ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
I haven’t been to any archaeo/zooarch conferences since EAA2012, and since I can’t afford to go to ICAZ (this time it’s in Argentina!), I was very glad to see that the Postgraduate Zooarchaeology Forum was going to have their annual-ish* conference in London, and doubly glad that due to ICAZ the registration fee was only £10! The programme was very interesting and well worth one holiday from my yearly allowance.

*: meetings in 2009, 2010 and 2012.

Talk summaries under the cut )

The Institute of Archaeology is in the middle of the UCL complex between Euston Road and the British Museum, so it’s easy to get to (and they have a lovely little terrace on the top floor with a view over the trees in the square opposite!). The drawback is of course limited space for (for example) reference collections, but the students have access to the Natural History Museum’s collections which is a huge help for bone identification, particularly since UCL specialises in Near East and African zooarchaeology. We were given a tour of the lab, and they have some really interesting things, such as Simon Hillson’s loose tooth collection and part of the pathological bones used by Don Brothwell when he and John Baker wrote Animal diseases in archaeology in 1980. When our guide opened the "Pathology: infections" drawer, there was that wonderful combined oooh and eeeww sound you get when a bunch of zooarchaeologists see a cow mandible with an advanced stage of "lumpy jaw".

several animal bones with bone changing pathologies
One of the pathology drawers. The lumpy jaw cattle mandible is at the top, in the middle of the photo.


UCL archaeology department terrace
UCL archaeology department terrace
The lunch terrace at the archaeology department
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
Remember the mustelid bones I found a few weeks ago? They were either from pine marten or from polecat, but I didn't think it was possible to securely identify them from the shapes of the bones themselves.

So I asked a colleague at English Heritage - they have a huge reference collection of all kinds of animals - and she took some measurements from pine marten and polecat bones, and it turned out that my mustelid mostly matched pine martens! *does happy dance of rare species identification*

 photo SLGMpinemartenmeascomp_zps85714e85.png
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
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.

 photo GM_Mustelidbones_450px_zps514630db.jpg
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.

 photo GM_Mustelidfemurcomp_zpse0374f67.jpg
Femurs from pine marten, unknown mustelid and large tomcat.


 photo GM_Mustelidhumeruscomp_zps0d9f17d4.jpg
Humeri from pine marten, unknown mustelid and large tomcat.


 photo GM_Mustelidfemcomp_zpsca82872e.jpg
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.


 photo GM_Musteliddisthumcomp_zpsb06e5f0a.jpg
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.
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
When I was up in the burials department in the office yesterday, I was asked what the strangest animal bone was? My thoughts first went to marine mammals, as their style of life, so to speak, makes for bone shapes very different from those of land-living mammals. But then it struck me: mole humerus! As opposed to (all? most?) other animal humeri, the mole humerus is almost as wide as it is long. It is clearly shaped the way it is since moles spends their lives digging through the soil, rather than walking on it as most other mammals. I can just about recognise the two joints on either end of the bone, but there are so many muscle attachments all over it that they are not immediately obvious.

Photobucket
Left: rat humerus (for comparison), Right: mole humerus. The rat humerus is unfused on top, which is why there is a visible gap between the two parts.


The rest of the bones in the front limb also differs, but in less obvious ways.

Photobucket
The mole scapula is so slender. The rat scapula on the other hand is very similar in shape to most other mammal scapulae.

Photobucket Photobucket
The mole ulna is much more compact and with large muscle attachments on the top.

Photobucket
The difference between the hind limb (tibia/fibula and femur) of the rat (left) and mole (right) is less marked. The mole has again more compact bones with larger muscle attachments.

Readers: Any contenders for strangest animal bone?
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
Last Saturday was the twice-yearly Professional Zooarchaeology Group meeting, this time at Museum of London Archaeology, with the topic Unusual deposits. This included animal burials and associated bone groups, remains from feasting, animal bone in cremations, and other ”ususal” bone assemblages. We also had a galliform identification session, which proved that correctly id’ing fowl and their close relatives can be tricky.

