ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
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 :-) ).
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
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 )
ossamenta: Scientist clones dinosaur for T-rex steaks (Science)
There's so many things going on in my life now that I've been neglecting this blog a bit, and in particular letting the interesting links build up. I hope I can get rid of a fair few in this post.

- Author Nicola Griffith wrote an interesting post about elves, gender, Anglo-Saxon medical practice and how this was changed by Christianization.

- Another author (and historian), Kari Sperring did an half-hour talk at Exilicon on the real history of the three musketeers (video)

- A newly discovered velociraptor ancestor with feathers.

- In line with strange and mysterious ritual stuff, an Iron Age site in Dorset produced composite animals deposited in pits: A cow with horse legs, a sheep with an extra head at its bum etc. It will be very interesting to read the subsequent research and see what they can find out about Iron Age beliefs.

- Isotope research have revealed some very interesting things over the years, often upending our previous beliefs and assumptions. The newest thing that's come to my knowledge is a study of the famous Egtved girl in Denmark. She's one of the Bronze Age oak coffin burials that were excavated in the late 19th and early 20th century, where circumstances had managed preservation of organic remains, and they are subsequently our main source for Scandinavian Bronze Age clothing. Researchers took isotope samples from her teeth, hair, nails as well as from her clothing and found out that she wasn't Danish at all! (nor was her clothing) The isotope signatures point elsewhere, possibly what's now southeastern Germany (the geology is consistent with this, but more importantly (as this type of geology is found elsewhere) the archaeological record indicates a relationship between Denmark and this area during the Bronze Age). Correlating hair growth rate and several samples along one strand of hair, they also found that she had been going back and forth between Denmark and the other region (probably NW Germany) during her last two years in life. (A more detailed article in Danish)

- Of course, sometimes science makes things more boring. A DNA analysis of the hair tufts and hair cords found on the Norse settlement The Farm Beneath the Sand on Greenland changed the species identification from bear, bison and muskox (signifying trade with North America) to horse and goat (not signifying trade with North America).

- Neanderthal bone flutes were apparently made by hyenas, not Neanderthals.

- There's a new theory on why the wooly mammoth became extinct: osteoporosis may have "helped".

- The Paston Letters is one of the largest archives of 15th-century English private correspondence, comprising about 1000 letters and documents including petitions, leases, wills and even shopping lists. They offer a unique glimpse into the personal lives of three generations of the Paston family from Norfolk over a period of 70 years. A large part of the collection have now been scanned and put online at the British Library's website.

- If you are in New York, don't miss the Medieval rings exhibition at the Met museum.

- Pottery enthusiasts might like this intact wine vessel found in Early Medieval layers in the Danish town Ribe.
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
After over ten years as a zooarchaeologists, most bones have a certain ordinariness about them. It's butchery waste, sometimes industrial waste, and the occasional buried animal. Even if it's artefacts or pathologies you would at least have spotted similar bones in books or articles. But now and again you find a bone that makes you go WTF?

The latest one came from an Iron Age pit from a large settlement in Oxfordshire. It's a cheek part of a horse mandible with a smooth hole in it. Unfortunately we only have one half of the mandible, but I assume it was originally part of a set (as opposed to cattle mandibles, the two sides of horse mandibles are fused). The hole is smooth on all edges, so it couldn't have been suspended stationary for all its use - if so, only one part would have been smooth. The cord may have been large enough to fill the hole entirely, but it must have moved occasionally in order to smoothen the edges.

I have no idea how to interpret this. I have never seen anything similar in any book or article. Are we dealing with the partial remains of a horse head that was displayed and later discarded? I know that the classic definition of "ritual" being an "All-purpose explanation used where nothing else comes to mind" (recommended book, btw), but I can't think of any other way to explain this.


 photo P1060264_zpsajdn6by4.jpg

 photo P1060266_zpsk9z32dlj.jpg
Close-up of hole
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
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.
ossamenta: Scientist clones dinosaur for T-rex steaks (Science)
I have to take a break from the big rural Roman site, since there are a few smaller sites with urgent deadlines that have to go first. In one way, it's nice to have a bit of a break, think about other time periods and regions, having to write and not just record. But on the other hand it would be nice just to get on with it, and finish one site before starting another. But that's commercial archaeology for you.


