Spooky, Scary, Inaccurate Skeletons

Happy Halloween from Major Buzzkill! To celebrate, I’m going to ruin everyone’s fun and take a look at a recent trend in Halloween decorations: the inaccurate animal skeletons.

Let me preface this by saying I think these decorations are super cute and if I ever get past my ever-growing student debt and get a house, I will most likely buy a whole menagerie of spooky animal skeletons.

However…as cute as these decorations are, the zooarchaeologist in me dies a little inside when I see how…well, unrealistic they are.

Let’s start with the raven. Thanks to Mr. Poe, the raven is probably one of the spookiest birds for the season. But what’s even spookier is…well, whatever that plastic skeleton is (left). In reality (right), raven skeletons are a less more hollow, with lots of space throughout the skeleton and larger long bones. Also, the fake raven’s eye sockets are terrifying…or is it just me?

Unsurprisingly, bats have also become spooky, scary skeletons for Halloween. Now, this was a little unfair in that I’m not entirely sure what kind of bat the decoration was going for (seen on the left, the skull is probably a little closer to a vampire bat), but for the sake of comparison, here’s a fruit bat (right) – I’ll give the fake skeleton credit for the bones of the wings being kinda…sorta…close. But look at those ears!

Speaking of ears…what I’ve noticed is that most of these animal skeleton decorations get these strange, bony ears – probably for the sake of differentiating them, but how weird are they?! As for cats…you know, the fake one (left) almost gets it right…minus the ears and the significantly elongated skull that most domestic cats (right) lack – although that’s probably just to give them a cute nose.

And now…perhaps one of the scariest decorations of all…the dog. Judging by those weird bony ears alone (left), I imagined that it was supposed to be a Rottweiler (right)? I’m actually fascinated by the ears on this one…are they weird, floppy bones? How do they work? If anyone wants to brainstorm with me later, let me know.

Again, this is all in good fun – I understand that its a silly Halloween decoration and that some adjustments are made to make them recognisable to the general public! But seriously…what the hell is this, Party City?

Skeletal Spider
I mean…come on, what the hell?

Have a safe and fun Halloween, everyone!

All skeleton decorations are from Party City and all actual skeletons are replicas from Bone Clones.

Bones That Look Like Other Bones: Rodent Week Edition

According to Twitter, last week was #RodentWeek. So here’s another comparative anatomy minipost about some commonly found rodents: squirrels, rats, and mice!

Skulls and mandibles from left to right: squirrel, rat, and mouse.

Now, when it comes to differentiating between these three, size matters. As you can see from the above photo, there’s a huge difference between the skull of a squirrel and the skull of a mouse!

Rats and squirrels may be a toss up, depending on the age and size of the animal – but there’s differences in the shape as well! Personally, I’ve always associated squirrels with a more rounded cranium than rats, who normally have a more flattened skull, but your mileage may vary on that.

Skulls from left to right: Squirrel, rat, and mouse

What will be very difficult is if the only elements available to you are the incisors, or the front teeth. Again, size is beneficial here, as otherwise incisors will more or less look the same across the board for rodents!

Also, take another look at those skulls – lots of similarities between the mouse and rat, less so for the squirrel. And you can kinda see what I mean about the more flattened top of the rat in comparison! There’s a similar elongation that both the rat and mouse share as well.

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Mandibles from top to bottom – squirrel, rat, and mouse

For the most part, identification of rodent remains requires close examination. As you can see above, there are many slight differences between the different rodents, but it requires a bit more study than say, differentiating between a rodent and a frog.  In some cases, complete identification may not be possible without some references on hand!

That said, those incisors are often huge clues that point towards a rodent – if all else fails, at least you might be able to point to that! Those incisors also create a very specific gnaw mark on bones that will help ID the presence of rodents at the site (this will be the topic of a future blog post though!).

