Ancient Estonians trained hawks for hunting and organized cockfights

Kreydis Ehrlich
Kreydis Ehrlich Source: Andres Tennus

Zooarchaeology is the study of animal remains recovered from archaeological sites, such as human settlements, graves and fortresses. In her doctoral dissertation, Freydis Ehrlich examines the diversity of birds in Estonian zooarchaeological material and their importance in past societies. Among other things, it turns out that already in the early Middle Ages Estonians trained hunting hawks and organized cockfights.

"The study of bird remains can reveal what people ate in the past, why they made certain choices, and what their beliefs were," said Freydis Ehrlich, a junior researcher at the Institute of History and Archeology at the University of Tartu.

Animal bones have been studied in Estonia and elsewhere in the world since the 19th century, but as a systematic method, zooarcheology has been developed only after the Second World War. Although this type of research of animal bones existed in Estonia before, it became prominent only in the 1990s.

Until now, Estonian zooarchaeologists have paid attention mainly to mammals and fish. In her recently completed doctoral thesis, Ehrlich investigates which species of birds can be found in zooarchaeological material in Estonia and how people used the birds. "Because there was a good overview of Stone and Bronze Age materials, I focused on the Viking Age to the Early Modern Age, i.e., 10th-18th centuries," Ehrlich explained.

Ehrlich, who analyzed bird remains collected mainly from the city and fortress of Viljandi, but also from other places in Estonia, noted that reference collections also play an important role in determining bird bones, which allows comparing old bones to skeletons of species collected today. "In my work, I used, among other resources, the Polish Academy of Sciences' bone reference collection in Krakow, which covers most bird species in Europe. It was a great help," said Ehrlich

About thirty species of birds came from modern-day Viljandi, including several species of ducks, as well as black grouses, western capercaillies, swans and Eurasian cranes, the last four were related to the inhabitants of higher status. Also present in the findings were smaller species of Galliformes, Accipitriformes, Strigiformes (owls), Columbiformes, Charadriiformes, Piciformes, and Passeriformes.

Bird bones in University of Tartu archeological collection. Source: Eve Rannamäe

The oldest chicken in Estonia

In addition to an overview of the species, Ehrlich wanted to clarify when domestic birds – chicken and goose – were brought to the area of present-day Estonia. For that, in addition to the finds from Viljandi, the author also looked at finds that came from other parts of Estonia, i.e., Lääne County, northern Estonia and Saaremaa. It turned out that since the Viking Age, the most common bird species was the chicken. The earliest evidence of chicken was found in Rebala village stone grave near Jõelähtme and it is more than two thousand years old.

"Since there is only one chicken from this period, it is not certain whether they were widely used at the time. Also elsewhere in Europe the first chickens were found in graves, which means that they might have been used as luxury domestic birds," said Ehrlich. He added that the chicken was not bred in Europe but was imported from Southeast Asia.

The next finds of galliformes species in Estonia date back several hundred years, when they were probably already used for food. "Geese and ducks are in second and third place. The beginning of their domestication is not precisely dated. Based on written sources, it can be assumed that domesticated geese and ducks arrive in Estonia at the end of the Middle Ages and early modern times, which is much later than chicken," Ehrlich told.

It also remains an open question whether geese and ducks were caught in the wild or whether they were domesticated. "It has been suggested that people picked up the eggs of wild geese and raised the chicks that hatched from them in their yards," Ehrlich added.

Partial skeleton of a young sparrowhawk found in the ruins of Viljandi Fortress. Source: Eve Rannamäe, Freydis Ehrlich

Hawking and cockfighting

Estonians may have used specially trained hunting hawks for the purpose of capturing wild birds and smaller mammals. "The hatchlings were picked up from the nest, raised, and taught to hunt. It was an elite activity that took a lot of work and time. For example, a partial skeleton of a young Eurasian sparrowhawk found in Viljandi fortress was probably raised for hawking," said Ehrlich,

He added that some hawking equipment was found in Vilnius, such as small hoods, which were placed on birds' heads to be taken off only after they start hunting: "Eagles have also been used for hunting, but not in Estonia. But eagle talons were used for ornaments and pendants."

Ehrlich also found evidence of cockfighting, which is indicated by cutting off the spurs of cocks in a certain way. "Apparently, the removed spur was replaced by an artificial one made of metal or bone designed for fighting purposes. It is believed that cockfighting is one of the main reasons for domesticating chicken," Ehrlich commented. The turkey was also highly valued, which remains were found, among other places, in Haapsalu fortress.

Ehrlich also noted that the symbolic meaning of birds and their significance for ritual practices is not as evident in archeological records. "We could see this connection more clearly, for example, if chicken eggs or skeletons would have been placed in graves. This does not occur neither in Estonian archeological sites of that time, nor elsewhere in Europe. The excavated chicken remains from later times probably were deposited in graves mainly because they were common food," said Ehrlich.

Freydis Ehrlich will defend her doctoral dissertation in the field of archeology "Birds in Estonian zooarchaeological material: diversity, importance and the earliest appearance of domesticated species" on June 7 at the University of Tartu. The supervisors of the doctoral thesis are Eve Rannamäe, a co-professor at the University of Tartu, and Valter Lang, a professor at the University of Tartu.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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