Animal burials and their close association associated bone groups (ABGs), are tricky things in zooarchaeology. They started out as functional deposits (diseased animal unfit for consumption buried in a pit/ditch), and then went on to become ritual deposits (foundation sacrifices etc) sometime in the 1980s. Myself, I’m more of the it’s more complicated option, and will assume that both options can be likely interpretations. Butchery marks and deposition contexts can be a clue in what actually happened above ground back then, and can therefore help us get closer in our interpretations.

The two festing talks, one on Neolithic and early Bronze Age assemblages and one a case study of the Iron Age Hallaton assemblage, discussed ways to distinguish feasting remains from ordinary kitchen waste. This includes, but of course are not limited to, differences in species frequency*, skeletal element distribution**, age and sex, butchery and disposal.

*: Almost all bone remains from Hallaton were pig, which only comprises 20-30% of the cattle/sheep/pig bone assemblages in the region.
**: While all body parts were represented at Hallaton, the right distal limb bones were severely underrepresented. Were these bones placed elsewhere as a votive offering? Similar distribution biases occurr in Anglo-Norman deer remains, then connected to deer butchery rituals, so called unmaking of the deer, where different portions are given to different people according to rank and status.

The galliform practice session was very interesting, and rightfully probably made several of us tear our hair. We often do our identification under short budgets, and meticulously id'ing all bones from the tricky taxa (sheep/goat, horse/mule/donkey, canids, galliforms etc) can rarely be done. Often a few easily identifiable bones from these taxa get the proper treatment, and the rest are categorised as sheep/goat, or in the case of equids and canids: horse and dog, as the assemblages are more likely to include these species than the others in that group. But, this method, while useful to keep costs down, will also fail to recognise many rare species. There are few donkeys recorded for Roman Britain, and even fewer mules. But they were very likely used in the Roman army for transport - we just don't have the time to do detailed metric analyses of all "horse" bones we come across (particularly since mule bones overlap horse bones in size). Also, information on the introduction and spread of peafowl and pheasant suffers from lack of extensive data.

After the meeting we sojourned to a very nice nearby pub, The Island Queen. As snow was reported coming in over the country, those of use who lived in the midlands and northwards left earlier, but we from the southern parts said ”Nah, it’s probably not going to snow here until some time in the night. Let’s have another pint.” But when we left the pub (after only two pints, I’ll have you know), snow was falling. It hardly stuck to the ground as London does generate a lot of ambient heat, but it was pretty and we all felt very christmassy. Of course once you left London, the snow didn’t melt, and my bus got stuck in a long slow crawl on the motorway, due to general snow incompetency among many drivers. Thankfully we didn’t get stuck, and we were only two hours late into Oxford.

As an aside, #pzg is now also a topic on Twitter, thanks to [twitter.com profile] jimbonesmorris at MoLA.
ossamenta: Picture of an owl from a Medieval manuscript (Medieval owl)
My intention with this blog/journal was to post a bit more frequently than seems to be the reality. Sorry about that. Life has been busy, with lots of work, moving house and doing the last layout on my tanning essay. Soon (fingers crossed) I can hand it in!

Despite lots of work, there has been few bones worth writing about. One was quite interesting though. I had found this kind of bone before, but then as now I had no clue what it was. Often I can tell either species or bone type, but this time it just looked like nothing I had ever seen. A juvenile bone, so one would look for similarities in shape to bones from adults rather than a 100% match. Last time I gave up. This time I asked other osteologists on a discussion list (and oh what a useful discussion list it is), and two knew: it was a bird wing bone, an unfused part of the carpometacarpus. I had never seen even an image of an unfused carpometacarpus before. No wonder I had no clue how to identify it.

Bird bones
Carpometacarpus of adult duck, juvenile bird (possibly large chicken) and adult chicken

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