ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
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.

cut for serious length )
ossamenta: Text only: That would be an ecumenical matter (Ecumenical matter)
Forgot these ones:

- Recently retired Professor of Archaeology at York and well-known zooarchaeologist Terry O'Connor posted useful advice for newbie zooarchaeologists. Read it well: there is much truth in it.

- Some supercool Danish finds include a deposit of c.2000 small gold spirals dated to the Bronze Age. They think the spirals were possibly part of clothing decoration. (Danish article)
And last year they found 5000 year old foot prints as they were excavating for the Femern Belt tunnel.

- Bone assemblages that probably represent waste from feasts are found now and again in archaeology. Organising elaborate feasts was not only a way to display wealth (you could afford to slaughter this many animals) but also to bring a community together. An unusual feasting assemblage has been found in Llanmaes, an Iron Age site in Wales. About 80% of all bones from livestock came from pig – in itself unusual – but most of the pig bones came from the right fore limb. Such patterns are very unusual, and the archaeologists think that the bones represent joints that were brought to a communal feast where each participant brought an equal (literally) share of the food.
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
I've had a break from soil processing lately, as I was roped in to finish sorting some processed soil samples where we had an upcoming deadline. It is a great site, the old kitchen backyard from an Oxford college, and I can't wait to get my hands on the bones and do the analysis. The samples were full of fish bones and foot bones from rabbits (presumably the rest of the rabbit was discarded elsewhere with the food leftovers), as well as other bits and bobs. But oh how my eyes were tired. I had to give up my usual embroidery hour in front of the tv every single evening after doing the sorting of the 10-4mm and 4-2mm fractions.

Imagine one stack of A4 papers for the printer. Fill a tray of that volume with small gravel, charcoal and bone, all from the 4-2mm sieve. Carefully tip out what you can get with one hand stroke on to a shallow tray. Sort it and discard the leftovers. Repeat 6-7 times (or more) until the big tray is empty.

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One such shallow tray before sorting.

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What I got from an entire 4-2mm tray. Mammal and bird bones to the left and fish bones to the right. Thankfully we ignore the charcoal from this sieve size.
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: (Book store = shiny!)
The spring Oxbow catalogue came yesterday. So many wonderful books…. If only I had more money for buying them, more space to store them and more time to read them. But there are some really cool stuff that I feel the need to if not acquire, then to read them in the uni library.

cut )
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
Or, as the proper title of the meeting was: Mammalian carnivores in the archaeological record: Methodological and interpretive aspects. This time the Professional Zooarchaeology Group went to Salisbury, to the office of Wessex Archaeology. It’s not far from Old Sarum, the predecessor to Salisbury (founded 1219). The buildings, including the cathedral and the castle, are all gone now. The motte and the Iron Age hillfort that Old Sarum was located upon is all that remains. I sort of wished I had taken the train an hour earlier, so I would have had time to run around there and explore a bit. But just sort of. After all, I’m not that much of a morning person…

 photo OldSarum_zpsda42e12a.jpg
Old Sarum seen from the road.

The talks were quite varied, from cave bears to identification of ferrets/polecats.

Cut for length and pictures )
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
I planned to write a rather late post on the York PZG meeting, but apparently I didn't bring my usual notebook, and now I can't find the one I used. But, fear not: the PZG webpage has a list of all meetings and minutes, so you won't miss what we talked about back in July last year. Seeing the Hungate site was particularly rewarding, for the sheer Oh. My. God. factor of the amount of bones. IIRC of an expected 1500 boxes of finds, they estimated that 1000 of those would be animal bone.

Large storage room with lots of boxes on shelves
A selection of the Hungate animal bone boxes. There might be some boxes in the photo that don't contain animal bone, but there certainly aren't many.

I'm taking a break from the big EEK site (scheduled to work on that one until summer), as two smaller project had to be done right now. They're generally pretty standard with a few surprises. Today I found an otter jaw. Wild mammals (with the exception of deer and hare) are normally very rare in post-mesolithic bone assemblages, and I can't recall ever seeing otter bones from the UK before. I'm glad I recognised it right away - we have no otter mandibles in the reference collection... I didn't bring a camera today, so pictures will have to wait until next week.

