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Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 68

December 2002



Scatness dates push back history of brochs

Archaeology awards 2002

'Londoners' stone sheds light on city's cosmopolitan ways

Ivory plane from Roman settlement in the North East

Wealthy trading suburb excavated near Roman fort

History from pig fields, beaches and back gardens


Roman Britons after 410
Martin Henig on how Roman culture never left Britain

Bear pit to zoo
Hannah O'Regan on th history of wild animal collections

Great sites
Gustav Milne on the excavations on London's waterfront


Roman roads, talismans, animal bones and Tolkien (again)


George Lambrick on the pillage of the warship 'Sussex'

Peter Ellis

Regular column


Two visions of Avebury

Kent or Sussex

Role of castles

Archaeology of war

CBA update

favourite finds

Bill Putnam on a World War II fork in a 'prehistoric' ditch


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


From bear pit to zoo

Throughout history, humans have enjoyed collecting, displaying and tormenting exotic wild animals. Hannah O’Regan reports

For at least 4,000 years, humans have been fascinated by collections of dangerous, strange and exotic animals. For as long as urban civilisations have existed, we have had zoos.

Our earliest records of wild animal collections - lions held in cages - date from Mesopotamia in about 2000 BC. The interest in lions clearly survived in that region for centuries, as 7th century BC stone reliefs from Nineveh (now in the British Museum) depict the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal hunting lions, which seem to have been first caught and held in cages before being released and hunted to death.

The Romans are famous (or notorious) for their wild beast shows in the public arenas, where animals were pitted against one another for entertainment. It has been suggested that some 9,000 animals were killed to celebrate the opening of the Colosseum in AD 80. A legacy of public animal fights survived, of course, as entertainment in western societies until recent times - and in some places continues to this day.

Throughout history, exotic species have been given by rulers as gifts to other rulers, to cement political alliances or to mark special occasions. These gifts often formed the basis of medieval royal 'menageries' - the forerunners of our modern zoos. As recently as 1993, John Major was presented with a stallion by the president of Turkmenistan to mark his 50th birthday, and for several years two of the most popular exhibits in London Zoo were the pandas Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia (both now dead), which were presented to Edward Heath by the Chinese Government in 1974.

Despite the longstanding presence of zoos within human societies, archaeology has, so far, barely acknowledged their existence. Study of historic gardens has become increasingly fashionable over recent years, but interest in zoos has lagged behind. Yet this seems about to change. A number of researchers in Britain and elsewhere have recently started to look at the history and archaeology of zoos, and the first few colourful pieces of this fascinating jigsaw have begun to fall into place.

The history of wild animal collections in Britain began, it seems, with Henry I in his park at Woodstock, near Oxford. Here the king kept animals presented to him by other monarchs, including lions, camels and a porcupine. Later medieval English kings kept their animals at the Royal Menagerie in the Tower of London. The menagerie was founded in the reign of King John (1199-1216) and lasted until 1831 when most of the animals were transferred to the newly-opened London Zoo at Regent's Park.

An exhibition on the menagerie was held at the Tower in 1999, which displayed many historical records and illustrations. But what of the physical remains of animals or buildings? Recent work by Oxford Archaeology uncovered part of the Lion Tower, a semi-circular structure near the Tower's western entrance. It was built for Edward I in the 1270s, and was used to house the animal collection - with the exception of the elephants - until its demolition in the mid-19th century. Little is known in detail about this building. However, early modern diagrams depict rows of cages with arched entrances, enclosed behind grilles. They were set in two storeys, and it appears that the animals used the upper cages during the day and were moved to the lower storey at night. Animals listed here at the end of the 18th century include lions, tigers, hyaenas and bears.

Earlier excavations in 1936 also uncovered part of this building. The adjacent moat was found to contain the well preserved skulls of two lions and a leopard, and dog skulls - possibly mastiffs used for baiting - which were dated to between the 14th and 17th centuries. A new set of radiocarbon results is needed, however, to confirm these dates.

