On Flare Ups in the Trenches: Personal Reflections on Disability in Archaeology

Disability in archaeology can be discussed from two perspectives: identifying and interpreting disability in the past (e.g., Gowland 2017, Kristjánsdóttir and Walser 2021, and my own previous blog post briefly discussing this), but also supporting accessibility and inclusivity for disabled archaeologists (e.g., Philips et al. 2012, O’Mahoney 2015). Today’s blog post will focus on the latter, and I want to dedicate this to the memory of Theresa O’Mahoney, a dis/Abled enabled* public archaeologist who was also one of the most prominent disability activists in the field, particularly through the establishment of the Enabled Archaeology Foundation.

*dis/Abled enabled, in Theresa’s own words – “We put the A in disabled to show we have abilities not disabilities, and enabled means using coping strategies or tools to do our best work and live our daily lives” (O’Mahoney 2018).

I never got to meet Theresa in person, but she was a very kind and supportive online friend who gifted me one of my most treasured specimens in my personal reference collection – a partial cattle skull from the Thames by the name of Fred.

So, among many other things, I’m a disabled archaeologist. I guess perhaps the more accurate term would be “newly disabled” archaeologist; recent health issues over the past year have exacerbated problems with my mobility and severe chronic pain. And yet, looking back I can see the signs of my current health condition: the amount of injuries I have sustained during excavations from what was originally considered inherent clumsiness may have actually be cases of my joint disorder getting the better of my coordination, and my ignorance of the underlying conditions at play have inadvertently placed me in a more dangerous spot than my non-disabled colleagues. These culminative injuries and the effect it had on my mental health (something that I’ve already struggled with for years) made me uninterested in working as an on-site archaeologist…which may have been a good call as my health problems have intensified in recent years.

Despite this decision to avoid fieldwork being made far in advance, I can’t really say that it has helped me plan for continuing a career in archaeology as a disabled archaeologist. In some ways, I’m very fortunate that I even have the privilege to choose not to excavate – for many disabled archaeologists who primarily work in the commercial sector, there is the sense that you just have to “get over it” in order to keep one’s job (Phillips et al. 2012, p. 681-682). My academic background, as well as the fact that my expertise lies primarily in post-excavation analysis, arguably makes me a better candidate for non-field-based roles anyway; however, those sort of roles are not plentiful on the job market, especially those which are connected to academic institutions and projects. And while there is much work being done with regards to expanding archaeological practice beyond traditional fieldwork (e.g., Frieman and Janz 2018, Nishimura 2020, Aycock 2021), I’d argue that excavation is still considered by many to be a main method by which our discipline is enacted. There’s logic to that, of course, but unfortunately such an attitude can also be entrenched in ideals of harmful gatekeeping, ableism, and toxic masculinity that continues to make the discipline inaccessible to marginalised individuals (Fitzpatrick 2020); personally, its this attitude that makes the idea of ever returning to the field seem impossible, that I would be an additional burden who cannot pull their own weight alongside my colleagues, even with accommodations in place.

Things can often seem dire, and I’m still learning the ropes of navigating life as not only a disabled person, but as a disabled archaeologist as well. But it should be noted that there has been a lot done with regards to changing the way archaeology is practiced and accommodating the needs of others. For starters, I should clarify that being disabled doesn’t necessarily exclude you from traditional fieldwork – there has certainly been a more conscious effort by fieldwork supervisors to provide accommodations where necessary, with many organisations developing and adopting standards and practices to become more inclusive (e.g., Phillips and Creighton 2010, Philips et al. 2012, O’Mahoney 2015). But part of the challenge is that we must also avoid a “one-size-fits-all” solution to overcoming inaccessibility as well – accommodations and support will differ among disabled archaeologists (e.g., Dall 2017, Heath-Stout 2019, Talbot and Loftus 2020, King et al. 2021). Non-disabled archaeologists must continue to listen to the voices of our disabled colleagues and recognise that accessibility is not a privilege within our field – it must be a non-negotiable right. Similarly, we must end this notion that fieldwork must be this physically demanding and torturous rite of passage – this isn’t to downplay the fact that excavation requires a level of physical rigour, but to reframe the way we view fieldwork as archaeological practice. Archaeology can be practiced through various means, and all levels of work – both inside and outside of the site – must be seen with equal importance as part of a more holistic model of archaeological practice.

