasional Publication No. 34,Carbondale.

Thomas, R. 2007. Chasing the ideal? Ritualism, pragmatism and the later medieval hunt, pp. 125-148, in Pluskowski, A. (ed.), Breaking and Shaping Beastly Bodies: Animals as Material Culture in the Middle Ages. Oxbow, Oxford.

More recently, I have begun to further develop some of these ideas. Analysis of pathology in the lower limb bones of cattle, has demonstrated that the cattle of the later 14th-century were being worked much harder than they were in the late-13th-early-14th century and in later periods. Perhaps this was a consequence of the increased demand on cattle for traction following the losses of the cattle panzootic, which resulted in a loss of 62% of cattle in manors in England (Slavin, P., in press. The great bovine pestilence and its economic and environmental consequences in England and Wales, 1310-50, Economic History Review):

Thomas, R. 2008b. Diachronic trends in lower limb pathologies in later medieval and post-medieval cattle from Britain, pp. 187-201, in Grupe, G., McGlynn, G. and Peters, J. (eds.), Limping Together Through the Ages: Joint Afflictions and Bone Infections. Documenta Archaeobiologiae 6: 187-201.

Stable isotope analysis of large samples of cattle and pig bones, is also beginning to support the view that animal diet and management was altered in the aftermath of the Black Death:

Fisher, A. and Thomas, R. in press. Isotopic and zooarchaeological investigation of later medieval and post-medieval cattle husbandry at Dudley Castle, West Midlands. Environmental Archaeology 17 (2)

Hamilton, J. and Thomas, R. in press. Pannage, pulses and pigs: isotopic and zooarchaeological evidence for changing pig management practices in 14th-century England. Journal of Medieval Archaeology 56: 235-260.

Such studies also question the reliability of assuming that stable isotope values in animals are unchanging. This is a critically important consderation for making interepretative sense of isotope values in human skeletal remains.

Most recently I have been involved in a City of London Archaeological Trust funded project which has revealed further evidence for increases in livestock size in the 14th century. When the Dudley Castle data were first published, there were no comparatively early medieval sites in England at which size change in livestock had occurred; the majority of other sites had shown increases one or two centuries later. This  project, undertaken by myself in collaboration with Dr. Matilda Holmes (University of Leicester), and Dr. Jim Morris (Museum of London Archaeology/University of Central Lancashire), has involved a systematic temporal and spatial analysis of archived measurements of cattle, sheep, pig and domestic fowl bones from archaeological sites in London from sites dating 1200-1900. We are currently just writing up the results, but key findings include two phases of size increase in the 14th century, which may well be connected to the impact of the sheep and cattle plagues of the first quarter of the century and an altered agricultural and tenurial landscape in the wake of the Black Death.

Cite this blog post
Richard Thomas (2012, September 17). Richard Thomas – zooarchaeologist. The Black Death Network. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

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