But you got to see this: a 40 second stop motion video on laying out a skeleton.
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: Weasel skull (Default)
Last Saturday I went to Cambridge for the PZG meeting. This time the theme was butchery: how to record it, interpretations of butchery etc.

Some interesting thoughts on butchery patterns arose in two talks: on Roman and on Saxon butchery. Roman butchery seems to have been fairly consistent in urban, military and in some rural sites, the latter often road side settlements. This shows as long bones split down the middle and cleaver marks along the length of the bones. No fiddling around, just chop the meat of the bones (any bone protuberances will be chopped off as well) and then whack them open and scoop out the marrow. This is very suitable method when lots of people needs to be fed, such as towns and military sites. The rural sites don’t always match this, but could possibly be explained by retired urban or military butchers settling down elsewhere?

The Saxon sites (and unfortunately my notes didn’t make it clear whether this is valid for all sites, or only trade centres/only rural settlements) are also consistent, but in a different way: chop marks occur mostly on cattle, wheras knifes were used for disarticulation of sheep/goat and pig bones*. Skulls of all species were split lengthwise to remove the brain. The head was removed and the carcass split along the middle. This could either be done along the ”proper” midline or slightly offset. The former method would require suspending the carcass, which for the heavier cattle carcasses required sturdy beams in the slaughter house. Butchery method can thus be connected to architecture, showing that one section of archaeology cannot function in a vacuum, so to speak.

*: Sawing was only used for bone and antler working up to the later post-medieval period. Sawing took longer time, but was a precision method very suitable for craftsmen.

How to record butchery then? It depends what you want to get out of it (and, what other researchers want to get out of your data - I guess all archaeologists have at least once torn out our hair when reading interesting sentences in old reports, but which lacked the crucial information we needed). A variety of methods were used, from drawing the butchery marks on drawings of bones (later included in the site archive, but only a written summary included in the report itself), describing the butchery mark and its placement, the usage of various codes (often using the same base with individual modifications). In the end it was decided to try to come to some consensus, so it would be easier to use data from others. Hopefully something useful will come out of this. The problem is of course that each person thinks their way is preferable :-) and somewhere, something has to give.

And where to record? Databases seem obvious, but what kind of database? Windows are rather universal, but can be costly for freelancers and small units. Open source is good from a cost perspective, but which program? I’ve heard that Open Office’s database program is not as good as Access, but I assume there are others out there. I wish I had the skills to build my own, but for me, and for many others (most others?) in the community, computerese is a language we are not fluent in. I tried to teach myself Access a few years ago, but the books were either at the ”This is how you open a document”-stage or the ”need to be fluent in computerese/know at least one programming languages”-level. And they all assumed you were going to use Access for small scale business economics, and little of the information could be transferred to things I needed to know. Sigh.
ossamenta: Picture of an owl from a Medieval manuscript (Medieval owl)
Sometimes sexing birds can be very easy:
Male and female mallard - From Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes it is difficult:
Duck skeleton

While there can be size differences between males and females of the same species, there is often an overlap, which makes it difficult to carry out a reasonably secure sex estimation. If you have a large sample, you can hopefully get two (somewhat overlapping) bell curves, but bird bones are rarely found in such quantities*.

From a European point of view**, normally there are two ways of sexing birds: presence of spurs (only on galliforms, i.e. chicken, pheasant etc) and presence of medullary bone. Medullary bone is formed in the bone shaft cavity on female birds when they’re laying eggs. This acts as a calcium buffer for the egg shell development. The level of medullary bone can vary, from a millimetre lining on the cavity to a fully filled bone shaft, probably depending on where the hen was in the egg laying cycle, and/or how calcium rich the feed is. Medullary bone are most often found in the femur and tibiotarsus (the thigh bone and the drumstick bone). Medullary bone sexing has two major drawbacks: It can only be observed in fragmented bones. Since bird bones normally are rather small, there is little need to portioning them by cutting them in two, as is done with bones from cattle, sheep and pig. It is therefore likely that we miss several egg laying hens in bone assemblages. Secondly, the method only counts egg laying hens, possibly not the preferred animals to slaughter.

Medullary bone inside a fowl femur
Medullary bone inside a fowl femur

Close-up of medullary bone inside a fowl femur
Close-up of medullary bone

Spurs are more straightforward when it comes to sex estimation, even if they only appear in a few species. However, just as with horse canine teeth, occasionally females have them too. The bone part of the spur forms separately and fuses with the bone shaft at six months of age, although this is very variable.

