Archaeology in East Oxford

Animal Bones and Archaeology

Last Wednesday, we were lucky enough to be given a talk on the above subject by Julie Hamilton of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology; Julie is a very experienced zooarchaeologist and was at the ArkT to give us an insight into this important aspect of archaeology.

She split the evening in two – an initial talk to set the scene and then, after the tea-break, a hands-on session where we were able to down and dirty (in a Health and Safety approved style) with the objects of all the talking.

So, to set the stage, Julie started by talking about the different ways in which animals and people interact:

As Predators – though people by-and-large ceased to be prey when we got the hang of managing fire

As Prey – people seem always to have preyed on animals; the evidence of stone tools goes back before the evolution of  modern humans

Commensal – some animals, House Mice for instance, have evolved to occupy niches which are wholly created by humans

Domestic – where animals can be milked, trained to pull carts or ploughs and carry humans for example

Pets – self-explanatory, really

and    Pests – either preying on food crops or domestic animals, or cutting out the middle-man, and preying directly on humans – diseases, parasites etc (thankfully rarely large enough to leave bones!).

Then she talked about the way in which these interactions show up as finds, which largely depends on human diet – this will determine both what is left over after meals and what animals are kept close by. Strangely, human diets have changed quite radically over time; before the introduction of agriculture in Western Europe, for instance, shell middens (large dumps of seafood shells, interspersed with fish-bones, etc) were very common, yet after agriculture arrived, the eating of shellfish seems to have gone out of fashion, only being revived by the Romans. The main component of food remains, though, are mammal bones from domesticated animals – though there are other bones left from other human activities involving animals, of course – animals kept as pets, used in transport or in hunting.

This lead on to a discussion about the domestication of wild animals – about why only a handful of animals were domesticated (mainly in the near-east) out of a much larger potential pool. This seems largely to be down to the psychology of the animal in question; an animal which responds to threats by running away or by attacking, as opposed to gathering into a herd, is almost impossible to domesticate. And there are different degrees of domestication as well – geese can be kept but will not tolerate being factory farmed, for instance. Some observations were made: – cave paintings in Spain and Southern France clearly show humans hunting with dogs about 16,000 years ago so we know they were domesticated by then, but there is indirect evidence that they were tamed much earlier (the Australian Dingo is actually descended from a domesticated dog, so it is likely that the earliest settlers (approx 50,000 years ago) brought tame dogs with them) and the same paintings show people hunting Aurochs, an extinct, large bovine, but modern genetic analysis shows that modern cattle were not interbred with them.

Having dealt with the background, Julie then went on to talk about what we need to observe: –

What? Recognition of what we are looking at, i.e. both elements (which bit of an animal we are looking at) and species (which animal it comes from)

Where? The location of the find.

When? When the find was deposited. These two (Where & When) can only be determined if the context is known – yet more proof of the essential part accurate recording plays in archaeology; a cry of “You see, it isn’t just me” was heard from one member of the audience at this point!

How Much? Quantifying the finds – weighing, measuring, counting, calculating.

What happened? The point of all the previous hard work. Both in a general sense; questions about Biogeography (where species originated), distribution of sizes, population structures, as well as site specific questions as in “what happened here?” – why did these particular bones end up here? what does this tell us about the local environment? what does this tell us about the life of the people living here at the time?

After a tea break, we commenced with the fun bit – hands-on experience. The first bit was a bit daunting – Julie handed out post-its with the names of various bones on and we hand to stick them on a picture of a skeleton; luckily there were some crib-sheets around or there would have been a lot of red faces around, I fear!

The picture (well, most of it) that we had to stick the Post-Its with the bone’s names on.

Then on to re-assembly – Julie had brought along the majority of a deer skeleton (a Red Deer) which a colleague had discovered on Dartmoor, she was very arthritic (the deer, that is, not the colleague) and had been trapped in a bog; we were then tasked with putting them back together. Much discussion and head-scratching ensued until someone noticed that all the bones had been catalogued! Not with a ‘this bit is attached to that bit’ direction, but at least L & R, and the vertebra were numbered in groups, so that simplified things a bit.We got the torso about right, but had a lot of difficulty with the legs – which were the front ones as opposed to the back, and how did the lower part of the legs fit together? When Julie showed us how, it all fitted together perfectly – but isn’t it always the case; an expert makes these things look so simple!

The skull in the foreground is that of a Pig, while the one in the background is a Horse.

We then had a look at various mammal skulls, with Julie pointing out the differences and similarities; how the teeth are such a give-away, herbivores, omnivores and carnivores all having not only different teeth but also different jaws – herbivores which eat grass have a large gap between their molars and their incisors to allow their tongues room to move the grass around to chew it up, for instance. I was particularly surprised to find out what a small brain a horse has – most of its head is taken up with the huge muscles required to power its jaws.

A Deer’s skull on the left with a Sheep’s one on the right.

A great evening which could have lasted much longer, but time was passing so Julie had to call a halt. We all had our appetites truly wetted and those of us lucky enough to have got on Julie’s upcoming workshops are really looking forward to learning more.

As a bit of an aside, we were rather surprised that not as many people as usual were there – as the workshops are over-subscribed we know people are interested in the subject – so why did so few turn up? Was it because of it being on a different day (Wednesday rather than Thursday – Jane had tried to move the days around a bit as people had said “why always Thursday?”), or was there something else on? If you’ve got any ideas, please do send them to Jo, Jane or Olaf @archeox.net.



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