The most common species on almost all archaeological sites in Britain since the Neolithic are cattle, sheep/goat and pig. Somewhat less common animals are horse - much more common in the countryside than in towns - dog, cat, chicken and red/fallow deer. I guess you can all see the trend: almost all animal bones on archaeological sites are from domestic animals. The exception are high-status sites, which usually contain more wild animals. Admittedly wild animals are still in a minority in those, but it’s a larger minority than in your average urban and rural sites.
But what has all this to do with my very ordinary Roman rural site? As with most sites, the budget is a bit smaller than what I would like, so I can’t record and analyse every bone from the site. For this site I concentrate on the early/middle Roman phase and only record ”valuable” features from the late Roman phase. Valuable here usually means large pit or ditch deposits and smaller features that contain bones that can be used for analysing slaughter age patterns, sex ratios, pathologies etc. This means I look at every bag to see if the context is valuable or not. The few bones from pit 4531 were not supposed to be recorded, but when I spotted the cat bones I knew I had to included them. Cats are quite rare on Roman sites, and it was the first such find so far.Right and left femur, fibula, tibia and humerus, probably from the same animal.
But then, when I looked the bones properly, they didn’t seem quite right. The supracondylar foramen on the humerus is almost exclusively found in cats and mustelids (in Europe at least, other continents may have other species that has it as well), so that limited my options. I compared the bone to a pine marten and a cat, and lo and behold: it’s a medium-sized mustelid, probably pine marten or polecat! (stone marten is not found in the UK, so I don’t have to worry about a third species). Bones from fur animals are very rare in archaeological assemblages, so this was very exciting. Femurs from pine marten, unknown mustelid and large tomcat.Humeri from pine marten, unknown mustelid and large tomcat.Close-up of the upper part of the femur. Note that the trochanter minor (the little lump at the start of the shaft) is a lump on the cat but a pinch on the two mustelids.Close-up of the lower part of the humerus. Note that the bony bridge enclosing the supracondylar foramen is differently shaped in the cat and in the mustelids. The ridge on the opposite side is also different.
Identifying mustelids can be difficult. There are a few distinct markers on the skull, but the rest of the skeleton can be quite similar. That said, badgers, otters and wolverines can be quite distinct. It’s the other ones you have to worry about. You can group them by size, pine marten, beech marten and polecat/ferret being the medium sized group and weasel and stoat being the small sized group. But there is considerable overlap within those groups, both between males and females and between the species. Weasels in particular are notorious. They vary so much geographically that you have to make certain your reference specimen comes from the same region as your archaeological bones. For example: a male weasel from northern Sweden can be 17-23cm long, and a male weasel from the Mediterranean can be 26-38cm long. Now if you add females into this, the ones from northern Sweden can be 17-19cm long and the ones from the Mediterranean 23-29cm. Weasels from Britain and central Europe are somewhere in between.
In order to try to identify the mustelid to species, I will probably have to go to English Heritage in Portsmouth and have a look at their reference collection. Hopefully they won’t overlap too badly. I can also contact other zooarchaeologists and see if they have any measurements from Roman pine martens or polecats. Wish me luck. I think I will need it.