Saturday, 20 September 2014

Rabbits and hares abound

I was in Cirencester again the other week, showing off this lovely market town to family - as you do! An important ancient Roman settlement in the rolling Cotswold Hills of conquered England, Cirencester sat at an important intersection of painstakingly constructed, long distance Roman roads.

What we noticed was that hares abounded - literally - in classy shop windows and in sophisticated courtyards. These hares were big - about 5 feet high - and beautifully decorated in a variety of styles to complement the elegant model. I remembered that other hares, now missing, had been much in evidence on a previous visit Easter to Cirencester, part of a town-wide charitable sponsorship event.  

But why hares you may ask? Well several important mosaics have been unearthed within the remains of excavated Roman villas, municipal bath houses and the like in Cirencester’s environs. One of the most impressive mosaics, discovered during town centre redevelopment in the 1970s, features a lovely hare. I think therefore we have the answer to our hare question.
 The Corinium Hare, a Roman mosaic 
Members of the biological family Leporidae, early Roman hare and rabbit husbandry involved keeping them in “lepotaria” or walled gardens on villa estates. Here they happily reproduced and were periodically caught using ferrets, to be served up as gourmet dishes. Romans believed that the meat of the hare helps to preserve beauty, the Emperor Alexander Severus 222-235 AD ate it every day!

MedievalMorsels models one inch scale dolls house miniatures
12th scale rabbits on butcher's block
In Medieval times  in Britain the Roman practice continued at least as far as rabbits were concerned. Walled and paved courtyards forcing them to breed above ground. However it is unlikely that hares, which do not burrow, continued to be kept in this way. Records, such as they are, from earliest Medieval times hares were considered game to be hunted.

Pre-dating the Romans, Greek hunters on the island of Crete trained fast, slender greyhounds to hunt their hares. Apparently the Greeks enjoyed hare plainly spit-roasted. Back in 350 BC Archestratus, the Greco-Sicilian father of gastronomy and author of one of the world’s first cookbooks, stated “the true gourmet is he who is not disgusted by an undercooked hare”. Sounds like a dish that would divide opinion even today!

 MedievalMorsels models one inch scale rabbits set on medieval butcher’s blocks. Dollhouse food that will equally suit Tudor, Gothic or rustic miniature settings.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Breaking news. Neanderthals ate roast pigeon!

Neanderthal man’s eating habits, as well as his cave art, hit the headlines this summer in the UK and further afield. New discoveries made on the edge of Europe, from sea caves at the foot of the Rock of Gibraltar, have literally been ground breaking in academic circles. Published results have shed new light on aspects of Neanderthal life, challenging previously held assumptions.

The Rock of Gibraltar rising to 1396 feet, Africa in the distance

 Now I have a family connection to Gibraltar and have visited many times. So I have been eagerly  awaiting the results from the most recent archaeological excavations. Okay, you may say, but surely Neanderthals’ diets from tens and even hundreds of thousands of years ago cannot be directly compared to a Medieval diet enjoyed between 500 - 1500 AD? Well surprisingly the two do have foods in common - including pigeon, quite possibly “roasted”.


Perhaps this is all the more surprising because Neanderthals, who became extinct about 39,000 years ago, are not even our direct ancestors!!  Homo sapiens is in fact the ancestor of Modern Humans, not our hairy Homo neanderthalensis. Neanderthals were in fact only distant cousins of modern humans, reaching Europe from Africa some 300,000 years ago before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene


Being brainier and thus more readily able to adapt to changing environmental conditions, Homo sapiens in fact contributed to Neanderthals’ eventual extinction. Actually Gibraltar, situated on the edge of Europe and presently facing Africa across just a few miles of water, is a plausible candidate as the last stronghold for Homo neanderthalensis as a species. Hunted to the point of extermination, or gradually dying out "naturally" alone in all the world - either way its a sad end of the line for this ancient ancestral hominid. 


So lets get back to that, possibly, roast pigeon! The 70,000-year-old charred bones of Gibraltar’s Gorham’s Cave  have many cut and tooth marks and conclusively show that rock doves - the ancestor of all today’s pigeons - were a favourite caveman delicacy. The research team speculates that a moderately skilful climber would have found it easy to snatch 'squabs’ (young birds) from their nests. Even though it must be admitted  by those familiar with the Rock, that Gibraltar has some mighty sheer cliffs that would have certainly been off limits to scramblers.  And probably a little vertiginous and exposed for the rock doves too!


One inch scale Medieval/Tudor dollhouse food - roasted pigeon

In medieval times pigeons were raised in pigeon houses and dovecotes, or in specially constructed niches in the castle walls. Pigeon eggs would rarely be eaten but instead fattened squabs, fed by industrious parents foraging nearby, would
Barbary Partridge - a native bird of Gibraltar
be harvested
 during the long breeding year. Meat destined for the pot, pies, spit-roast or the street brazier.  Medievalmorsels 

12th scale miniature food - roast partridge

has modelled roasted pigeons, as well as other small birds such as the partridge. Gibraltar, by the way, is also home to the Barbary Partridge, more commonly found in North Africa, which is featured on its coinage.


Earlier  research from the Gorham’s cave caves showed that fish, dolphin, monk seal and mussels, as well as many types of bird, were eaten by Neanderthals. Again, not so different the Medieval diet which certainly did include plenty of fish and shellfish, as well as birds of all types, and dolphin and porpoise but probably not the feisty seal!

One last gem from Gorham’s cave.  Announced just last week (2nd September) to the world's press is the oldest known example of abstract art - a series of criss-crossed lines cut into stone, looking not unlike a noughts and crosses  (tic tac toe) board or, in more modern parlance, a hash-tag! Previously Neanderthals were considered incapable of abstract thought and expression. So now archaeologists admit they must redefine their perception of Neanderthal culture - even though the art is difficult to interpret.

 A last thought. Which is more civilised? A tribal society of non-modern humans who share all the foods they gather or hunt?  Or a society of modern humans living some 300,000 to 40,000 years later in Medieval times, who use access to food to shore up their power base - passing divisive legislation so that only a chosen few, the nobility, are allowed to eat the “best”, most refined and rarest foods?

This very morning (8 September 2014) on BBC Radio 4 the ancestry of ancient humans and the relationship of Homo sapiens to Homo neanderthalensis was being discussed. How nice to be on trend even when talking about old bones!