Digging While Depressed: Struggling with Fieldwork and Mental Health

This post will be focused on dealing with mental illness, so if issues related to depression and anxiety are triggering to you, please feel free to skip today’s blog. Take care of yourself.

A few weeks ago, I was in Scotland doing fieldwork for the first time in years. Prior to this trip, I was under the impression that it would be a difficult one: I have a fear of both heights and enclosed spaces, so the idea that I would need to traverse steep paths along cliffs and work in narrow caves wasn’t particularly inviting to begin with. But I made the decision to go and excavate. Long story short, after a disastrous first day involving multiple injuries, a trip to the local hospital for x-rays, and an ill-timed panic attack climbing back up the steep side of a cliff, I asked to stay at our base camp to do faunal bone analysis rather than risk my mental and physical health getting to our excavation sites. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this was falling into a depressive episode after a few weeks of being indoors doing work.

Long time readers of my blog will know that I’ve been upfront about my own mental illness in the past. In particular, I’ve talked about the way mental illness affects my work as an academic. However, one thing I’ve never talked about (or really considered, to be honest), was how mental illness can affect one’s fieldwork, as well as how fieldwork can exacerbate the negative effects of mental illness.

Physical health and safety has always been the forefront of conversations regarding fieldwork, no matter what science you practice. However, there has been less attention given to mental illness, at least from what I’ve experienced. I started the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag during excavation to get the conversation going and was surprised at how many similar stories I heard on Twitter. It’s understandable, though, given the ubiquitous nature of fieldwork – you’re often isolated from your usual support group, and although you may have good relationships with your academic and research colleagues (as I do! again, my supervisory team is so supportive and generous with their help, I am forever grateful to them), it’s still not necessarily a group of people that you would confide your deepest problems and feelings to. Not to mention the fact that fieldwork (especially archaeological fieldwork) puts a significant amount of physical burden on you, which may make you feel worse, mentally.

With the advent of the #MeToo movement and the pressure being placed on organisations to combat sexual harassment and assault during excavation, I’d argue that we’ve started to see real strides in expanding the idea of a “safe” workspace and fieldwork environment to include not just physical health and safety, but also mental and emotional health as well. According to some via the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag, commercial excavation movements have started to take notice of mental health during fieldwork, which is a welcome change. I don’t really have any answers to solving this issue – after all, I’m learning along with everyone else – but hopefully just the fact that we are starting to have this conversation is a sign of real change and movement towards safeguarding all aspects of health while out in the field.

Feel free to add to the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag – not just with regards to archaeological excavation, but any type of fieldwork or research work. Let’s keep the conversation going, whether you have a story to tell or advice to give – in solidarity, we can grow and help each other out. And feel free to contact me if you ever need someone to talk or vent to – obviously I’m not a health professional and cannot replace seeking professional help, but I can at least offer my ear and my support.

Advertisements

The 2018 Excavation Season Wrap-Up!

I’m baaaaaaaaaaack! Missed me? Probably not, if you were following along with my project’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, and website).  For those of you who missed out, however, here’s a bit of a recap of the past three weeks of excavation at the Covesea Caves in Scotland.

So, the good news about my recent field work trip is that I got to experience some amazing sights and got a lot of data collection done towards my PhD dissertation.

The bad news is that most of those three weeks were spent indoors. Why? Well…

33893757_10156214010693503_4803534150181060608_n
Luckily nothing was broken, just badly bruised. Not pictured is the injuries I then sustained from falling down the stairs two days later.

And that was just Day One!

33693360_10156214313913503_312422732929171456_n
Climbing down “the lummie”, aka “holding onto a rope and a ladder for dear life”.
35079144_232876530820671_5161189047720214528_n
These “rock stairs” are deceptively easy looking – getting up them required a lift up for me!

