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Why did the chicken cross the globe? (and why should we care?)

Why on earth should we care about chickens? They are comical, stupid and their only purpose is to provide us with meat and eggs, right? Well…

While this may be the common perception of chickens today, it is a very recent attitude. Prior to the 19th century, chickens were viewed variously as gods, companions, medicine and as the focus of religious and magical rituals. The chicken is as much a part of our cultural heritage as Stonehenge, yet few people are aware of it.

Do you know where chickens originally come from? Do you know when they were introduced to Britain or why? If the answers to these questions are no, come to the free event at the world-famous Roman site of Vindolanda, near Hexham Northumberland, on 16 November to meet the AHRC-funded team who will answer these questions.

As part of the Being Human Festival, the UK’s first national festival of the humanities, over 20 researchers from universities around the country will descend on Vindolanda. They will run a day of family-friendly interactive talks, handling sessions, art and craft activities and experiments to explain how and why the chicken has conquered the globe.

“We’re really excited to be able to present our work to the public at this free event at Vindolanda,” says team member Dr Julia Best from the University of Bournemouth. “We ran a stall at the Glastonbury Festival and it was really popular, but this event is so much bigger and the whole team will be there - archaeologist, anthropologists and scientists – it’s going to be loads of fun!”

Alongside the archaeological and historical story, the team will show how their findings are of direct relevance to some of the biggest challenges facing society today: food security, antibiotic resistance, biodiversity, health and wellbeing. Event organiser, Dr Naomi Sykes from the University of Nottingham explains that “over the last few hundred years, human culture has forgotten how connected the fortunes of people and animals are. Our work, which is examining thousands of years of evidence, is revealing that if you treat animals badly, feed them badly and give them large quantities of antibiotics, you need to expect that this will transfer down the food chain, often with dire consequences for all concerned.”

The event will also highlight the great positives chickens can bring to society.
HenPower, a project run by North East charity Equal Arts, supports older people in hen-keeping, helping to tackle loneliness and isolation.

Active older volunteers from the project, known as the Hensioners will be on hand to share their chicken-keeping expertise and talk about the benefits HenPower is having in care settings across the region.
Jos Forester-Melville, Equal Arts' HenPower lead, said: "An independent evaluation has found the project is reducing loneliness and depression in participants and improving well-being.

"We've also seen an impact in dementia care settings with staff reporting a reduction in the use of antipsychotic medication as the hens are a positive distraction for residents. These results clearly demonstrate that keeping chickens in later life is certainly good for your hendorphins!"

Film-maker Danielle Giddens, who is working with both HenPower and the AHRC-funded Chicken Project, says: “We’ve found chickens have sparked a real interest, with people of all ages and from different countries getting in touch to share their stories”. As part of the Vindolanda day, Danielle will be running the “chicken booth” where people can go on camera to talk about their hen stories: “We are looking for people to get involved and tell us their hen tales for this research project looking at the social history of hens and how people interact with them.”

Patricia Birley, Director of the Vindolanda Trust says, “We are delighted to be hosting this event at Vindolanda. We’re waiving entry fees for the day but are asking that people book their tickets in advance.Details can be found on our website”

To find out more about the AHRC-funded chicken project visit and follow the team on twitter @Chicken_Project

The Being Human Festival is led by the School of Advanced Study, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the British Academy. To find out more visit and follow the Festival of Twitter @BeingHumanFest #BeingHuman14.

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