On Fish, the Bane of All Archaeologists’ Lives

Well, not all archaeologists…

Here’s the thing about fish bones: they can, and will most likely, be small and fragile in your assemblages. How small and fragile? So small, if you sneeze you might blow a couple hundred of them off your finds tray. So fragile, you might snap a few with a tweezer.

So not the most fun thing in the world to work with. And I should know. I did my MSc dissertation on analysing thousands of them for three months.

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These are fish scales that I counted – by hand! All in the name of science.

But let’s give credit where credit is due: fish, as annoying as they can be to work with, are vital to understanding the archaeological record. As with other animal bones, fish bones can tell us a lot about the diet of the inhabitants of a given site.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg! Fish, like many other animals, can be utilised in ways beyond food (i.e; fish oil). To further investigate this, we can analyse pottery and other artefacts for traces of oil. By identifying and quantifying the specific bones, we can also determine what inhabitants were most likely doing with the fish – if there are many fish head bones, for example, then the processing of the fish was most likely performed here. No fish head bones and a landlocked site? Maybe the fish were caught and processed elsewhere, and then traded to this settlement! Looking into fish species, we can also see how the fish were caught. Once we identify the bones to species, we can look at their seasonality and where they normally are located within a body of water (coastal? deep sea?), which can tell us a lot about hunting techniques and the technology that must have been employed to catch them. This is also very important if there’s a lack of fishing-related artefacts, but fishing is suspected.

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An example of size differences in fish – these are both the same bone, different sizes!

Fish can be a difficult animal to work with in archaeology. As I mentioned before, fish bones can be very small, which makes identification and handling very difficult! Unlike other animal bones, which often at least have some semblance to human bones that make identifications a bit easier, fish bones often look very alien! They are also very fragile, which means preservation is often not very good.

After working with them for a summer, however, I’ve come to realise how important fish bones are to the archaeological record and how easy it is to take them for granted! So here’s to you, fish bones – you are very annoying to work with at times, but also incredibly helpful and important!

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The cleithrum is a bone unique to fish – and also my favourite! It looks like a wing, doesn’t it?

Want to learn more about fish bones?

The University of Nottingham has an amazing fish bone reference website that has saved my neck a few times during my research.

The North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation (NABO) also has a fish bone manual that may be handy for recording bones.

 

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