Should We Respect Rover’s Remains? A Discussion on Ethics, or the Lack Thereof, in Zooarchaeology

The following text is a transcript of a conference paper I presented in 2019 for the Animal Remains Conference at the University of Sheffield.

A summary of the sort of ethical considerations we might potentially consider with regards to zooarchaeology (from the original presentation)

Archaeology is currently in the midst of an ethical crisis. From pseudo-archaeological “fake news” (Halmhofer 2019; Wade 2019) to the longstanding fight for repatriation of artefacts and remains (Gilyeat 2019; Kremer 2019), archaeologists continue to find themselves at the heart of a struggle to radically improve and restructure a discipline that has often been at the front of problematic and harmful practices itself. However, not every facet of archaeology is contemplating ethical concerns – zooarchaeology, which primarily focuses on faunal remains within the archaeological record, rarely finds itself considering ethical dilemmas.

To preface this discussion on zooarchaeological ethics, let us first briefly examine the current discourse in archaeology as a whole to provide some further context. With the discipline’s progression into the Digital Age, for example, there has been much discussion on the ethical considerations of the digital and public sphere (Dennis 2016; Hassett 2018; Richardson 2018). However, perhaps the biggest problem that archaeologists now face in the virtual world is the proliferation of pseudo-archaeological conspiracies and “fake news”; one pertinent example is the debate on human remains recovered from the Atacama Desert in Chile. The non-normative appearance of the remains was controversial and eventually cited as evidence of aliens by conspiracy theorists (Zimmer 2018). This was inevitably debunked by a recent study which claimed that while the skeleton was human, it has several “abnormalities” and “mutations” of significance (Bhattacharya et al. 2018). This was, in turn, further debunked by an additional study that also cited a massive overstep in ethics by the original researchers (Halcrow et al. 2018).

This brings us to the focus of most ethical debates: human remains, particularly those of Indigenous and colonised ancestors. Repatriation, for example, is still a major component of discourse on archaeological ethics. Despite becoming partially integrated into laws through acts such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in the United States (Nash and Colwell-Chanthapohn 2010), many marginalised communities are still fighting to claim their deceased from museums and institutions. This fight has also progressed to individual collectors (Katz 2019), in particular due to the burgeoning market for human remains on social media (Huffer and Graham 2017). More generally, archaeologists continue to wrestle with the ethical considerations of the presentation of human remains – should it be banned entirely (Swain 2016; Overholtzer and Argueta 2017; White 2019)? Does it require content warnings beforehand (Pollard 2016; Williams 2016)? As archaeologists become more aware of the ways in which socio-cultural and political factors interact with each other within our research, we will need to constantly re-evaluate how we approach these sensitive topics. 

The ethical reconsideration of human remains is, of course, vital to further decolonising our discipline and I do not wish for this paper to be seen as arguing against this. Nor do I want this paper to be seen as a manifesto or particular platform for my own political views. Rather, I want to focus on zooarchaeological ethics as a deeper analysis of the anthropocentrism within the discipline itself, and an examination of how we approach animal remains so differently from human remains.

Ethical considerations in zooarchaeology are, for the most part, non-existent. Unlike their human counterparts, faunal remains do not require ethical review of their use in research. Although debate continues on content warnings, most archaeologists have at the very least adopted the use of a warning prior to showing images of human remains in their work; animal remains, on the other hand, rarely necessitate a warning. For example, in writing about the recent debate on content warnings in archaeology, zooarchaeologist Emily Johnson (2016) reflects on a personal experience in which she was only significantly affected by remains when coming across human bones amongst her faunal assemblage. As most zooarchaeological assemblages deal with defleshed bone, there is often less of an emotional connection between the archaeologist and the recovered remains (Fitzpatrick 2018).  In addition, further examination of commonly used content warnings suggest that people’s main concerns are with alive or recently-alive animals, demonstrated by the terms “animal cruelty” and “animal death” (LSA.Inclusive.Teaching.Initiative 2017). The few discussions regarding ethics amongst zooarchaeologists appear to be focused on applied zooarchaeology; much has been written about zooarchaeological contributions to current conservation projects (Lyman 1996; Braje et al. 2012; Peacock 2012). However, it seems that this ethical analysis is rarely turned inward.

Perhaps the main reason for such a lack of ethical consideration in the discipline is that the heart of zooarchaeology is still a human one. Despite an emphasis on non-human remains, zooarchaeology is still defined by its usefulness in understanding human life in the past  (Albarella 2017: 4). Those outside of the zooarchaeological sphere may go so far as to literally “objectify” animal remains and label them as “artefacts” during excavation and curation.

This is not to say that there has not been attempts to change this; the last two decades have seen the focus of zooarchaeological research move from the quantification of human economies and societies using faunal remains (Crabtree 1990: 155) to the consideration of relations between human and non-human species as part of a “social zooarchaeology” (Russell 2012; Overton and Hamilakis 2013) in a bid to move the discipline away from an anthropocentric perspective. Is this movement the key to developing an ethics within zooarchaeology? I would argue that it is.

Outside of archaeology, ethical considerations of animals have often proposed a framework in which animals are given the same respect and rights as other humans (Singer 1973; Berry 1997; Cavalieri 2003). I posit that a similar framework is necessary to begin to consider how we can approach faunal remains more ethically – that perhaps we need to change our focus in order to equally consider the non-human perspective as much as the human one.