So, here’s the thing about the Covesea Caves (the series of caves in Moray, Scotland that my current PhD research is based on) – they are known for being difficult to access. However, I didn’t realise until I finally went to visit them in person just how difficult they are to access! An average walk to our excavation site included a fair bit of hiking down a steep coastal path (which, as someone who is afraid of heights, was way too close to the cliff’s edge for me!). For some caves, we would have to climb down “the lummie” – a bit of a crevice within the cliff that included a climb down using a ladder and a rope. Other caves had a sort of “natural” staircase made of rocks that were simple enough to climb down – getting up was an entirely different problem, especially if you’re short like me. After that, it’s a long walk across a beach of boulders – which may be dangerously slippery if you’re unlucky like me and manage to go on a rainy morning.  On the first day, it took approximately a dozen falls for me to injure my elbow enough to warrant a visit to A&E (the emergency room). Thankfully, nothing was broken, but I still ended up working from our base camp for the most of the remainder of the excavation period just to be on the safe side.

33988261_364561797399045_7825269296203825152_n
My makeshift “zooarchaeology lab” in our accommodations – on the left, my supplies are all on top of a washing machine.

Despite how unfortunate this all sounds, it actually ended up working in my favour. As a zooarchaeologist whose PhD work is focused on analysis of the animal bones from the Covesea Caves, it was much more productive for me to be doing a bit of assessment on the bones as they were excavated. Especially when the final count for animal bones just from this season alone was nearly 5,000 bones! And so I ended up taking over our laundry room and converted it into a makeshift zooarchaeology lab – don’t worry, I thoroughly cleaned it up before I left.

34581750_368224000366158_1512737608214511616_n
A collection of faunal bones from Covesea Cave 2.

Unfortunately I can’t get into too much detail about the recovered bones, but I can say that things are getting pretty interesting with regards to my developing thesis. Let’s just say I’m literally drowning in cats. Well, later prehistoric skeleton cats.

35077753_232876430820681_378303597059768320_n
Yep, this is how dark it usually is when you’re excavating caves.

35225473_232962267478764_4124419388830908416_n

I did make it to site one more time before our excavation season was over. It was one of the smaller, more narrow caves in the Covesea Caves, so it was a bit of a challenge for someone like me who, along with a fear of heights, also has a fear of enclosed spaces! But I actually found it quite nice and cozy to be excavated in the back of a cave that can only be reached by extensive crawling…see if you can spot me enjoying myself in the photo above!

35079478_10156243955658503_4199140481067646976_n
It’s me! Get me outta here!
33867854_10156214313848503_8517034617436372992_n
The entrance to the Sculptor’s Cave.

Accidents aside, it was completely worth the trip up to visit the Covesea Caves. The site has such a distinctive environment that most likely would feed into how past peoples would experience and interact with the caves, it would be impossible to fully understand the archaeology without experiencing it first hand. I’ve visited and worked on a few archaeological sites in my lifetime and to be honest, it is hard to top the sort of emotional impact that standing at the mouth of the Sculptor’s Cave gave me.

Plus, it was a gorgeous place full of amazing sites so…definitely worth a few falls!

34864507_10156243454413503_5676720453364744192_n
The rock arch outside of Laird’s Stables.

On Excavation Season, or How to Battle the Great Outdoors With a Trowel

It’s just about excavation season for most of us in archaeology! I will be excavating for a few weeks so this blog will go on a bit of a hiatus until I return – until then, here’s a few tips for anyone about to set off on their first excavation this summer.

10389709_10152482692958503_2603101437522878222_n
A busy day excavating the site of Swandro in the Orkney Islands.

The weather is getting warmer, which means for many of us archaeologists, its excavation season! Some of you might be about to set off on your first excavation as well, and I can understand if you’re getting a bit nervous…about a month before I was off to my first excavation (also my first trip abroad!), I nearly got cold feet and cancelled. But thankfully I went ahead and basically changed the direction of my career after that – I don’t know if I’d be a zooarchaeologist in the UK right now otherwise. So for those of you who may be freaking out a bit about your first excavation, here’s a few tips that might make things go a bit more smoothly!

  • Check, Double Check, and then Triple Check Transportation

Some archaeologists have an easy commute to their sites, but most of us have a fair bit of travelling to do to get to where the excavation is happening. So be sure you have your travel plans locked up! Especially if you’ll be doing international travel – it probably sounds dorky, but I literally travel with a folder full of my paperwork (flight tickets, hotel bookings, visa information, etc.) these days. My first excavation included a series of missed flights that ended up costing me an extra $250, so I am also very strict on being at the airport early. But hey, better safe than sorry, right?