Exotic animal remains are not simply confined to London, as the recent discovery of an elephant leg bone in Chester has shown (BA, April). Other unusual specimens from the British Isles include seven monkey skulls variously dated to between the 1st century BC and the 18th century AD. A manatee bone and the remains of a racoon were found in an excavation of the Old Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The monkey skulls are particularly interesting. One was found at the pre-Roman Navan fort in Northern Ireland, while a complete skeleton was recovered from a Roman cess pit in Dunstable.

The Chester find is intriguing, as the first elephant to be recorded in British historical documents was that presented to Henry III by Louis IX of France in 1255. This animal was kept at the Tower, died after only two years and was buried in the grounds, but its story does not end there. A year later the remains were disinterred so that the bones could be given to the Sacrist of Westminster. Why he wanted them is a mystery, but perhaps they were destined for display - as the bones of Goliath, perhaps, or some other biblical giant?

This 13th century elephant is a trifle too early to be the Chester specimen, which was radiocarbon dated to between about AD 1290-1410, but the reuse of its bones in a potentially ritual context makes it possible that a similar fate befell other large mammals found in Britain.

Many of the exotic animals in modern museum collections came from zoos, and often had interesting life histories. For example, a young lion in the Zoology Museum, Cambridge, was originally from Astley's Theatre - Britain's earliest circus, which was set up on London's South Bank in the early 19th century - but it had to be shot 'on account of his ferocity'. Studying the bones of animals such as these, together with the historical records of zoos, could provide interesting information about the diet given to caged animals in the past and about the conditions of captivity.

Animals held in captivity may develop changes in their bone structure. Big cats, for example, become broader across the skull, and comparable changes are seen in other animals. We do not yet fully understand why this occurs, but it seems likely that some of these differences stem from behavioural changes or dietary deficiencies. The changes can begin to occur within a few years of captivity.

A recent study by Christian Wenker and colleagues from the University of Berne in Switzerland was carried out on the skulls of animals from the Berne Bear Pits collected over the last 150 years. The Bear Pits still survive as a tourist attraction - a very specialist kind of zoo. This work has shown that from 1850 to the present day, bears have suffered tooth decay as a result of diet, and have also had marked wear of their front teeth probably through chewing the bars of their cage to relieve boredom.

With fewer mammalogists now trained to study hard tissue remains, it is perhaps time for archaeozoologists to step into the breach and begin studies such as these.

By the mid-18th century, most large country estates in Britain had a menagerie. Imported birds such as exotic pheasants, parrots and peacocks were very popular and were kept in aviaries to be bred or shown to important visitors. The word 'menagerie' was applied equally to collections of mammals or birds.

The garden historian Sally Festing has identified a total of 43 menageries in British country estates - using historical records, paintings and similar evidence - with a strong suspicion that many more examples have been lost without record. No physical remains of such menageries have yet been found, or even much sought. Archaeology, however, could really come to the fore on sites where there is a passing reference to a menagerie, but no further details are given. Even simple things such as the layout of the buildings or ground plans of the cages would be of great interest when trying to understand the conditions in which animals were kept, and where they were in relation to the house.

The summerhouse at Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire is called 'the menagerie building'. Unfortunately, like many of these sites, it is a misnomer, as this Adam building has never been used to house animals. But the site of the real menagerie at the Priory probably lay nearby.

Some 18th century owners were so proud of their collections that they had them immortalised - George Stubbs painted Queen Charlotte's zebra, Lord Shelburne's lion and several other animals. When the Duke of Richmond's favourite lioness died he had a life-size sculpture of her made and placed upon her grave. A modern example of this immortalisation is Chi Chi, the famous panda from London Zoo whose stuffed carcass now graces the cafeteria of the Natural History Museum.

One of the more interesting aspects of research into zoos is what they can tell us about our relationship with other animals. Animals were not simply kept to be looked at, they also symbolised the importance of their owners, and in later periods our colonial dominance over other countries - and therefore over their animals.