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Femurs from top to bottom – squirrel, rat, and mouse

I’ve spent most of this post (as I do with most of these comparative anatomy miniposts) talking about the skulls for identification – to be honest, skulls are usually the easiest part of the body to ID and compare. So here’s something a bit different – let’s quickly look at some long bones of rodents.

As I said previously, rodents require a bit more investigation in differentiating between them. As you can see by the femurs above, there are certainly some differences between a squirrel, rat, and mouse! Compare the straighter edge of the squirrel femur towards the more curved femurs of the rat and mouse, for example.

I hope these miniposts are somewhat helpful for you – obviously a more detailed comparative anatomy post would be much longer, but hey! Maybe one day I’ll write up some manuals – let me know if that sounds interesting to anyone!

Bones That Looks Like Other Bones: A MiniPost About Birds and Rabbits

I’ve been quite busy doing analysis on assemblages for my PhD project, so I don’t have much time for blogging these days. But in (belated) honour of International Rabbit Day, here’s a quick comparison of rabbits and birds!

Birds and Rabbits
Herring gull skull on the left, rabbit skull on the right

For the most part, rabbits and birds are quite distinguishable animals. I mean, one has wings and feathers and the other doesn’t – how could you mix them up?

Well…once you have just the bones, it can get tricky.

Rabbit Bird Tibias

Let’s take, for example, the tibia. Above is a photo of a bird tibia and a rabbit tibia – can you guess which is which?

They don’t look exactly alike, of course, but rabbit bones (rabbit tibia is on the bottom) have similar sharp characteristics you’d normally expect bird bones (herring gull tibia is on the top) to have.

Bird Rabbit femurs

Now this is a bit easy as the bones are marked, but you can see the similarities between the bird femur (game cock femur on the left) and the rabbit femur (on the right). Again, note the sharp edges of some of the rabbit bone that looks similar to many bird bones!

And if that isn’t confusing enough, rabbit bones tend to be just about as lightweight as bird bones!

It can be very tricky, but this is why comparative anatomy and reference collections are so important!

#FolkloreThursday – Magical Flight with Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pig

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

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

Dog

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

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

Cat

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

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

Sheep

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

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

Cow

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

Cow teeth
Compare these cow teeth with the sheep teeth above

Rodents

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

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

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

On Seals, the Dogs of the Sea

The other day, a group of archaeologists (myself included) stood around trays of assorted animal bones from a recent surface collection. It was just a cursory glance at the assemblage, but of course the mind immediately starts identifying bones that jump out at you.

“That’s a dog mandible…that’s a cow tooth…that’s bird, for sure…and that’s…a dog too?”

It was a fragment of a mandible that certainly looked like a dog at first glance…and yet, there was something a bit off. After looking at it for some time, it finally hit me: oh, it’s a seal. The dogs of the sea.

Seal and Canine Mandibles

When you start off in zooarchaeology, you start to find big indicators that immediately help you narrow down an identification – little “shortcuts”, if you will. Case in point – identifying seals based on comparing them to dogs.

Above, you’ll see a dog mandible and a sea mandible. Side by side, it’s a bit easier to see the difference between the two. But on its own, it’s not that difficult to mistake a seal mandible for that of a dog. I chalk it up to the teeth shape being very similar, and some slight similarities in the shape of the mandible itself (note – the mandible that was originally in question was smaller than the above mandible, so a bit easier to mistake for a dog!).

So with that in mind, it’s a bit handy to keep that in your mental toolkit. Got a mandible that looks like a dog’s, but something’s a bit…off? Might be a seal!

Seal Skull

Of course, there’s plenty of variation in dog skulls among different breeds that maybe that’s not the best conclusion to jump to, so here’s another tip: check the sort of overall bone there is. Does it look rather porous? Well, that’s an easy sign that you’re dealing with some sort of marine animal! So if you have a mandible that looks dog-like, but has a porous quality to it? Either it’s a mythical sea dog (in that case please send me photos)…or most likely, some kind of seal.

UPDATE: After further conversation with another zooarchaeologist, it turns out that dog mandible might actually be a wolf mandible! Oops…well, point still stands, I guess!