There have been some efforts within zooarchaeology to manage non-anthropocentrism as a theoretical framework. For example, social zooarchaeologists have become more concerned with animal agency, with many utilising Cary Wolfe’s concept of “zoontology”; this concept acknowledges that animals work within their own agency in interspecies relationships, including those with humans (Wolfe 2003: x-xiii). Moreover, it argues against the inherent “speciesism” entrenched in human led studies of non-human species and seeks to rectify this by subverting the definition of the word “animal” as it is currently used – to designate the non-human and separate it entirely as beneath us through our own cultural frameworks (Maltby 2008: 133). Social zooarchaeologists have taken this approach to further explore processes that have only been understood through an anthropocentric lens; for example,  there has been discussion of an animal facet to the domestication process that emphasizes non-human agency (Russell 2002: 285-286).

Assuming a non-anthropocentric perspective, however, can be problematic. There is a fine line between empathising with a non-human subject and anthropomorphising them. A zooarchaeology rife with anthropomorphism would be at risk of overt projection of “human” qualities that may unnecessarily obscure any scientific advancements in further understanding the cognitive behaviours of non-human species (Russell 2012: 2-3). A balance would need to be struck at the onset.

With this new framework in place, we can now begin to face ethical concerns that come with this change in worldview. Ultimately, these concerns will be similar to those associated with human remains: what are the rights of the deceased? Should we display their remains? Do we have the ethical right to retain these remains? That these remains are non-human also throws into sharp relief an additional issue that is sometimes brought up with regards to the research and display of ancestors by non-descendants: are we imposing our own (human) perspectives upon those who may have had a completely differently worldview?

These are not easy questions to answer, nor are they meant to be. However, I believe that radically changing our perspective, and with that, our ethics, may ultimately lead to a reassessment of how we interpret and engage with faunal remains, both in the past and in the present.

To end this paper, let me reiterate that I am not suggesting that these are ethical considerations that are pertinent to the progress of zooarchaeology; I recognise that, given archaeology’s historical complicity with colonialization and white supremacy, there are certainly more important issues at hand that still need to be reckoned with. However, I hope that the points brought up in this paper spark conversations and debates on the current trajectory of zooarchaeology as a discipline and how our human perspectives ultimately shape not just our interpretations of the past, but the way we engage with remains in the present and future. And who knows? Given how much our relationship to animals have changed over time, perhaps future zooarchaeologists will one day find it necessary to adopt better ethics for our non-human brethren.

References

Albarella, U. (2017) Zooarchaeology in the Twenty-First Century: Where We are Now, and Where are We Going. In Albarella, U. (editor) The Oxford Handbook of Zooarchaeology.   Oxford: Oxford University Press. 3-24.

Berry, B. (1997) Human and Nonhuman Animal Rights and Oppression: an Evolution Toward Equality. Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology 25 (2), 155-160.

Bhattacharya, S., Li, J., Sockwell, A., Kan, M. J., Bava, F. A., Chen, S., Avila-Arcos, M. C., Ji, X., Smith, E., Asadi, N. B., Lachman, R. S., Lam, H. Y. K., Bustamante, C. D., Butte, A. J. and Nolan, G. P. (2018) Whole-Genome Sequencing of Atacama Skeleton Shows Novel Mutations Linked with Dysplasia. Genome Research 28, 423-431.

Braje, T. J., Rick, T. C. and Erlandson, J. M. (2012) Rockfish in the Longview: Applied Archaeology and Conservation of the Pacific Red Snapper (Genus Sebastes) in Southern California. Applied Zooarchaeology and Conservation Biology, 157-178.

Cavalieri, P. (2003) The Animal Question: Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crabtree, P. J. (1990) Zooarchaeology and Complex Societies: Some Uses of Faunal Analysis for the Study of Trade, Social Status, and Ethnicity. Archaeological Method and Theory 2, 155-205.

Dennis, L. M. (2016) Archaeogaming, Ethics, and Participatory Standards. SAA Archaeological Record 16 (5), 29-33.

Fforde, C. (2003) Collection, Repatriation, and Identity. The Dead and Their Possessions.   London: Routledge. 43-64.

Fitzpatrick, A. (2018) The Sadness of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains. Retrieved from https://animalarchaeology.com/2018/09/24/the-sadness-of-skin-emotional-reactions-to-remains.

Gilyeat, D. (2019) Pitt Rivers: The Museum that’s Returning the Dead. BBC News

Halcrow, S. E., Killgrove, K., Robbins Schug, G., Knapp, M., Huffer, D., Arriaza, B., Jungers, W. and Gunter, J. (2018) On Engagement with Anthropology: A Critical Evaluation of Skeletal and Developmental Abnormalities in the Atacama Preterm Baby and Issues of Forensic and Bioarchaeological Research Ethics. Response to Bhattacharya et al. ‘Whole genome sequencing of Atacama Skeleton shows Novel Mutations Linked with Dysplasia’ in Genome Research, 2018, 28: 423-431. Doi: 10.1101./gr223693.117. International Journal of Paleopathology 22, 97-100.

Halmhofer, S. (2019) A Survey on Canadian Beliefs: the Results. https://bonesstonesandbooks.com/2019/02/12/a-survey-on-canadian-beliefs-the-results/.

Hassett, B. R. (2018) The Ethical Challenge of Digital Bioarchaeological Data. Archaeologies 14 (2), 185-188.

Huffer, D. and Graham, S. (2017) The Insta-Dead: The Rhetoric of the Human Remains Trade on Instagram. Internet Archaeology 45.

Johnson, E. (2016) ‘Trigger Warnings’ and Archaeology. Retrieved from https://ifeelitinmybones.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/trigger-warnings-and-archaeology/.

