Note:As you can see, I’m no longer on hiatus! But there will be some changes to my blogging moving forward…as much as I love writing, I need to put my PhD studies first. This means that blog posts will not be weekly, but will come out a bit more inconsistently – basically whenever I have a bit of free time to blog!
Hopefully you’ll still tune in for some weird, archaeological ramblings, even if they’re only every once in a while. Thanks to everyone who has stuck around this long!
Today’s comparative mini-post comes from a question I received from Trisha J. (thanks Trisha!), who asked for a bit of a comparison between rodent and bird bones. Now, while I have written about both rodents and birds before, I’ve never actually compared the two in one of these posts – which is a bit of a surprise, as I totally get the confusion between them! They can look pretty similar,
Before we start, let me first preface this by saying we’ll be looking specifically at small bird bones – obviously, as you can see in the photo below, birds come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes! So we will be working under the impression that it’s easier to confusion small bird bones with rodent bones…unless you’re working with Rodents of Unusual Size, I guess?
Unfortunately there isn’t an easy tip for differentiating between bird and rodent bones quickly – although bird bones are known for being particularly light in weight to allow for flight, rodent bones have a similar weight due to size. Thankfully, bone shapes are pretty distinct between the two. See some of the example photos below to see how each differ!
If you’re dealing with bone fragments that are similar in size to either a small bird or rodent, I would highly suggest using some form of reference (photo or physical) to base your identification off of. They can certainly be quite tricky! You can also use small variations, such as the presence of “nubs” on bird ulnae, to help differentiation. Also remember that birds have bones that are not present in rodents (tibio-tarsus, furncula, etc.), so memorising their general shape will be helpful.
With skulls, if you have complete specimens, it’ll be pretty easy – the bird will usually have a beak attached!
Of course, life isn’t fair and you will often have a skull fragment on your hands. In that case, remember that bird skulls, in particular the cranial vaults, have very rounded and bulbous skulls (see below).
And if you’re unlucky enough to have vertebrae and ribs on your hands…well, good luck! Well, maybe at least with the ribs…vertebrae can be very tricky, especially when they’re very small. However, bird vertebrae tend to have a “body” (the thickest part of the vertebra) that curves inward and are a bit more narrow in shape.
Have a question about zooarchaeology? Or an idea for a future blog post? Remember you can contact me through the blog by heading to my Contact page.
Cohen, A. and Serjeantson, D. (1996) A Manual for the Identification of Bird Bones from Archaeological Sites. Archetype Publications Ltd.
Note:Today’s blog post will be the last one for a bit – due to my workload piling up for my PhD, I’ve decided to take a month long hiatus from blogging. Hopefully, having the entirety of February to catch up on my lab-work (and also celebrate my birthday on my downtime because I’m a February baby! Please send all birthday coffees here thank you) will get me ahead of schedule and I can get back to weekly blog posts come March. Thanks again for all of your support and hopefully I’ll see some of you when I get back – until then, remember you can also follow me on Twitter where I’m sure I’ll occasionally pop in to complain about animal bones!
Okay…I know I said that I wouldn’t use that extremely bad, extremely old joke to introduce a blog post…but this one is basically a companion piece to the previous OM NOM NOM post on gnawing, so it doesn’t count…I think.
Well, I promise I won’t use it again after this, okay? Okay.
Anyway, let’s talk about butchery.
“Butchery” is basically what zooarchaeologists call any physical characteristics that may indicate that the bone has been modified by humans. There can be many reasons why bones will be modified, but most commonly its for consumption. Here’s a brief overview of three common butchery marks that can be found on faunal bone in the archaeological record:
Cut marks look like thin striations in the surface of the bone. They are mostly associated with activities like skinning/de-fleshing. Based on other characteristics, zooarchaeologists can determine whether a cut mark was made by a stone blade or a metal blade. Stone blades create shallow v-shaped marks with parallel striations (Potts and Shipman 1981), while metal blades will made deeper, slightly angled v-shaped marks (Greenfield 1999).
Slightly different from cut marks are chop marks – these are marks that were made by blades that hit the bone at a perpendicular angle, causing a V-shape that’s much broader than a cut mark (Potts and Shipman 1981).
One very specific form of butchery that’s pretty easy to identify is marrow cracking or marrow extraction. Marrow is a valuable product that can be extracted from various bones simply by breaking into the shaft. We can recognise bones that have been cracked or butchered for marrow by the fractures and splintered fragments left behind (Outram 2001). Depending on the tool used to break the bone, “percussion notches” can also be found along the fractures.
