ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
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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.


Jaco Weinstock talked about the bone growth rate in brown bears and the sex differences of the growth rate. Generally, male bears have larger bones, which is caused not only by faster bone growth, but also by bone growth over a longer period of time, compared to female bears.

He also talked about cave bears, which is the most common European fossil species from the Pleistocene. Despite this, we know relatively little about them. There are some finds from inner Asia and from Siberia, indicating that they had a far wider range than previously thought. Recent DNA analyses of cave bears suggest that there have been three subspecies (or possibly species in their own right) in Europe and Asia. The DNA analyses also showed that they were more closely related to polar bears than brown bears.

Aleks Pluskowski talked about the wolf in medieval Europe, and the problem of the minute archaeological record, particularly when compared to the substantial written records concerning wolves. Perhaps the dead wolves were dumped in the woods and fields and left to rot, and therefore not ending up on excavation sites. And/or zooarchaeologists are usually hedging our bets when it comes to wolves, and calling them a ”large canid”. After all, there is a significant overlap in size between dog and wolf, and if you only have part of a bone it’s not always possible to identify them to species.

Wendy Howard’s talk discussed the wide range of information on human utilization of carnivores from an anthropological point of view. She also talked about her hunting experiment: on identifying damages from arrows on small mammals. She used several different kinds of flint, bone and antler arrow heads, and several dead rabbits (easy to get from the butchers), and it turned out that the arrows gave a frayed edge where they had broken the bones. Normal cleaver chops give a straight edge, so that’s one way you might be able to identify hunting with bow and arrow from the zooarchaeological record.

Eva Fairnell summarised parts of her Ph.D. on the utilization of fur animals in Britain, with an emphasis on cut marks. The placement of cut marks can tell us much about utilization. For example, in Medieval and Post-medieval London, cut marks on the wild fur animals were mainly found on foot bones and skulls. Cats and dogs, on the other hand, had cut marks not only on feet and skulls, but all over the body. This suggests that after they were skinned (= cut marks on the feet and head), their carcasses were utilised for meat and fat. Probably not for human consumption (although you never know what ingredients medicine, cosmetics and folk magic can have). Eva also showed us (photo, not demonstration) that you can actually pull off the skin of the limbs from stoats without needing to cut the skin off. Which I suppose could be one explanation for the scarcity of cut marks.

Frazer Bowen talked about his M.Sc. on the identification of the domestic ferret and and its wild origin, the polecat. It’s apparently terribly tricky, with lots of overlap between morphological features and measurements. From this follows that it is difficult to say when the ferret is introduced to Britain. As far as we know, it’s the Normans who bring them and their main prey, the rabbit. But when? Now that’s another question…

 photo QueenMarysPsalter_ferretingl_zpsdd2a7fd4-1.jpg
Medieval ferreting (Queen Mary's Psalter, 1310-1320, British Library MS Royal 2.VII)

Mattie Holmes discussed the visibility of carnivores in the Early Medieval and Medieval archaeological record. I think I started to flag there, as I have no notes from that talk… Or possibly I was just preparing mentally for my own talk, which was next.

I talked about the use of fur animals on a couple of Mesolithic sites in Denmark, ranging far away in both time and place compared to most other talks that day. Essentially, the definition ”fur animal” is a bit problematic, since it implies an animal that is only or mainly used for its fur. Which is a good generalisation, but as usual, it's more complicated when theory meets reality. For example, at Agernæs and Ringkloster there are discarded carcasses of red and roe deer fawns, similar to the discarded carcasses of pine martens from the same sites. The inhabitants were probably after the spotted fur, since there are no signs of butchery or filleting on the fawn bones. Carnivore meat has also been used. Not indiscriminantly: pine marten for example usually only show cut marks from skinning. But on several sites, there are otter bones with lots of cut marks on the limb bones, suggesting that they have been butchered and the meat removed. On the site I studied, Hjerk Nor, there are similar cut marks from disarticulation and filleting on lots of bones from wild cat. Whether the carnivore meat was used "normally", in times of food scarcity, in rites of passage or for medicinal/magical purposes is unknown.


And then it was time for the practical session. Through the combined might of the reference collections from Wessex Archaeology and English Heritage, with added help from Sheila Hamilton-Dyer, we had lots and lots and lots of small and not so small carnivore skeletons to have a go at. There were also several articles on identification, if you wanted to see how well the criteria worked. If there had only been a few species out, I might have started checking identification criteria. But my brain went into overload and I just looked at lots of skeletons and skulls.


 photo Foxmandible-toothid_zps9ccabd4f.jpg
Fox identification: the lower carnassial, a.k.a. the first mandibular molar, has a tiny cusp on the lingual side (= inner side, towards the tongue) between the rear and middle main cusps. Dogs don't have it.


 photo Stoatweaselskeletons_zps159c8ee6.jpg
Lots of little stoat and weasel skeletons. You don't need big boxes for them.


 photo Hyenaskull_zpsa06bcfa7.jpg
Hyena: huge jaw muscle attachments, huge teeth, tiny brain case.


 photo EHdogskulls_zpsefcdbe37.jpg
Parts of the English Heritage's dog collection. All are of known species and sex, and for several we know not only their age, but also their life history.


 photo EHpekingeseskull_zps6dade314.jpg
This, on the other hand, is breeding gone very very wrong.

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