ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
Remember the mustelid bones I found a few weeks ago? They were either from pine marten or from polecat, but I didn't think it was possible to securely identify them from the shapes of the bones themselves.

So I asked a colleague at English Heritage - they have a huge reference collection of all kinds of animals - and she took some measurements from pine marten and polecat bones, and it turned out that my mustelid mostly matched pine martens! *does happy dance of rare species identification*

 photo SLGMpinemartenmeascomp_zps85714e85.png
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
I took a bag of bones and tipped them out. Thought "Wait a second…" and promptly put one bone aside. The rest went into a new bag, neatly labelled and put in the "someone else’s problem"-box.

Romans… *shakes head* Always burying people all over the place.

Well, to be fair, it’s something the people in the Iron Age also did. And then pits and ditches were dug into old pits and/or ditches - sometimes so old you wouldn’t know they even were there - and what was originally in them got mixed with new waste and soil.

animal and human bones
From left: cattle metacarpal, very fragmented human pelvis and the shaft of a human humerus.

As an aside, this is why it's very useful to study both human and animal bones, even if you only want to work in zooarchaeology. Disarticulated human bones are rather common on rural sites, and they are not always so complete that they are easily recognised.
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)
One week at work and I'm already feeling quite knackered. Although, to be fair, that probably has more to do with the Ph.D. application for Uppsala University that's due on Monday than the work situation per se. And it's getting chilly too over here: just a few degrees plus for the next few days. I have to go to the fabric shop tomorrow to see if I can get hold of some good wool to make leg warmers. I swear there is a small but persistent draught from the window in my office and all the cold gathers below my desk.

I've also been asked to do a talk for the university's Roman discussion forum this term. That will be fun! Admittedly it will also mean work, since I have no base to build the talk on. And in contrast to the medieval period there are no pretty manuscript images to catch the audience's eyes and interest. On the plus side, if they're not interested in animals, then they won't come. It's not like a conference where you have to sit through uninteresting talks to get to what to you is the good bits.

And to finish this post: an example on why collaboration with science and archaeology is good: "To the naked eye, the white, powdery substance appeared to be plaster. That’s what the professional and volunteer archaeologists at a dig in Israel concluded. To be certain, though, they subjected the chalky dust to spectroscopy and a petrographic microscope, only to discover that it was not a manufactured substance, but decayed plant life and fecal matter." And that's how you turn a house into a stable...
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 )
ossamenta: (Book store = shiny!)
Winchester is an interesting town. The ”first” settlement was an Iron Age hill fort, then at c. 70AD the Romans came and established a town there. In the early and mid-Saxon period there seems to be a decline of the town, but in 662AD Winchester becomes the site of the bishopric, and then becomes the capital of the kingdom of Wessex. After the Norman invasion London takes over the throne (so to speak), but Winchester remained the site of the bishopric. And not just any bishopric: the See of Winchester was one of the wealthiest in Medieval England.

winchester book cover

The Northgate House, Staple Gardens and Winchester Discovery Centre (formerly Winchester Library) sites are located in the north-west corner of the Roman and Medieval town, within the walls*. The Saxon (and Medieval) street Brudene Stret (nowadays Staple Gardens) separates the sites. There is plot continuation throughout the Late Saxon, Anglo-Norman and High Medieval periods, which lent itself to comparisons between the plots both spatially and chronologically. However, in the early 13th century, the buildings on the northwest side of Brudene Stret were demolished and the area formed part of the Archdeacon’s residence.

The book gives an introduction to the sites, including documentary evidence from the Medieval period and land use over time. The next few chapters discuss the two sites by period: Prehistoric and Roman, Late Saxon (c. 850-1150), and Anglo-Norman/Medieval (c. 1150-1550). The latter two chapters are discussed by property, which would facilitate easy chronological comparison. Thereafter follows a discussion of the site in a wider context, again by period. Here the Late Saxon and Anglo-Norman/Medieval periods are combined and form a substantial chapter, discussing the creation of the town, building development, water supply, pit function, industry and craft (metal working, textile working, skinning and furriering**, bone and horn working), and the Archdeacon’s residence.

