Birds in archaeology

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The speaker scheduled for the Arran Natural History Society meeting on December 6 realised that his return journey to the mainland on the following day was likely to be in jeopardy due to the forecast gales and was compelled to cancel.

At short notice a replacement had to be found and, not for the first time, Dr Jim Cassels, the Arran bird recorder, stepped into the breach. The subject of his chosen talk was ‘Birds in Archaeology’ and, although professing no great knowledge or interest in archaeology, he had obviously carried out extensive research on the subject.

Jim took as his definition of archaeology – the systematic study of past human life and culture by the recovery and examination of remaining material evidence. He then regaled us on the inter-relationships between the earlycomers, the birds, and the latecomer, homo sapiens.

Species of birds have given humans flesh for food, bone for implements, feathers for clothing, insulation, fletching for arrows and decoration and quills for writing. In return what has man done for the bird population? Sad to say, very little. Some species have been made extinct or severely depleted by the action of man. Numbers of some, in particular, chickens, have been greatly increased and spread around the globe but this is not an altruistic act by man but due to the ease with which chickens can be raised to meet man’s requirements for food.

Many countries, typically France, nominally legislate for the protection of birds but unfortunately poachers still operate on a commercial scale and little use is made of the law to bring the practice to an end.

Investigations at archaeological sites yield interesting information on bird populations in the past and now.  The accompanying illustration, from a wall painting in an ancient Egyptian tomb, shows a red-breasted goose in perfect detail.  Painted 4,500 years ago, this species no longer over winters on the Nile delta where it must have been familiar to the artist. The breeding range of the red-breasted goose is now  Western Siberia and the species winters by the Black, Caspian and Aral Seas. For comparison there is also a present day photograph of the same species. Jim questioned what environmental or climatic variations had brought about this significant change so emphatically evidenced by the ancient cave painting.

Following his entertaining and stimulating presentation Jim received a wide range of questions from the membership.

                                                                                                                             Brian Couper

A wall painting in an ancient Egyptian tomb shows a red-breasted goose and a present day photograph of the same species. NO_B01geese01 NO_B01geese02