Ducks and geese have been hunted by people for mil-
lennia and husbanded for centuries. Though they only
rarely reached the economic importance of the domestic
fowl, the domestic forms of these birds have represent-
ed for many societies a useful and occasionally impor-
tant source of meat, eggs, feathers and companionship.
The story of their relationship with people is, however,
still very incompletely understood, partly because these
‘minor’ domesticates are rarely mentioned in historical
documents, and partly because it is very difﬁ cult to at-
tribute goose and duck bones found in archaeological
sites to their domestic or wild forms.
In this paper the relative frequency of duck and goose
bones found in archaeological sites of Roman and me-
dieval times in Britain will be discussed. No attempt is
made to discriminate between different wild species of
ducks and geese or between wild and domestic forms
of these birds. This might be attempted on the basis of
biometrical and genetic evidence (Reichstein & Pieper
1986; Barnes et al. 1998), but it would require a major
re-analysis of a large number of archaeological assem-
blages, which is beyond the aims of this research. The
evidence concerning the abundance of these birds in
animal bone assemblages will rather be interpreted on
the basis of what we know about the status of wildfowl
hunting and husbandry from the onset of domestica-
tion up to the period discussed in this article.
Alternate fortunes? The role of domestic ducks and geese
from Roman to Medieval times in Britain
Department of Archaeology, University of Shefﬁ eld, Shefﬁ eld, United Kingdom
Abstract / Zusammenfassung
Zooarchaeological evidence indicates that birds played a smaller role in the economy of Roman than medieval
Britain. Ducks are more common than geese in Roman sites while the opposite is the case for the medieval period,
the change occurring soon after the end of the Roman period (i.e. the Anglo-Saxon period in England). Documen-
tary, iconographic and archaeological evidence from inside and outside Britain indicates that while the goose was
probably already domesticated by the 3rd millennium BC, a proper system of duck husbandry was only developed
rather late and was not yet fully in place by Roman times. Bearing in mind the higher frequency of duck bones in
Roman Britain, we must conclude that in this country goose husbandry was also little developed and that all anatid
bones found in British Roman sites probably derive from wild rather than domestic birds. Goose husbandry in-
creased in importance in medieval times but most duck bones found in this period may also be wild, particularly
in the earlier part of the Middle Ages.
Archäozoologische Daten belegen, dass zur Römerzeit in Britannien Vögel eine geringere wirtschaftliche Bedeu-
tung besaßen als im Mittelalter. In römischen Fundplätzen sind Enten häuﬁ ger dann Gänse nachgewiesen, während
im Mittelalter das Umgekehrte zutrifft, wobei diese Veränderung kurz nach dem Ende der Römerzeit (d.h. in der
angelsächsischen Periode in England) erfolgte. Urkundliche, bildliche und archäologische Belege in England und
außerhalb deuten darauf hin, dass während die Gans bereits im 3. vorchristlichen Jahrtausend domestiziert gewesen
sein könnte, die Entenhaltung sich deutlich später entwickelte und zur Römerzeit kaum etabliert war. In Anbetracht
der größeren Häuﬁ gkeit von Entenknochen im römischen Britannien ist davon auszugehen, dass in diesem Land
die Gänsehaltung ebenfalls kaum entwickelt war und dass alle Knochen von Entenartigen in Britisch-Römischen
Fundstellen am Ehesten den Wild- statt den Haustierformen zuzuordnen sind. Die Gänsehaltung nimmt im Laufe
des Mittelalters an Bedeutung zu, die meisten Entenknochen aus dieser Periode stammen jedoch weiterhin von
Wildenten, insbesondere in der frühen Phase des Mittelalters.
Keywords Goose, duck, Britain, Roman, medieval, husbandry, fowling
Gans, Ente, Britannien, römisch, mittelalterlich, Tierhaltung, Vogeljagd
2005. Documenta Archaeobiologiae III. Feathers, Grit and Symbolism (ed. by G.Grupe & J.Peters), 249-58
250 Umberto Albarella
The archaeological evidence for
Roman and medieval Britain
In comparison to the medieval period, bird bones from
Roman sites in Britain are infrequent. It is difﬁ cult to
provide quantitative data in support of such assumption,
due to the problem of comparing relative frequencies of
bird and mammal bones between assemblages that may
have had very different taphonomic histories. Differ-
ences in the rate of recovery of bone remains from ar-
chaeological sites can in particular bias our view of the
relative abundance of mammals and birds. Despite this
problem it is still of interest to note that in a selection of
45 Roman assemblages (1st to 5th cent. AD) from cen-
tral England with a total number of identiﬁ ed specimens
(NISP) greater than 500, bird bones represent on aver-
age 3.6% of the total of mammal and bird bones, where-
as this ﬁ gure raises to 7.1% in an equivalent sample of
medieval assemblages (5th to 13th cent. AD). To reduce
the effect of differential recovery only hand-collected
assemblages have been considered.
