ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
The most common species on almost all archaeological sites in Britain since the Neolithic are cattle, sheep/goat and pig. Somewhat less common animals are horse - much more common in the countryside than in towns - dog, cat, chicken and red/fallow deer. I guess you can all see the trend: almost all animal bones on archaeological sites are from domestic animals. The exception are high-status sites, which usually contain more wild animals. Admittedly wild animals are still in a minority in those, but it’s a larger minority than in your average urban and rural sites.

But what has all this to do with my very ordinary Roman rural site? As with most sites, the budget is a bit smaller than what I would like, so I can’t record and analyse every bone from the site. For this site I concentrate on the early/middle Roman phase and only record ”valuable” features from the late Roman phase. Valuable here usually means large pit or ditch deposits and smaller features that contain bones that can be used for analysing slaughter age patterns, sex ratios, pathologies etc. This means I look at every bag to see if the context is valuable or not. The few bones from pit 4531 were not supposed to be recorded, but when I spotted the cat bones I knew I had to included them. Cats are quite rare on Roman sites, and it was the first such find so far.

 photo GM_Mustelidbones_450px_zps514630db.jpg
Right and left femur, fibula, tibia and humerus, probably from the same animal.

But then, when I looked the bones properly, they didn’t seem quite right. The supracondylar foramen on the humerus is almost exclusively found in cats and mustelids (in Europe at least, other continents may have other species that has it as well), so that limited my options. I compared the bone to a pine marten and a cat, and lo and behold: it’s a medium-sized mustelid, probably pine marten or polecat! (stone marten is not found in the UK, so I don’t have to worry about a third species). Bones from fur animals are very rare in archaeological assemblages, so this was very exciting.

 photo GM_Mustelidfemurcomp_zpse0374f67.jpg
Femurs from pine marten, unknown mustelid and large tomcat.

 photo GM_Mustelidhumeruscomp_zps0d9f17d4.jpg
Humeri from pine marten, unknown mustelid and large tomcat.

 photo GM_Mustelidfemcomp_zpsca82872e.jpg
Close-up of the upper part of the femur. Note that the trochanter minor (the little lump at the start of the shaft) is a lump on the cat but a pinch on the two mustelids.

 photo GM_Musteliddisthumcomp_zpsb06e5f0a.jpg
Close-up of the lower part of the humerus. Note that the bony bridge enclosing the supracondylar foramen is differently shaped in the cat and in the mustelids. The ridge on the opposite side is also different.

Identifying mustelids can be difficult. There are a few distinct markers on the skull, but the rest of the skeleton can be quite similar. That said, badgers, otters and wolverines can be quite distinct. It’s the other ones you have to worry about. You can group them by size, pine marten, beech marten and polecat/ferret being the medium sized group and weasel and stoat being the small sized group. But there is considerable overlap within those groups, both between males and females and between the species. Weasels in particular are notorious. They vary so much geographically that you have to make certain your reference specimen comes from the same region as your archaeological bones. For example: a male weasel from northern Sweden can be 17-23cm long, and a male weasel from the Mediterranean can be 26-38cm long. Now if you add females into this, the ones from northern Sweden can be 17-19cm long and the ones from the Mediterranean 23-29cm. Weasels from Britain and central Europe are somewhere in between.

In order to try to identify the mustelid to species, I will probably have to go to English Heritage in Portsmouth and have a look at their reference collection. Hopefully they won’t overlap too badly. I can also contact other zooarchaeologists and see if they have any measurements from Roman pine martens or polecats. Wish me luck. I think I will need it.
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: Picture of an owl from a Medieval manuscript (Medieval owl)
In the comments to the strangest animal bone-post, I mentioned bird quadrates. And since I doubt most readers will immediately get an image in their minds from that word alone, I thought I’d add a picture.

Quadrates from chicken (left) and duck (right). This bone attaches between the skull and the mandible in birds and reptiles.

The quadrate is one of those bones that are rarely illustrated, so when you find them it’s not easy to immediately attach them to a species or to a specific element group. Before I learned to recognise them for what they were, I often put them in the fish bones bag.

Here is a good photo of the quadrate in situ.

And in my hunt for cool zooarch blogs, I came across Zygoma, which mostly consist of very difficult mystery object posts. The reason I find them very difficult is that these specimens come from all over the world - it's not too difficult to identify the type of animal, but which of the 13 different otter species is the one in the photo? *tears hair*
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
When I was up in the burials department in the office yesterday, I was asked what the strangest animal bone was? My thoughts first went to marine mammals, as their style of life, so to speak, makes for bone shapes very different from those of land-living mammals. But then it struck me: mole humerus! As opposed to (all? most?) other animal humeri, the mole humerus is almost as wide as it is long. It is clearly shaped the way it is since moles spends their lives digging through the soil, rather than walking on it as most other mammals. I can just about recognise the two joints on either end of the bone, but there are so many muscle attachments all over it that they are not immediately obvious.

Left: rat humerus (for comparison), Right: mole humerus. The rat humerus is unfused on top, which is why there is a visible gap between the two parts.

The rest of the bones in the front limb also differs, but in less obvious ways.

The mole scapula is so slender. The rat scapula on the other hand is very similar in shape to most other mammal scapulae.

Photobucket Photobucket
The mole ulna is much more compact and with large muscle attachments on the top.

The difference between the hind limb (tibia/fibula and femur) of the rat (left) and mole (right) is less marked. The mole has again more compact bones with larger muscle attachments.

Readers: Any contenders for strangest animal bone?


ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)

January 2019

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