Obviously there’s much more when it comes to butchery marks, but these three are arguably some of the common forms of butchery that you run into as a zooarchaeologist. To be honest, there’s something really wonderful about finding bits of butchery when you’re excavating – running your fingers along the striations in the bone, it’s amazing to think that hundreds, thousands of years ago, someone created these marks…probably with a stomach as hungry as mine, too.
I’m gonna be honest, I get so hungry when I work with animal bones sometimes…is that weird? It’s weird, right. Hm.
Greenfield, H.J. (1999) The Origins of Metallurgy: Distinguishing Stone from Metal Cut-marks on Bones from Archaeological Sites. Journal of Archaeological Science. pp. 797-808.
Outram, A.K. (2001) A New Approach to Identifying Bone Marrow and Grease Exploitation: Why the “Indetereminate” Fragments Should Not Be Ignored. Journal of Archaeological Science. pp. 401-410.
Potts, R. and Shipman, P. (1981) Cutmarks Made by Stone Tools on Bones from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Nature pp. 577-580.
Hi, welcome back to the early to mid 2000’s where we still use jokes like “om nom nom” unironically!
Just kidding, I won’t subject you to bad jokes like that for this entire post. Anyway, it’s come to my attention that for a blog called “Animal Archaeology”, I don’t really write that much about the archaeology of animals, huh? Well, today will change that! Here is a brief introduction to how we identify gnaw marks on certain bones – because humans aren’t the only species to eat other animals, don’t ya know?
Rodent gnawing is probably the easiest one to recognise. Due to those huge incisors of theirs, rodents leave behind a very distinct pattern of close striations on the bone. Be warned, however! It can be easy to mix this up with cut marks, or vice versa.
Cats do indeed gnaw on bones! And they have a pretty peculiar way of doing so – when they hold onto a bone, they’ll use their canine teeth, which will often leave a puncture mark! Given their smaller size, these marks will often be a bit small and usually won’t go entirely through the bone (although if you’re dealing with a bigger feline, like a lion, you may find yourself with bigger and deeper puncture marks!). Cats will also do a bit of a “nibble”, leaving behind a very pitted and rough looking texture.
This is possibly something you can check right now if you have dogs as pets – take another look the next time they chew up a bone. Canine species like dogs and wolves will produce gnaw marks similar to felines in that they will often cause a puncture hole in the bone with their teeth. However, canine species will usually produce much larger holes in comparison. Another key characteristic is that canine species will slobber – when they gnaw on bones, they often produce what can only be described as “an upsetting amount of saliva” – however, this is great for zooarchaeologists, as it can leave behind a very polished look to the bone, which is very distinct. So, next time see you a beautifully polished archaeological bone…it was probably covered in ancient dog spit.
Yes, occasionally we do find human gnaw marks, although now we’re a little bit out of my jurisdiction! So, our teeth look weird – well, at least compared to non-human teeth. So the kind of gnaw marks we leave are a bit…wonkier? Is that the right word? Just bite into an apple and see what you leave behind, it’ll depend on how your incisors look, as we often lead with them to bite down onto something. Personally, I have pretty large buckteeth, so I’d hate to be the zooarchaeologist looking at my left behind teeth marks trying to figure out what the heck happened!
Parkinson, J.A., Plummer, T., and Hartstone-Rose, A. (2015) Characterizing Felid Tooth Marking and Gross Bone Damage Patterns Using GIS Image Analysis: An Experimental Feeding Study with Large Felids. Journal of Human Evolution. 80. pp. 114-134.
Yeshurun, R., Kaufman, D., and Weinstein-Evron, M. (2016) Contextual Taphonomy of Worked Bones in the Natufian Sequence of the el-Wad Terrace (Israel). Quarternary International. 403. pp. 3-15.
Content Warning – Today’s blog post will talk at length about animal death and will have some photos of taxidermy animals. Please proceed with caution and feel free to skip the blog post entirely if this is too upsetting.
The “Death Positivity” movement has truly become part of the mainstream discourse recently, ranging from a general increase in appreciation for all things aesthetically macabre, to more organized events that educate others on death and the culture surrounding it. Arguably at the forefront of this movement in the United States is Caitlyn Doughty, a mortician who started the Order of the Good Death as a means of engaging with death and dying in a more positive manner and combatting the anxieties that surround death in modern society (Troop 2013). Doughty eventually began working with other organizers to create “death salons” – based on 18th century intellectual salons, these events gather academics, professionals, and creatives (such as musicians, artists, performers, and even chefs!) together to discuss aspects of death and the culture around death (Rosenbloom 2013).
