ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
[personal profile] ossamenta
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.


Siobhan Cooke, from Orkney College (University of the Highlands and Islands), spoke about interpreting horse skeletons in Viking Age burials in Orkney. Unfortunately the cemeteries were excavated in the 19th century and many bones have gone missing, as animal bones were considered of little consequence in those days. Still, four burials (all male) were recorded as including horses (presumably one horse per burial – she didn’t say). The usual interpretation of horses in burials involve display of status and/or wealth, presentation of the deceased as a warrior and/or horseman, and symbolic use of the horse as transport to/in the afterlife. Since only one of the four burials included weaponry (a spear), the association to warrior is weak. Cooke thinks the horse burials communicated allegiance, creating cultural affliction with passing Viking traders/raiders. Even if the burials themselves were not visible, oral tradition of the burial rite performance would have communicated allegiance.

Rebecca Reynolds (University of Nottingham) spoke about her finished – but not printed – Ph.D. thesis on Anglo-Saxon fish and fishing. In the early Saxon period, there are generally few fish bones and very few species, but in the middle and late Saxon periods, both the number of fish bones and the number of species present are high. Reynolds suggest that fishing was seen as a variation of hunting (for example large marine cods), and in the early Saxon period wilderness and the sea was seen as mysterious and/or hostile, while in the middle Saxon period there was a change in perception: now wilderness was to be conquered. Fishing is however a difficult subject to study, since the bones are so fragile and most are lost either well before excavation or during the excavation (if you don’t sieve most of the soil with very small sieves (0.5mm mesh will get you most small fish species)), and it was difficult to find a good method for site comparison (I must admit I didn’t take many notes about this, as I intended to wait until I can read her thesis). Another problem was that many early Saxon sites were excavated before sieving became a standard procedure).

Then we went back in time to the pleistocene, for Annemieke Milks (UCL) research on throwing spears and thrusting spears. There are two British finds of interest: a wooden point (possibly a spear point) from Clacton-on-Sea and a horse scapula fragment from Boxgrove with a possible perforation from a projectile weapon. Annemieke wants to check if using a hammer stone to smash bone (to access marrow etc) will give similar perforation pattern as the horse scapula. She also intends to research damage patterns from thrusted spears (previous research has mostly been on spear throwers or bow and arrow)

There were two interesting ongoing Ph.D.s on species identification: Ged Poland (University of Sheffield) on identifying goose and duck by using measurements. Not just simple greatest length and breadth, but ratios and multivariate analyses. He’s just starting to do the analyses, but so far he’s found that only some measurements can be successfully used for species identification and that it’s easier to distinguish duck species than goose species. Lenny Salvagno (University of Sheffield) is also using measurements, but to distinguish sheep from goat. There are known morphological differences, and she wants to translate them into biometrical indices. She’s going to reanalyse some sites with high goat and sheep frequencies, such as King’s Lynn and Flaxengate in Lincoln.

The “problem” with having Ph.D. students presenting their reasearch is that often they are not so long into their research that they can tell you the results, only the methods and preliminary results. However, you can get a good idea of what topics are worth following. Irish zooarchaeology is mostly or even totally behind me now, having worked in England for almost ten years, but Maureen Vaughan’s talk about the bones from Drumclay Crannog is one of those studies that I really want to read when it’s finished. Drumclay is an early Medieval settlement in County Fermanagh (southern Ulster). There are only 18 early Medieval assemblages of significant size (here = total MNI: >40). Half of those are from County Meath, and none from southern Ulster. So, essentially we know nothing about animal husbandry from that part of Ireland. Maureen has analysed 25% of the assemblage so far and is already over 40 individuals. The projected fragment count is 10,000. What’s truly interesting is that Drumclay is not consistent with other rural crannogs, nor with Viking Dublin. For example, 18% of the cattle were killed before 6 months of age. Possibly they were killed for making parchment from their hides and/or using their stomachs for rennet (cheese making), but in all other sites there is no such peak of slaughter of calves.


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

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