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This was the first PZG (professional zooarchaeology group) meeting since my move to Sweden last summer, and I really enjoyed seeing my ex-colleagues again. The meeting was held in Cardiff, where I had never been before, unless you count changing from train to regional bus for a living history event a few years ago. The city centre is fairly compact and can (as evidenced) be seen in two hours, including a visit to the castle, but excluding the art and natural history museum. I can recommend a visit to the castle, not for the actual remains of the Norman castle, which is probably only exciting if you're really into Norman castles or never seen one before, but for the 19th century rooms. They were described as state rooms for the marquesses of Bute, and I went in perfunctory, seeing as I had after all paid for it. But wow! This was not some generic 'seen one, seen them all' fancy rooms for nobles to impress other nobles, but rooms done in total neo-gothic style! I particularly liked the library and the so called Arab room.

Intarsia details from bookshelf in the library at Cardiff Castle
Intarsia details from a bookshelf in the library. Click to embiggen.

The actual meeting was in two parts: first several short talks on bone assemblages from feasting - or possibly not feasting! - and then a lunch break at a nice pub nearby. Somewhat of a student pub rather than "traditional", but they served good food and had a beer garden, so no complaints from me.

The talks discussed how to define "feasting", apparently an impossibility if you want to have a definition that can be useful in archaeology. As with all human activities, there are A LOT of variations and exceptions to rules. For example, one feasting definition includes food waste remains from animals not normally eaten to be one marker of "special" meals, but then, how do you exclude animals eaten in times of starvation when you can't be too picky about where your protein comes from? Also, if you define feasting too vaguely, it becomes too all-encompassing and therefore useless in regards to archaeology.

The talks also included two new PhD students talking about their research: Bettina Stolle from Stockholm on late Iron Age/Viking Age ritual-profane deposits, and Thomas Fowler from Nottingham on rabbits and hare. The latter is part of the Easter E.G. project, and will discuss introduction of brown hare and rabbit to Britain as well as distinguishing between brown hare and mountain hare.

We also had an interesting case study from Scotland, where it really goes into what I label "weird shit": a pit with a cattle skull + mandibles and three articulated cattle feet but with the final toe bones missing. As they excavated they found that the fourth cattle foot had been wedged into the cattle's mouth, possibly inserted from the back of the throat rather than from the mouth. No-one in the meeting had ever heard of something similar, so who knows what the reasoning was behind this action? Weird shit indeed.

The final morning thing was an outreach/creativity session. I really liked the creativity idea - useful for people who say they aren't creative, as it really forces you to think outside the box. The idea? One minute to come up with "101 uses for a dead rabbit" - luckily it's a magical rabbit, as after you've done one thing to it, it becomes whole again. We came up with: (several version of) food, lucky rabbit foot, draught excluder, hand puppet, fur hood, selling the bones as fashion accessories to hipsters, including it in a skeleton reference collection (of course!), reference data for Thomas (see above), and several other things I can't remember. We got far less than 101 uses though.

The afternoon session focussed on practical bone and antler working. Some of us leapt with great pleasure on 'making an antler ring' (the Cardiff archaeologists have done that as an outreach thing on several music festivals), and others, myself included, looked at tools and replica objects and talked to the two craftsmen -one an archaeological illustrator with this as a hobby, and the other a MSc student. It's always good to get some practical feedback on things. For example, many articles claim that antler was soaked in water before working as that renders it soft and pliable. The craftsmen said that a little spit was enough - if you soaked the antler the collagen became so soft that it became impossible to carve; just got the blade all gunky. Another thing I learnt was that it's not necessary to fill ring and dot-motifs or other carvings with tar or resins to colour them, just skin oil + dirt from normal use will do that very quickly.

Tools and replicas of antler artefacts, Cardiff University.
Hand drills and replicas of antler artefacts. Click to embiggen.

After the meeting my holiday continued: I visited a friend outside Cardiff, and then four days in London for research and touristing (unfortunately coinciding with a 30°C heatwave - at least the British Library was cool), and then a weeked of dancing at the Oxford Lindy Exchange (probably the best dance exchange in the UK, not that I'm biased or anything :-) ).
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This was the 10th anniversary of the Professional Zooarchaeology Group, and it was held in Fort Cumberland, a 18th century fort in Portsmouth where (parts of) Historic England have their offices. There were lots of good talks, celebratory cake and wine, a guided tour of the fort, and a very interesting workshop on identifying dogs from wolves and foxes, as well as sexing dogs.

cut for serious length )
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It's been a lovely but very busy weekend. It was the 10th anniversary of the Professional Zooarchaeology Group, and in honour of that the meeting stretched across the whole weekend, and not just the Saturday. It was held in Fort Cumberland, the listed 18th century fort on the outskirts of Portsmouth, where Historic England, the research part of English Heritage, is. The topics for the meeting were Roman zooarchaeology and dogs. We were also treated to a guided tour of the fort (more interesting than I had assumed - if you get a chance, don't miss it). After the meeting, we had dinner together at a fish restaurant at the seafront and on Sunday we had an excursion to Portchester Castle (probably the only medieval castle that was built within a Roman fort (and still has the Roman walls standing!) and Fishbourne Roman palace.