I was linked to this, and found Trowelblazers - a site about female archaeologists at the beginning of the 20th century.
"Why hadn't I heard of these women? Not the individual names -- I can barely name any male archaeologists from that period -- but the idea of these women, working in such numbers and even leading their fields. It was as though we'd blithely wiped them all from our popular imaginations, and thus allowed each woman to be easily dismissed [...] as an exception-to-the-masculine- rule.

Martin Rundqvist posted about a really interesting site dug by our colleagues in Salisbury: 800 years of human sacrifice in Kent. Isotope analyses show that some of the dead people grew up in Scandinavia, some in the Mediterranean, and some were local. The researchers think that the sacrificed people could have been slaves, raided from various places in Europe, ending up in Kent. Perhaps the people with local isotope signatures were children of slaves who originally came from elsewhere?

Katy Meyers at Bones don't lie posted about another isotope project. This time it's an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Bamburgh, in northern England, where they found a great variation of isotope signatures among the population. The researchers argue that this settlement may have been connected to a religious community, where people could have come from all over Christian Europe for pilgrimage or for settling into the community.

The ultimate memento mori, a great idea for Halloween, or just plain fun for the bone mad among us? A Dutch artist 3D prints his own skeleton. I can see so many possibilities with this :-) .
ossamenta: (Book store = shiny!)
While browsing the Swedish Arkeologiforum (Archaeology forum - as if you couldn't guess :-) ), I came across a post on new excavations at Illerup Ådal. They haven't started yet, but funding has been acquired, so I will keep any eye out for more news. I find the Iron Age warfare sacrificial deposits in the North German/South Danish bogs fascinating, and it will be interesting to see what more they will find. They have found so many weapons, animals, and pieces of the warriors' outfits, but now they are going to dig in an area where lots of human bones have been discovered. Warriors on the losing side, or the dead ones on the winning side?
Article in Danish, and lots more information on Illerup Ådal here.

I'm planning to spend some money on books for my Ph.D. idea and through various site hopping* found a free online book (.pdf) on Medieval and Post-medieval smithing: Schmiedehandwerk in Mittelalter und Neuzeit. Beiträge des 6. Kolloquiums des Arbeitskreises zur archäologischen Erforschung des mittelalterlichen Handwerks. Perhaps it can be of interest? (The dead tree version is out of stock)


*: Oxbow and Antikmakler are great sites for archaeology books. Readers, do you have any favourites?


Remember my lament on the lack of zooarchaeology blogs a few posts ago? Kristina Killgrove of Powered by osteons gave me a really good tip: Jake's bones. It's a great blog written by a ten year old bone collector. I wish my parents let me have such fun when I was a kid. The fact that we lived in a large town and not in the wilds of Scotland may of course have something to do with it...
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
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.
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
It’s cold and dark now, and there aren’t as many Christmas lights in peoples’ windows and gardens as I would like to see. I guess it’s a combination of bad finances and that many people in Oxford live in rented rooms (less storage for seasonal items, and of course you usually go elsewhere for Christmas). In times like this, it’s nice to be able to recall warmer times.

Six months ago I was sent out in the field, to a Roman settlement site not very far from Oxford. It’s a gravel quarry site, and as the quarry expands, we get called in again. It’s the site that never ends, or at least if feels like it. I really like it, as it’s rather easy to dig (unless the ground is very dried out) and there’s usually no difficulties in distinguishing the archaeological feature from the natural ground it’s been dug into (as opposed to other sites I’ve been on). At first it was great digging weather - not nice summer weather, but I didn't care - but as the weeks went on it got hotter and on the breaks we tried to sit in the shade of the vans and the site hut, trying to catch a breeze.

Cut for pictures )

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