Male and female fowl tarsometatarsus
Male and female fowl tarsometatarsus

Sometimes spurs have been cut off, either as a way to castrate the fowl (or, possibly to prevent fights within the flock) or to make it easier to tie metal spurs on for cock fighting. Not that that was necessary, cock fighting did and does happen with "natural" spurs too. Sometimes a predominance of male fowl in an archaeological assemblage has been interpreted as occurrence of cock fighting, although, at least for the Roman period, cocks would also have been the preferred sex for sacrifice.

Medieval cock fighting, from MS Bodleian 264, fol. 50r.
Medieval cock fighting, from MS Bodleian 264, fol. 50r.

Conclusion: bird sexing is much easier with live ones!

(read more? Dale Serjeantson, 2009, Birds, Cambridge University Press.)

*: Not only are there normally less chicken on the menu than cattle, sheep and pig, but the thin bird bones are easily destroyed in the soil.
**: I don’t have the experience to say whether non-galliform birds on other continents have sexually distinct skeletal elements or not. If some of my readers know, please tell me!


Feb. 7th, 2010 09:51 pm
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
In 2005, the network Professional Zooarchaeology Group (PZG for short) was founded, to promote cooperation between zooarchaeologists in Britain in order to increase the quality of research and reports. The PZG meet twice a year, in units and universities all over Britain, for informative talks, difficult bone identification help and general networking. Subjects covered have included scientific approaches, ageing and sexing, pathology, statistics, bird and fish bones.

There are approximately 60 members, although not all can make it to the meetings, due to cost and time. For example, I have only been to half of the meetings. Luckily I managed to get cheap train tickets for this year’s first meeting: last weekend, in Sheffield. The subject was reference collections, something sorely on my mind, as ours could be better. Mind you, it’s not bad, and for most cases quite adequate for my needs, but you always want that better one, right? Unfortunately, my life conspires against me in regards to increasing the reference collection: a) I’m not rich enough to buy all species we could need (for example, a small common animal, such as blackbird or rat, cost c. £20. Larger or rarer, then you go up in price)*, b) I don’t live in the countryside, with easy (?) access to roadkill, c) I don’t have a free-ranging cat to give me small ”presents” on a regular basis, d) I don’t have a garden or allotment to bury carcasses in, e) I don’t have a place of my own, and I doubt my housemates or my landlord would like me to process dead animals in the kitchen! It is after all a rather smelly process, particularly if they’re roadkill or have otherwise been dead for a while.

Even if you’re an experienced zooarchaeologist you need a reference collection. Not only did our ancestors chop up bones into fragments which can be difficult to identify to species, as opposed to the more general categories ”medium mammal” and ”large mammal”, but unusual species rapidly increase the need for comparative material. This is particularly important for birds, which include many species with similar skeletons. There is also, as all bird watchers know, a large potential for exotic species.

The talks at the meeting discussed how to source animals (butchers, friends, roadkill, cats (see above), etc), not forgetting the legal aspects. As units involved in research/education, we are allowed to keep skeletal remains of animals, but if they are considered protected by UK or EU law, there are forms to fill in in order to get permission to possess. And if you want to sell or trade parts of your collection, there are other forms to download…

Two talks covered methods to skeletize animals. The more economic ones are maceration, burying and boiling, which can be done at home, providing you have a garden and non-nosy neighbours. Neighbours with a distinct lack of smell are also very useful. If you have a large unit behind you, you might want to invest in beetles or enzymes. Sadly, these are not smell-free methods either.

We also discussed accessibility of reference collections. Some places, like the Natural History Museum and York University charge for access to their collections. This is also the case for several places in Germany and in the Netherlands. This is a problem particularly for zooarchaeologists connected to commercial units as these are not considered educational in the sense that universities are, and can therefore not be made excempt for the charges. After all, we’re technically doing our research for profit… Much access seem to be on a contact/ad hoc basis. I have used university collections before, without applying for access, as I knew the people there, and not e-mailing and asking them if I could come up and check something just seemed very unnatural.

*: No, work don’t have that money either. We’re not out of the recession yet, ok?


ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)

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