Having seen that birds may have therefore been more
important for the medieval than the Roman economy, we
must now investigate what was the role of geese and
ducks in these two main periods. For this analysis sites
of the late medieval period have been excluded, as they
are regarded as less comparable to Roman sites due to
the major changes in agriculture and husbandry that oc-
curred after the 13th century (Langdon 1986; Dyer 1989;
Albarella 1997; Davis 1997; Davis & Beckett 1999).
The analysis focuses mainly on central England as a case
study. It is assumed that this area may be representative
for the whole country, though regional differences can-
not be ruled out without undertaking a full analysis of
the evidence from other parts of the country. Since the
information was collated from many different reports
we must interpret the use of the terms “ducks” and
“geese” very broadly. No attempt was made to discrimi-
nate between wild and domestic forms as in site reports
these are generally rather arbitrarily identiﬁ ed, with little
or no backing of morphological or genetic evidence.
Whenever bones of goose species of the genus Branta,
duck species of the genus Aythya or other less common
genera had been identiﬁ ed, these were excluded from
the quantiﬁ cations. This is because they can be morpho-
logically distinguished – though not always easily – from
the main genera Anser (goose) and Anas (duck), which
include the domestic forms. The teal (Anas crecca), be-
ing rather common, and easily identiﬁ able on the basis
of its small size, has also been excluded.
In Fig. 1 the proportion of Roman and medieval sites
from central England where duck and goose bones
have been identiﬁ ed has been plotted. Most assem-
blages have produced remains of both taxa, though as-
semblages with duck but no goose bones are almost
exclusively found in the Roman period – geese there-
fore seem to be ubiquitous in medieval, but not in Ro-
In Fig. 2 the assemblages that produced bones of both
genera are analysed in greater detail by looking at the
relative proportion of the two taxa according to the num-
ber of identiﬁ ed specimens (NISP). For a few sites (right
side of the diagram) quantiﬁ cations were not available
from the original reports. In some assemblages geese
and ducks are equally common, but in most one or the
other of the two taxa is predominant. The duck-domi-
nated assemblages are almost exclusively Roman,
whereas the goose-dominated assemblages are almost
exclusively medieval, with a striking difference between
Fig. 1: Sites with goose and duck remains in Roman (n=58) and medieval central England (n=97) (only hand-collected).
only goose only duck both
Sites with goose and duck remains in Roman (n=58)
and medieval central England (n=97)
2005. Documenta Archaeobiologiae III. Feathers, Grit and Symbolism (ed. by G.Grupe & J.Peters), 249-58
Ducks and Geese in Roman and Medieval Britain 251
the two periods. As only hand-collected assemblages
have been selected some under-representation of the
bones of the duck compared to the larger goose should
consequently be expected. It is, however, worth men-
tioning that in the four Roman bone assemblages recov-
ered through sieving duck was always predominant.
Conversely, the only four medieval assemblages that
were collected by sieving were all goose-dominated.
Therefore the evidence from sieved samples conﬁ rms
that from the hand-collected material, though the num-
ber of sites involved is much smaller.
Since a difference between Roman and medieval peri-
ods has been highlighted we must wonder when such a
switch in attitude towards bird exploitation occurred.
The ‘medieval’ period, as considered here, encompass-
es as many as nine centuries, and the evidence produced
so far cannot tell us whether the change occurred soon
after the end of the Roman period or later. The evidence
for Anglo-Saxon sites (5-6th to the ﬁ rst half of the 11th
century) is rather scanty, but it indicates (Table 1 & Fig.
3; from various areas in the country, not just central
England) consistently that geese were far predominant
over ducks already at the onset of this period, as is evi-
dent at early Saxon West Stow.