There is a short chapter on the scientific dating evidence, i.e. radio carbon dating and archaeomagnetic dating, a method which was chosen since there was an abundance of fired hearths in situ throughout the Saxon period. A large number of dating samples were taken to form a detailed phasing of the site, trying to find out whether the properties were laid out at the same time, or grew more organically. Other research aims included finding out whether the settlement existed before or after the ”official” foundation of the burh, and trying to calibrate the pottery dating sequence.

That’s half the book. The other half is devoted to the finds. Lots of pottery, from prehistoric to post-medieval, much building material such as tile, stone and painted wall plaster, 305 Roman coins, several ”small finds”, i.e. metal and bone objects, glass and shale. The small finds are significantly summarized in the book (a shame, as I found lots of worked bone mounts when I did my analysis, and I haven’t got around to check the cd yet - mea culpa), and the full report is included on an accompanying cd. In fact, all specialist reports, including scientific dating, are included in full on the cd. The finds section in the book also includes the ecofacts, i.e. animal bone (a lot, including evidence for a furrier’s workshop), molluscs (not many), charcoal, seeds and other plant remains (a lot, including evidence for dyeing, probably textiles), as well as human bone (mainly a small number of Roman infant burials), intestinal parasites (very few). There’s also a summary of an analysis of soil micromorphology, chemistry and magnetic susceptibility.

As with the Lankhills book, there are plenty of drawing and colour photographs throughout the book. I would recommend the book to anyone with an interest in urban archaeology from these periods.

*: The layout of the town wall didn’t change much over the centuries. Waste not, want not, I guess.
**: This is one of the sites I use for my tawyers and furriers talk at the conference in Gdansk in September. It’s (AFAIK) the second site in Britain where they have found dumps of bones from squirrel feet - one of the most common fine furs in the Medieval period and subject of a huge industry and trade. The other site is much later in the period: The Bedern in York (14th century).

B.M. Ford and S. Teague, 2011. Winchester - a city in the making. Archaeological investigations beteeen 2002 and 2007 on the sites of Northgate House, Staple Gardens and the former Winchester Library, Jewry Street. Oxford Archaeology Monograph No. 12.
ossamenta: (Book store = shiny!)
As one of the contributors, I got a copy of the new Lankhills cemetery book last Friday. The book is so new it’s not out in the bookshops yet, but will probably be in the online catalogues next week or so.

Lankhills book cover

It’s a very thorough book, with good illustrations and (several) photographs. It deals with the AD300-400 cemetery outside the Roman town Venta Bulgarum, now Winchester, in southern England. The site has been excavated previously, see for example Clark, 1979, The Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester studies Vol.3. A total of 807 inhumation burials and 32 cremations have been excavated so far. The latest excavations, which this book covers, recovered 284 articulated skeletons, 100 deposits of disarticulated bones and 25 cremations. This latest assemblage also includes some unusual burials, such as eight prone inhumations (i.e. buried face to the ground) and five decapitated skeletons, one of which was an infant.

The main part of the book consists of the grave catalogue, artefact analysis and human remains analysis. The grave catalogue has colour drawings of almost every inhumation, including drawings of pottery and photographs of most grave goods (glass beads, bracelets of copper alloy and shale, rings of copper alloy and silver (including a few intaglio ones), copper alloy brooches (including one with inscription - this is featured on the book cover), bone combs, copper alloy buckles, knives, hair pins, spindle whorls and one glass vessel and a pair of decorated spurs). The hob nails and the textile imprints on artefacts are discussed (and photographed) in the artefact chapter, as is the pottery. The artefact chapter also includes analysis and discussion of each of the abovementioned artefact types, as well as coffin nails, coins and tiles.

The human remains analysis has the usual detailed studies of age, sex and stature, as well as a very extensive pathology section. There is much variation in the pathologies, not just the usual caries, fractures and osteoarthritis, but amputations, decapitations, DISH, cribra and femora orbitalia, osteomas, ankylosis, Perthes’ disease, necrosis, spondylosis, sinusitis, rickets and possible scurvy (as well as several other pathological conditions).

Smaller parts of the book discuss the cremation burials (including pyre technology), burnt and unburnt animal remains in the graves, isotope analysis and funerary rites. The isotope analysis concerns both 13C + 15N and oxygen + strontium. The 13C and 15N analysis focusses on unusual individual graves (DISH, decapitations, prone burials, ones with unusual grave goods) to see if the diet of these people differed from the rest of the population. The oxygen and strontium analysis on the other hand discusses ancestry. Samples were taken from 40 individuals, of which 11 showed non-british signatures: 10 were from the mediterranean region and one possibly from central Europe. The discussion on funerary rites includes the use of coffins and shrouds, body position and grave goods.