Also be sure to figure out how you’ll be getting to your accommodations for the duration of your excavation, or if you’re supposed to be meeting your team somewhere. There’s nothing worse than getting stranded at an airport…

…yes, I do know what that feels like, thanks for forgetting to pick me up, Mom.

  • Pack for the weather…

Depending on where and how long you’re going, you’ll want to be sure to pack for any sort of weather you might run into! Especially if you’re travelling far enough that there is an extreme difference in weather between your places of departure and arrival. In general, though, you’ll probably want some waterproof items of clothing (you can also buy waterproofing spray/liquid as well – in my experience they have been handy in a pinch). Even if it’s a warm summer, you might want to also bring some outerwear just in case – better safe than sorry!

  • …but also pack for the work.

Between your rain coat and parka, however, make sure you pack your work clothes too! Let’s be real: archaeology is dirty work. Even if you have access to the best laundry services on site (I wish!), you probably don’t want to wear your favourite clothes to site. I personally rock some cargo trousers and a tank top when I excavate – oh, and with a jumper too. Layering is your friend, so be sure to bring tops that can easily be layered for any situation. Be sure to check what sort of footwear you’ll need as well – most excavations will require that you have steel toe work boots.

  • Remember to cover up your trowel!

This is a pretty simple tip, but it’s also easy to forget! If your trowel doesn’t have a case or cover, it might be a good idea to wrap it up in a bag. Otherwise you may find your trowel has done some damage to your favourite clothes while in your luggage. Or, if you’re me, find yourself sitting on your trowel and getting stabbed in the butt. Ouch

  • Pack. Unpack. Pack.

This is a basic travel tip that I follow for anytime I need to pack for something. I’m notorious for bringing way too much, so to minimise the extra stuff, I’ve taken to packing up my suitcase, unpacking, and then packing again with some items removed. It may be a lot of work, but you’ll be thankful when you don’t have to lug around a 100 lb suitcase across an island to find your accommodations.

  • Relax and enjoy yourself.

Fieldwork is a lot of strenuous work, but don’t freak out! It’s a learning experience, so don’t feel pressured into being a perfect shovel bum. Ask for help when you need to, take breaks when you can, keep yourself safe and relax! You’re contributing to some great archaeological work, it’ll be an amazing experience.

Oh, and definitely take advantage of days off. Explore the area, do new things, just enjoy while you can!

I’m off for excavation for a few weeks, so see you when I’m back! If you’re interested in my excavation, feel free to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress. We’ll be blogging about our work and posting lots of photos!

10471189_10152486858035751_3938969471574347211_n(1)
Sorry to everyone whose face I’ve blurred out but let’s just focus on how stylish I am on site.

 

.

When the Stress of the PhD Meet The Anxiety of the Visa: On International Postgraduate Studies, Financial Anxieties, and Everything Else That Scares Me

This week I had scheduled a different blog post to be published, but I felt as though it didn’t seem right to not write about something that has been on my mind lately.

And by “lately”, I mean “for the past few years”.

As many, if not all, of you know by now due to reading this blog and/or following my daily Twitter rants, I’m an international student. Since moving to the U.K. in the autumn of 2015, I have been on two different visas and had spent lots of loaned money to maintain my residence here.

There’s recently been a lot of discourse surrounding the precariousness of early career jobs in academia, and for good reason – the further marketisation of higher education is leaving more and more post-PhDs out in the cold with only poorly paid, short contract jobs to live on. Those of us in the middle of PhD research have extremely bleak futures ahead of us if this continues.

What hasn’t gotten as much attention (at least, as far as I have seen) is the plight of those of us who are battling the dire circumstances of the academic job market and the burden of being international.

Let me first say that despite the difficulties I have faced, I am undoubtedly one of the luckier ones. I’ve had the ability to take out federal student loans to cover my costs, as well as financial help and general support from friends and family from both sides of the Pond. Coming from the US, I most likely had less hoops to jump through to get my visa, in comparison to many others.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a huge burden on my life. Besides worrying about my current PhD work and the near future of having to look for postdocs afterwards, I also constantly have to worry about meeting the conditions for my visa.