We can therefore conclude that:
• Bird bones – including those of geese and ducks –
are uncommon in Roman sites from Britain.
• When present, ducks tend to be predominant in Ro-
• From Anglo-Saxon times onwards goose bones be-
come much more common and they are far predom-
inant over ducks.
We must now wonder what is the nature and signiﬁ -
cance of this variation between periods. Two main hy-
potheses can be raised:
1. In Roman times there was a preference for duck
breeding and in medieval times for goose breeding.
2. Most (or all) ducks and geese from Roman sites are
in fact wild, i.e. breeding of these birds was not
In the rest of this article I will discuss which of these
two hypotheses provides the most likely explanation.
In order to do so, we must however take a broader look
at the general issue of the origins and development of
goose and duck domestication and husbandry.
Domestic goose: early history
The Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus) was tamed
and possibly domesticated in Egypt in the 3rd millen-
nium BC, but no domestic specimens of this species
seem to have survived to modern days (Boessneck 1960;
MacDonald & Bench 2000). Kear (1990, 23) suggests
that the disappearance of the Egyptian goose as a farm
bird coincides with the Persian conquest of Egypt in the
6th century BC.
The common domestic goose, nowadays found across
the world, derives from the greylag goose (Anser ans-
goose pred. duck pred. = ?
Fig. 2: Predominance of either goose or duck in Roman (n=25) and medieval (n=58) sites with bones of both (only hand-col-
Predominance of either goose or duck in Roman (n=25)
and medieval (n=58) sites with bones of both
2005. Documenta Archaeobiologiae III. Feathers, Grit and Symbolism (ed. by G.Grupe & J.Peters), 249-58
252 Umberto Albarella
er), and, due to its pink beak, more likely from its east-
ern (A.a.rubirostris) than western (A.a.anser) subspe-
cies (Harper 1972; Crawford 1984; Kear 1990).
We are not sure about where and when the ﬁ rst domes-
tication of the goose occurred, but Old Dynastic Egypt
seems to be a likely candidate. An Old Kingdom bas-
relief from the 5th dynasty (2723-2300 BC) shows
some anatids – probably geese – being force-fed by
humans (Houlihan 1997, ﬁ g. 98). This in itself does not
prove domestication because a crane – a wild bird –
also represented in the same depiction as being stuffed.
The Egyptians are known to have force-fed hyenas too
(Boessneck 1960; Zeuner 1963) and seem to have ex-
perimented with the domestication of a variety of spe-
cies today regarded as exclusively wild. More persua-
sive evidence of the domestication of the goose in the
Old Kingdom derives from a number of representa-
tions illustrating a diversiﬁ cation in goose coloura-
tions – a phenomenon typical of the domestication
process. In addition, some of these birds are depicted
as being conﬁ ned in poultry yards, kept in cages, being
herded (Boessneck 1988) and laying eggs (Kear 1990).
By the 18th Dynasty (1450-1341 BC) such evidence is
so abundant that there can be no doubt that the goose
was by that time fully domesticated (MacDonald &
Zeuner (1963) reports that in ancient Mesopotamia
geese were kept in herds and were used for sacriﬁ ces
and food, but this does not necessarily prove domestica-
tion and in any case he does not provide any speciﬁ c
dates for these activities. The existence of pottery mod-
els of geese (and ducks) in Shan China (3rd-2nd millen-
nium BC) led Watson (1969) to suggest that domestica-
tion in that region was almost beyond question, but this
is plainly not the case as the models are equally likely
to represent wild birds.
Crawford (1984) thinks that goose domestication prob-
ably originated in southeastern Europe around 3000
BC, but provides no data in support of such hypothesis.
The earliest reliable evidence of domestic geese in Eu-
rope derives from the Odyssey (MacDonald & Bench
Fig. 3: Percentage of goose and duck bones in Saxon sites in England (all hand collected).
Table 1: Number and relative proportion of goose and duck bones at a number of Anglo-Saxon sites in Britain.
% of goose and duck bones in Saxon sites in England
(all hand collected)
Ducks and Geese in Roman and Medieval Britain 253
2000) and is therefore much later, dating back to the ﬁ rst
half of the 8th century BC (Powell 1991). In the Odyssey
Penelope refers to twenty geese about the house that ate
mash out of a trough, and of which she is exceedingly
fond (Homer, Odyssey, Book XIX 536-7). It is possible
here too that the birds mentioned were merely tamed but
bearing in mind the earlier domestication of the goose
in Egypt and the close relationship existing between the
Aegean and Egyptian worlds, full domestication of
these birds seems to be more likely.