And now I have to deal with the aftermath of the meeting: contact the people I need to contact about various things, decipher my notes and re-write them, and do an Ossamenta post about the talks. My handwriting is not the tidiest, but when I write really fast, trying to keep up with a speaker, letters can be lost, transposed or only the mere rudimentaries of them gets put to paper. Luckily I at least know the context of the talk.

 photo P1060715_zpskvz60l1b.jpg
It says "variability within towns". Obvious, right?
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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. Read more... )

*: 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.
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Pathology is probably one of the more trickier parts of osteology. It's relatively easy to see that something is wrong on a bone, but to actually pinpoint it to a type of disease... Occasionally, you are lucky, but that's usually more to do with very particular pathologies from a particular type of disease. Often, the bony changes could have come from several kinds of diseases*. Sometimes it's not even a disease, just age related wear and tear. Of course it doesn't help that as opposed to human osteologists we usually only deal with single fragmented bones and not an entire body. Therefore I was very glad that I could go to the Professional Zooarchaeology Group's pathology themed meeting last month, to discuss these things with likeminded people.

*: Check veterinary medicine, I hear you say? Well, these days animals are often either treated or are put down before the disease progresses to stages where it affects the skeleton and not just the soft tissue. Consequently, veterinary medicine books are almost exclusively focussed on identification of disease from changes in soft tissue.

Read more... )
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I've just come back from a long day at the PZG meeting in Leicester. The theme was pathology and it was really interesting. My brain is bubbling with interesting research projects, neat things to add to the recording database, things to help my colleagues with, a possible alternative ph.d. idea, and much much more. A more detailed post will follow, but for those who can't wait, head over to Jim Morris' twitter, where he live tweeted the meeting.
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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…

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Old Sarum seen from the road.

The talks were quite varied, from cave bears to identification of ferrets/polecats.

Cut for length and pictures )
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I planned to write a rather late post on the York PZG meeting, but apparently I didn't bring my usual notebook, and now I can't find the one I used. But, fear not: the PZG webpage has a list of all meetings and minutes, so you won't miss what we talked about back in July last year. Seeing the Hungate site was particularly rewarding, for the sheer Oh. My. God. factor of the amount of bones. IIRC of an expected 1500 boxes of finds, they estimated that 1000 of those would be animal bone.

Large storage room with lots of boxes on shelves
A selection of the Hungate animal bone boxes. There might be some boxes in the photo that don't contain animal bone, but there certainly aren't many.

I'm taking a break from the big EEK site (scheduled to work on that one until summer), as two smaller project had to be done right now. They're generally pretty standard with a few surprises. Today I found an otter jaw. Wild mammals (with the exception of deer and hare) are normally very rare in post-mesolithic bone assemblages, and I can't recall ever seeing otter bones from the UK before. I'm glad I recognised it right away - we have no otter mandibles in the reference collection... I didn't bring a camera today, so pictures will have to wait until next week.

But you got to see this: a 40 second stop motion video on laying out a skeleton.
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Last Saturday was the twice-yearly Professional Zooarchaeology Group meeting, this time at Museum of London Archaeology, with the topic Unusual deposits. This included animal burials and associated bone groups, remains from feasting, animal bone in cremations, and other ”ususal” bone assemblages. We also had a galliform identification session, which proved that correctly id’ing fowl and their close relatives can be tricky.

Animal burials and their close association associated bone groups (ABGs), are tricky things in zooarchaeology. They started out as functional deposits (diseased animal unfit for consumption buried in a pit/ditch), and then went on to become ritual deposits (foundation sacrifices etc) sometime in the 1980s. Myself, I’m more of the it’s more complicated option, and will assume that both options can be likely interpretations. Butchery marks and deposition contexts can be a clue in what actually happened above ground back then, and can therefore help us get closer in our interpretations.

The two festing talks, one on Neolithic and early Bronze Age assemblages and one a case study of the Iron Age Hallaton assemblage, discussed ways to distinguish feasting remains from ordinary kitchen waste. This includes, but of course are not limited to, differences in species frequency*, skeletal element distribution**, age and sex, butchery and disposal.

