Season of birth and sheep husbandry in late Roman and Medieval coastal Flanders: a pilot study using tooth enamel δ18O analysis

Michelle Buchan, Gundula Müldner, Anton Ervynck, Kate Britton

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9 Citations (Scopus)


From the early Roman period, there is archaeological evidence for the exploitation of the Flemish coastal plain (Belgium) for a range of activities, such as sheep herding on the then developing salt-marshes and salt-meadows for the production of wool. During the early Middle Ages, this culminated in the establishment of dedicated ‘sheep estates’. This phase of exploitation was followed by extensive drainage and land reclamation measures in the high Medieval period, transforming areas into grassland, suited for cattle breeding. As part of a larger project investigating the onset, intensification and final decline of sheep management in coastal Flanders in the historical period, this pilot study presents the results of sequential sampling and oxygen isotope analysis of a number of sheep teeth (M2, n = 8) from four late Roman and Medieval sites (dating from 4th to 15th century AD), in order to assess potential variations in season of birth between the different sites and through time. In comparison with published data from herds of known birth season, incremental enamel data from the Flemish sites are consistent with late winter/spring births, with the possibility of some instances of slightly earlier parturition. These findings suggest that manipulation of season of birth was not a feature of the sheep husbandry-based economies of early historic Flanders, further evidencing that wool production was the main purpose of contemporary sheep rearing in the region. Manipulation of season of birth is not likely to have afforded economic advantage in wool-centred economies, unlike in some milk- or meat-based regimes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)260-270
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Archaeology
Issue number3
Early online date13 Jan 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Bibliographical note

The research for this paper was completed in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Archaeology MA at the University of Aberdeen by MB. We thank the British Academy (SG101625) for funding, Flanders Heritage Agency for samples, and An Lentacker (Flanders Heritage Agency) for the identification of the animal remains. Finally, we thank the journal editors and editors of this special issue for their invitation to contribute to this volume.


  • archaeozoology
  • Coastal Flanders
  • salt-marsh
  • sheep husbandry
  • tooth enamel
  • oxygen isotope analysis
  • birth seasonality


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