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.

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

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

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?”

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
  • 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



On Imposter Syndrome, or What Are We Even Doing?!

On Imposter Syndrome, or What Are We Even Doing?!

With my transfer report coming up within the next month or so, things have been pretty stressful over here. Unfortunately I find myself not having fun poking around things in the lab, but pouring over drafts and corrections and trying to synthesize my transfer report*. So I figured this might be a good time to talk about imposter syndrome in academia – something that I suffer from a lot lately!

Imposter syndrome, for those who don’t know, is basically the feeling that you’re a fraud, no matter how many achievements you have. It is by no means only restricted to those in academia, of course, but I feel like it is quite common amongst graduate students and early career researchers.

In my opinion, the PhD (specifically the early years) is like academic puberty…you’re transitioning from a taught student to an “expert” of sorts, and the transition can be very awkward and weird! It’s easy to feel as though you’ve somehow cheated your way here at times. After all, I was just a student the other day! And now I’m giving lectures, presenting at conferences, answering questions from people whose work I’ve quoted in undergraduate papers – what the hell is going on?!

One of the best ways I’ve started to combat this feeling is by actually going through my drafts – yes, I am confessing right here that in the past, I’d skim through the comments of my drafts, if I even wrote one at all. Especially in my undergraduate years, I was a big fan of “one and done” papers – to some success.

But in the past year or so I’ve actually looked at the transformation of my drafts and lemme tell you – I can see my progress, clear as day. It’s slow, but I can gradually see myself getting more confident in my writing with each draft. And just having physical  evidence really helps me see that I am, in fact, achieving something.

Obviously imposter syndrome manifests in different ways for different people, but here’s my personal advice: go back to old drafts, old papers, whatever you have. Maybe its your masters dissertation you handed in just last year, maybe its your high school science paper. Compare it to whatever you’re currently working on – how far have you come? What progress have you made? Even if its the tiniest bit of progress, its still progress.

And if you don’t have written work to look at, try simply reflecting. Where were you last year? Three years ago? Five years ago? Even just last year I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me I would be presenting my work at conferences across the UK, or establishing myself as a science communicator on social media (although I’m still a baby at that!).

We’re not frauds! We’re learning and progressing and becoming the best we can be! Let’s give ourselves a break, shall we?

This is basically how I feel at all times…an 11 year old presenting her science project at the middle school science fair.

*For those who don’t know – a transfer report is basically moving from the MPhil to the PhD. In my case, it basically shows off everything I’ve done in this first year: literature reviews, methodology chapters, analysis of bones, and what I plan on doing for the next few years of the PhD.

On Getting Through Bad Days, or How I Almost Set My Flat On Fire

On Getting Through Bad Days, or How I Almost Set My Flat On Fire

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about mental health in academia. I didn’t really expect to write another post in a similar vein so soon, but I had a bad day today.

As always, if this sort of content makes you feel uncomfortable, please skip! I don’t mind.

I occasionally get hit with bad bouts of anxiety and panic attacks. This morning, I had a little incident (and learned a bit about proper candle safety) that set me off for the rest of the day. My thoughts were racing, my chest was pounding – you get the idea. I decided that today was not going to be very productive and took a mental health day.

Having to deal with bad days, regardless of how they manifest, is not only a major part of your PhD – it’s a part of your everyday life as well. Here are some tips that may help in the event of a bad day in the face of a mountain of work:

  • Take A Break – This is probably the most important advice I can give. If you get hit with a bad day in the office or the lab, take a tea break or a walk around the building, whatever might help you clear your head for a bit. As you take your break, you may want to…
  • Gauge Your Productivity – When you’ve been dealing with anxiety for as long as I have, you get pretty good at recognising how you’ll probably end up feeling for the rest of the day. If you feel as though you won’t be able to keep your mind on task, you might want to think about…
  • Taking a Mental Health Day – Remember that you should never have to put your academic work above your health in any case, so drop your supervisor a note if you need to and take the day off. Do whatever you need to chill out – watch some Netflix, read, whatever you need to do. But also…
  • Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself! – Whenever I need to take a break or a day off, I immediately feels guilty and start beating myself up over it. Maybe it’s a bit silly, but it’s also quite a sad indicator of our society’s standards: it’s much more the status quo to be overworked and tired and stressed out, isn’t it? Again – your health is so important. Remind yourself that you are taking the time to yourself to heal and feel better so you can be focused and productive tomorrow. Now, if you’re still feeling a bit guilty, however…
  • Work Light – Sometimes I can’t shake feeling guilty for taking a mental health day. So, a compromise: find something productive to do that isn’t so strenuous on your brain. Perhaps it’s just reading an article and taking some notes, or proofreading a chapter. Even doing a tiny task may make you feel productive, while keeping yourself more relaxed than you would have been with a full load of work.
  • Just Breathe – Of course, I write this all with my own life in mind – I am lucky to have a very supportive system at my university with some stellar supervisors and mental health resources. Unfortunately, not everyone out there may have that luxury. So if all else fails? Just remember to breathe. I know mindfulness may be a buzz word these days, but taking a few minutes or even seconds to breathe and centre yourself might help for a bit.

Remember, in the very wise words of my supervisor: your PhD is not a race. Take each day at a time; I know it’s tempting to thinking of the future and oh god I have to finish this dissertation in HOW long?! but ultimately that’s not necessarily productive. Just close your eyes, breathe, and think: I will be fine. Things will be okay. And keep moving.

But only when you’re ready.

Research and Wine