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?