Will I have enough money saved up to afford all of the fees for applying for a Tier 2 visa? What if the NHS surcharge continues to double, as it is scheduled to do in the upcoming year? How many days have I spent outside the UK and is it enough to eventually deport me?

International academics are expected to constantly keep track of these ever changing laws and policies, which results in many of us in constant fear of the Home Office, even if we have filled out all the paperwork needed and have everything taken care of. It’s so easy for them to make a small change that will turn out world upside down!

That sounds like an exaggeration but I’ve experienced it myself. Progressing from my MSc to my PhD, I was, at the time, still on my first visa from the Masters programme, which wouldn’t expire for another 6 months. Prior to this, the rule was that you could apply for a new visa within the U.K. as long as your current visa had not expired. Unfortunately for me, this had recently changed, and so I was booking an extremely last minute flight back to the US to apply for a new visa. A couple thousand pounds later, and I was sorted with a new visa – but financially, I have yet to truly recover from that last minute trip.

And, of course, it’s not just about the financial burden, either. Contrary to popular belief, most of us who study and live in the U.K. for several years end up cultivating a life and family here. That the Home Office (and other institutions apparently) believe we can uproot our lives, tear ourself away from the people we love and abandon the places we call home, just because we lack the funds to match the ludicrous fees and financial objectives, is utterly ridiculous at best and outright evil at worst.

I have spent many nights, awake and afraid, obsessively reading the guidelines for visas and immigration laws. As someone who already has depression and anxiety, this has caused my mental health to often dip dangerously low, to levels I haven’t experienced since prior to being diagnosed and medicated. But it’s a real, tangible fear that many academics, who already experience the burdens of a hostile environment in higher education, always have on their minds alongside every other problem.

Unfortunately, I can’t really offer any answers or advice for this sort of thing. It’s an issue that, alongside precariousness of early academic careers, must be talked about more in the public discourse. And I guess that’s all I can do, really – tell my story, remain public about the challenges I face, and hope that I can at least be one voice that won’t shut up about this problem.

To end this rather unfunny and serious blog post (shocking, I know, but I applaud anyone who has made it this far), I just want to point out a few great resources for more information on precarity, mental health issues, and international academic costs:

  • The Mental Illness Factory – A great piece by Mimi Petrakis on the current mental health epidemic in academia, especially for postgraduates
  • The Precarious Postdoc – Some really valuable research by Sophie A. Jones and Catherine Oakley who have been interviewing and surveying the situations of postdocs in the humanities and social sciences.
  • International and Broke– A fairly new Twitter account run by international academics employed in the U.K. that shares stories of the difficulties that other international academics have experienced in trying to stay and work in the country.

A Few Tips for Conferences When You’re Super Anxious All the Time Like Me

Hi, it’s your friendly neighbourhood academic with anxiety here to talk about one of the scariest things in academia: conferences! Unfortunately for many of us, “traditional” academia requires that we make appearances and presentations at conferences (even though they’re expensive…and we don’t always get the financial help needed to attend…and it takes time off from our research which is already limited to a specific time frame…well, that’s a conservation for a different day).

At this point in my life I’ve attend many conferences. I’ve also presented at many conferences, both papers and posters. And there’s definitely been a range of experiences throughout…from getting so nervous during a paper presentation that I start making self-deprecating jokes that fall flat and make things a million times worse, to giving such a great paper that I actually receive a couple of collaboration opportunities from it.

So with conference season in full swing, here are some tips from my own personal experience on how to best combat anxiety and stress in a conference environment:

A recent conference poster I created and presented for last year’s Association for Environmental Archaeology (AEA) Conference.

Bring a Friend/Co-Author

Probably one of the easiest ways to make going to conferences less stressful is to have a friend or supportive colleague with you. You could see if any peers in your department want to co-author a paper/poster or tag along – splitting the costs will make things cheaper, plus you have someone you at least know around (and can maybe get to know a bit better, too!).