Katz, B. (2019) The F.B.I. is Trying to Return Thousands of Stolen Artifacts, Including Native American Burial Remains. Smithsonian.com

Kremer, D. (2019) The Need to Return Hoa Hakananai’a: The Repatriation of Indigenous Artefacts as a Human Rights Issue. International Public Policy Review.

LSA.Inclusive.Teaching.Initiative (2017) An Introduction to Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings. Retrieved from https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/2017/12/12/an-introduction-to-content-warnings-and-trigger-warnings/:

Lyman, R. L. (1996) Applied Zooarchaeology: The Relevance of Faunal Analysis to Wildlife Management. World Archaeology 28 (1), 110-125.

Maltby, P. (2008) Fundamentalist Dominion, Postmodern Ecology. Ethics and the Environment 13 (2), 119-141.

McManamon, F. P. (2000) Archaeological Method and Theory: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing Co.

Nash, S. E. and Colwell-Chanthapohn, C. (2010) NAGPRA After Two Decades. Museum Anthropology 33 (2), 99-104.

Overholtzer, L. and Argueta, J. R. (2017) Letting Skeletons Out of the Closet: The Ethics of Displaying Ancient Mexican Human Remains. International Journal of Heritage Studies 24 (5), 508-530.

Overton, N. J. and Hamilakis, Y. (2013) A Manifesto for a Social Zooarchaeology: Swans and Other Beings in the Mesolithic. Archaeological Dialogues 20 (2), 111-136.

Peacock, E. (2012) Archaeological Freshwater Mussel Remains and their Use in the Conservation of an Imperiled Fauna. In Wolverton, S. and Lyman, R. L. (editors) Conservation Biology and Applied Zooarchaeology.   Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. 42-67.

Pollard, T. (2016) Trigger Warnings about War Graves Do Not Molly-Coddle Archaeology Students, They Are Essential.

Richardson, L. J. (2018) Ethical Challenges in Digital Public Archaeology. Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology 1 (1), 64-73.

Russell, N. (2002) The Wild Side of Animal Domestication. Society and Animals 10 (3), 286-302.

Russell, N. (2012) Social Zooarchaeology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge Press.

Singer, P. (1973) Animal Liberation. In Garner, R. (editor) Animal Rights.   London: Palgrave Macmillian. 7-18.

Swain, H. (2016) Museum Practice and the Display of Human Remains. In Williams, H. and Giles, M. (editors) Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society.   Oxford: Oxford University Press. 169-183.

Wade, L. (2019) Believe in Atlantis? These archaeologists want to win you back to science. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/04/believe-atlantis-these-archaeologists-want-win-you-back-science.

White, L. (2019) Conflicts over the Excavation, Retention, and Display of Human Remains: An Issue Resolved? Competing Values in Archaeological Heritage, 91-102.

Williams, H. M. R. (2016) Cosseted Students are Scared of the Dead? Disturbing Mortuary Archaeology. Retrieved from https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/25/cosseted-students-are-scared-of-the-dead-disturbing-mortuary-archaeology/.

Wolfe, C. (2003) Introduction. In Wolfe, C. (editor) Zoontologies: the Question of the Animal.   Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ix-xxiii.

Zimmer, C. (2018) Was a Tiny Mummy in the Atacama an Alien? No, but the Real Story is Almost as Strange. The New York Times


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The Radical Potential of Making an Archaeology of Care Visible

What is “an archaeology of care”? Well, it can mean a few things. It has been used, for example, to describe a form of archaeological practice developed by Caraher and Rothaus (2017) in which care and support for the present day communities associated with the fieldwork is considered as important as the archaeological research itself. Perhaps more literally, however, it refers to the archaeological evidence for care in the past. More specifically, evidence for the care of sick and/or disabled individuals in the past. Although sickness and disability have long been observed in remains, Lorna Tilley (2015) has more recently developed an archaeology of care into its own formal framework within bioarchaeology, providing archaeologists with the tools necessary to investigate disability within the past, and thus examining the ways in which care may or may not have existed. This latter version of the archaeology of care will be the focus of this blog post.

With regards to archaeology, care work (as well as many disabilities) are often not visible within the record. To be honest, we can stretch this towards the present as well – not all disabilities are visible to others, of course, but care continues to be “invisibilised” as well (Piepzna-Samarasinha 2018, p. 66). In other words, it is not afforded the same consideration and respect as other forms of labour, nor is it given the needed resources or support by those with ability to do so.

However, we are beginning to see more of a narrative of care for sick and disabled individuals within the archaeological record. Unsurprisingly, this has been prevalent within bioarchaeological research of human remains (e.g., Tilley and Oxenham 2011, Bohling 2020, Kristjánsdóttir & Walser 2021), but has since incorporated other disciplines for a more interdisciplinary approach (e.g., Southwell-Wright 2013, Powell, Southwell-Wright, and Gowland 2016, Gilchrist 2020). Even within the zooarchaeological record, there have been instances of sick and disabled animals who most likely received some form of human care prior to death (e.g., MacKinnon 2010, Bendrey 2014, Thomas 2017).