But while our attitudes towards human death may be changing, what about our attitudes towards animal death? This may be a more complicated question than I originally thought – after all, given our utilisation of animals as subsistence, product manufacturers, and sometimes companions, humans will find themselves constantly confronting animal death. However, there are two specific examples of recent trends that I’ve noticed as someone who consistently works with animal remains in their everyday life…
Perhaps one example of changes towards animal death is the popularisation of “vulture culture” online – this term often refers to enthusiasts for collecting animal remains, either as skeletal elements or as taxidermies. Not everyone in the community processes their own remains, but everyone expresses a passion for collecting specimens via online sellers or by finding naturally defleshed remains in the wild. Some enthusiasts are also artists that incorporate animal remains into their artwork somehow. It is usually emphasised that “vulture culture” collections are derived from naturally deceased animals as part of their ethics (Miller 2017).
Another example of “animal death positivity” could also be seen in the rise of pet mortuary businesses that specialise in “alternative aftercare”. This can either be as a full taxidermy piece, as a partial piece (for example, preserved tails or paws), or in skeletal form. Precious Creature Taxidermy, an alternative aftercare and taxidermy business run by Lauren Lysak in California, offers various aftercare services in lieu of what we may consider “traditional human funerary services” that includes the previously mentioned processes as well as cremation (Lysak 2018). Although it may seem a bit macabre to taxidermy one’s pet, you could also consider this as a deeper acceptance of death and its constant presence around all of us…in taxidermy form.
So, are we entering a new phase of “death positivity” with regards to animals? Do we even have a right to feeling “death positive” towards non-human species – after all, of course, many animal deaths are directly caused by human activities. I think that, ultimately, this is a very complicated topic that has many layers to it regarding concepts of posthumanism, of ethics, of agency, and so on – perhaps this requires another, more lengthy blog post! However, at least with regards to how humans experience the death of animals, specifically pets, I think we are making strides to better understanding the processes of death and utilising some aspects of “death positivity” as we apply it to humans in our overall understanding of the concept as a whole.
Content Warning: This post will be talking a lot about death and the emotional resonance of dead bodies, both human and non-human. No images of human remains will be shown, but there will be images of non-skeletal (mummified) dead animals, so if this may be upsetting, please skip this post.
I was on Twitter the other day when I came across a Tweet about the recent archaeological discovery of the well-preserved body of a dog that had recently been recovered from permafrost in Siberia (Siberian Times Reporter 2018). Looking at photos of the dog’s paws, which still have some fur, I thought, “Oh, how sad.” And yet, I work with animal remains all the time! So what is so different about these remains?
This dog is one of a couple of recent, well-preserved finds in Siberia – in August, a preserved body of a foal (young horse) was recovered (Associated Press 2018), and just weeks after the dog recovery, the well-preserved remains of a 50,000 year old lion cub was also found (Gertcyk 2018). Note the language and imagery used in these articles – Gertcyk refers to the lion cub as “cute” with significant emphasis of how young the lion was at death, the Siberian Times article on the dog makes certain to stress how some of the fur is still present, and an additional article on the foal by Michelle Starr (2018) utilises up-close photos of the hooves, face, and nose of the foal which were especially well-preserved.
Focusing on the young age of the animals – and how this increases the “cuteness” factor, so to speak – is arguably a tactic to incite sympathy and emotion, as well as relatability. This is also seen in human advertisements, especially regarding charity and other social activism for the sake of the living – this phenomenon has been widely studied, with many philosophical and psychological explanations given for why this is both so widespread and effective (Seu 2015). With regards to the dead, emphasis of youth also invokes an emotional reaction akin to something like grief – a life not fully lived, innocence struck down too early.
What is more interesting, and perhaps more effective in evoking an emotional reaction is the constant emphasis of preservation. The ability for viewers to see the recognisable, the things we associate with the living, is what helps in empathising with the body. A very evocative example is the bog body (which you can read more about here, CW: for a photo of actual human remains). The high level of preservation caused by bogs results in such a recognisable appearance that it creates a sensation that Wright (2017) refers to as the “sublime” – an interplay between empathy for the recognised humanity and also a sort of horror at the personification of death. It can be argued that it is this unique ability of bog bodies to invoke such an emotional reactional that led to the numerous art and prose inspired by them – take, for instance, Seamus Heaney’s work.