If I’m travelling solo, I will usually make a beeline for people I recognise during tea breaks – usually that’ll get you introduced to a couple of other people, which I will promptly add to my mental compartment of “People Who I Will Cling Onto If I Don’t Know Anyone Else“. While its great to network and make connections with people outside of your institution, its also good to develop a friendly and supportive group of similarly minded people that are on similar conference circuits as you – it definitely makes finding seats at lunch less awkward, that’s for sure.

Recently, I actually managed to convince a friend from the US in a completely unrelated field (creative writing) to co-author a paper for last year’s Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference. I’m not sure if I would have been as calm presenting my paper in front of some of the most important figures in my field of research without her by my side.

Nothing like tricking a non-archaeologist friend into writing and presenting an archaeology paper with you!

Take Advantage of Scheduled Social Events

Many conferences will also include events, like field trips and dinners, alongside sessions. If you have the means to attend one of these events (unfortunately most cost money), they could be low-key, informal environments to socialise with other conference attendees. For example, field trips to local museums and monuments can provide great ice breakers for conversation among academics you don’t know.

I’ve had some excellent luck where I’ve gone on a conference field trip, made friends with some attendees, and had them come to my session the following day for support – it really helped to see some friendly, familiar faces in the crowd!

Plus, it’s just nice to see the sights – here’s me taking time off from a conference in the Orkneys to visit Yesnaby.

Remember to Get Their ‘Deets’!

This is mainly a tip for general networking, of course – but if you end up connecting with attendees during the course of the conference, be sure to swap contact information. I’ve ended up staying in touch with many people I’ve met through conferences, which has led to the increase in familiar faces in my audiences when I’m presenting papers. Of course, there’s also opportunities for future collaborative research (and, if you’re really fortunate, employment) with people you meet at conferences, so you’ll definitely want to be able to keep in touch somehow.

It may seem a bit silly and unfashionable these days, but it can still be handy to have a few business cards on hand! Exchanging business cards with someone is an easy way to quickly get contact information, or to introduce yourself without awkward small talk – plus, it feels very adult and cool. Many universities have business cards available for postgraduate students, but if yours does not, there are many cheap options online for printing your own.

Eat your heart out, Patrick Bateman. Maybe not literally, though.

Look into Alternate Conferences

If you’re looking into presenting at a “traditional” conference (read: in-person conference with poster and paper sessions in front of other academics) and are nervous about speaking in public, I would suggest you start with submitting and presenting a poster. In most cases, I’ve found that poster presentations won’t give you the impression that you’re being left to the mercy of a huge audience the way that paper sessions might. There’s still a bit of public speaking involved, of course, but its certainly a bit more informal than presenting a paper.

If that still feels a bit daunting (and I don’t blame you, believe me!), you could also look into something that’s recently become more common – alternate conferences! In response to the financial and environmental burden of “traditional” conferences, many academics have been experimenting with alternative approaches. For example, Twitter conferences have become more popular recently; for example, look through the #CAATCO hashtag to read through paper presentation from the CAA Twitter Conference, which was held in conjunction with a more traditional conference.

For those with anxiety, alternative conferences that allow you to present papers in a safe and comforting place, such as the comfort of your own home, may be a good compromise. With more academics looking to utilising the Internet to its fullest potential, these kinds of conferences may become more prevalent in the next few years – stay tuned!

I recently presented a paper at my very first Twitter conference hosted by the CAA (Computer Applications in Archaeology) – and did so while riding a bus! Super easy.

The Bone Collector: Building A Personal Reference Collection

Although I guess you can say I’ve been a zooarchaeologist for the past 3 years, I’ve still been a bit behind when it comes to my own personal reference collection. It’s not a necessity for zooarchaeologists, of course, but it’s always good to have – plus, it’ll become important if you go into consulting work.

Some of the bones in my personal collection – yes, those are takeaway containers.

Of course, let me be clear that I’m not hunting animals down for their bones! Many zooarchaeologists with their own collections often come across remains in various ways – out in the wild, from a local farm, or in my case, from the nearest grocery store.

