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Bones from Britain’s earliest turkey dinner. Turkey bones found in Paul Street, Exeter have recently been identified by a researcher at University of Exeter as being from the oldest known turkey dinner in Britain. The bones date from the 1520s and were found with luxury imported glassware and pottery from Italy and Spain. Pictured with a Swiss printed Zoological encyclopaedia, from 1555. Picture by Jim Wileman.

Tudor book showing turkey with Tudor bones from Exeter

Tudors put turkey on the menu

20 December 2017

Are bones discovered under an Exeter street from the first turkey dinner in England?

Bones dug up opposite RAMM may be the remains of the first ever turkey dinner in England, archaeologists believe.
The 16th-century bones – two femurs (thigh bones) and an ulna (wing) from RAMM’s collection – have been analysed by Exeter University archaeologists and identified as among some the first turkeys to be brought to England from the Americas.

On Display in RAMM

The bones were found during the 1983 Paul Street excavations for the construction of the Harlequin Centre. They are on temporary display to celebrate the new discovery about their origins.
RAMM Assistant Curator Tom Cadbury said “This is a fascinating discovery and really shows what an international place Tudor Exeter was. RAMM already displays some of the Spanish, German and Italian pottery and glassware found on the site, perhaps the turkey dinner was eaten off one of these.”
Spanish, German and Italian pottery and glassware are on display in the Making History gallery. The turkey bones are on display in the Viewpoint.

Turkeys arrive in Britain

Wild turkeys were eaten by Native Americans and their feathers were also used for ceremonial purposes, including headdresses and robes. The first turkeys were introduced to England in 1524 or 1526 by William Strickland following a voyage to the Americas. He is recorded as having bought six turkeys from Native American traders and selling them for tuppence each on his return to Bristol. The first turkeys brought to Britain are more likely to have been kept as pets for display of wealth rather than served as food.
Puritan William Strickland continued to import turkeys and made so much money he was able to build a stately home in Yorkshire. He later became an MP and was known for his ferocious debating style. The turkey was incorporated into his family crest in 1550 and his coat of arms is reported to be the first depiction of the turkey in Britain. The village church where Strickland is buried has images of turkeys depicted in stained-glass windows, a carved lectern and even stone sculptures on the walls.
The bird became very popular after 1550 and already a common sight at Christmas dinners by the 1570s, before Thanksgiving in America was even invented. Popular history even suggests that Henry VIII may have had turkey for Christmas. The bird became so popular that thousands of turkeys were driven in to London like cattle in the 17th century.

University of Exeter Research

Archaeologists at the University of Exeter have now examined the bones as part of a wider investigation into locally-excavated bones in RAMM’s collection. Judging from pottery lying beside them, they date from the period 1520 to 1550.
Professor Alan Outram, zooarchaeologist and Head of Archaeology at Exeter, said: “As the date of these bones overlaps with the historical evidence of Stickland’s introduction of the birds, the remains of this feast may well represent the earliest physical evidence for a turkey dinner in Britain. This is an important discovery and could allow more research to be carried out about early domestic breeds and how the turkey has changed genetically since the 16th century.”

Researching bones in RAMM’s collections

Analysis by Malene Lauritsen, a post-graduate researcher in the University of Exeter’s archaeology department, has proved from the bones that the turkeys were butchered and were probably eaten as part of a feast by wealthy people. The pottery lying alongside was also of high quality. They were found together with the remains of a veal calf, several chickens, at least one goose and a sheep. This selection of food – some of which were very expensive at the time – suggests this was the rubbish created by a feast attended by people of high status.
Ms Lauritsen said “What is exciting about these turkey bones found in Exeter is that they date from almost exactly the same time as the first birds came to England. Their age certainly means it is possible that these are the remains of one of the first turkeys to come to England, or a turkey bred from this group.
“It is extremely rare to find turkey bones from this period. Remains from the first half of the 16th century have only been found in two other sites in Britain, the oldest from at St Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire. I have found cut marks on the bones, showing the birds were butchered. We can only guess at who ate them, and for what reason, but turkey would have been very expensive and the same household certainly ate other pricey meat too, so this must have been a special occasion.”

RAMM / University of Exeter Collaboration

In February 2020, the bones will be displayed in RAMM’s Making History Gallery alongside all the discoveries made from a wider archaeological research project with the University of Exeter called Exeter: A Place in Time.
Cllr Rachel Sutton, Lead Councillor for Economy & Culture and Deputy Leader of Exeter City Council said “Exeter is blessed having a museum and a university that are both world-class. Working together, they are uncovering information about Exeter’s past that would have been inconceivable only decades ago. Collaborations such as these are vital to Exeter’s success.”

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