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




#FolkloreThursday – Magical Flight with Birds

My current PhD research is focused on looking at animals in ritual, so I’ll be making short blog posts examining the different ways animals are seen in cosmological contexts as part of my own contribution to the #FolkloreThursday feed on Twitter. 

Wood Pigeon
A wood pigeon skull with its ulna – note the notches on the ulna, where feathers would attach.

In my recent work with mixed assemblages involved in funerary rites, I’ve come across many bird bones. At this preliminary stage in my research, it appears that butchered birds may have been incorporated into rites performed at this site.

But why birds? What’s so special about them?

Birds, barring a few examples, have the unique ability to fly. To those in the past, this was probably acknowledged as an act emblematic of supernatural power, the ability to move from the heavens to the earth with ease. Birds were considered divine messengers, whose appearance could indicate an omen from the gods and goddesses above (Green 1992).

Shamans in various communities have been noted to adopt aspects of the bird in their work and appearance; this displays their power of “flying” from one world to the next (Eliade 1964).

Throughout later prehistoric Europe, birds continued to have an association with the mystical and the magical. Birds such as ravens and crows have been known to “talk”, which ultimately associated them with divination and prophecy (Serjeantson and Morris 2011). Birds of prey and scavenging birds were most likely incorporated into funerary rites involving excarnation, or the defleshing of a body – this, in turn, led to an association of these birds with death (Harding 2016). Wild birds appear to have been hunted, but not necessarily eaten – perhaps these birds were participants in ritualistic hunting?

Helmut of Ciumesti
This helmet from Ciumesti is an example of co-opting the bird of prey as a means of showcasing an almost otherworldly fierceness

These beliefs have been observed in various artefacts from the later prehistoric – this includes Iron Age art depicting wings, drinking vessels decorated with waterbirds, and even weaponry and armour using bird motifs (Green 1992).

Of course, these aren’t the only instances of the magical properties of birds – we see this in various myths across cultures, from Odin’s ravens to Athena’s owl. Birds continue to be associated with the magical to this day…what would Harry Potter be without Hedwig, after all?

Bird Ulna
A comparison of different birds and their ulna bones – (top to bottom) herring gull, eider duck, and magpie. Again, note the notches for feathers!


Eliade, M. (1964) Shamanism: Archaic Technique of Ectasy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Green, M. (1992) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge.

Harding, D. W. (2016) Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Serjeantson, D. and Morris, J. (2011) Ravens and Crows in Iron Age and Roman Britain. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 30 (1), 85-107.

On Animal Teeth, or Why I’m Not a Dentist

Since my last post using comparative anatomy was rather popular, I figured I should write a similar post for this week, starting with the most important part of the skeleton for zooarchaeologists (in my opinion) – teeth!

In my experience, teeth are the best skeletal elements to recover. Why? They’re one of the more easily identifiable parts of the skeleton and one of the more variable skeletal elements across different species.

Unfortunately for me, they’re also some of the…well, grossest parts of the skeleton. Nothing will put the fear of root canals and cavities in you like looking at any worn down tooth from a cow or sheep!

Here is a small sampling of teeth from different animals and how you can easily identify them, in very informal and non-technical-sounding ways:


Pig teeth might be the weirdest looking teeth I encounter regularly (besides my own…and if you’re my dentist reading this, no I will never get braces, I can’t afford them!). The easiest way to ID them is to recognise how similar they look to human teeth…but just slightly off. Basically, I like to say that the molars look like human teeth that have popped a bit like popcorn. Yes, I’m aware of how gross that is – but that’s how I remember them!

Pig Teeth
Yuck – here are the teeth of a domestic pig.


Dog teeth have a sort of “wave”-like shape to them that makes them a bit distinct. Often, I’ve found that their molars and premolars not as pointed and sharp as a cat’s teeth (see below), but that isn’t always the case, of course. In any case, dog teeth are quite bulky in comparison to cat teeth.