An example of archaeological care: this puppy had a dental disease that would have required human support and treatment to have lived this long. (Image credit: Pütz Martin, Jürgen Vogel, Ralf Schmitz/LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn)

What I find so interesting and exciting with regards to developing the study of care in the archaeological record is how it reveals an element of everyday life that has been so fraught with difficulties today, from a lack of accessible healthcare to the continued inaccessibility of the world to others. I think it is often easy for many – even within archaeology – to assume a sort of “backwardness” to the past; that today, things are so improved in comparison, that everything is better in modern times. And to be fair, that’s true for a lot of things – we have made progressions in reducing forms of inequality and increasing quality of life. But there are also downsides as well – rampant capitalism and white supremacist ideologies (among others) are simultaneously creating further inequalities elsewhere, similarly decreasing quality of life for marginalised people. It is obviously more complicated and moves beyond “past bad, present good”.

But developing an archaeology of care helps to reveal that care of others was regularly practiced, and that not everyone ascribed to narrow definitions of worth that unfortunately are still perpetuated today; that your potential for labour did not equate to your value as a person, that you had to prove that you were worthy of care and support. I do not want to say that all instances of care in the archaeological record were purely altruistic, of course, and there are many scholars of disability studies who have provided critique of the ways in which archaeology interprets disability (e.g., Draycott 2015, Shuttleworth and Meekosha 2017, Evelyn-Wright 2019). However, I think there is something very beautiful there, that despite the technological and medical limitations of the past, people and animals were not simply abandoned outright. Sick and disabled people existed and were given care in the past – so what’s the excuse of those in power in the present?

I don’t think this is just limited to care, however; in the rare occasions that I’ve felt optimistic about archaeology, it has always been because I saw a hint of what could be radical potential, particularly in its ability to make things visible. Archaeology has the ability to reveal things that have long been obscured by those with power who desire for a continuation of a status quo – from women breaking modern gendered conceptions to vibrant communities of people who broke beyond today’s presumed gender and sexuality binaries. Of course, it goes without saying that archaeology has unfortunately also been the key tool in obscuring these pasts as well, weaponised by those who want to retain their positions of power.

I don’t want anyone to come away from this thinking that archaeology is the solution to these issues, of course. And perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, as someone who is in constant struggle between the absolute harm that archaeology has committed and still commits, and the potential that there is within the practice of archaeology to produce important and perhaps even radical and liberating knowledge from the past which can be applied to the present and future.

To end this blog post, I want to leave you with a quote from disability justice and transformative justice activist Mia Mingus, which initially inspired me to write this. In some ways, I’d like to imagine that Mia is echoing not just the thoughts of disabled people today, but of disabled people in the past, looking towards us and beyond…

“We must leave evidence. Evidence that we were here, that we existed, that we survived and loved and ached […] Evidence of who we were, who we thought we were, who we never should have been. Evidence for each other that there are other ways to live – past survival; past isolation.”

– Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence

References

Bendrey, R. (2014). Care in the community? Interpretations of a fractured goat bone from Neolithic Jarmo, Iraq. International journal of paleopathology7, pp. 33-37.

Bohling, S. N. (2020). Death, disability, and diversity: An investigation of physical impairment and differential mortuary treatment in Anglo-Saxon England. PhD Thesis, University of Bradford.

Caraher, W.R. and Rothaus R. (2017) An archaeology of care. On Second Thought: A Publication of the North Dakota Humanities Council (Spring 2006), pp. 50-51.

Draycott, J. (2015). Reconstructing the lived experience of disability in antiquity: a case study from Roman Egypt. Greece & Rome62(2), pp. 189-205.

Evelyn-Wright, S. (2019). Dis/ability in Roman Dorset: An Integrated Osteobiography Approach. In Bodies of Information. Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, pp. 15-38.

Gilchrist, R. (2020) Spirit, mind and body: the archaeology of monastic healing. In Gilchrist, R. Sacred Heritage: Monastic Archaeology, Identities, Beliefs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 71-109

Kristjánsdóttir, S., & Walser, J. W. (2021). Beneath the Surface: Disability in archaeological and osteobiographical contexts. In Understanding Disability Throughout History (pp. 29-45). Routledge.

MacKinnon, M. (2010). “Sick as a dog”: zooarchaeological evidence for pet dog health and welfare in the Roman world. World Archaeology42(2), pp. 290–309.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, L.L. (2018) Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Powell, L., Southwell-Wright, W., and Gowland, R. (2016) Care in the Past: Archaeological and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Shuttleworth, R., & Meekosha, H. (2017). Accommodating critical disability studies in bioarchaeology. In Bioarchaeology of Impairment and Disability. Cham: Springer, pp. 19-38.

Southwell-Wright, W. (2013). Past perspectives: What can archaeology offer disability studies?. In Emerging perspectives on disability studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 67-95.

Thomas, R. (2017) The zooarchaeology of animal ‘care’. In Powell, L., Southwell-Wright, W., and Gowland, R. (eds.), Care in the Past: Archaeological and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 169-188.

Tilley, L. (2015) Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Switzerland: Springer.

Tilley, L., & Oxenham, M. F. (2011). Survival against the odds: Modeling the social implications of care provision to seriously disabled individuals. International Journal of Paleopathology1(1), pp. 35-42.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The Spookiest Part are the Ears: Alex Versus the Plastic Halloween Skeletons (Again)

A collection of plastic Halloween decorations meant to look like skeletons of various animals, including: a spider, dogs, mice, a bat, birds, a dragon, an alligator, and a human.
This is Hell.

It’s that time of year again, folks – the spookiest time of the year, where the most frightful and terrifying creatures are out and about to scare us mortal beings…

I am, of course, talking about Halloween and, more specifically, the terrifying haunted beings which are the inaccurate animal skeletons that are sold at every Spirit Halloween in the United States (and elsewhere, if you’re…well, elsewhere).