Every zooarchaeologist has their own personal method of processing remains, so I’m sure some would disagree with my tips. But for those who are working with bones for the first time, here’s a few pointers on processing:

  • Getting to Bare Bones

There’s many different ways to get down to the bones, and the method you should choose will depend on what you have left of the animal. Dermestid beetles are a quick and easy way to deflesh animals, but due to upkeep, are best left to professionals and labs who need large quantities of remains. Large, fleshy and furry remains may be buried or kept outside in a protected area to naturally deflesh, but this will take longer than other methods (and you obviously run the risk of certain living animals making off with your bones!). One of the more common methods of defleshing is through maceration – leaving remains in a closed container of water over a period of time until defleshed. If you feel like giving up a slow cooker, you could also slowly simmer the remains until the flesh can easily be removed. Fair Warning: this will smell extremely bad.

  • Getting All the “Bits” Off

The above methods will get most of the flesh off and allow for easier removal of the “squishy bits” inside. However, the body is a frustrating thing and there will still be smaller bits of tissue stuck in crevices and hard-to-reach areas. I recommend using a toothpick or cocktail stick to get “bits” out of the smaller crevices – it will take some time and probably be a little gross, but you want to be sure to get all those bits off before storage.

Additionally, biological washing up liquid such as Biotex can be used to clean and loosen up bits of soft tissue by soaking the bones in a mixture of the washing up liquid and water for a day or two.

  • Degreasing the Bones

This is an easy step to miss! Its important to degrease the bones, otherwise they will get gross…trust me. I forgot to degrease some turkey bones and they ended up growing mould after a few days in storage. Yuck. probably the easiest way to degrease bones is by leaving them in a solution of water + dish washing liquid.

  • Whitening the Bones

As a zooarchaeologist, I don’t really care much about whitening bones (I have never seen a white bone in my life, except for cremated bone fragments). If you do want to whiten your bones, however, most people suggest soaking bones in a mixture of hydrogen peroxide + water.

  • On Boiling and Bleach

When it comes to collecting bones, there are two bad “B” words: boiling and bleach. Both can damage and ruin your bones, so it’s best to substitute simmering for boiling and a hydrogen peroxide/water mixture for bleach.

That said…I am a very bad zooarchaeologist who has often boiled bones from animals that have already been cooked in order to 1) get all of the remaining meat and bits off and 2) make a nice bone broth to use for soups later on (blame my grad student thriftiness – nothing gets wasted!). I will still do a final wash of these bones with water + biological washing up liquid and degrease after boiling. These bones are usable, but they certainly don’t look as nice as my non-boiled bones and definitely have some damage, so I would suggest you don’t boil them. That said, it is possible to salvage the bones if you have already boiled them.

And a final important note: many countries have different laws regarding the collection of remains from certain species – make sure you double check that you can legally collect and keep the bones you have!

Some processed bones in my personal collection from a bantam chicken.

End of the Year Round Up! 2017 Edition.

I think its clear to everyone that 2017 was, collectively, not the best year on record. And even on a personal level, it was very difficult for me..however, this was also the year that I finally met those challenges head on. As someone who has spent most of her life as other people’s doormat, this was an important year for me: the year I put myself first, for once!

It was the year I put emphasis on my work – physically, academically, mentally, and spiritually. This includes this very blog, as well! And I’m thankful that I took the chance and extended my social media presence – there are so many fellow archaeologists and academics that I’ve met through Twitter that have become great friends and inspirations to me.

So despite the small size of options to pick from, here’s a highlight reel from this first year on the blog, as well as some pieces I wrote elsewhere on the Internet.

The Best of Animal Archaeology™: the Blog (and other Alex-Related Writings)

To 2018 – may it be a bit brighter and full of opportunities for us all!

Have a good New Year’s Eve and Day, everyone!

Doctor, Doctor, Gimme the News: Bone Assessments in Zooarchaeology

Today I wanted to give you all a sneak peek into my current work – although I will admit that this is a bit more of a mundane part of my research. But zooarchaeology isn’t always exciting…sometimes it’s playing Bone Doctor and assessing bags and bags and bags and bags of bones!

Bags and bags and bags o' bones

Last week, I’ve spread over one hundred bags of bones across three desks. Why? Well, on one hand I like showing off my assemblages and work to my fellow PhDs in the office. But I also find it the easiest way to place everything in order of context.

Again, you may ask…why?

Bone assessments are quick (well, relatively speaking, I guess!) ways to, well…assess your bones! Prior to an in-dept investigation, a bone assessment allows me to get a general idea of what kind of animals may be represented in an assemblage, how the bones look, how they’ve been preserved, and how they’ve been treated. Of course, I’ll be doing a more focused identification and examination of each individual bone later on, but these bone assessments are a great way to get an idea of what I’m looking at.

Bone assessment form

Walking around my bags and bags of bones with a clipboard and bone assessment forms in hand kinda makes me feel like a doctor, really! Well, I guess in this case I’d be a veterinarian…and a really bad vet if I’m working with dead animals.

Basically, with these forms I sorta sketch out a picture of the assemblage – what sort of animals can I identify by eye? How many? What parts of the body do they represent? Listing things like colour, preservation, and characteristics like gnaw marks or butchery also allows me to get an idea of what these remains may have possibly been the result of. Is there many instances of gnaw marks from a large predator? Maybe these remains mark the end of one of their prey! Is there many butchery marks and charred bone? Perhaps this is the remains of a feast!

Yes, the chicken scratch you see here is my handwriting…I guess that really makes me more of a doctor, huh? The photo above is me attempting to make sense of the bone assessments – this includes tallying up total numbers of animal and element identifications, giving a (very) rough chronological order of the context numbers, and listing out the major characteristics I saw in each period. This way, I can really visualise the shifts and patterns that the assemblage forms as time passes from one period to the next.

I know this wasn’t the most exciting post this blog has seen, but I want to show off all aspects of zooarchaeological work! And that includes some of the less exciting things…however, I think bone assessments are really interesting – they almost give you a sneak peek into whatever you’re about to dive into for the next year or so! And while I don’t want to get into too much detail…I think this is going to be a really exciting and interesting assemblage of animal bones.

From the Question Bag: Fish Remains in Scotland

James Green asked: I know in the US South amia calva is one of the most common fish remains found in sites. What is the most common there?

Well, as someone who seems to have been knee-deep in fish bones since 2014, I’m glad you’ve asked! Let me preface this by saying my area of expertise is North and North-east Scotland – so the Orkney Islands and the Covesea Caves. And this is based on my experience as well! So I might miss out on some more common fish finds. But here are the common fish remains that I seem to run into time and time again.

Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus)

Atlantic herring

The bane of my zooarchaeologist life…the reason why I strained my eyes during my masters dissertation…the fish that made me hold my breath while I worked because a sigh could easily send the vertebrae flying…let me present to you: the Atlantic herring.

Not necessarily something I find in abundance at my sites, but I’ve found a couple (read: about one hundred bones) here and there. It’s also found on the other side of the Pond!

Pollack (Pollachius pollachius)

Pollack bones

Not necessarily the bulk of many of my fish bone assemblages, but I find that the pollack shows up time and time again – especially pollack vertebrae! Of course, the vertebrae of  a fish are some of the most durable parts of a fish’s skeleton – that’s why you will see them more commonly than other, more fragile bones.

Whiting (Merlangius merlangus)

Whiting bones

Similar to the Atlantic herring, the whiting has also caused me much distress due to the tiny size of its bones. Very common in some Iron Age contexts that I’ve worked in, the bones of a whiting are so small that I’ve had to use a scanning electron microscope to analyse them for butchery marks and signs of erosion! Not to mention the many hours I’ve had to move their bones around with tweezers…fish bones are surprisingly hard work.

Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua)

Atlantic cod bones

Last, but not least – especially not least – is my good friend, the Atlantic cod. Surprisingly one of the most common fish bones I find at sites! So common, in fact, that it’s the easiest fish for me to identify by eye. But maybe that’s not so surprising – after all, cod is still one of the most popular fish for food! And I don’t blame people, I do really enjoy fish and chips.

Remember to send me any questions or topics you’d like to see me cover about zooarchaeology or archaeology by contacting me!

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.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

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!

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

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.

aaaaaaaaaaa

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!

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

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