James I had the Lion Tower extended in the 17th century to provide a large viewing platform for guests, from which they could watch various animals from the menagerie being baited in the pit below. A famous match was staged between a bear and a lion. Neither beast, however, could be induced to attack, so the king had to retire disappointed. Despite the fact that these animals were expensive and relatively difficult to get hold of, their lives and deaths were still determined by the whim of their owners.

James I also sent a tiger to be baited at Paris Gardens, a public arena on the South Bank of the Thames. A recent excavation by the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS) uncovered part of the structure of this bear garden at Benbow House in Southwark. On this site several dog skulls were found which were thought to have been mastiffs used for the baitings. The majority of animal bones, however, were from horses, which may have been used for dog food.

The last known example of lion baiting in Britain (known as the 'lion fight') took place in Warwick in 1825 when George Wombwell organised two matches between his lions Nero and Wallace and six dogs. The whole affair was covered by The Times which made clear its distaste and reported that several attempts had been made to get magistrates to stop the match.

However, the lions were not greatly damaged by the encounter and it appears that the match worked as a form of advertising, as people later flocked to see the now famous lions. Wombwell was well known for his marketing abilities. When he exhibited two rhinoceroses, the posters proclaimed they were the 'Largest Quadruped in the World' with the words 'The Elephant Excepted' in much smaller type.

The question of whether archaeological specimens are of captive animals, or of animals that arrived in Britain dead as rugs or curiosities, is a pertinent one. In the early 1980s Philip Armitage, then at MoLAS, used X-rays to resolve the problem of whether or not a 17th century Capuchin monkey from South America had been collected alive or dead before its jawbone arrived at Brooks Wharf on the Thames. As with other animals, there are differences between the bone structures of wild and captive monkeys, and the examination of this particular jaw revealed that it was very similar to that of a captive animal.

Who were zoos intended for? To begin with zoos were used exclusively by the royal elite, but by the post-medieval period anyone who could afford to pay the entrance fee could visit the menagerie at the Tower of London. The first zoological societies, developing in the early 19th century, attempted to draw a distinction between 'vulgar' public exhibitions such as the 'Exeter 'Change' in London - where Chunnee the elephant was housed on the second floor - and havens of scientific endeavour intended for private members only.

However, ventures which attempted to exclude the paying public were rarely successful, and those that had scientific aims but no fairground attractions also failed. Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens, for example, closed after less than a decade, while Manchester Zoological Gardens - built as a 'serious' alternative to the city's popular Belle Vue attraction - lasted only four years.

Lord Leverhulme, the Victorian philanthropist, opened a public park - Lever Park - near Bolton, which was stocked with a variety of animals including kangaroos and zebras, as well as flamingos. This zoo has almost completely disappeared, both physically and in people's memories. There are few historical records and the site is now marked by a few rusted fence posts and some rough ground which may have been the site of the animal houses. The only surviving remains of the former inhabitants of this zoo is a solitary stuffed flamingo in the local museum's collection. Yet this zoo only closed in 1925 - within living memory. There must be many sites around the country which have similar stories of a brief history followed by closure when the owner died.

'Zoo archaeology' is a subject that provides opportunities for many people to take part - from amateur societies ferreting out details of their local zoos, to archaeologists studying broader landscapes and looking for unexpected animal remains in excavations. Clinton Keeling, a zoo historian, has noted several occasions when people have uncovered exotic animal skeletons on their land, from a polar bear near Peterborough to an Asiatic elephant in Worsley, Greater Manchester.

If more information were known about former zoo sites and their occupants, perhaps the discovery of their remains would not come as such a big surprise.

Hannah O'Regan is a researcher in archaeology and palaeontology at Liverpool John Moores University, with a particular interest in large carnivores. Some of the illustrations in this feature are taken from 'Zoo' by Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, published this year by Reaktion Books (ISBN 1-86189-111-3)

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