There are three Large grants funded by the AHRC as part of the Science in Culture Theme. In a series of blog posts we’ll catch up with each team and find out how the projects are developing.

First Dr Mark Maltby, Principal Investigator for ‘The Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions Project’ introduces himself and his colleagues and the different strands of research which will take place across the country.

The Project Team and its Role Dr Mark Maltby, University of Bournemouth

I am a zooarchaeologist, who will be leading the project at Bournemouth University, where we have appointed Julia Best as a Post-Doctoral Researcher to join me. Julia’s work will incorporate a combination of documentary, zooarchaeological and scientific research into the history of egg production. She will also be one of the team who will be collecting data from across Europe for our internet database. This will become the world’s largest zooarchaeological database dedicated to a particular group of species and will be one of the lasting legacies of our research. Using these data, we will be investigating the history of the spread of domestic chickens in Europe and how they been exploited in different periods and regions.

University of Durham

Research into the genetics of chickens will be led by Co-Investigator Greger Larson at the University of Durham, where we have appointed Ophelie Lebrasseur as a Post-Doctoral Researcher. Using state-of-the-art analytical methods, they will be studying both ancient and modern DNA on carefully targeted samples of bones and eggshells. This will allow us to address, not only the demographic history of chicken populations across the Old World, but also the spread of key phenotypic features associated with selective breeds. As a result, we will be able to investigate the timing and location of chicken domestication, subsequent husbandry developments, and the pattern and timing of human translocations.

University of York

Chicken bones Wigmore Castle

There are three Co-Investigators at the University of York. Terry O’Connor will be involved in the zoorchaeological data acquisition and will be co-ordinating access to materials from archaeological sites in York, which will be one of our key targets for multiple scientific analyses.   Matthew Collins will be co-ordinating further research into the identification and analysis of eggshells using a novel mass spectrometry technique (ZooMs) developed in York. Oliver Craig will lead research into organic residue analysis of archaeological ceramics.  This aims to identify poultry residues based on the structural and isotopic characteristics of absorbed lipids through gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) and GC isotope ratio MS (GCIRMS). Initially this will involve expanding the existing fatty acid isotope reference libraries through the analysis of a range of modern poultry fats with known diets. We will then analyse residues from pots in Viking York and other targeted sites to determine the prominence of poultry, compared with other foods, in ceramic culinary practices. Andre Colonese has been appointed as a Post-Doctoral Researcher to carry out the initial research. By comparing specific cultural artefacts, such as fine, decorated pots against coarse cooking pots, we will also help understand how chickens were ‘valued’ as food in different societies.

University of Leicester

The University of Leicester team will be led by Co-Investigator Richard Thomas. He will be supported by Post-Doctoral Researcher, Tyr Fothergill. They will be working closely with colleagues from Bournemouth to co-ordinate database entry and analysis of zooarchaeological information. The main focus of their research will be to investigate changes and variations in the size of chickens employing standard metrical analysis and developing geoometric morphometric techniques that will be applied to both ancient and modern animals These will help differentiate between wild/domestic and male/female individuals, detect geographical and chronological population changes and explore whether it is possible to identify specific breeds through their bones. They will also be analysing skeletal anomalies to understand changing patterns of disease and injury related to chicken husbandry.

Roehampton University

Bronze cockerel cage


Social anthropology offers the potential of studying richly textured qualitative data. Its value for the studies of human-animal interactions is becoming well recognized. Garry Marvin, the Co-Investigator at Roehampton University, will be co-ordinating the anthropological research. This involves two PhD studentships, funded by the AHRC. Melanie Ramasawmy will focus her research on chicken-raising in a developing world context. This research will be centred on Ethiopia. Themes will include urban chicken-raising and its links with rural traditions; gender; prestige food; ecological knowledge and husbandry; and sustainability. In contrast to a society where women play a significant role in chicken-raising, Jamie Wood’s research will focus on chicken cultures in some Hispanic societies where cockfighting is still legal. Research themes will include culturally perceived characteristics of cocks and hens; selective breeding; display; gender; competition; ritual and symbolism. Three further anthropology studentships have been funded by Roehampton University. Eva Zoubek will focus on amateur chicken-keeping in modern Britain; Peter Smith will carry out research into pedigree chicken breeding, display and exhibition; and Giovanna Capponi will investigate the role of chickens in religious and ritual practices, focusing on their role in candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian initiatic religion in a migratory context in Northern Italy and possibly in São Paolo, Brazil. In addition to deepening our knowledge of how chickens and humans interact in the modern world, this extensive programme of anthropological research will provide us with cultural contexts  within which our interpretations of the nature of past human-chicken relationships derived from our programme of scientific analyses need to be based.

University of Nottingham

Co-Investigator Naomi Sykes will be leading the research team at the University of Nottingham. Stable isotope analyses will be undertaken in collaboration with the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory. Carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses of bones will explore variations in chicken diet. Human influence over chicken feeding regimes can leave clear isotopic signatures, thus providing important information about domestication, husbandry and human-chicken relations. Emphasis will be placed on comparing humans and chicken diets and detailed studies will be conducted on cemeteries where chickens and people were buried together. Chicken eggshells that have been identified in York using ZooMs will be submitted for strontium and oxygen stable isotope analyses: both elements transfer their original isotopic signature to eggshells through the food chain. Strontium isotope analysis will provide information about provenance and determine whether trade in eggs can be recognized archaeologically. Oxygen isotope analysis will test whether the duration and seasons of egg-laying can be determined and whether they changed through time. The isotopic research will be co-ordinated by Post-Doctoral Researcher Holly Miller assisted initially by Kristopher Poole, who will also be contributing information to the zooarchaeological database.

Impact/ Public Engagement


Our first objective is to provide the private and voluntary sectors, as well as the general public, with an understanding of the cultural, environmental and ethical significance of chickens in the past and the present, and the scientific methods by which this significance can be established. Linked to this will be the research of Elena Lazutkaite, who has taken up a PhD studentship funded by the University of Nottingham to study how and why attitudes towards chicken breeding, husbandry and welfare have changed and continue to be the focus of debate.

Information about our research will be disseminated via our website and through articles published by our partner Practical Poultry. We will also be making a documentary, produced by wildlife film-maker Luke Saddler. This film will present not only the natural/cultural history of chickens but also convey the importance of studying the past to better understand the present and prepare for the challenges of the future. The film will be premiered at our Chickens and People conference (December 2016) and will subsequently be made available for free download via our website.

We are particularly keen to bring these issues to the attention of schoolchildren and an important goal of our impact plan is to use chickens as a theme to enable cross-curricular teaching (uniting arts, humanities and sciences). Our team will work in collaboration with educational artist Ben Frimet to run educational activities in schools and develop teaching packs that will be made available for free download from our website.

We will also design a set of exhibitions The Chicken Trail. These will explain the cultural history and legacy of the chicken. The Chicken Trail will be launched in January 2017 to mark the beginning of the Chinese ‘Year of the Rooster’. And will employ both formal and informal exhibition spaces. The sites for the formal exhibitions will include the Natural History Museum at Tring and Fishbourne Roman Palace.

However, although researchers at the six Universities involved with this project are providing expertise in their specialist areas, it is the effectiveness of the collaboration between these researchers and academic and other colleagues from around Europe that is crucial to the success of this project. Our objective is to capitalise on our common interests in the relationships between humans and chickens, to drive forward a new and inclusive research campaign that genuinely integrates the arts and sciences, and involves academics and the non-academic community, for the benefit of wider society and human culture. This can only be achieved through genuine inter-disciplinary and integrated research.

This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers.