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Published: June 11th 2016
Modern Bone Processing
Modern fauna are processed through varying stages of boiling and chemical removal of soft tissues.
We are at least three weeks into this lab season...
Three weeks has equated to quite a number of things. A full human analysis from a grave at our main site. An informal lecture on the findings of this analysis for our crew. A formal lecture on these findings to the students. And then a very formal lecture on the findings, in Greek, at a public engagement event in Farsala (http://www.farsala.gr/2012-04-09-13-35-43/anakoinwseis/item/2286-kastro-kallitheas-etisia-ekdilosi-parousiasis-tou-arxaiologikou-ergou). I have reviewed over 1200 bags of previously-analysed animal bone: recording basic findings, comparing spatial diagnostics, and removing tooth samples for my study. I have started conducting my own analysis on over 1000 animal bone fragments (to date) from the second site, half of which required duplicate analyses when my hard-drive crashed (lesson learned on backing up files remotely). Removing soft tissue and mould from a modern sheep head using bleach in order to have a modern comparative sample. And giving four similar 3-hour lecture seminars to the students at our fieldschool, focusing on the importance of what osteologists, zooarchaeologists, and stable isotope scientists do and how these studies inform us about our site in Thessaly.
As an osteologist, my job is to analyse and record what human
materials we have. I lay all the materials on a table, one by one, and place them in rough anatomical order. This allows me to see how many individuals I am working with. If there are two right femurs, than there are at least two individuals. With each element I record any physical characteristics. Size and length can be used to calculate a person’s stature during life (how tall and/or how big were they?). Specific markers on the bones of the pelvis and cranium can illustrate biological sex and approximate age of the person at death. These characteristics represent basic demographic information. Abnormal markings on the bone can illustrate nutritional information and possible diseases that the living individual had during life. Markings can also indicate trauma done to bones around the time of death, or after they died and prior to recovery. The bones themselves begin to tell a story about the person who lived, died, and was buried prior to recovery and my analysis. Multiple skeletons can indicate information about the population, cultural practices, or aspects of diet. For example, teeth with many carious lesions (cavities) have been used in some communities to indicate diets heavy in sugars and
Museum examples of processed bone
Processed bones tell us animals in the area and how they were modified into tools.
other starches. All of these clues are used to paint a picture of the past.
Animal bones are a little different, but to tell a very different and equally important story about past lifeways. Unfortunately, the animal bones that I analyse are not often grave contexts with the full animal preserved intact like human burials. The bags of bone that I analyse mean fragments of different elements of different animals, and are often very fragmented. Think about the last time you prepared a meal that had meat. What type of cut did you have? Was it a T-bone steak, with the bone in, or chicken wings from a local pub? Meals like this produce bone garbage that gets discarded into the trash after meal preparation and consumption. A butcher’s rubbish is similar, with different assortments of bones, parts of the body that aren’t consumed, or cuts of different bones that represents different cuts of meat. The same thing would have happened in antiquity. When I get a bag of bones it may represent the heap of garbage from a consumed meal, a prepared dish, cleaning and preparing an animal after hunting or slaughtering the animal, or even ritualized context
Visual Representation of Animals in the Area
Museum Artwork depicting fauna found in the area of Almiros
wherein the animal is prepared for the Gods’ consumption.
Similar to human analysis, I approach a bag of animal bones in a comparable way, but different findings give me different information. First step, identify what the element is – what bone (or what part of each bone) do I have. Next step, if I am able to identify the element, is to identify the creature it belongs to (fish, bird, mammal, reptile/amphibian, shell). The type of animal present in an assemblage indicates what animals were available to humans, and those in excess help to explain favourable animals or those used for butchery, sacrifice, or domestication (for their bi-products).. The elements that are found can also identify preference for specific cuts of meat, or areas that were used for processing compared to those used for consumption. Hunters often discard the feet and entrails when they have caught an animal, either to give back to the natural ecosystem, or to lighten the load of elements they will not use. Antiquity tells us that every element has a use, and these processing sites, or removal of entrails/feet often occurs in areas of the home. Animal bones can therefore be used to illustrate
Faunal Bone Teaching in Progress
Phot of me and one of the field school students, taken by Lynsey and posted with permission.
available food, preferred cuts of meat, ritual culture, and room functionality. The age and sex of an animal also identifies important aspects of domestication and site economy. Finding only juvenile remains illustrates an economy focused on meat and consumption; adult remains in a community suggest that animals were used for another purpose (milk, wool, labour), and were slaughtered or died after they were unable to produce profitable bi-products.
These are the “bare bones” of zooarchaeological analysis. The methodology is nearly identical to that of an osteologist, but the meaning behind the findings is very different. As I go through the materials at my different sites, different trends become apparent, because different communities had different preferences, economies, and specialties according to context. Traditionally, archaeological sites in Alberta have considerable amounts of bison, and artefacts focus heavily on hunting and large bone-processing artefacts. Alternatively, the Great Lakes region of Ontario yields sites rich in fish bones, shell middens, and the tools required to hunt and process these fauna. Their terrain and available resources are inherently tied to what their economy was and what food was available to consume.
Sites are all connected. Understanding the clues left behind in the bones is something I’ve grown to love doing, and will continue to sort through as we enter the last 2 weeks of this year’s project. This description was the foundation for my lectures and there were many fruitful conversations that resulted. We also dove into stable isotope research, which is the foundation behind my dissertation project. Right now I am establishing the context. I am recording what animals were present, what trends I can see, and what these remains tell me about the ancient economy. The more I research these sites the more excited I get at my project. Physical analysis (macroscopic analysis) is an incredible tool, but it has its limitations. My project will get a little bit deeper and answer some of the bigger questions unobtainable from mere physical analysis.
But that’s a discussion for another day.
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