Seal pelvis

On Fish, the Bane of All Archaeologists’ Lives

Well, not all archaeologists…

Here’s the thing about fish bones: they can, and will most likely, be small and fragile in your assemblages. How small and fragile? So small, if you sneeze you might blow a couple hundred of them off your finds tray. So fragile, you might snap a few with a tweezer.

So not the most fun thing in the world to work with. And I should know. I did my MSc dissertation on analysing thousands of them for three months.

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These are fish scales that I counted – by hand! All in the name of science.

But let’s give credit where credit is due: fish, as annoying as they can be to work with, are vital to understanding the archaeological record. As with other animal bones, fish bones can tell us a lot about the diet of the inhabitants of a given site.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg! Fish, like many other animals, can be utilised in ways beyond food (i.e; fish oil). To further investigate this, we can analyse pottery and other artefacts for traces of oil. By identifying and quantifying the specific bones, we can also determine what inhabitants were most likely doing with the fish – if there are many fish head bones, for example, then the processing of the fish was most likely performed here. No fish head bones and a landlocked site? Maybe the fish were caught and processed elsewhere, and then traded to this settlement! Looking into fish species, we can also see how the fish were caught. Once we identify the bones to species, we can look at their seasonality and where they normally are located within a body of water (coastal? deep sea?), which can tell us a lot about hunting techniques and the technology that must have been employed to catch them. This is also very important if there’s a lack of fishing-related artefacts, but fishing is suspected.

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An example of size differences in fish – these are both the same bone, different sizes!

Fish can be a difficult animal to work with in archaeology. As I mentioned before, fish bones can be very small, which makes identification and handling very difficult! Unlike other animal bones, which often at least have some semblance to human bones that make identifications a bit easier, fish bones often look very alien! They are also very fragile, which means preservation is often not very good.

After working with them for a summer, however, I’ve come to realise how important fish bones are to the archaeological record and how easy it is to take them for granted! So here’s to you, fish bones – you are very annoying to work with at times, but also incredibly helpful and important!

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The cleithrum is a bone unique to fish – and also my favourite! It looks like a wing, doesn’t it?

Want to learn more about fish bones?

The University of Nottingham has an amazing fish bone reference website that has saved my neck a few times during my research.

The North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation (NABO) also has a fish bone manual that may be handy for recording bones.

 

On Birds, or Why Light Bones Freak Me Out

Maybe this is a real “duh” moment for me, but the first time I picked up a bird bone (and a rather large one at that), I was genuinely freaked out by how light their bones are! Thinking back, of course, it seems a bit obvious why bird that fly would need relatively lighter bones, but in my defence, it is very unsettling to have a bone be so light when you’re not expecting it.

An Atlantic Herring gull skull and beak

 

One of the skills you learn going into zooarchaeology is quickly finding indicators that allow for relatively quick identifications off-hand. Of course I’m not gonna hand in a bone report made up of five second IDs, but when you’re faced with a pile of hundreds of animal bones, it does help to do a little preliminary analysis using a few indicators you know.

Anyway, here’s two general bone elements that may be helpful to know off hand for a quick ID of a bird skeleton:

The left ulna of an Atlantic Herring gull

The bird ulna is part of the “forearm” and I find that they can often be ID’ed by these bumps that are found running along the bone.

A furcula from a duck

The clavicles of a bird are fused together into an element known as the “furcula“. This is also what is often referred to as a wishbone. Given this is a unique element in birds (and some dinosaurs apparently! I don’t know much about dinosaurs and their skeletons, but I can at least identify the furcula if present – it’s a bit impressive to kids, at least), the presence of this bone should be a giveaway that you’ve got a bird on your hands.

This isn’t an extensive bird identification manual (although hey, maybe that’s a post for another day?), but again, I find that having these small little hints tucked away are handy for getting a start on IDing bones. Look for more of these kinds of posts in the future!

On Zooarchaeology, or Looking at Dead Animals All the Time

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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