And yes, this is something I’m apparently fixated on, but frankly if you spent most of your adult life becoming an expert at animal osteology, you too would be spooked by the amount of wildly inaccurate skeletons being sold to the general public – and let’s be honest, it’s getting worse because you’re telling me they’re now selling “skeleton” bugs too?! What’s next? Skeletons of invertebrates?!

Oh wait, they do that already…

A plastic "skeleton" octopus
Octopuses are invertebrates…and yet.

Anyway, instead of ranting just about how much these harmless plastic figures infuriate me, I figured this could make for a good teaching moment about ears and why on earth these abominations have them.

Three plastic Halloween skeletons that are also inaccurate: from left to right, a skeleton dog, a skeleton mouse, and a skeleton cat.
Just a small selection of these horrible plastic creatures with their horrible plastic ears…

So, let’s start off with the obvious: skeletons do not have ears. At least, not in the way we think of them. What we normally identify as ears are, for the most part, just cartilage with skin over them – that’s why they’re so bendy and flexible! That’s not to say that we don’t have any specific bones associated with ears, however – what is known as the “middle ear” in mammals is actually made of three small bones, or ossicles: the malleus, incus, and stapes (Standring 2015, p. 607). It also isn’t just mammals with these as well – bony fishes have otoliths to help with both hearing and movement (Schulz-Mirbach et al. 2019, p. 457), birds have an ossicle called the columella auris, and reptiles just have the stapes ossicle (Anthwal et al. 2013, p. 147).

Okay, we have now established with science that these skeletons are inaccurate – so then, what’s the explanation for why they’re designed like this? Obviously the skeletons aren’t 1:1 replicas, but in some instances they’re close enough to the real thing that it is clearly feasible for designers to just…make them accurate. Why the need for the ridiculousness? Why the ears?!

It’s most likely due to the human brain and its ability to recognise and identify things. You see, the human brain has a knack for using patterns to understand and gather information about something that is being viewed. In identifying other humans or animals, this often requires specific sensory cues such as a face: eyes, nose, mouth, etc. It’s this mechanism that also allows humans to identify face-like features in inanimate objects (Palmer and Clifford 2020, p. 1001). In addition, research has shown that the human brain also tends to visualise a “skeleton” of objects and animals in order to further recognise them – this seems to help humans judge the similarity between things and comprehend more unusual shapes (Ayzenberg and Lourenco 2019). With regards to animals, the human brain also breaks down a creature into specific properties to help with recognition – for example, the brain may use “fluffy” as an identifying property of a dog to identify that it is, indeed, a dog (Hebart et al. 2020).

So yes, in retrospect it makes sense why these decorations are designed like this. For nerds like me, years of training has allowed me to identify bones down to itty bitty fragments (on a good day, perhaps), so I am utterly repelled by these skeletons. But for the general public, things such as non-existent bone ears help them recognise the animal that is supposed to be represented with these plastic decorations. And this conclusion could probably be extended to human bones as well, specifically the most famous one of all: the femur bone.

That all said…I still hate them. Happy Halloween, folks.

References

Anthwal, N., Joshi, L., Tucker, A.S. (2013) Evolution of the mammalian middle ear and jaw: adaptations and novel structures. Journal of Anatomy 222, pp. 147-160.

Ayzenberg, V. and Lourenco, S.F. (2019) Skeletal descriptions of shape provide unique perceptual information for object recognition. Scientific Reports 9.

Hebart, M.N., Zheng, C.Y., Pereira, F., and Baker, C.I. (2020) Revealing the multidimensional mental representations of natural objects underlying human similarity judgements. Nature Human Behaviour 4, pp. 1173-1185.

Palmer, C.J. and Clifford, C.W.G. (2020) Face Pareidolia Recruits Mechanisms for Detecting Human Social Attention. Psychological Science 31(8), pp. 1001-1012.

Schulz-Mirbach, T., Ladich, F., Plath, M., and Heß, M. (2019) Enigmatic ear stones: what we know about the functional role and evolution of fish otoliths. Biological Reviews 94, pp. 457-482.

Standring, S. (2015). Gray’s Anatomy E-Book: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice. Elsevier Health Sciences.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

One Bone to Represent Them All: The Enduring Legacy of the Femur Bone

Note: This blog post includes some images of human remains.

Long time readers of this blog will know that Halloween is my favourite time to complain about skeletons – I mean, as much as I love to get spooky around this time of year, it’s hard to supress the professional urge to point out that spiders are not made out of bones like that, what the actual heck.

I hate you, skeleton spider. (Image Credit: Party City)

Instead of doing another post like that (although frankly, they seem to just make more and more of these horribly inaccurate animal skeleton decorations every year), however, I’ve decided to instead praise the bone that – besides the skull – seems to carry the burden of representing all bones, regardless of species, whenever a bone is required for decorative or fictional reasons.

Let us discuss the humble, yet everlasting, femur bone, folks.

A 3D model of a human femur bone (Image Credit: Tornado Studios)
The humble stock cartoon bone (Image Credit: Pin Clip Art)

Okay, so let’s first start off with the fact that the typical cartoon depiction of a bone isn’t a one-to-one recreation of a human femur bone. As you can see in the images above, the standard cartoon bone has a long shaft akin to the actual femur bone, but the epiphysis on both ends are exactly the same. These identical ends are arguably based on the rounded distal end (aka the bottom part) of the femur; in real life, the proximal end (aka the top part) of the femur is mostly represented by the greater trochanter, neck, and head (see image below). That said, the stock cartoon bone is definitely based on the femur, regardless of how (in)accurate it is – I mean, even TV Tropes agrees with me!

