Archaeologists have identified turkey bones so old that may well be the remains of one of the earliest turkey dinners in Britain. We’re talking Tudor turkey here, almost a century before the first Thanksgiving (which according to contemporary sources didn’t actually feature turkeys anyway; the Wampanoag brought deer and the British settlers migratory waterfowl). The three turkey bones in question, two femurs and an ulna, are not a new discovery. They were unearthed in 1983 on Paul Street in central Exeter during an archaeological excavation of the site of a planned shopping center and were squirreled away in storage boxes at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. At that time they were neither identified as turkey bones nor were they dated.
University of Exeter archaeologists dusted them off recently to investigate whether they could find out more about their age and background using technology and information that was not available in 1983. After a thorough examination and testing of the bones themselves as well as the pottery found next to them, researchers were able to identify them as turkey bones dating to between 1520 and 1550. That places them very early in the timeline of the bird’s introduction to Britain by gentleman navigator and future MP William Strickland who bought a half dozen wild turkeys from Native Americans in 1524-1526 and sold them upon his return to Bristol.
They were exotic creatures and the first ones were likely kept as very showy pets or estate adornment rather than immediately devoured. Turkey didn’t become popular as a poultry dish until after 1550, which, incidentally, is the year Strickland was granted a coat of arms that starred a “turkey-cock in his pride proper,” tail feathers at full spread.
Professor Alan Outram, zooarchaeologist and Head of Archaeology at Exeter, said: “As the date of these bones overlaps with the historical evidence of Strickland’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.”
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.
“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,” Ms Lauritsen said.
“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 pricy meat too, so this must have been a special occasion.”
The bone trio has gone on temporary display at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum to give them due recognition after so many years of obscurity. In early 2020, they will become part of Exeter: A Place in Time, a much larger exhibition about the city’s archaeological record in the RAMM’s Making History gallery.