The power of such reactions may also be evident from the response to a lack of recognisable features. Mummies, for instance, are technically well-preserved bodies. Yet the concealed nature of most mummies creates a need for additional elements to invoke more empathy and relatability; this is further explored by Day (2013), who questions the necessity of facial reconstructions of Egyptian mummified bodies in order for Western audiences to “relate” better to them.
Of course, this is not to say that just “fleshy bits” – skin, hair, fur, etc. – necessarily equate to instant empathy. There is an element of “intactness” that also must be present. The preserved animals that have been previously discussed in this blog post have all been more or less completely intact, again a testament to their preservation. Separating an element, like a limb, from the body would most likely invoke a reaction closer to horror, as we often associate such separation with mutilation and other acts of violence, even if the separation is caused naturally by more taphonomic means.
So, if we accept the argument that having these “preserved” elements causes empathy and emotional reactions, then perhaps we must also accept that there may be some truth to the reverse of this – that skeletal remains, both animal and human, are more difficult to empathise with. To an extent, this is certainly true for animal remains – skeletal animals are often see without issue at museums, in decoration and jewellery, and in the past sometimes utilised for tools and materials. The caveat to this, of course, is the last few decades during which animal rights activism has become more prevalent and acceptable in the public eye.
As for human remains, there is a long and lengthy history regarding the ethicality of display that is also intertwined with colonialist and racist scientific practices. It has only been recently that the repatriation of human remains – specifically those of Indigenous peoples – have become generally accepted as the “right thing to do” by the general public, although of course there remains some within anthropology, archaeology, and museums who fight against the act of repatriation in the name of “scientific process”, despite the horrific racial and colonial implications of said process. Even more recently, this debate has turned towards exhibitions that utilise real human remains to educate others about the body – touring exhibitions such as BodyWorlds have been as extremely controversial as they have also been extremely popular (Redman 2016).
Perhaps another blog post is necessary to further explore the ethicality regarding human remains, both in display and in analytical practice.As technology and preservation practices continue to advance, what new obstacles will we face with regards to our ability to preserve and display the dead? Redman (2016) perhaps offers the best glimpse at what troubles might be ahead, mentioning that BodyWorlds often runs into the issue of displaying the human body like an art piece, rather than an actual person. May there be a time when our conception of the body becomes so far removed that we no longer empathise with the dead, even as well preserved as they are? What does this mean for the future of ethics?
“Another series, Alex? Don’t you have enough to write about?” Yeah, well, I’ve also been playing a lot of Dragon Age: Inquisition so excuse me if I have a lot to say about archaeology in the video game series. “Theorising Thedas” will be a look at how archaeology plays a major role in the conflicts of Thedas, the world in which the Dragon Age series takes place. We’ll also be looking at examples of real world archaeology within the series – like today’s topic, the Bog Unicorn! Content Warning: Some images of preserved human remains are below.
In the 2014 video game Dragon Age: Inquisition, you play as the Inquisitor who heads the latest Inquisition against an army of demons and heretics. As the leader of such a massive organisation, your character is able to get supplies and aid from all corners of the world of Thedas, including some incredibly fantastic and exotic mounts. One of these mounts is known as the “Bog Unicorn” – a horse that had been preserved in a bog environment that has been brought back to life by the sheer power of the spirit. Although the game does not go into much more detail regarding the backstory of the Bog Unicorn, the design of the mount somehow manages to hit a lot of really interesting points about the phenomenon of “bog bodies” in real world archaeology. So let’s break it down…
To start, what is a “bog body”? In short, it is a body that has been preserved within a bog due to the acidic and anaerobic conditions of the surrounding environment. Bog bodies have been recovered since the 17th century. Prior to focusing on the conservation of archaeological finds, most bog bodies were either discarded or, in some cases, ground up into a medicinal powder called “mumia” (Aldhouse-Green 2015).
There has been an observed phenomenon of recovered bog bodies across parts of continental Europe, with additional cases found in Ireland and Britain. Most of these bodies have been dated to around the Iron Age, and many have been observed to have characteristics that may reflect a violent death (sometimes referred to as “overkill”). This has led to one interpretation of bog bodies representing those who were killed as part of a ritualistic sacrifice or as a punishment (Giles 2009).
The design of the Bog Unicorn manages to convey a lot of detail about bog bodies without actual textual explanation. For example, let’s take a look at the physical appearance of the mount. The Bog Unicorn is not skeletal, but has what appears to be a dark, leathery hide covering its body. Its hair is also a strange, rust red colour.