By Roman times goose husbandry had become well es-
tablished and there are a number of indications that it
must have had a long history behind it. The ﬁ rst is that
a number of domestic goose varieties are clearly identi-
ﬁ able, with a mottled type regarded as being difﬁ cult to
tame and a much more valuable white type considered
as being more productive and easier to keep (Varro, Re-
rum Rusticarum Book III, X [1st cent. BC]; Columella,
De Re Rustica Book VIII, XIV [1st cent. AD]). While
Columella recommends breeding large white geese, a
small white German variety seems to have been espe-
cially prized for its feathers (Pliny the Elder, Naturalis
Historia Book X, XXVII [1st cent. AD]). Pliny reports
that another goose breed originating from Gaul could be
driven from its native country to Rome – a truly remark-
able feat that makes one wonder about how much fat the
birds would have lost on their way. Goose husbandry
also seems to have been intensiﬁ ed, as Columella indi-
cates that domestic geese could lay eggs as many as
three times a year (as opposed to the wild goose which
only nests once a year), as long as the job of hatching
the eggs was taken over by hens – a practice that he
Columella encourages the breeding of geese particu-
larly because of its low cost, but undoubtedly the Ro-
mans also valued geese for the variety of products and
services that they could offer. Judging from its single
entry in Apicius’ book of recipes (De Re Coquinaria
Book VI [1st cent. AD]) goose meat was probably not
commonly eaten, yet it was certainly produced, as Var-
ro suggests starting fattening the goslings when they
are about one and half months old. Perhaps more prized
were the eggs (Zeuner 1963) and the liver, as the rather
cruel practice of stufﬁ ng geese in order to enlarge these
organs was already reported by Roman authors, such as
Pliny. Goose fat was apparently used in Syria for med-
ical purposes (Pliny Book X, XXVIII). Both Columel-
la and Pliny emphasise the importance of goose down
feathers, which would be used for cushions and uphol-
stery (Crawford 1984). The birds can be plucked twice
a year with no need to kill them. Another important
service offered by geese was as guards, for which they
were apparently even better than dogs (Columella
Book VIII, XIII; Pliny Book X, XVI). The reputation
that geese had for keeping a watch undoubtedly stems
from a famous episode dating back to 390 BC. Appar-
ently Rome had been taken by the Gauls, and the cack-
ling of the geese on the Capitol awakened the Romans
just in time to save the Temple of Juno from the ene-
mies’ attack (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Liber V, XXXVII
[1st cent. BC]).
The importance of geese for ancient human societies was
not exclusively economic. In different times and regions
these birds were regarded as sacred or were at least as-
sociated with particular gods. In Roman Egypt the goose
was sacred to Isis and Osiris (Toynbee 1973, 263),
whereas in Asia Minor and Greece it was mainly associ-
ated with Aphrodite (Zeuner 1963). There exists, for in-
stance, a 5th cent. BC Greek representation of Aphrodite
riding a goose. In Roman Italy the divine associations of
geese are not in continuity with the Greek tradition as the
bird was instead regarded as sacred to Priapus, a god of
fertility (Zeuner 1963). It is because they were also sa-
cred to Juno that the Capitoline geese were not eaten by
the starving Roman army under siege from the Gauls
(Toynbee 1973) – a worthwhile sacriﬁ ce as the alertness
of the geese eventually saved them from being slaugh-
tered and the temple of Juno from being sacked.
There is very scanty documentary or iconographic evi-
dence for the use of geese in pre-medieval Britain,
though Caesar’s statement that the native population of
Britain regarded it unlawful to eat geese and chickens
but liked to keep them for pleasure (De Bello Gallico
V.12 [1st cent. BC]) has been much quoted. Caesar’s
knowledge of Britain was certainly limited and though
his observation is of interest it should not be taken at
face value. Butchery marks found on domestic fowl
(Gallus gallus) bones from archaeological sites almost
contemporary to Caesar’s visit of Britain indicate that if
such a taboo ever existed it can not have been strictly
applied (Albarella in press).
