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This was the 10th anniversary of the Professional Zooarchaeology Group, and it was held in Fort Cumberland, a 18th century fort in Portsmouth where (parts of) Historic England have their offices. There were lots of good talks, celebratory cake and wine, a guided tour of the fort, and a very interesting workshop on identifying dogs from wolves and foxes, as well as sexing dogs.


Mark Maltby talked about Roman urban zooarchaeology, and since he’s probably the person who’s been doing more Roman urban zooarchaeology than anyone else in the UK, he knows what he’s talking about. And his talk was very much focussed on his many years of experience, asking us to understand the variability of assemblages within towns – as is the case today, all parts of a town are not equal, neither in function nor in socio-economic status – and not just use averages for comparisons. He has also done a lot of work on the change in butchery methods that seems to occur in the early Roman period and has been attributed to influence from Roman military and urban butchers: in essence, the need to feed a lot of people required quick butchery methods, so they used cleavers to disarticulate the carcasses and to remove the meat from the bones. In the Iron Age and in some extent also in rural Roman Britain, knives were used instead of cleavers. But – and there’s always a but, isn’t there? – bones in some late La Tene sites in France as well as a late Iron Age trading site in Britain also show disarticulation by cleavers. And the spread of Roman butchery methods to settlements in the British countryside is also not so clean-cut as one would like. Ah, archaeology: you’re always complicated.

Jim Morris talked about special animal deposits, mostly summaries from his phd (downloadable from academia.edu). His main theme was that we have to look for the meaning of the deposit with the living animals, not just the dead deposit that we see. The deposit on its own may have been utterly meaningless, and it was the act of sacrifice that counted. A feasting deposit says that feasting occurred, but it’s the feast and the social implications of that that’s important. He also stressed the importance of having zooarchaeologists on the excavations, and wondered how common the unusual deposits at the Duotriges Project excavation actually have been – after all, can a cow carcass with a horse’s legs actually be distinguished as a particular find when all you have in post-excavation analysis are bones in a bag?

Next talk was by Martyn Allen, about the huge Rural settlement in Roman Britain project. It’s an integrated project, with settlement patterns, field system types, burials, artefact categories, animal bones etc. All in all 2523 individual settlements. Due to the soil acidity pattern (high soil acidity, in Wales, north-west England and the very north of England, is tough on bones, and sites in those areas have little, if any, bones present. Interestingly, this region also show a different settlement pattern than the south-eastern part of England and also lacks the large corndryers that are common in the south. This suggests that it may be a regional pattern, possibly influenced by the environment?

Angela Trentacoste talked about two projects she’s involved with: the ICAZ Roman Period Working Group and the Oxford Roman Economy Project. Both organises conferences on their respective themes, and are worth joining if you are so inclined.

Then we went into the sciences, for Greger Larson to talk about the dog domestication project. There is some controvercy about when dogs got domesticated: archaeologically, it seems to be much later than what genetic studies suggest. Greger is critical to the genetic studies, and suggests that matters are more complicated, particularly it seems as if there are more than one way to end up with a specific genetic pattern. He talked about the genetic closeness of domestic animals (animals within the same species, that is), regardless of the geographic distance between them, whereas there is more genetic diversity in wild animals with a large geographic distance. Essentially, humans have brought their animals with them as they've moved across the world and livestock and humans have bred with the locals.

Poly Baker talked about the Roman regional review which will be online soon. This is part of a series on animal bones published by English Heritage (now Historic England), where all sites from a specific time period and region (southern England, the Midlands, northern England and London) are listed and analysed as a group. They are highly useful if you need to find out what else is out there near a site you’re interested in. (currently published reviews for Southern England: Neolithic-early Bronze Age, middle Bronze Age-late Iron Age)

Julia Best talked about her work on the Chicken project, using x-ray to identify sex in birds (female birds have a calcium deposit inside their bones during egglaying as a reservoir against the extra need for calcium to form eggshells. Normally you can only spot this if the bone is broken), ZooMS on egg shells to identify species and microscopes to analyse the egg shell structure to see whether the egg was hatched or not. Her x-ray studies showed that the fowl bones from the shrine at Uley (UK) and the mithraeum in Tienen (Belgium) are mostly from male birds, suggesting that it wasn’t any random chicken that were chosen for sacrifice.

Gemma Ayton combined the themes of the meeting and talked about Roman dogs from Rothwell Hague. I admit that my attention wavered at this stage, and I have no notes about this talk at all. Sorry Gemma…

Fay Worley worked on a site in Northamptonshire where they found what they thought was the smallest Roman dog in Britain. Unfortunately, after having examined the evidence, it’s only the third smallest: A dog from Lincoln with a withers' height of 14.9cm is the smallest (Fay's dog was 18.0-18.9cm in withers' height). The Northamptonshire dog was gracile, similar to a Pomeranian. It was buried in a stone cist, near the burials of a woman and some infants. I can’t help but think that there must really be a story behind it.

Hannah O'Regan talking about excavations of a cave in south Cumbria with some interesting deposits of animals and human. Unfortunately there is very little comparative sites with bones in the region – probably due to poor bone preservation – and we don’t know if the deposits are continuing an Iron Age tradition of cave burials/deposits or if this is a new thing.

Hannah continued with another talk, this one on bears in Britain. There are several old, i.e. late Glacial, bear bones from caves in the north/midlands, but few archaeological finds. Wild bears were probably extinct in large parts of Britain rather early, so it's not surprising that there are few finds. However, we know from written sources that bears were used for enterntainment such as bear baiting in the medieval and post-medieval periods. Where did they come from, and where did their bones go?

Jackaline Robertson took us up to Edinburgh, where a midden from Advocates' Close in the Old Town could be directly related to historical happenings in the region: during Henry VIII’s rough wooing in the mid 1500s, there was a decrease of bone quantity and quality of the individual cuts. The inhabitants probably were on a starvation diet. Later on, in the 1700s, Advocate’s Close was home to the upper middle class (essentially, advocates) and deer bones indicated that they had eaten venison. And in the 1800s, the advocates moved to the fashionable New Town and the Close turned slowly into a slum.

Then we went to the bone lab for canid identification, ageing and sexing workshop, where a selection of bones and identification, ageing and sexing methods could be tried out. For some methods, we had to write down our results, and they would use this to check whether the methods worked or not. It's easy to assume a method works when you test it on one assemblage, but you really need to make sure that a) the method works on all assemblages (for example, different breeds can have different body proportions which makes metrical methods tricky to use, and some researchers use a very small assemblage which may not be representative of a larger sample), b) all researchers will hold the bones or the calipers in the same angle as you, and c) your instructions are clear to all. It will be very interesting to see how it worked out. Dogs are particularly tricky to work with since there is such great variation in body types between breeds, not to mention overlap between large dogs and wolves and between small slender dogs and foxes.

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