As you can see from the photo above of an actual bog body, this is the typical appearance of organic material that has been preserved within a bog. Sphagnum, released once bog moss dies, is the agent that causes the “tanning” effect on any soft tissue – this is what causes the colouration in both skin and hair found on bog bodies (Aldhouse-Green 2015).
Another noteworthy detail in the Bog Unicorn’s design is the sword thrust through the horse’s head, creating the “unicorn” effect – this is perhaps a nod to another phenomenon in the archaeology of bogs and other watery environments. Water has often been considered a liminal space (in other words, a sort of boundary or in-between place), as well as a source of life. It is possible that the deposition of remains in watery environments reflects a belief in water as a pathway to the spirit world, or perhaps more indicative of cyclic beliefs in regeneration and fertility (Bradley 2017). Weapons and other artefacts have also been noted to be recovered as deposits from water – possibly used as proxies for the human body in a ritual? It should also be noted that many weapons that are deposited in this way are often fragmented or ritualistically broken, perhaps to mark a sort of “death” of the object (Bruck 2006).
To wrap this discussion up, let’s move on from the physical appearance to talk more about intent. The Bog Unicorn, in the lore of the game, is explained to be a restless force that has moved beyond death to serve again. In other words, the Bog Unicorn is between life and death, floating somewhere in the middle as a sort of undead creature. To represent such a force as a preserved corpse from a bog is actually quite fitting, especially when one considers how a bog body is basically suspended between life and death (or at least, decay). As mentioned above, watery environments appear to have been identified as a liminal space – bogs even more so, as they were sort of in between land and water. If we take into consideration that bog bodies were part of a “punishment” involving their ritualistic killing, it might be that this liminal space proved to be the final, posthumous punishment – unable to decay and “pass on”, these bodies were left preserved, floating in some natural purgatory. But even if that’s all conjecture, there is still something so perfect about having a Bog Unicorn, who is between life and death, this world and the next, be your spectral-yet-physical steed for a battle that takes place between our world and the spirit world.
Aldhouse-Green, M. (2015) Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery. Thames & Hudson.
Note: Is it morbid to look at rabbit and hare skeletons on Easter? Maybe. But more importantly, please remember that caring for rabbits as pets is a commitment – don’t buy them as an Easter Day gift for kids if you’re not committed to caring for them! More information can be found here.
So, moment of truth: how long did it take you to realise that rabbits and hares are two different animals? I’m pretty sure I was hitting double digits in age before that dawned on me…embarrassing? Maybe. But it’s an easy mistake to make: rabbits and hares look extremely alike! And that’s not just limited to their outsides either…today’s mini comparative anatomy post is about the bones of hares and rabbits!
Good rule of thumb with differentiating between hare and rabbit bones is to look at the size of the bones – hares are generally larger than rabbits. This is definitely noticeable just looking at the skulls of a hare (on the left, above) and a rabbit (on the right, above).
Hares also have larger, stronger hind legs, which can also be easily seen when you compare these bones to rabbit bones – in the above photo, are two femora, with the larger and more robust femur belonging to the hare.
Despite being from different species, however, both rabbits and hares do share similar physical traits in their skeletons, with explains why some archaeologists may have some confusion when it comes to differentiating between the two (for example, compare the two tibia bones above – besides the difference in size, they’re rather similar!).
If you’re interested in more archaeological work on hares, check on the Exploring the Easter E.g. project undertaken by the AHRC and the University of Nottingham!
When we think of “high status” in the archaeological record, we usually think about intricate metalwork or elaborate jewellery…but what about animals? If that sounds strange, remember this: we still have animals and animal-based foods that are culturally considered “high status” today! Think of things like caviar, lobster, peacocks, etc…cover them all with some gold leaf and you’ve got yourself a millionaire’s prized possessions.
As I’ve talked about before on this blog, one of the greatest strengths of zooarchaeological research is that there are so many elements of the past that can be derived from animal remains. So to demonstrate this point, here’s a quick look at two of the high status animals from Iron Age Britain…
The humble pig as a high status animal may not come as a surprise…after all, how many feasting scenes in films have you seen where one of the main courses is a giant roasted pig complete with an apple in the mouth? Raising pigs for consumption in the Iron Age took up a considerable amount of resources and land, so it follows that higher status individuals would be the few to keep and consume pigs (Serjeantson 2007). Many archaeological sites with evidence of feasting have been observed to produce many pig bones as well – it seems like that cliche has a long history! Given how difficult it was to maintain pigs, it could be interpreted that feasts with large amounts of pigs consumed were important, possibly reflecting an important event or ritual that deserves a large portion of one’s wealth being used (Madgwick and Mulville 2015).
