On Weird Animal Bone Science, or How I’ve Become Accustomed to Watching Fish Bones Dissolve in Acid

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably have a good idea of what zooarchaeology is (and if you’re new, feel free to read that post here). But it’s not just about looking at animal bones and identifying them…well, okay, it’s a lot of that. But there’s lots more to it than just that.

Let’s get scientific, shall we?

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A series of fish bones dissolving in acid to prepare for collagen extraction for stable isotope analysis.

Back in the United States, I was introduced to archaeology as part of the humanities – my BA degree was in classical archaeology and anthropology, so I didn’t really get much training in the practical aspects of the discipline, let alone any of the scientific approaches to archaeological analysis.

Cut to a few years later and I’m desperately trying to relearn what an electron is! That’s not really an exaggeration, either – by the time I was in my MSc program for Archaeological Sciences, it had been probably five years since I had my last science class. It was definitely a struggle at times, but completely doable with an extra bit of studying and work towards understanding and grasping concepts that seemed so far out of my reach when I first began.

Even though I knew exactly what I was getting into, it was still a bit of a surprise to me that by the end of my MSc year, I was in the lab doing independent work for my dissertation research. I was investigating fishing activity in the Orkney Islands, using scanning electron microscopy (or SEM) to examine small fish vertebrae for evidence of consumption (digestion, burning, butchery), and stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen to see whether or not these fish were locally caught and contributed majorly to the inhabitants’ diet. I spent most of my summer watching fish bones dissolve in the isotopes lab, extracting collagen, and using the biggest microscope I’ve ever used in my life – it was certainly a change of pace for someone who, just two years ago, was writing ethnographic pieces as part of my anthropology degree!

So, if you’re looking into archaeology as a career and feel as though you’re lacking in your science training, fear not! For starters, archaeology is a vast discipline that draws from both the humanities and the sciences, so it isn’t necessary, although it is probably helpful to have a more rounded idea of the field as a whole. But if you’re really interested in the science side and feel woefully ignorant, I’d like to believe that I’m an example of someone who was completely science illiterate who can now comfortably refer to themselves as an archaeological scientist. It’s totally possible!

To wrap-up, here are a couple of examples of utilising archaeological science for the purposes of zooarchaeology – of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list at all, but these are arguably the most popular scientific approaches to zooarchaeological research:

  • Stable Isotope Analysis

Stable isotope analysis isn’t a new method – its origins can be traced back to the 1970’s – but its still a popular and useful tool for utilising faunal remains and furthering the amount of information that they can provide. Isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, strontium, and oxygen can be measured through this method and used to investigate past diets, subsistence strategies, and migration of both humans and animals from the archaeological record. To analyse stable isotope levels, collagen from the bone must be extracted and placed within a mass spectrometer to isolate the isotope ratios for measurement. This method is one of the best ways for zooarchaeologists to connect their faunal bones to the “bigger picture” of the archaeological context of their site, in particular, stable isotope analysis can reveal the finer details regarding the relationship between humans and animals in the past.

  • Zooarchaeology By Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS)

ZooMS is arguably one of the most useful advancements in archaeological science, specifically for zooarchaeologists. This method allows for better identifications of faunal bone, especially smaller, more fragmented pieces of bone that may be utterly unidentifiable by the human eye. The way ZooMS works is based on the concept that species have certain protein sequences that correlate specifically to themselves. ZooMS allows for these sequences to be isolated and measured – this provides us with a sort of “code” that correlates to a species, allowing for identification. Although not perfect – this method is not always reliable with regards to identifying between two very close species (for example, differentiating between a wild and domesticated version of the same animal – see: wild boar vs domesticated pig) – it’s still a huge improvement in confident identifications for faunal bone analysis.

  • Ancient DNA (aDNA)

Ancient DNA is one of the more recent developments within archaeological science – by utilising the DNA recovered from archaeological remains, archaeologists can examine how processes such as domestication affected the genetics of animals in the past. aDNA, often paired with other morphological analysis, can provide archaeologists with clear patterns regarding genetic modification over time and track morphological variation that could provide more detail into how animals adapt to their ever changing environments. Given how new this method is, I’d argue we’ve only really scratched the surface with what zooarchaeologists can do with aDNA – be on the lookout for new breakthroughs and amazing research coming out of this field in the near future!

References

Anonymous. (2018). Palaeobarn. School of Archaeology: Research. University of Oxford. http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/palaeobarn.html

Higham, T. (2017) Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry. Science Learning Hub. https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/videos/1606-zooarchaeology-by-mass-spectrometry

Madgwick, R. (2016) “No Longer Do Archaeologists Have to Rely Solely on Seeds, Bones, and Shells”: Isotope Analysis is the Future of Environmental Archaeology”. Environmental Archaeology. Association for Environmental Archaeology. http://envarch.net/environmental-archaeology/no-longer-do-archaeologists-have-to-rely-solely-on-seeds-bones-and-shells-isotope-analysis-is-the-future-of-environmental-archaeology/

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