The proximal end of a femur bone (Image Credit: Teach Me Anatomy)
This is a set of “mini bones” from Party City – notice anything about all of them? (Image Credit: Party City)

But why is the femur bone – or, well, some fictional bone that is mostly a femur bone – our go-to image for all things bone-related? This isn’t just limited to cartoons, either – as you can see in the image above, if you’re buying bone-related Halloween decorations, you’ll probably end up with a load of femur bones for some reason! Oddly enough, TV Tropes actually provides a pretty solid explanation: as the femur is one of the strongest and straightest bones in the body, it is often the most preserved and therefore the most recognisable. And this is backed by osteological research as well: for bipedal human bodies, the femur needs to be the strongest bone as it carries all of the weight during most physical actions. The strength of this bone, as well as the density, ultimately leads to it often having a better chance of survival in the archaeological record (White et al. 2011 p. 241). In addition, this strength and associated durability lends itself to the usefulness of the femur as material for creating tools and other artefacts (Christidou and Legrand-Pineau 2005, p. 394) – in some ways this is echoed in other popular culture depictions of the stock bone as a weapon or a spooky staff, etc.

Comparison of various femur bones from different species (from left to right): mouse, rat, rabbit, dog, goat, sheep, pig, South African monkey, rhesus, baboon, and human. (Image Credit: Joseph C. Wenke)

I would also argue, of all the different sort of bones, the femur is more or less recognisable across most species. Although there is obviously variation in size and in some shape (see the comparative image above), the main components are pretty recognisable: the long shaft, the bulbous head and raised greater trochanter…you get the picture.

So, this Halloween, remember to salute the femur bone for all of the hard work it does, not just as a long bone in the body, but also as an ambassador, serving as a role model for all bones, everywhere.

Maybe one day you’ll get your proper due, astragalus bone…

The astragalus bone is my favourite bone of all time and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

References

Anonymous. Stock Femur Bone. TV Tropes. Retrieved from https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StockFemurBone

Christidou, R. and Legrand-Pineau, A. (2005) Hide Working and Bone Tools: Experimentation Design and Applications. In H. Luik, A. Choyke, C. Batey, L. Lougas (eds) From Hooves to Horns, from Mollusc to Mammoth: Manufacture and Use of Bone Artefacts from Prehistoric Times to the Present, Proceedings of the 4th Meeting of the ICAZ Worked Bone Research Group at Tallinn, 26-31 of August 2003. pp. 385 – 396.

Muschler, G., Raut, V., Patterson, T., Wenke, J., and Hollinger, J. (2009) The Design and Use of Animal Models for Translational Research in Bone Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine. Tissue Engineering Part B, Reviews 16(1). pp. 123-45.

White, T. D., Black, M.T., and Folkens, P.A. (2011) Human Osteology. Academic Press.


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The Witcher is a Bioarchaeologist – Okay, Let Me Explain…

Okay, I mean…technically the Witcher is more of a zoologist with a bit of forensics training, but let me shoe-horn in my expertise please!

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Geralt, the Witcher, examining a griffin corpse in the Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (2015).

After years of being yelled at to play the Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt (2015), I am finally playing the Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt (round of applause please). And I’m enjoying it a lot, as it fills the fantasy void within my heart that the Dragon Age series has left. But the gameplay mechanic that interests me the most is, unsurprising, the investigation sequences during the Witcher contracts.

Geralt, the main character, is a Witcher (have I written that word enough yet?). This means he’s been trained and physically & genetically enhanced in order to combat monsters and other deadly creatures.

So, what do I mean that Geralt is basically a trained bioarchaeologist? Well, one of the many types of quests you can get during the game are called “contracts”, which are basically paid jobs, usually involving the defeat of some creature that’s terrifying the local populace. But it’s not just about riding off and fighting a griffin or an ogre…there’s a bit of investigation involved as well.

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Geralt investigates the corpses of a human and a cow during a quest in the Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (2015).

During these quests, Geralt is usually directed to a site where some horrible thing has happened – a peasant has been horribly murdered, or a person has gone missing and only left behind a blood trail, or maybe it’s just the whispers of local folklore that’s brought him there. Whatever it is, Geralt will begin to investigate and look for clues; these will come in the form of animal tracks, bloodstains, or even the deceased themselves.

Again, most of these interactions are probably more forensic in nature, but there’s still lots of similarities with bioarchaeology. For example, Geralt has an incredible amount of knowledge of common taphonomic processes (which I’ve actually written about here, except in a different video game). Taphonomy refers to the processes through which a living being undertaken as they move from living to being part of the archaeological record as a post-mortem deposit (Lyman 1994).

When Geralt looks at remains, he can deduce the actions that occurred to cause that particular deposit – did they die here, or were they placed here after death? Has any animals moved or otherwise affected the body in any way? What about the environment – has weather affected these remains in any way? Is there something significant about the way this body was or was not buried?

And these are important questions to ask about archaeological deposits as well! It isn’t assumed that we are looking at an intentional grave, as many factors could have led to this particular deposition – were they buried here intentionally, as a “final resting place? Were they first placed somewhere else and then moved here? Was the body modified in anyway prior to this eventual deposition? This can include not just other humans, but other animals and environments factors.

But more specifically, Geralt is a walking bestiary – he knows not only how to recognise and identify faunal remains, but also understands their living behaviours as well. When Geralt comes across the remains of a slain griffin, he immediately makes the connection that the one he has been hired to kill was the deceased’s partner – but how? Well, he understands the mating behaviours of griffins!

