Archaeology in East Oxford

Animal bones

We have now had two interesting workshops on animal bones, run by Julie Hamilton.  The first one (at Rewley House) was on bone identification and we were given lots of handouts to help and forms to fill in.  There were also a great many reference books, more of which more later.  We were divided into groups of three and asked to select a bag of bones from one context to look at.

The first session at Rewley House

The idea was to decide whether any of the pieces of bone were identifiable or just bits of generic stuff.  The identifiable bones were each given a finds bag and a form of their own  ALL LABELLED WITH THE CONTEXT NUMBER.  First we had to identify from which part of the animal the bone had come and what it might be (tibia? metacarpal?).  Then we had to decide what species it came from.  This is where we used the reference books.  They are designed for professionals who know all the taxonomy, not for amateurs who just riffle hopefully through the pages looking for something similar.  Even for professionals, I imagine they are pretty hard to use.  Leigh and I were working with Christopher and took it turns to examine the bones, look through the books and fill out  the forms.  Julie approved our oddments as oddments so we bagged them up, weighed them, and filled out the top part of the form.

Then we looked at the other bones in detail.  The form includes a section for site code, context number, type of bone and supposed species and a place to put the number of pieces of bone in the bag and the overall weight.

Bones from one context, sorted into groups

We worked on contexts which Leigh had dug and found cattle and horse teeth, cattle, pig and goat or sheep bone and some horse bone.  One of the most interesting things to come out of the afternoon was that there was quite a lot of horse bone compared with other sites which will need some thinking about.  We got through the bulk of the finds bags but there are still more to do.

The second workshop (at Ark-T) was partly a continuation of the first one for people who had not sorted bones before.  Again we worked in groups.  Some of us who had been on the first workshop filled out the next part of the form for the finds we sorted last time.

The second session, at the ArkT Center

This time, we were looking at the condition of all the bones (including the generic bits) to see if they were marked in any way, stained, chewed or burnt.  We found a number of pieces with butchery marks and some dark coloured ones which may have been burnt.  The last mentioned were quite shiny and polished.  We also found several bones which had probably been gnawed by carnivores.  There were places on the form to put all this information.  An interesting bone was a small piece of sacrum which had been neatly cut in half.  This suggests the whole animal was cut in half through the spine which is a butchery practice from medieval or later times.  Another set of three bones fitted together exactly to make a single complete bird bone from a domestic fowl, probably a chicken.   Julie, Jo and Jane were very patient with us and we all had a good time.

The third session, again at Rewley House, continued on from where the previous two session had left off; we consolidated all the info that we had worked out up to now. While before we had been separating out the bones into smaller groups of similar types, or even single examples of identifiable specimens, now we drew all the information together so that each context had just one form (as opposed to each group having one form) which summarised all our work up to that point. The last task, for which Jo volunteered (honest, no arm twisting!) was entering all the info into a spreadsheet, for Julie to mull over – she will produce an assessment report; not final conclusions, but a road map recommending how to go forward with the investigation. There is still quite a bit left to do, but we have made big inroads into the mass of finds, and learnt a lot on the way – mainly about how complicated animal skeletons are and what a maze of Latin terms are involved!



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