The association of the goose with religious symbolism
can be found in later Roman times in Britain and is
likely to have no links with the way these birds were
perceived in the pre-Roman Iron Age. North of the Alps
the goose came to be associated with Mars, the god of
war, perhaps because the Capitoline event led this bird
to symbolise the alertness of the soldier (Zeuner 1963).
This symbolism seems to have been imported to Britain
by the Germanic tribes who were part of the Roman
army that invaded the island. An example of the expor-
tation of this ideology to Britain is represented by the
existence of an arch from the Roman Fort of House-
steads, on Hadrian’s Wall, showing a relief of the war-
rior god Mars Thincsus with a goose at his feet (Fig. 4).
This forms part of a temple erected in the 3rd century
by Frisian soldiers (Crow 1995). Toynbee (1973) men-
tions the existence of a similar representation on an altar
also found at Housesteads. Though the goose may have
254 Umberto Albarella
had some religious signiﬁ cance, the evidence from Ro-
man Italy indicates that the bird could be consumed
despite any possible association with various divinities.
Probably only speciﬁ c ﬂ ocks of birds kept in sacred ar-
eas, like the Capitoline geese from the Temple of Juno,
could not be touched or eaten.
From this brief excursus on the early practices of goose
husbandry we can therefore conclude that:
• Geese are likely to have been ﬁ rst domesticated in
the 3rd millennium BC.
• The Romans already practiced a rather advanced
system of goose breeding.
• The situation in pre-Roman Britain is uncertain but
goose breeding – if practiced at all – must have been
Domestic duck: early history
If the history of goose domestication is incomplete and
partly enigmatic, that of the duck seems to be immersed
in even greater obscurity. The wild ancestor of the Euro-
pean domestic duck is the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos),
which is widespread throughout the northern hemi-
sphere. There is therefore little opportunity to detect
duck domestication on the basis of human induced colo-
nisation of new areas not occupied by the wild ancestor.
Clayton (1984) reports the claim by Yeh of a 3000 years
old domestication of the duck in China, but it is not clear
on what evidence this suggestion is based. Further claims
by Zeuner (1963) of the existence of a centre of domes-
tication in Asia are only based on the variety of duck
breeds existing in this part of the world. Though there is
an abundance of iconographic representations of wild
ducks in ancient Egypt it does not seem that any of the
ancient civilizations of Egypt, the Levant and Mesopo-
tamia ever domesticated the duck (Zeuner 1963; Clay-
ton 1984; Kear 1990). Unlike the goose, domestic ducks
do not seem to have been known in ancient Greece ei-
ther, and Pollard (1977, 65) reports that “the Ancients,
for some curious reason, all but ignored the ducks”. The
fattening of wild birds kept in captivity (Clayton 1984)
is a possibility but full domestication did not seem to
have occurred in these early times.
It is arguable whether the ducks that the Romans cer-
tainly kept in captivity were fully domestic or simply
tamed. Writing in the 2nd century BC Cato does not
mention ducks among a number of birds – including
geese, chickens and pigeon squabs – recommended for
fattening for the market (Harper 1972). Varro (Book III,
XI), however, does provide detailed information about
how to build a duck farm and how to feed ducks kept in
captivity. For our understanding of the status of these
birds our best source is Columella (Book VIII, XV),
who suggests that a programme of duck breeding should
be started by collecting eggs from wild birds and then
letting them to be hatched by hens. Apparently the ducks
then lose their wild status and will then carry on repro-
ducing under human control, though Columella does
not state whether these tamed ducks would then hatch
their own eggs, or it would still be necessary to rely on
hens on which the ducks had originally been imprinted.
What Columella describes seems some form of domes-
tication, albeit in its primitive stage, but it is revealing
that he suggests a similar system of breeding for birds
that we regard as fully wild, and these are translated by
Harper (1972) as being teals, coots and partridges. The
balance of evidence therefore seems to indicate that the
Fig. 4: Arch from the Roman Fort of Housesteads, on the Hadrian’s Wall (Britain), showing a relief of the warrior god Mars
Thincsus with a goose at his feet.