And, as a zooarchaeologist myself, I really enjoy seeing how extensive Geralt’s zoological knowledge is and how he incorporates it in his interpretations alongside his observations and evaluations of the surrounding environment. Why? Well, to quote Diane Gifford-Gonzalez (1991), “bones are not enough”!

Being able to identify animal bones is a vital skill, but it’s not just the end of zooarchaeology. Knowledge of behavioural studies, of regional geology, climate and environmental studies…these can all be utilised and factored into an interpretation, allowing for an interdisciplinary and more dimensional narrative for the assemblage at hand.

Now, if only I can hire a Witcher to take a look at my current faunal assemblage…

References

CD Projekt (2015) The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.

Gifford-Gonzalez, D. (1991) Bones are Not Enough: Analogues, Knowledge, and Interpretive Strategies in Zooarchaeology. Anthropological Archaeology 10. pp. 215-254.

Lyman, R.L. (1994) Vertebrate Taphonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

OM NOM NOM or Did I Really Use an Old, Bad Joke to Introduce a Post on Gnawing?

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?

Rodents

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Rat skull and mandible

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.

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Rodent gnaw marks on a Bison bone (Photo Credit: Alton Dooley)

Felines

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Domestic Cat skull and mandible

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.

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Examples of feline gnawing (with tooth punctures) from experiments (Image Credit: Jennifer A. Parkson, Thomas Plummer, and Adam Hartstone-Rose)

Canines

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Wolf skull and mandible

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.

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Some examples of canine gnawing on discarded worked bones (Image Credit: Reuven Yeshurun, Daniel Kaufman, and Mina Weinstein-Evron)

Humans

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Replica human skull and mandible (Photo Credit: Bone Clones)

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!

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Human gnaw marks left behind on various sheep bones (Image Credit: Antonio J. Romero)

References

Hays, B. (2016) Volunteers Chew Bones to Help Identify Marks of Earliest Human Chefs. United Press International. Retrieved from https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2016/08/02/Volunteers-chew-bones-to-help-identify-marks-of-earliest-human-chefs/2831470153494/

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.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

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Bones that Look like Other Bones: A Mini Post about Foxes and Badgers

It’s been a while since I’ve made a Comparative Anatomy post! But after running into an issue with a possible fox/badger bone fragment, I figured it might be time to make a new one. And if you have any particular comparative anatomy posts that you’d like me to make in the future, please feel free to contact me about it!

Badgers and foxes – two animals that I have literally never seen in the wild until I moved to England. Honestly, I don’t even think I ever really though about either of them until I moved here. And yet, both are relatively common around Britain, which has caused me to become quickly familiar with their bones on the off-chance that they get mixed into an assemblage I’m currently working on (one of the many problems you face as a zooarchaeologist who works in a regional area that is so different from the one you grew up in!). There’s way more detailed comparative guides out there (see “References” below), but here’s a quick little post showing off some of their anatomical similarities and differences:

Skulls

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On the top is the skull of a badger. On the bottom is the skull of a fox.

At first glance, fox and badger skulls may look very much alike! However, there are some significant differences that will make telling the two apart a lot easier than you’d think. Possibly the biggest difference is in the general characteristics of each skull – badger skulls tend to be a bit “chunkier” and more robust, yet also shorter with a less elongated “snout” area, so to speak. Foxes, on the other hand, are more flat, with more elongated, perhaps even graceful arches and curves and are a bit thinner in comparison.

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On the right is the back of a fox skull, and on the left is the back of a badger skull. Note the difference in sagittal crests!

Another key difference can be seen if we look near the back of the skull where theses long ridges (called sagittal crests) can be found. Both foxes and badgers have relatively prominent sagittal crests, but badgers’ crests are a bit bigger for the most part.

Teeth

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The lower right mandible and teeth of a badger.

Badger and fox teeth look relatively similar as well. They have a sort of curvy, “wave”-shape that you can also see in dogs (see my Teeth post for more information). However, there are slight differences. Badger teeth, as you can see above, are arguably flatter, especially in the back molars.

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The lower mandible (and teeth) of a fox.

Fox teeth, on the other hand, are much more sharper and tend to be in greater number than badgers.

Long Bones

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From left to right: badger humerus, badger femur, fox femur, and fox humerus.

There are better and more detailed guides out there that get into all of the long bones of both badgers and foxes (see “References” again), but for the sake of brevity we’ll just be looking at two: the humerus and the femur. Again, you could argue that a general rule of thumb is that fox bones, unlike badger bones, are a bit thinner and longer. Badger bones are more robust, but shorter.

The humerus in a badger is very characteristic of this, as it is very short, yet robust. The hole at the bottom of the humerus is very oval shaped. In foxes, on the other hand, the humerus is much more elongated and thin. They also have a hole at the bottom of the bone, but this one is arguably more circular than ovular.

As for the femur, possibly the best indicator for what species you’re working with can be found at the “neck” at the top that leads to the little round bump known as the “femoral head”. Foxes don’t really have much of a “neck”, so the femoral head basically sits on top after a bit of a dip. As for badgers, their “neck” is much longer and more visible – the top of the bone clearly thins out into this “neck” as it leads to the femoral head.

Phalanges

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On the right are two fox phalanges, and on the left are two badger phalanges.

Honestly, if you’re tasked with differentiating between the phalanges of a fox and badger…yeah, uh…good luck! Again, you could roughly estimate based on general size, as foxes generally tend to be larger – but at the phalanges level? Hmm…

You know what, let’s just put down “small to mid-sized terrestrial mammal” and call it a day, yeah?