There is still much to be done within the field to become more inclusive and accommodating to the various needs of disabled archaeologists; this urgent need has only been heightened with the coronavirus pandemic, which has unfortunately seen many disabled people once again facing exclusion under the guise of returning to “normal” (Barbarin and Dawson 2021). But with more disabled archaeologists speaking out and the further adoption of inclusive practices, we can continue to open up the field to everyone.


Aycock, J. (2021). The coming tsunami of digital artefacts. Antiquity, 95(384), pp. 1584-1589.

Barbarin, I. and Dawson, K. (2021) “Normal” Never Worked for Disabled People – Why Would We Want to Return to It? Refinery 29. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/workplaces-need-change-for-disabled-people

Dall, A.S. (2017) Disability and Archaeology. Archaeology in Community. Retrieved from https://www.ameliasdall.com/publications

Fitzpatrick, A. (2020) You Will Never Be Indiana Jones. Lady Science. Retrieved from https://www.ladyscience.com/essays/you-will-never-be-indiana-jones-toxic-masculinity-archaeology

Frieman, C. J., & Janz, L. (2018). A very remote storage box indeed: The importance of doing archaeology with old museum collections. Journal of Field Archaeology43(4), pp. 257-268.

Gowland, R. (2017). Growing old: biographies of disability and care in later life. In L Tilley and A A Schrenck (eds)New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care. Springer, Cham, pp. 237-251.

Heath-Stout, L. (2019) The Invisibly Disabled Archaeologist. Presented at The 84th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Albuquerque, NM. 

King, J., Jennings, B., & Bohling, S. (2021). Visual impairment and archaeological engagement. The Archaeologist, (112), pp. 25-27.

Kristjánsdóttir, S. and Walser, J.W. (2021) Beneath the Surface: Disability in archaeological and osteobiographical contexts. In H Björg Sigurjónsdóttir and J G Rice (eds) Understanding Disability Throughout History. Routledge, Milton Park, UK, pp. 29-45.

Nishimura, Y. (2020). Doing archaeology outside of the trench: Energizing museum “Diaspora” collections for research. Archaeological Research in Asia24, p. 100227.

O’Mahoney, T. (2015) Enabled Archaeology. BAJR Series Guide (41).

O’Mahoney, T. (2018) Reflections in UK Archaeology – a Personal Journey in Academic Life. Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage 5(3), pp. 216-218.

Phillips, T., & Creighton, J. (2010). Employing people with disabilities: Good practice guidance for archaeologists. Institute for Archaeologists.

Phillips, T., Gilchrist, R., Skeates, R., McDavid, C. and Carman, J. (2012). Inclusive, Accessible Archaeology: Enabling Persons with Disabilities. The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.673-693.

Talbot, A., & Loftus, R. (2020). Neurodiversity and archaeological practice. The Archaeologist, (110), pp. 26-27.

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.

End of the (PhD) Road: Reflecting on 5+ Years of Graduate Studies in Archaeology

Last week, I (finally!) graduated from the University of Bradford with my PhD in Archaeology, ending a decade-long academic journey that was a culmination of approximately 5 years of PhD studies, 1 year of MSc studies (Archaeological Sciences), and 4 years of BA studies (Classical Archaeology and Anthropology)…and boy, am I tired.

Here you can see me looking absolutely thrilled in a puffy hat.

So, after all of these years, we get to the final question…was it all worth it? Well…maybe. Okay, that’s a bit of a cop-out, but to be fair that’s a pretty big question to ask a recent graduate! But I do know that many current postgraduates and potential postgraduates read this blog, so it feels as though it may be useful to provide a brief summary of my experiences as a postgraduate in archaeology – for more detailed experiences, you can check back in my PhD Life blog series.