Ducks and Geese in Roman and Medieval Britain 255
Romans were not yet in full control of duck husbandry
and this goes some way in explaining why in the book
of recipes of Apicius (VI) duck meat is rather oddly not
distinguished from that of a truly wild bird such as the
crane. Whether wild, tame or domestic the ﬂ esh of the
duck was not held in high esteem by the Romans. Mar-
tial claims that only the neck and breast of the duck are
tasty, whereas Trimalchio regards duck meat as low-
class food (Toynbee 1973, 273).
The story of the following centuries is reviewed by
Harper (1972), who believes that the decline of the mar-
ket in the 3rd century led to the disappearance of duck
meat as an item of trade. No further references can be
found in the literature apart from a reference to a price
in the edict of Diocletian (AD 301) and an ambiguous
reference in the writing of the 7th century author Isidore
of Seville. It therefore does not seem that any progress
in duck husbandry occurred in the centuries following
the times of Varro and Columella and in fact this prac-
tice may even have been subject to further decline.
There is no evidence for duck breeding in Roman Brit-
ain or for any form of duck use or perception by human
societies of that period. As we have seen, the archaeo-
logical evidence is ambiguous (see also Parker 1988)
and, on the basis of biometrical evidence, any of the
duck bones found in the Roman site of Colchester could
potentially be wild (Luff 2000). The situation for other
sites is probably not dissimilar and is consistent with the
lack of any zooarchaeological evidence of duck breed-
ing from other North-western provinces, such as Ger-
mania inferior, Germania superior, Raetia and Noricum
On the basis of what has been discussed above it there-
fore seems that:
• The beginning of the domestication of the duck is
unknown but it does not seem likely to have occurred
before Roman times.
• The Romans kept ducks in captivity according to a
system that can at best be described as a primitive
form of domestication.
It is unlikely that in pre-Roman Britain duck breeding
was practiced at all.
Geese and ducks in the Middle Ages
The striking difference in the proportion of geese and
ducks between archaeological sites of Roman and me-
dieval date in England that we have discussed above is
not matched by other sources, which rather indicate
continuity. The type of use and consideration of these
birds in medieval times is remarkably similar to that
deduced from the writing of the Roman historians and
Grand and Delatouche (1950) review the evidence from
the 6th century Frankish document Pactus Legis Sali-
cae that indicates that the goose was valued for its feath-
ers, which were used for mattresses, sometimes mixed
with wool. As in Roman times geese could be plucked
twice a year and the down from the breast was used for
cushions and pillows. Duck meat was regarded as poor
food, because of the unhealthy feeding habits of these
birds. In the Brevium exempla ad describendas res ec-
clesiasticas et ﬁ scales (AD 810) there are occasional
lists of peasant holdings with geese, chickens, peafowl,
and ducks, but in most cases where birds are listed the
duck is missing (Harper 1972).
Ducks are also uncommon in early medieval archaeo-
logical sites from Ireland (and remains which are found
are generally interpreted as deriving from wild birds),
but they then become more widespread in the later Mid-
dle Ages (Hutton MacDonald et al. 1993). This seems
to be consistent with evidence from 7th-8th centuries
documents where the old Irish term lachu is used for
both the wild and domestic types. The duck is in gen-
eral rarely mentioned, and seems to have been of minor
importance in early Irish farms (Kelly 1997). This agrees
with the archaeological evidence from England, where
in Anglo-Saxon times the duck is far rarer than the
goose (see above). In mainland Sweden, ducks never
seem to have been of any particular economic impor-
tance and a there is no Swedish word for the domestic
form until the 16th century (Tyrberg 2002). At medieval
Eketorp on the island of Öland (Sweden), however,
there is fairly ﬁ rm archaeological evidence of duck do-
mestication. Here Boessneck and von den Driesch
(1979, 228) identiﬁ ed an increase in the number of ju-
venile birds and size variation between the ﬁ rst (c. 400-
700 AD) and second phase (c. 1000-1300 AD) of oc-
cupation of the site. If this pattern can be taken as proof
of domestication, this would indicate that in the Baltic
region no domestic ducks were kept before the end of
the ﬁ rst millennium AD.