References

Johnson, E. (2015) A Skeletal Comparison of Domestic Dog (canis familiaris), Red Fox (vulpes vulpes), Badger (meles meles), and Domestic Cat (felis catus). Retrieved from https://ifeelitinmybones.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/a-skeletal-comparison-of-dog-fox-badger-and-cat.pdf.

McGowen-Lowe, J. (2015) The Difference Betweeen Fox and Badger Skulls. Retrieved from http://www.jakes-bones.com/2015/12/the-difference-between-fox-and-badger.html


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The Bog Unicorn: The Power of Preservation in Dragon Age (and in Real Life!)

Content Warning: Some images of preserved human remains are below.

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The Inquisitor atop the Bog Unicorn, a DLC mount available in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

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).

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The Grauballe Man, an Iron Age body recovered from a bog in Denmark (Photo Credit: Sven Rosborn)

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).

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A 14th century sword found in a peat bog in Poland (Photo Credit: Muzeum im. ks. Stanisława Staszica w Hrubieszowie)

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.

References

Aldhouse-Green, M. (2015) Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery. Thames & Hudson.

Anonymous (2015) The “Bog Unicorn”. Dragon Age Wiki. http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/The_%22Bog_Unicorn%22

Bioware (2014) Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Bradley, R. (2017) An Geography of Offerings: Deposits of Valuables in the Landscapes of  Ancient Europe. Oxbow Books.

Bruck, J. (2006) Fragmentation, Personhood, and the Social Construction of Technology in Middle and Late Bronze Age Britain. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16(3), 297-315.

Giles, M. (2009) Iron Age Bog Bodies of North-Western Europe. Representing the Dead. Archaeological Dialogues 16(1), 75-101.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Bones That Look Like Other Bones: A MiniPost About Rabbits and Hares

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!

References

Elena, S. (2008) Rabbits and Hares: No More Confusion! http://www.orcca.on.ca/~elena/useful/bunnies.html

Langley, L. (2014) What’s the Difference Between Rabbits and Hares? National Geographic. https://relay.nationalgeographic.com/proxy/distribution/public/amp/news/2014/12/141219-rabbits-hares-animals-science-mating-courtship


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

On the Chopping Block: Decapitation in Archaeology

On the Chopping Block: Decapitation in Archaeology

Content Warning: Photo of human remains included in this post.

In Skyrim (Bioware 2011), capital punishment usually consists of a swift beheading – this is seen in the game’s opening, where you watch as a Stormcloak, deemed to be traitorous to the Empire, is beheaded by the Imperial army’s executioner. You luckily manage to escape the blade thanks to a dragon, but a similar execution is stumbled upon again in the town of Solitude.

In real life, decapitation has been a form of capital punishment for ages, with archaeological evidence of intentional beheading dating back to the later prehistoric – although it can be argued that some instances could have been part of ritual sacrifice as well (Armit 2012). Decapitations in antiquity (read: ancient Greece and the Roman Empire) were often used for citizens, especially of higher status, as it was seen as a more humane and less dishonourable punishment. This would possibly be accurate if the executioner was skilled and could deliver a quick and clean decapitation in a single blow of the sword or axe. This would change, of course, with the popularisation of the guillotine for beheading (Clark 1995).

The British history of decapitation as capital punishment goes back centuries and is too long to properly discuss in a blog post. Anglo-Saxons originally used decapitation to punish more serious offences of theft, but eventually this practice was reserved for those of noble and high status who have committed acts of treason (Dyson 2014). Arguably the most famous cases of beheading in Britain belongs to Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn, two of King Henry VIII’s many wives. These executions were part of the seven that were done privately in the Tower of London (Clark 1995).

Decapitation is still used as capital punishment in some places to this day, but has mostly been abandoned as a practice in most parts of the world, although only relatively recently – for example, it was still used for capital punishment up until 1938 in Germany (Clark 1995).

Medieval Illumination depicting the execution of the leaders of the Jacquerie by the King of Navarre (Image Credit: the British Library)

So, how do we discover decapitations archaeologically? Isn’t it common to find skeletons disarticulated (or not together) once excavated? How do you differentiate between skulls from the beheaded and skulls from the dead?

Evidence of decapitation can sometimes be seen spatially, through the methods and locations of burial. In some places, such as Roman burial sites, there were no observed difference between decapitation burials and more normative burials. In the later Anglo-Saxon period, however, decapitation burials were moved to “execution cemeteries” to reflect a cultural understanding of decapitation as a “deviant burial” that should be kept separate from other burials (Dyson 2014).

The best place to look for evidence for decapitation is on the vertebrae – a beheading that has been done correctly will usually leave cut marks on the cervical vertebrae, which make up the neck. More unfortunate decapitations that required several more blows for a successful separation will also show related cut marks on facial features, such as on the mandible (Carty 2012).

Cut Marks on Vertebrae
Evidence of decapitation on vertebrae (Photo Credit: Museum of London Archaeology)

References

Armit, I. (2012) Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe. Cambridge University Press.

Carty, N. (2012) ‘The Halved Heads’: Osteological Evidence for Decapitation in Medieval Ireland. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology.

Clark, R. (1995) The History of Beheading and Decapitation. Capital Punishment UK.

Dyson, G. (2014) Kings, Peasants, and the Restless Dead: Decapitation in Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Lives. Retrospectives. University of Warwick. (p. 32-43)


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.