Box Office Bears: a new research project on animal-baiting

Box Office Bears has begun! But who were they and what does it mean?

We are delighted to announce the start of the £978,319 AHRC-funded project ‘Box Office Bears (BOB): Animal baiting in early modern England’, officially starting today. Over the next three years we’ll be exploring the lives of the animals and people involved in this violent, cruel but also widespread and very popular ‘sport’. This work continues Before Shakespeare’s exploration of the emergence of specific spaces for commercial public entertainment in the sixteenth century, and we will be sharing our ongoing work on this website. To mark our start date, we have also recorded a preliminary conversation on our partner project, A Bit Lit, which will be posting more films this week on combat in the contemporary form of professional wrestling.

So what was baiting? In its essence it’s the pitting of one animal against another for human entertainment, most often dogs against bears, bulls or each other. You can read a bit more about baiting here.

The BOB project consists of archeologists, geneticists, literature and performance scholars working together to unravel the workings of ‘the Game’ (as it was called). Bear-baiting was patronized by everyone from the monarch to people in villages and towns throughout Britain, but it was most formalized in London. Here, over a period of some ~160 years large arenas were built on Bankside in Southwark to house the dogs and bears and give the best views of the performances.

Over the last 30 years the sites of these arenas, and the bones of the animals that lived in them, have been recovered. Working in collaboration with our project partners Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) we will be re-examining these sites and bones, applying the latest scientific techniques to learn about their lives, their deaths, their diet and even their coat colour. Alongside this we’ll be burrowing in the archives for baiting records, and making use of the excellent corpus of data that have been collected by the REED project, to trace who was running the baiting, and its role in the early modern economy (there must have been money to be made, but who made it, and how?). We will also be running performance workshops – subject to social distancing, we hope our first will be in summer 2021 – to try to understand the role of animals in early modern performance, and particularly that perennial query – did actors ever really exit the stage under pursuit by a bear?

So who are ‘we’? We are Dr Hannah O’Regan (Classics and Archaeology, University of Nottingham, archaeologist and osteologist, bones), Dr Andy Kesson (English and Creative writing, University of Roehampton, early modern theatre), Prof. Greger Larson (Archaeology, University of Oxford, ancient DNA). To pursue this work, we will be appointing 3 post-doctoral researchers to join us in our endeavours:

  • PDRA post 1 (Nottingham) will be for an archaeozoologist to analyse the bones and stable isotopes of animals from Southwark and other contemporaneous sites around London. 
  • PDRA post 2 (Roehampton) will be an early modern performance scholar working across archival and literary sources to produce as comprehensive an understanding as possible of the place of baiting in early modern culture.
  • PDRA post 3 (Oxford) will be an ancient geneticist with particular expertise in bioinformatics and genomic analysis.   

Posts 1 and 2 are intended to start in Jan 2021, post 3 in Jan 2022. Look out for the adverts in the coming weeks. 

So, keep an eye out for research updates here on Before Shakespeare. We’ll also be documenting our research process (and having fun) via regular films on ‘A Bit Lit’ and research snippets and updates will also appear @archaeobears and @b4Shakes on Twitter. We look forward to seeing you on our research journey! 

Hannah O’Regan

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