*: Almost all bone remains from Hallaton were pig, which only comprises 20-30% of the cattle/sheep/pig bone assemblages in the region.
**: While all body parts were represented at Hallaton, the right distal limb bones were severely underrepresented. Were these bones placed elsewhere as a votive offering? Similar distribution biases occurr in Anglo-Norman deer remains, then connected to deer butchery rituals, so called unmaking of the deer, where different portions are given to different people according to rank and status.

The galliform practice session was very interesting, and rightfully probably made several of us tear our hair. We often do our identification under short budgets, and meticulously id'ing all bones from the tricky taxa (sheep/goat, horse/mule/donkey, canids, galliforms etc) can rarely be done. Often a few easily identifiable bones from these taxa get the proper treatment, and the rest are categorised as sheep/goat, or in the case of equids and canids: horse and dog, as the assemblages are more likely to include these species than the others in that group. But, this method, while useful to keep costs down, will also fail to recognise many rare species. There are few donkeys recorded for Roman Britain, and even fewer mules. But they were very likely used in the Roman army for transport - we just don't have the time to do detailed metric analyses of all "horse" bones we come across (particularly since mule bones overlap horse bones in size). Also, information on the introduction and spread of peafowl and pheasant suffers from lack of extensive data.

After the meeting we sojourned to a very nice nearby pub, The Island Queen. As snow was reported coming in over the country, those of use who lived in the midlands and northwards left earlier, but we from the southern parts said ”Nah, it’s probably not going to snow here until some time in the night. Let’s have another pint.” But when we left the pub (after only two pints, I’ll have you know), snow was falling. It hardly stuck to the ground as London does generate a lot of ambient heat, but it was pretty and we all felt very christmassy. Of course once you left London, the snow didn’t melt, and my bus got stuck in a long slow crawl on the motorway, due to general snow incompetency among many drivers. Thankfully we didn’t get stuck, and we were only two hours late into Oxford.

As an aside, #pzg is now also a topic on Twitter, thanks to [twitter.com profile] jimbonesmorris at MoLA.
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Last Saturday I went to Cambridge for the PZG meeting. This time the theme was butchery: how to record it, interpretations of butchery etc.

Some interesting thoughts on butchery patterns arose in two talks: on Roman and on Saxon butchery. Roman butchery seems to have been fairly consistent in urban, military and in some rural sites, the latter often road side settlements. This shows as long bones split down the middle and cleaver marks along the length of the bones. No fiddling around, just chop the meat of the bones (any bone protuberances will be chopped off as well) and then whack them open and scoop out the marrow. This is very suitable method when lots of people needs to be fed, such as towns and military sites. The rural sites don’t always match this, but could possibly be explained by retired urban or military butchers settling down elsewhere?

The Saxon sites (and unfortunately my notes didn’t make it clear whether this is valid for all sites, or only trade centres/only rural settlements) are also consistent, but in a different way: chop marks occur mostly on cattle, wheras knifes were used for disarticulation of sheep/goat and pig bones*. Skulls of all species were split lengthwise to remove the brain. The head was removed and the carcass split along the middle. This could either be done along the ”proper” midline or slightly offset. The former method would require suspending the carcass, which for the heavier cattle carcasses required sturdy beams in the slaughter house. Butchery method can thus be connected to architecture, showing that one section of archaeology cannot function in a vacuum, so to speak.

*: Sawing was only used for bone and antler working up to the later post-medieval period. Sawing took longer time, but was a precision method very suitable for craftsmen.

How to record butchery then? It depends what you want to get out of it (and, what other researchers want to get out of your data - I guess all archaeologists have at least once torn out our hair when reading interesting sentences in old reports, but which lacked the crucial information we needed). A variety of methods were used, from drawing the butchery marks on drawings of bones (later included in the site archive, but only a written summary included in the report itself), describing the butchery mark and its placement, the usage of various codes (often using the same base with individual modifications). In the end it was decided to try to come to some consensus, so it would be easier to use data from others. Hopefully something useful will come out of this. The problem is of course that each person thinks their way is preferable :-) and somewhere, something has to give.

And where to record? Databases seem obvious, but what kind of database? Windows are rather universal, but can be costly for freelancers and small units. Open source is good from a cost perspective, but which program? I’ve heard that Open Office’s database program is not as good as Access, but I assume there are others out there. I wish I had the skills to build my own, but for me, and for many others (most others?) in the community, computerese is a language we are not fluent in. I tried to teach myself Access a few years ago, but the books were either at the ”This is how you open a document”-stage or the ”need to be fluent in computerese/know at least one programming languages”-level. And they all assumed you were going to use Access for small scale business economics, and little of the information could be transferred to things I needed to know. Sigh.


Feb. 7th, 2010 09:51 pm
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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?


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