All in all, if you’re interested in Roman artefacts, or Roman human remains, I recommend getting hold of this book, or at least checking it out in the local university library. Even if you’re only interested in human paleopathology in general it might be worth having a look.

P. Booth, A. Simmonds, A. Boyle, S. Clough, H.E.M. Cool and D. Poore, 2010. The late Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester. Excavations 2000-2005. Oxford Archaeology Monograph No. 10.
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
Where do you put the bone expert on an excavation? At the ditch filled with bone fragments. I estimate that the deposit is approximately 70% bones and the rest is soil. The entire deposit is being taken up as samples, so that we don’t miss the smaller fragments. Well, I would probably have included everything, but when the method statement was written no-one knew I would be the one excavating the ditch.

As of last Friday, I’ve removed c. 70% of the deposit - what’s visible that is: I’m not certain where one edge is. Needs more trowelling. My initial impression is that the deposit mostly consist of chopped up pieces of cattle and horse long bones. From the fragmentation of the long bone ends it would probably be possible to discern butchery trends and how they correspond with previous studies of Roman butchery (cf. Maltby 1989, Maltby 2007 and Seetah 2006). I’m not sure if we’re dealing with waste from bone working or from cooking waste. If the deposit is cooking waste, it suggests that the bones may derive from a period of starvation, since horse were not normally eaten by the Romans.

Surface photo.

During excavation. This slot was a bit unusual, with the occasional ”non-long bone”, such as the sheep/goat mandible to the left, and much less long bone splinters.

Maltby, M. (1989) “Urban-rural variations in the butchering of cattle in Romano-British Hampshire”, in D. Serjeantson and T. Waldron (eds), Diet and crafts in towns: The evidence of animal remains from the Roman to the Post-Medieval periods. British Archaeology Reports vol. 199, Oxford. ISBN: 0860545989. pp. 75-106.

Maltby, M. (2007) “Chop and change: Specialist cattle carcass processing in Roman Britain”, in B. Croxford, N. Ray, R. Roth and N. White (eds) TRAC 2006. Proceedings of the sixteenth annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Oxbow Books, Oxford. ISBN: 978-1-84217-264-3. pp. 59-76.

Seetah, K. (2006) “Multidisciplinary approach to Romano-British cattle butchery”, in M. Maltby (ed), Integrating zooarchaeology. Oxbow books, Oxford. ISBN: 1-84217-123-2. pp. 109-116.
ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)
I was sitting at my desk, working on an animal bone report, when they said, ”Hey Lena! We need people on site urgently and your report deadline is not until November.” So off I went to site.

The last time I was excavating was over four years ago, so I felt very much like a newbie, with patches of memories regarding excavation procedures popping up now and again, and well aware that many parts of my body would hurt in the next few days.

People with little experience are usually put on simple tasks. For me, it was digging a ditch section. Piece of cake! Or so I thought… Midway down the ditch I found a circle of large stones. A bit peculiar, so I excavated the middle, and it turned out to be what looked like a stone lining of a pit. After I had planned and photographed the stones, I started to remove them.

And then things got a bit more complicated: what looked like a smaller stone which had shifted vertically, turned out to be a large stone, c. 40 x 25 cm. Such large stones are not likely to be accidentally positioned vertically in a otherwise slightly sloping stone lining. And sure enough, other stones around this one were positioned diagonally downwards, and there was a gap in between them. Possibly a stone lining of a posthole in the middle of the possible pit. And again it was time to plan and photograph.

And the fun didn’t end there. When I removed the larger vertical and diagonal stones, I found that the ”posthole” extended sideways, now with horisontal stones. Was this a (much smaller) pit lining? Back to the plan, and add the new stones. And below these stones: an articulated cattle pelvis and lower spine. And the table water.

That was my last day on site before heading off to Sweden for a symposium in honour of Elisabeth Iregren, professor in osteology at Lund university, who was retiring. When I came back to site my ditch had been taken over my one of my co-workers and it was now over a metre deep. No more peculiarities apparently.


ossamenta: Weasel skull (Default)

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