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Talking Turkey

by Alexis Haslam, community archaeologist

You may feel that you’re seeing turkey everywhere at this time of year, however, in a recent dig at Fulham Palace one of the most exciting finds was that of two turkey bones. Although small, the bones tell a story of the power and wealth of the Bishop of London because they date back to the early 16th century, when the very first turkeys we being introduced to England.

It is believed that turkeys were first brought over from America to England through the port at Bristol at some point between 1525 and 1532. They were expensive, and for this reason early turkeys were likely to be kept as pets as a status symbol rather than eaten. However, their numbers grew, and by the 1570’s they were starting to appear on tables at Christmas.

The Fulham Palace bones were found in a ditch that once ran in front of Fulham Palace’s Tudor Courtyard. The ditch was probably medieval and was backfilled with kitchen waste from the Palace sometime between 1480 and 1550; and these dates have been used by our archaeologist Alexis Haslam to date the bones. It is likely that the turkey was roasted and eaten with vegetables such as carrots and sprouts grown in the gardens at Fulham Palace (unfortunately roast potatoes wouldn’t arrive for another 30 years).

The fact that one of the first turkeys in England made its way to Fulham Palace is a testament to the power and influence of that Church at that time, particularly of the Bishop of London, who was the ‘king’s bishop’.

Oldest turkey in England?

Very few early turkey bones have been discovered, so there are only two other contenders for the oldest turkey in England. These include bones recovered during excavations in Exeter, dating from between 1520 and 1550 (a likely choice for first the first bone as Exeter is so close to Bristol where turkeys were first brought); and a bone from St Albans, dated to 1534. If our turkey dates to the earlier end of its range it would be the oldest. Dating bones isn’t an exact science, so it’s difficult to say who holds the ‘turkey crown’ for the first turkey dinner in England – but there is every chance it could be the bones found at Fulham!