On The Average Day of a Zooarchaeologist, or “So like, what do you even do?”

There aren’t many zooarchaeologists in my department…in fact, I could probably count the amount of zooarchaeologists in my department on one hand. Which means that most people in my department probably don’t even know what I actually do in my day-to-day work life! Let alone my non-archaeologist friends and family (I’m pretty sure my own mother still thinks I work on mummies, to be honest…). The most common question after “What’s a zooarchaeologist?” is usually “So…what do you actually do, then?”.

In that case, now that most readers of this blog probably have a good idea of what zooarchaeology is, let’s take a look at an average day in the life of a zooarchaeologist in the lab!

Let’s Get Some Bones – One of Two Ways

So…where do I actually get all those bones? Sometimes they’re from excavations I’ve personally worked on…most often, however, they have been excavated by other people. There’s two main ways I specifically get animal bones: out of a bulk sample (see above left) or hand collected (see above right). Bones from a bulk sample may be sieved out or, to the dismay of many undergraduate students tasked with it, sorted out by hand with tweezers. This will often result in smaller bone – fish, rodents, some birds, etc.

Bones that have been collect by hand at the excavation site are usually larger bone that will stick out like a sore thumb (or, in this case I guess, a giant cattle bone) during a dig and get bagged immediately. To be honest, these are my favourites – there’s nothing like getting a big bag o’ bones on your desk. It’s like Christmas! Really…really…nerdy Christmas.

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Squeaky Clean Bones

Unless I’m really lucky, the bones will usually need a quick scrub-a-dub-dub in a bathtub before I can start analysis. Although don’t get me wrong – I don’t scrub them down! Aggressive cleaning like that could damage the bones in a way that messes up analysis – for example, striations created by brushing bones down with a hard brush could be mistaken for butchery marks.

I think every zooarchaeologist has their own preferred method of cleaning bones. Personally, I’ve always used a combination of wet sponges to gently wipe down dirt and  gently brushing off any remaining dirt. Gentle is the keyword here! Some bones can come to you in a very fragile state – so you always need to be careful here!

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My, How Big Your Bones Are!

Next thing to do is to start measuring individual bones. Each bone is measured, usually following a standard set of measurements – I personally use A Guide to the Measurement of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites by Angela von den Driesch (1976). Weight is also recorded – this can be important especially if looking at diagenesis, or the physical and chemical changes that occur to bone once buried.


Getting Out the Big Guns Reference Collection

At this point, the bones are ready to be identified. So it’s time to get out the zooarchaeologist’s secret weapon: the reference collection. The reference collection consists of many, many, many animal bones that have already been identified and labelled, so you can easily compare bones for identifying. Of course, not every reference collection is perfect and you’ll probably be missing a few species here and there…in that case, it’s good to have a few identification manuals and online databases on hand. I particularly recommend Mammal Bones and Teeth: An Introduction Guide to Methods of Identification by Simon Hillson (1996), A Manual for the Identification of Bird Bones from Archaeological Sites by Alan Cohen and Dale Serjeantson (1986), the BoneID online database, and the University of Nottingham’s archaeological fishbone database.

I’ve been a zooarchaeologist for a couple of years now, so a lot of identifications can often be done off the top of my head (especially element identifications, or what kind of bone it is). But it doesn’t hurt to double check!

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Find the Similarities

So why keep a giant collection of (sometimes smelly) animal bones in your lab? Well, occasionally you might get a bone that completely stumps you. Maybe you can at least get the element down…but which animal does it come from?! Luckily, some species have very specific characteristics in their bones that make identifications easier to narrow down – but then you get animals like sheep and deer that have very similar looking bones. It can be frustrating!

This is where your reference collection comes in. Sometimes you’ll get an astragalus (pictured above on the right) and you just can’t figure out where it comes from. So what do you do? You grab all the astragalus bones from similarly sized animals and compare them. Got any matches? Then that’s probably your animal! Obviously there will be some slight differences, especially since reference collections are usually comprised of modern examples of animals. But having something physically there to compare your bones to is so vital to confident identifications!

What a Big Girl You Are!

Sometimes, you might get lucky and find a bone that can possibly be identified to sex and/or age. There’s a few specific bones that are best for these estimations – for example, parts of the skull can be used for sex identification. For age estimation, on the other hand, it’s incredibly helpful to note if bones are fused or unfused – this will often clue you in to whether a bone belongs to an adult or juvenile animal.

This Bone Has Had it Rough (or Ruff, I Guess…like, if its a dog? This joke is bad…)

So, the bone is cleaned, measured, weighed, identified to species and element, had its age and sex identified if possible – now what? Well, it depends on what’s there. At this point, I’ll be looking all over the bone for anything that may be out of the ordinary – this includes cut marks, tooth marks, burning, and any other evidence of being modified by either other animals or humans. This will help inform what my overall interpretation is – a bone with cut marks may have been butchered by a human for meat, for example, or a bone showing signs of wolf gnawing may have been prey.

In some cases, you can also identify pathology, or evidence of an injury or disease that the animal may have had during life. This is a little more tricky, and I’m certainly learning more every day! Unfortunately for zooarchaeologists, there’s been less done in this field compared to human osteology.

Some good books to use for references? For butchery, Bones: Ancient Men and Modern Myths by Lewis Binford (1981). For paleopathology, Animal Diseases in Archaeology by John R. Baker and Don Brothwell (1980) and Shuffling Nags, Lame Ducks: The Archaeology of Animal Diseases by Laszlo Bartosiewicz and Erika Gal (2013).

So there you have it! What my usual process is for a day in the lab. Now just multiple by the amount of bones by like, 100 and now you can see why I’m so tired after a long lab day…it’s fun, don’t get me wrong! But I also can’t wait to go home to some dinner and some Netflix too!

Master List of Recommended Books and Websites

  • A Guide to the Measurement of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites – Angela von den Driesch, 1976
  • Mammal Bones and Teeth: An Introductory Guide to Methods of Identification – Simon Hillson, 1996
  • A Manual for the Identification of Bird Bones from Archaeological Sites – Alan Cohen and Dale Serjeantson, 1986
  • BoneID.net
  • University of Nottingham’s Archaeological Fish Resource
  • Bones: Ancient Men and Modern Myths – Lewis Binford, 1981
  • Animal Diseases in Archaeology – John R. Baker and Don Brothwell, 1980
  • Shuffling Nags, Lame Ducks: The Archaeology of Animal Diseases – Laszlo Bartosiewicz and Erika Gal, 2013

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