ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
[personal profile] ossamenta
Last weekend I went up really early* to go to Preston in Lancashire for the twice-yearly Professional Zooarchaeology Group meeting. Usually, at least for (northern) Europe, when we identify equid bones, we call them “horse”. This may not be entirely accurate, particularly for Roman and post-Roman periods, when donkeys and mules were also used for transport. Horses and donkey, not to mention mules, can be really tricky to identify correctly to species, so this equid meeting included a identificaton session at the end.

The talks ranged from early domestication to size increases to horse burials.
Alan Outram talked about early horse domestication in the Botai culture in northern Kazakhstan, and what evidence we have for it. Horse domestication is difficult to identify from bones alone, since there are no apparent changes in size or morphology between wild and domestic animals. Usually archaeologists have to go to artefacts, such as the presence of horse tack or depictions of riding or chariots, to see whether horses were domesticated in a certain region. The earliest evidence for this comes from the trans-ural region and the near east, from around 2000BC. But the Botai culture is much earlier (c. 3500-3000BC), with several circumstantial evidences for domestication: back pathologies from riding (could be age related), bit wear on the teeth (could be caused by malocclusion, i.e. misalignment of the teeth in the upper and lower jaw), lots of horse dung found in soil samples (could have gathered horse dung for fuel on the steppe) etc. They also checked measurements of the bones, and found that the Botai horses are closer in slenderness/robusticity to Bronze Age domestic horses and modern mongolian domestic horses than wild palaeolithic horses. Modern dna and isotope analyses were the last arguments in favour of domestic horses in Botai: DNA analysis on horse colour show an increase in colour variation in this region at c. 3000BC, and isotope analysis on fat residues indicated the use of horse fat and horse milk in Botai. Horse fat can of course come from wild horses, but I doubt you could easily milk wild mares.

Robin Bendrey talked about bit wear and three methods to identify it: bevel on the first lower premolar (not as good sign, as this may be caused by malocclusion), stripe of wear on the enamel on the front of the tooth, and pathological bone growth on the diastema, the part of the jaw between the front teeth and the cheek teeth, where the bit lies.

Richard Thomas wrote an article together with Matty Holmes and Jim Morris on size changes in livestock in London during the medieval and post-medieval period. He's now extended this study to horses, and there were some interesting results. The first period (1220-1350) had the largest size range, from 119-165cm in withers' height. Most horses were between 130-147cm. (For the record, the height limit for ponies is 147cm). In the period after the Black Death, there was a drop in average size, quite opposed to livestock in this period, which rose. The size increase for livestock may be due to changes in land owning and land management, with farmers being more directly responsible for changes in their personal wealth. But why did this not affect horses the same way? Perhaps the London sample is too limited?
It is not often we can see direct connections with historical events and archaeological data, as the historical events are pinpointed to single days or years, and archaeology has much broader time ranges. But in the London horse data for the late 15th century, Henry VIII's acts to promote breeding of large horses are reflected in the contemporary bone material: a large rise in average size, even larger than the average horse in the 1220-1350 period. A further rise in average size came in the 17th century, following the general rise of livestock improvement.

Jim Morris and Duncan Sayer talked about horse and cattle burials on the early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Oakington, Cambridgeshire. Horse burials are not too unusual for the Anglo-Saxon period, and are often assumed to be: whole horse, deposited in grave with (male) warrior owner, for the use of in the afterlife. However, things are – as they often are – more complicated than that. First, the unique cow burial with a 20-35 year old woman: cut marks on the foot bones indicate that the cow was skinned before deposit. Did some of the meat get removed as well for a funeral feast? There are no other cut marks on the bones, but you don't need to cut into bones to remove, say a piece of the large thigh muscles. One of the two horse burials from the Great Chesterford cemetery in Essex also didn't follow the above assumed pattern: parts of the hind legs had been burnt, and the front legs were absent altogether.

Jackie Robertson from AOC Archaeology in Edinburgh gave an eyeopening report (at least for us who are based in southern Britain) about a Roman fort site in Falkirk. A huge assemblage for Scotland, i.e. a total of 3150 bones, of which 270 were identified to species. That's so small compared to what we get around here...

Then we left Europe, and went with Lee Broderick to an Oyo Empire site at the present day Nigeria/Benin border. The assemblage was dominated by equids, and there was a large variety of wild species. Normally, when a single species dominate an assemblage, we assume that this was the most important species in regards to diet and economy. But perhaps this was not the case. The Oyo had a powerful cavalry, with horses imported from Europe via north Africa. An ethnohistorical record says that consumption of horse was restricted to the elite. But only nine equid bones showed cutmarks, and those were all on the lower legs. Perhaps the equids were all (or mostly) zebras, and the bones indicate production of hides rather than diet? (Zebras and horses: extremely difficult to identify to species on the bones alone)

After a tasty lunch – and that cake sets a high bar for future meetings! - we finished the meeting in the bone lab, where several equid skeletons were laid out for us to look at. We had help from the identification criteria in Cluny Johnstone's Ph.D. A biometric study of equids in the Roman world, but it was still tricky. I'm not sure we had consensus in correct identification of a single individual. Some traits were clearly better than others, but really, you need (often) the whole archaeological bone, and definitely good reference bones from at least one horse and one donkey.

*: seriously, England, why is it not possible to go north at a reasonable hour on a Saturday? I know you think the universe revolves around London, but seriously... I couldn't even get to Birmingham early enough to catch another train towards Preston. Going south to London was easy, and then the morning London-Glasgow train got me to Preston in time for the meeting.

The event was livetweeted at #pzg, for those of you who live for twitter.

Date: 2014-12-03 04:18 am (UTC)
needled_ink_1975: A snarling cougar; colored pencil on paper (Default)
From: [personal profile] needled_ink_1975
Re: horses ending up smaller after the Black Death– horse sizes are, and always have been, directly related to the skills of the humans who have to handle them. "Too much horse" –that's a very old saw among riders, and is validly thrown at anyone who clearly cannot handle their mount. There's a good reason for that. An uncontrolled horse is dangerous; horses still kill humans every year, and more often than not those incidents involve someone with "too much horse".

Now relate that back to thousands of people dying due to the plague, many of them the men and women capable of handling large, sometimes temperamental horses. The people left behind probably sold/butchered the larger horses, and kept the smaller, more easily handled/managed horses. Unlike today, they relied on horses heavily; in some instances a working horse (plow and draft) was the difference between surviving the winter and starving. Those people had already been halfway wiped out, and couldn't afford to take risks with "too much horse."

Just my theory.


ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)

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