Pigs also have a symbolic value as well by having a wild counterpart in the form of boars. Beliefs in Iron Age Britain seem to have placed emphasis on concepts of “liminality” (or the “between” places that are neither here nor there) as well as ideas of the domestic sphere and the wilderness. With that in mind, its possible that this duality of pig/boar, domestic/wild could have made pigs (and boars) high status in symbolic/ritual value as well. Boar were often hunted during this period, and were especially appreciated for its fierceness, leading to many boar motifs found in Iron Age weaponry and armoury (Green 1992, Parker Pearson 1999).
Probably one of the more equally valued animals at the time was the horse. Unlike pigs, however, horses were more useful to humans alive than dead; horses allowed people to move quickly across long stretches of land and transport large numbers of goods – what isn’t there to like about ’em? Horses were also important to both hunting and warfare, especially with the invention and use of chariots (Green 1992, Chadwick 2007).
Although highly valued in life, it is how horses are treated in death that provide evidence to their status in the Iron Age. There are many examples of horse burials that display a sort of reverence that isn’t afforded to other animals: for example, there are instances of horse remains that have been deposited with human remains. Chariot and cart burials – which were common in the Arras Culture of Iron Age Yorkshire – can also be interpreted as emphasising the importance of horses through the activities they were associated with (warfare and transportation), although most of these did not contain horse remains. However, in 2017 a chariot burial with a horse skeleton was recovered in Pocklington, Yorkshire (Keys 2017).
So there you have it – a quick look at how zooarchaeologists can interpret aspects about social status and hierarchy in the past from animal bones – obviously, there are other animals that are considered relatively high status, and that all pigs and horses weren’t treated this way everywhere in the Iron Age – there’s lots of nuance that needs to be used in interpretation. But we have lots of evidence to suggest that pigs and horses were indeed considered high status animals – and hey, I have to agree…I mean, have you ever had pork cracklings? Mmm…
Chadwick, A. M. (2007) Trackways , hooves, and memory-days – human and animal movements and memories around the Iron Age and Romano-British Rural Landscapes of the English North Midlands. Prehistoric Journeys. Oxbow Books.
Green, M. (1992) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Routledge.
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.
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!
Rodents and fish – could there be any more different animals? And yet, I find that students just starting out in archaeology tend to confuse the two together. To be fair, it’s very understandable – the size of rodent bones can be comparable to the size of many fish bones. So let’s break it down and see how different they really are.
For starters, let’s look at the cranium of a rat (left) and an Atlantic cod (right). As you can see, most elements of the skeleton look completely different. The rat has the sort of skull you would expect to see with any animal, while the fish…well, fish are basically made of a head and a tail, so most fish bones you find will be part of the cranium. As I’ve mentioned before in my previous post on fish bone, they will also have a different sort of texture and look compared to mammal bone – in my opinion, its a very “fish-like” texture, a bit shiny and flaky. Always a good giveaway that you’re dealing with a fish!
So how is it possible to even confuse the two? Well, let’s look at something a bit trickier…here’s the vertebrae from a rat (left) and from a fish (right). Now, if you don’t know that there’s a difference in shape between rat and fish vertebrae, you might not be able to differentiate the two right away. And given how weird vertebrae can be in varying shapes between types of vertebrae in an individual body, who knows! Maybe they’re from the same animal?
Luckily, there is a visual difference between the two. Rat vertebrae look relatively similar to any other mammal vertebrae (“relatively” being the key word here, of course…but talking about the differences in mammal vertebrae is a post for a different day!). Fish, on the other hand, have very distinct-looking vertebrae and vertebral bodies. Unfortunately, distinguishing between the two can be more difficult if the vertebrae are more fragmented – I’ve seen many students get the two confused if most of the vertebral arches and “wings” are missing.
“But Alex!” I hear you say, “these bones look so different, I don’t believe that anyone could get them confused!” Okay then…let’s take two random, slightly fragmented bones from a herring and a mouse then, shall we?
As you can see, it can get tricky! Fragmentation, size, preservation of bone – these are variables that you encounter with archaeological bones that make things a bit more challenging than you’d think! The best way to get better, of course, is to practice, practice, practice. It gets easier…