The Good

One of the main reasons why I wanted to continue my studies as a postgraduate was that I was very keen on specialising as an archaeologist. After my undergraduate studies, I was well-versed as a classical archaeologist (with some detours into Viking Age archaeology and anthropology), but I also knew that I wasn’t satisfied with that. Frankly, I ended up really disliking classical archaeology by the end of my degree, and knew that I wouldn’t be happy continuing that line of study. But I knew that the extra years of study granted by a postgraduate programme would enable me to not only experience other subfields within archaeology, but also eventually specialise in one of them; this would also be much more appealing to employers, as I would have years of focused experience rather than a couple of years of general archaeology education.

And this did work out for me – had I not done my postgraduate studies, I wouldn’t have become a zooarchaeologist. Of course, I think some of this may be unique to archaeology, as it is a much larger discipline than what the general public may think. In addition, I knew that I was missing a lot of what archaeology had to offer due to my undergraduate department; in the United States, many archaeology programmes have a strong connection to anthropology, going as far as being considered a subfield of the discipline. As such, I was well-versed in interpretation and theory alongside more general cultural and historical studies, but lacked practical and analytical skills. In the United Kingdom, however, archaeology is often seen as a science, first and foremost. Here, many programmes focus on analytical applications of science for archaeology, and really emphasise the need for fieldwork experience. That said, both the US and the UK certainly have programmes that contradict those general statements, but this has always been my experience in both countries. For me, doing a postgraduate (and specifically moving abroad to the UK) would mean getting what I considered to be the “full picture” of what archaeology had to offer – and again, it did work out for me, as my PhD research allowed me the space to apply both analytical and theoretical methodologies to my topic.

Finally, it must be said that there is a definitive confidence boost that postgraduate studies can provide. Increasing my expertise and specialisation through postgraduate studies provided me with a confidence that I completely lacked during my undergraduate (and, if we’re being honest, I also lacked it during my MSc and my first few years of my PhD!).

The Bad

To start, I will be very honest and transparent about the financial burden that postgraduate studies have left me – as of right now, I’m looking at approximately $200,000 in student loans that will need to be paid off. Of course, a lot of this is entirely on me and my poor financial planning – I knew the risks of taking out loans by that point, although I will also say that, at least in some American academic spaces, there is a lot of propaganda that can convince students that they’ll only make a decent wage if they have a postgraduate degree. But not every postgraduate finishes their PhD with the intentions of becoming an academic – and the number of people leaving academia seem to be getting larger and larger each year, especially since the pandemic (Woolston 2020). Personally, I am keen on remaining within the field as a researcher and post-excavation specialist, but the lack of opportunity to teach during my PhD has left me feeling unqualified to ever apply for a lecturer position.

Besides the financial burden, I will also admit that my postgraduate studies took a massive toll on my health. Readers of the blog may know that I was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder at the start of my PhD after a nervous breakdown that nearly jeopardised my studies. And at the end of the degree, I am facing a similar set of diagnoses and disabling conditions. While I can’t put the blame for my declining health entirely on postgraduate studies (I don’t think the PhD has the ability to give me a joint disorder!), I also can’t say that the overwhelming stress and anxiety that came from the process really helped. In fact, it does not seem to be all that uncommon for PhD students to have health conditions either develop or worsen during their studies (Allan 2014, Anonymous 2018, Nguyen 2021).

The Verdict

So, were my postgraduate studies worth it? I think so. There are connections and friendships that I would not have made without pursuing them, there is a massive amount of confidence and knowledge that I have gained in the timespan of my studies…hell, I couldn’t even imagine the person I would be right not without having done my MSc and PhD studies. But again, a lot of that is a testament of the gigantic life changes that my postgraduate studies necessitated – moving abroad, meeting new people, changing my life goals and desires around my circumstances, etc. And of course, not all of those life changes have been entirely positive either, and there are still many obstacles I face that are a direct result of having done my postgraduate studies – student loan debt, the constant fear from being a precarious migrant, my worsening health, etc.