As in continental Europe, in medieval England geese
were used for a variety of reasons, including the inevi-
table plucking of down feather from the living bird
(Kear 1990), but feathers collected from either the liv-
ing or the dead bird were also used to make quills (Ser-
jeantson 2002). Eggs and meat were of course also used
though I have not found any medieval reference to the
use of geese as guard birds, a practice which seems to
have been much valued in Roman times, and is again
reported for the modern era (Kear 1990, 53). Historical
and archaeological sources are consistent in suggesting
that in the 13th and 14th century goose husbandry was
at its peak. Large ﬂ ocks of birds were kept in the coun-
tryside by peasants, while occasionally individual birds
would be reared in towns (Serjeantson in press; Stone
256 Umberto Albarella
Ducks sometimes appear in manorial accounts along
with other poultry but they are much less common than
geese. An exception is represented by the Court Rolls of
Elmley Castle (Worcestershire) in which ducks appear
constantly, not for their economic importance but rather
as a public nuisance, as they swam in the river, which
was also the public water supply (Chris Dyer pers.
comm. 5th Aug 2004). Kear (1990) notes that no do-
mestic ducks are listed in the poultry trade of London
until the 14th century, while wild ducks had been listed
earlier. It is therefore possible that the domestic duck
meat was rarely traded, or even consumed, before the
late Middle Ages.
Although I have not carried out a systematic survey, it
seems fairly obvious that the domestic duck is not at all
well represented in the medieval iconography, whereas
the domestic goose is common. In a beautiful illustration
accompanying an Apocalypse commentary from 13th
century Bremen (Germany) two white geese are depict-
ed as facing an array of wild birds, leaving no doubts
about the fact in the human perception of the time geese
tended to occupy the domestic rather than wild realm.
There are also a number of ﬁ ne representations of the
domestic goose in the 14th century manuscript The Lut-
trell Psalter, which conversely only provides images of
ducks in their wild form (mallard). Geese are also much
more common than ducks in carved representations in
English Misericordia (Wells in this volume).
Domestic geese are thus consistently predominant
over their duck relatives in various sources of medi-
eval evidence, which include archaeological assem-
blages, documents and visual representations. Al-
though the duck was almost certainly domesticated at
some point during the Middle Ages it played a very
minor economic role, whereas the goose was an ani-
mal probably not of primary importance but certainly
very valuable for the diversity of products that could
offer to the farmer.
The evidence discussed above leads us to the follow-
ing conclusions regarding the breeding of anatids in
• In medieval times goose husbandry was common
and well-developed, ducks were less commonly
kept and their breeding played a very minor eco-
This situation was already well established in Anglo-
Saxon times, soon after the end of the Roman period.
• In the Roman period duck breeding was unlikely to
be developed, geese could potentially be bred, but
their rarity on archaeological sites indicates that this
It is therefore clear that the higher number of duck bones
on Roman sites cannot possibly be explained with a pref-
erence for raising ducks. Although we cannot acritically
apply information from other regions to Britain, the cir-
cumstantial evidence is strong enough to suggest that in
Roman as well as medieval times duck breeding must
have been of minimal or no importance. The balance of the
evidence strongly points to the suggestion that the anoma-
lous predominance of duck bones from Roman sites in
Britain has nothing to do with husbandry preferences but
is a consequence of the fact that most, if not all, bones of
ducks and geese derive from wild birds. If anatid husband-
ry had played any role in the economy of Roman Britain
it is the likely that the goose rather than the duck would
have predominated, as is indeed the case for medieval
sites. It is not so surprising that the whole ‘package’ of
Roman husbandry practices was not fully adopted in Brit-
ain as there must have been a degree of cultural resistance
to some of these innovations. Also not all inﬂ uences de-
rived from Roman Italy, but many merged with cultural
elements from central and western Europe (King 1978).
The next step in this research should be a full biometric
and genetic review of the nature of duck and goose
bones from Roman and medieval sites in Britain. I am
conﬁ dent that this will eventually conﬁ rm that duck and
goose breeding were virtually absent in Roman Britain,
and that the husbandry of the goose took over in any
substantial way only in the Middle Ages.
I would like to thank Joris Peters, Gisela Grupe and An-
gela von den Driesch for organising a truly enjoyable con-
ference in Munich in July 2004 an for inviting me to take
part to the proceedings. The British Academy provided
ﬁ nancial support for my ﬂ ight to Munich. I am also grate-
ful to Chris Dyer, Andy Hammon and Sarah Wells for
providing unpublished information, Angela von den Dri-
esch for bibliographic help and Joris Peters and Dale Ser-
jeantson for comments on a ﬁ rst draft. English Heritage
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