Dog Mandible
A detailed look at a dog mandible (Photo Credit: Melissa Rouge, Colorado State University)


Cat teeth have a somewhat similar shape to dog teeth, but I’ve found that they are somewhat more pointy than most dog teeth (although again, this may not always be the case). In comparison to dog teeth, cat teeth are also relatively smaller and not as bulky. A larger set of teeth that may look cat-like could indicate you’ve got another member of the Felidade family (i.e; lion, lynx).

Cat teeth
The dainty, pointy teeth of a domestic cat.


The easiest way to ID sheep teeth is to check for a “house shingle”-like appearance. I have found that in comparison to animals with similar looking teeth (cows and horses), sheep teeth are also rather thinner. Be careful, though – sheep and deer teeth are remarkably similar in size and appearance!

Sheep Teeth
The maxilla and mandible of a sheep – note that house shingle look!


As mentioned above, cow teeth are similar in appearance to sheep with a slight “house shingle”-like appearance. However, given the difference in size, cow molars and premolars will be larger and bulkier, usually.

Cow teeth
Compare these cow teeth with the sheep teeth above


And finally, some of the smallest teeth you’ll run into: rodents! To be frank, if you find very small teeth, it is most likely from a rodent of some kind. The front incisors may be a bit more difficult to ID if found alone as they are much larger than the other teeth and may be mistaken for a bit of rib bone. These teeth are what create the pattern of gnawing attributed to rodents that looks like long striations or lines on the bone (more on that in a future post!).

Rat teeth
The skull and mandible of a rat – look at that incisor!

If you’re looking for a more in depth comparison of mammal teeth, I would recommend Mammal Bones and Teeth by Simon Hillson (1992). It’s a great guide that I use in my work with some really clear diagrams.

On Zooarchaeology, or Looking at Dead Animals All the Time

When you’re an archaeologist, you become very aware of how little the general public knows about what archaeologists do. Fair enough, of course…most people conjure up the image of Harrison Ford (at his peak handsomeness) when they think of archaeologists. It’s not uncommon to get the same sort of questions at the annual family gathering: “Do you find lots of gold?” “How many dinosaurs do you dig up?”


So when you decide that archaeology isn’t niche enough, you decide to specialise in a field like zooarchaeology, the study of animal remains in the archaeological record.

One of the most commonly asked questions I get once I mention that I’m a zooarchaeologist is, “well, what’s the point of looking an animal bone?” Oddly enough, that’s not even a question I get just from my friends and family; even some of my archaeologist peers seem to not understand why I do what I do!

I find that animal remains don’t get their due in archaeology, to be honest. Sure, they can be used as economic indicators and evidence of particular diets, but there is much more to it then that!

For example, let’s say you uncover some fish bones at a site. When you identify them, you realise it is a species of fish that are found in deeper waters far from the coast. What does that mean? Well, the people of this site must have had the technology for deep water fishing. You also see that there are no cranial bones in this assemblage. That could imply that processing of the fish (during which the head is cut off) may have occurred elsewhere – perhaps these fish were caught elsewhere as well and then traded to the people of this site. And are there any burnt bone? If so, perhaps these were consumed fish that were cooked!

As someone who came from a background in anthropology, I find that zooarchaeology is a field in which my anthropology training and my archaeological science training can combine. This is especially true for what my current research involves, which is ritual deposits of animal bones.

As we move into an age where analytical science and archaeology are more intertwined than ever before, I believe it will be things that are often overlooked by archaeologists, such as animal bones, that will become more and more important in unlocking the history of sites.

These cow bones were the first animal bones I ever excavated/handled!

What to learn more? Here’s a book recommendation:

The Archaeology of Animal Bones by Terry O’Conner (2000) is probably the book to read if you’re interested in zooarchaeology. It is very beginner friendly and Terry O’Conner is a fun and engaging writer. Definitely worth a look for anyone who is thinking about getting into the field.