I think that, overall, I have become a better person from my postgraduate studies. And I think that, despite a lot of the negative fallout from finishing my degree (which I am obviously much more fixated on, the joys of anxiety!), I have a lot to offer as a newly minted PhD in a discipline that is at a breaking point in some respects (Alberge 2021, Schofield 2021, Slotten 2021), and I hope that I can wave my new title around as I charge in headfirst into the fray…I mean, the PhD is a shield, right? Although I guess I wish it were a sword, sometimes…

Anyway, the point I hope I’ve made is that postgraduate studies are ultimately a massive commitment for an extended period of time – frankly, my experience represents one of the shorter periods of study you can expect for your MSc and PhD, as timeframes do vary by country and discipline. I urge students to make these decisions with as much care and consideration as you would for any other major life change, because ultimately, that’s what your postgraduate studies will become – a massive shift in your life that may lead to many good things, but also many bad things as well. It’s a risk, as are most big life decisions, and its necessary to think about how much you’re willing to do for it. But at the same time, these considerations will need to be happening continuously, because its also okay to change your mind as well! Hopefully this blog post helps put things in perspective, and at least illustrates that postgraduate studies aren’t a linear path to success – in fact, its a big squiggly line of successes and failures and sometimes chronic illness and a global pandemic and a foster cat or two and…well, you get the picture.


Allan, K. (2014) A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School. PhDisabled. Retrieved from https://phdisabled.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/a-reflection-on-chronic-illness-and-graduate-school/

Alberge, D. (2021) Help our profession or UK’s shared history will be lost, say archaeologists. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/may/30/help-our-profession-or-uks-shared-history-will-be-lost-say-archaeologists

Anonymous (2018) We need to talk about disability and chronic illness during the PhD. The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved from https://thesiswhisperer.com/2018/02/28/we-need-to-talk-about-disability-and-chronic-illness-during-the-phd/

Nguyen, L. (2021) Coping with a Chronic illness during a PhD. Voices of Academia. Retrieved from https://voicesofacademia.com/2021/02/19/coping-with-a-chronic-illness-during-a-phd-by-lieselot-nguyen/

Schofield, J. (2021) Six reasons to save archaeology from funding cuts. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/six-reasons-to-save-archaeology-from-funding-cuts-161465

Slotten, C. (2021) UK Archaeology Has a Problem. Women in Archaeology. Retrieved from https://womeninarchaeology.com/2021/06/09/uk-archaeology-problem/

Woolston, C. (2020) Seeking an ‘exit plan’ for leaving academia amid coronavirus worries. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02029-6

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


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.


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.

Standing on the Shoulders of Animals: Applying Zooarchaeological Approaches to Data in Digital Archaeology

Note: This blog post is adapted from an orphaned journal paper I started writing back in 2017 – as such, some of it may be out of date, but I think the point still stands regarding the potential of adapting zooarchaeological approaches and attitudes to datasets within digital archaeologies.

The Dynamic Imagine Engine user interface from the Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project (VZAP) (Photo Credit: Betts et al. 2011)

Zooarchaeology as a discipline has always held a longstanding association with the generation of large amounts of data. In its earliest iteration,  zooarchaeological data sets were often relegated to the appendices of archaeological reports, sometimes referred to as “laundry lists” (Lyman 2015). Over the past few decades, zooarchaeology has developed into a proper discipline with its own individual methodological approaches to understanding the archaeological record and particular frameworks that sufficiently utilise animal remains to interpret our collective past. Throughout this process of expansion and development, the cultivation and management of data remained a key aspect of zooarchaeological methodology.

As digital archaeology and heritage developed into its own formidable area of study, zooarchaeology found success in applying these new digital pedagogies to zooarchaeological data. Projects with this focus include digitising references and measurements, to developing new methods of creating and archiving meta-data for future use. Although zooarchaeologists have largely adapted digital approaches to data, there has been comparatively little engagement of zooarchaeological methodology by digital archaeologists. This is unfortunate, but understandable – digital archaeologists may not initially see the potential in zooarchaeological pedagogies due to the narrow focus on faunal remains in our discipline; however, I would argue that there is much within zooarchaeology that can be extrapolated and applied as methods for cultivating, managing, reusing, and repurposing data. Perhaps by examining zooarchaeology not just as the study of archaeofaunal remains, but also the study and management of data, the practicality of zooarchaeological methods for digital application will become more apparent.

