Citadel of the Scots
Reading the land
Great sites: Meols
Editor Simon Denison
From Mr Graham Mogford
Sir: In the article on the Black Death ('Years of pestilence', October) you have an illustration of a dried rat 'found in a medieval building'. This is interesting because the body is that of a brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), rather than a plague-carrying black rat (Rattus rattus). The tail, which is clearly complete, is smaller than the head and body length, the ears are comparatively small and the snout is far too rounded for a black rat. The brown rat is reckoned to have reached this country in the 18th century, hence one of its alternative names (at least amongst Jacobites) of Hanoverian rat.
It is possible that mummified black rats - also known as roof rats - found in attics were not placed there for protection, but merely died there and became naturally desiccated.
Mixing up black and brown rats is an easy mistake to make. The zoology museum at Reading University used to have a pair of stuffed specimens which were labelled the wrong way round until I spotted it.
From Mr Michael Ulyatt
Sir: In Tom Beaumont James's article on the Black Death, of particular interest was the section on the 'death of art', in which he highlights the devastating effect of the plague on the skills base of British craftsmen in the decades following the pandemic.
Close to where I live is a visible example of these effects, the world-famous crooked spire of St Mary's Church, Chesterfield, Derbyshire. During a recent visit to the church, which included a tour of the tower and base of the steeple, I learnt that the stone structure of the church was completed in the years leading up to the arrival of the plague but that the steeple was not constructed until afterwards. The firm opinion of local academics, archaeologists and historians is that the most likely causes of the twisting of the spire was the use of unseasoned timber by inexperienced craftsmen who were unable, through their inexperience, to provide the necessary 'wedging and pinning' needed to counteract the warping of the wood.
That inexperience is put down to the death of the time-served artisans who created the body of the church but did not survive to give us the steeple.
From Mr Richard Stein
Sir: Paul Bahn (Letters, August) comments that the dead may have been 'repackaged' to enable them to be moved more easily to the desired burial place; and that cut marks on bones may reflect this, and not cannibalism.
'Repackaging' apparently existed in medieval France. The famous warrior Bertrand du Guesclin died in July 1380 after a battle near Le Puy, but he is 'buried' in four places. It was intended to bury him at his birthplace at Dinan in Brittany, but because of the heat his entrails were removed and buried in Le Puy. At Clermont-Ferrand it was decided to boil his corpse, and the 'flesh' was buried there. The King ordered that his bones be buried at St Denis; only his heart is buried at Dinan. Perhaps his bones also showed marks of 'butchery'.
From Dr Timothy Taylor
Sir: It is correct (Letters, August) that my article 'The Edible Dead' (June) misrepresented the position of Jim Mallory and EM Murphy in respect of Iron Age steppe cannibalism, for which I apologise. Mallory and Murphy write that the Uyuk bones do not fit the Anasazi-style signature of aggressive exo-cannibalism, with splitting for marrow and heat treatment (cooking), and show only neat cut marks that indicate muscle removal. They thus opt for funerary defleshing which they justify in relation to death in winter and the need to arrest corpse putrefaction.
But two things are against this. Firstly, Herodotus tells us that the Scythian-type peoples were embalmers, and this is demonstrated in the frozen tombs of South Siberia; thus they had no need to deflesh for the reason Mallory and Murphy give. Secondly, Herodotus says that the reverential funerary cannibalism of the Massagetae and Issedones involved the removal of meat only (krea), which was mixed with beef and lamb to make a funeral stew. This description is wholly congruent with the Uyuk evidence. Inferring reverential funerary cannibalism in this case is thus the most academically cautious approach, as it is supported by two lines of mutually independent evidence.
It is true that Herodotus says that the Androphagoi or 'Man eaters' are the 'only' people in the region who eat human flesh. But this is only an apparent contradiction with his description of the cannibalism of the Massagetae and Issedones. In fact an implicit contrast is being made between aggressive gustatory cannibalism - hunting other people for food - and the revential practices of the other two tribes.
Paul Bahn's claim that the sceptical Heidi Peter-Roecher is 'the leading specialist in this field' is simply his opinion. The central flaw in the ritual defleshing argument is that none of its supporters say what was then done with the flesh once it was removed, and ethnographic accounts are ambiguous or ambivalent on this point too.
In response to Olaf Swarbrick's letter in the same issue, the inference of tongue cutting at Gough's Cave is made by analogy with closely similar marks found in deer when the tongue is cut out. I also dispute his claim that there is 'no edible tissue' on a human skull - the cheek muscle is substantial.
We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at email@example.com or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005