Zooarchaeology has arguably always been a data-focused discipline at heart. Prior to becoming a full-fledged discipline, early zooarchaeological “analysis” consisted of quantifying faunal remains found during excavation into pages and pages of datasets found in the appendices of site reports. Eventually, conversations about zooarchaeological data changed from “why should we quantify these remains” to “how should we quantify these remains”; this ultimately led to the creation of unique quantitative approaches such as NISP (number of identified specimens), MNI (minimum number of individuals), and MNE (minimum number of elements), although there is still some debate over which method is best for quantification (O’Connor 2000: 55-57; Steele 2015).

Probably one of the most important developments in zooarchaeological methodology has been biometry, or analysis focused on the bone measurements of fauna (Albarella 2002). Biometrics became part of the structural frameworks of many species identification methods (von den Driesch 1976; Hillson 1992) and would also become a huge influence on how zooarchaeologists would further cultivate data based on available material, regardless of the level of preservation and wholeness.

As zooarchaeology continued to transform and progress, attention moved from the generation and collection of data to finding new ways to utilise this data. Much of this work has only been possible due to the ability to share these datasets both within the discipline and outside of it – collaborative research across zooarchaeology, biology, and zoology has often led to the development of many valuable theories and frameworks for analysing archaeofauna.

There are numerous resources for bone identification as the result of various collaborative efforts between zooarchaeologists, biologists, and osteologists in an attempt to further digitise zooarchaeological data (including biometric measurements and reference images) in both meta-data and 2D/3D modelled forms (Fitzpatrick 2018). One of the largest and most ambitious projects in digital zooarchaeology at the moment is the National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource (NZRR). This collaborative project between Historic England and the University of York sets out to create a database of zooarchaeological reference collections and associated metadata, including contact information, access policies, and range of species available – this allows zooarchaeologists to quickly locate collections suited to their needs and learn exactly how best to gain access from the curators (Fairnell and Orton 2016; Fairnell and Orton 2017).

Given the high level of engagement that zooarchaeology has with data and data management just by the nature of its discipline, it is surprising to see that there has been little cross-pollination of ideas between digital archaeologists and zooarchaeologists. There is an arguable wealth of information that can be derived from zooarchaeological approaches to the cultivation, management, and curation of data that may be applicable to digital scholarship in archaeology, particularly with regards to standardisation and the creation of reference resources.

If we examine zooarchaeology as a discipline of collaboration through data, feasible applications in digital archaeologies may become more apparent. Many zooarchaeological projects, like the NZRR, place emphasis on accessibility – that reference data must be open access for all and that through collaborative work, the access to various reference data can be extended greatly. This concept has already evolved into a larger movement within archaeology as a whole, with many Open Access platforms now available for archiving various categories of archaeological data (Steele 2015). In addition, previous zooarchaeological work, specifically those that utilised archival data in collaborative projects, have also highlighted a crucial part of accessibility that must be considered: the need for standardisation. In the case of zooarchaeology, this refers to having a shared set of terminology and recording techniques so that data integration and data sharing can be accurate and precise (Atici et al. 2012). By allowing zooarchaeological data to be open access and standardised in a way that is understandable to others, the discipline has been able to further develop methods to extrapolate more use from obtained data – for example, by utilising datasets to develop broader interpretations and patterns across specific environments and regions.

By looking at the discipline and work of zooarchaeology not just as a study of archaeofauna, but also of cultivating and managing large amounts of data, we can see that there is a wealth of possibilities for application of certain methodologies to digital archaeology. There is also clearly a case for more emphasis on improving archival processes and accessibility to primary data based on the zooarchaeological tendency for data reuse.

Of course, this is all mostly theoretical at this point – what are the actual practicalities of applying zooarchaeological approaches to digital archaeologies? Digital archaeologists will almost certainly run into similar issues that zooarchaeologists face when dealing with archival data: mistakes that may need correction, certain terminologies that may be ultimately untranslatable, etc. (Jones and Gabe 2015). Some fine-tuning of the methodology will always be necessary – for example, following meta-analysis of archival collections from New Mexico, Jones and Gabe (2015) found that biases in the recording and curating processes resulted in errors once they were incorporated into the larger datasets. Similar to Lau and Whitcher Kansa (2018), they suggest that transparency in future work – i.e. acknowledging possible biases in site reports, fully detailing methodologies and processes – would be helpful; otherwise reconciliation of certain collections may become impossible.

There is also the fact that applying zooarchaeological methods to digital archaeologies will not always be a one-to-one trade-off; not all data generated from digital scholarship will be able to be recorded and/or quantified using the same methods that work best for archaeofauna. Again, this will have to be a case-by-case situation in which digital archaeologists determine what works best for their data – this paper is merely using zooarchaeological methodology as an example of how interdisciplinary processes can be used in conjunction with digital datasets, after all.

The increasing interest in digital zooarchaeology could imply that more collaboration between disciplines is on the horizon, particularly in the ways in which we can access and utilise reference material not just in our physical reality, but also in virtual reality (Means 2014; Eve 2017; Maschner et al. 2017). By expanding our view of methodological processes into considering other disciplines within archaeology, it is almost guaranteed that the future will constantly bring us new and even more innovative approaches to archaeological data.


Albarella, U. (2002) ‘Size Matters’: How and Why Biometry is Still Important in Zooarchaeology. In Dobney, K. and O’connor, T. (editors) Bones and the Man: Studies in Honour of Don Brothwell.   Oxford: Oxbow Books. 51-62.

Atici, L., Whitcher Kansa, S., Lev-Tov, J. and Kansa, E. C. (2012) Other People’s Data: A Demonstration of the Imperative of Publishing Primary Data. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20, 663-681.

Betts, M.W. et al. (2011) Virtual zooarchaeology: building a web-based reference collection of northern vertebrates for archaeofaunal research and education. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(4), p. 755e1-755e9.

Eve, S. (2017) The ARtefactKit – Heritage Jam 2017 Winner. Dead Men’s Eyes. http://www.dead-mens-eyes.org/the-artefactkit-heritage-jam-2017-winner/

Fairnell, E. and Orton, D. C. (2016) Building a National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource. https://historicengland.org.uk/research/current/heritage-science/Building-a-National-Zooarchaeological-Reference-Resource/

Fairnell, E. and Orton, D. C. (2017) National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource (NZRR). http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/nzrr_he_2017/

Fitzpatrick, A. (2018) The World Wide Reference Collection: Zooarchaeological Twitter and the Case for an International Zooarchaeological Database. In Computer Applications in Archaeology Twitter Conference. 

Hillson, S. (1992) Mammal Bones and Teeth: An Introductory Guide to Methods of Identification. London: Institute of Archaeology.

Jones, E. L. and Gabe, C. (2015) The Promise and Peril of Older Collections: Meta-Analyses and the Zooarchaeology of Late Prehistoric/Early Historic New Mexico. Open Quarternary 1 (6), 1-13.

Lyman, R. L. (2015) The History of “Laundry Lists” in North American Zooarchaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 39, 42-50.

Maschner, H., Betts, M. and Schou, C. (2017) Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project.

Means, B. K. (2014) Virtual Curation and Virtual Collaboration. In Rocks-Macqueen, D. and Webster, C. (editors) Blogging Archaeology.    Landward Research Ltd. 121-144.

O’Connor, T. (2000) The Archaeology of Animal Bones. United Kingdom: Sutton Publishing Limited.

Steele, T. E. (2015) The Contributions of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites: the Past and Future of Zooarchaeology. Journal of Archaeological Science 56, 168-176.

von den Driesch, A. (1976) A Guide to the Measurement of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites. Harvard: Peabody Museum 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.

Hey, is That a Great Auk in My Assassin’s Creed Game?! Reviving an Extinct Species in the Digital World

Okay, so a disclaimer: despite me being a so-called “video game enthusiast”, I have actually only played one out of the 12 games that make up the bulk of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Yeah, I know, feel free to boo me. That said, I was surprised to find out that I actually have more of a connection with the Assassin’s Creed franchise than previously thought. As Shay Cormac in Assassin’s Creed Rogue, you spend a fair bit of time travelling around the North Atlantic, visiting the many islands within that area…and along the way, you run into my favourite extinct species of all time – the Great Auk!

Assassin’s Creed Rogue protagonist Shay Cormac encounters an entire…flock? Herd? of Great Auk

So, who is the Great Auk and why should we care? First of all…how dare you even ask? But seriously, I am extremely biased at this point as I have spent a lot of time with the poor extinct bird during my PhD. The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a flightless bird that was, to be frank, an easy target for predators – especially humans, who hunted them for their meat and fat (Svanberg 2014, p. 311). The Great Auk appear to have been an important part of many local meals from as early as the prehistoric period (Best and Mulville 2013, p. 424), lasting until its extinction in 1844 (Serjeantson 2001, p. 43). Sadly, humans have a lot to answer for with regards to the extinction of the Great Auk, as overexploitation truly decimated its populations…however, it was natural history collectors who may have helped to deliver the final blow, as the demand for Great Auk remains for collections increased as populations decreased (Minteer et al., 2014).

One of my favourite finds from our excavations at the Covesea Caves – its an articulated (still held together by soft tissue) leg from a Great Auk!

Allegedly the last reported Great Auk was killed by sailors off of St. Kilda, who had feared that the poor bird was actually a witch (Galasso 2014). And while that may sound a bit strange, it seems to fit into a much older concept of the Great Auk that is still being explored through interpretations of ritual archaeology – for example,  at the site of Broxmouth Hillfort in East Lothian, Scotland, skull fragments of a Great Auk were found alongside a nearly completed horse skull as part of a structured deposit near one of the entrances (Salvagno 2013, p. 473). As part of my PhD research in the Covesea Caves of Scotland, I have also found several instances of Great Auk remains (of really fantastic preservation as well, given the amount of surviving soft tissue observed on some bones!). As these caves have already been identified as potential sites of funerary and ritual activity from the Later Prehistoric Period and possibly as late as the Medieval Period, it is possible that these Great Auk remains were also significant for certain rites. However, there’s other possibilities (they may have been eaten, or they may just represent natural deposits) and not enough concrete evidence to give a confident interpretation right now (Fitzpatrick et al. 2020).

So, why does it matter that this extinct bird showed up in a video game? Besides just being a cool little detail, it is interesting to see the ways in which extinct species are revived digitally. Of course much has already been discussed by archaeologists who specialise in archaeogaming on the ways in which video games can be a form of digital reconstruction of the past (Reinhard 2018, p. 188 – 193), but I feel as though less attention has been placed on digital zooarchaeologies in this context, and I feel that Assassin’s Creed in general has been an interesting case study of digital reconstructions of the zooarchaeological record and how it allows players to engage with extinct or otherwise drastically changed animals from the past.

Anyway, #BringBacktheGreatAuk, am I right?!


Best, J. and Mulville, J. (2013) ‘Between the Sea and Sky: The Archaeology of Avian Resource Exploitation in Scottish Island Environments’, in Daire, M., Dupont, C., Baudry, A., Billard, C., Large, J., Lespez, L., Normand, E. and Scarre, C. (eds.) Ancient Maritime Communities and the Relationship between People and Environment along the European Atlantic Coasts. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 417-426.

Fitzpatrick, A., Bond, J., Büster, L., & Armit, I. (2020) A Brief Consideration of the Later Prehistoric
Appearance and Possible Significance of the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) in the Covesea Caves of
North-East Scotland. The Glasgow Naturalist 27(2)

Galasso, S. (2014) When the Last of the Great Auks Died, It Was by the Crush of a Fisherman’s Boot. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/with-crush-fisherman-boot-the-last-great-auks-died-180951982/

Minteer, B. A., Collins, J. O., Love, K. E. and Puschendorf, R. (2014) ‘Avoiding (Re)extinction’, Science, 344, 260-261.

Reinhard, A. (2018) Archaeogaming: an Introduction to Archaeology In and Out of Video Games. Berghahn Books.

Salvagno, L. (2013) ‘Bird Bone’, in Armit, I. and McKenzie, J. (eds.) An Inherited Place: Broxmouth Hillfort and the South-East Scottish Iron Age. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, pp. 471-473.

Serjeantson, D. (2001) ‘The Great Auk and the Gannet: a Prehistoric Perspective on the Extinction of the Great Auk’, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 11, 43-55.

Svanberg, I. (2014) ‘Great Auk’, in Hund, A.J. (ed.) Antarctica and the Arctic Circle: A Geographic Encyclopedia of the Earth’s Polar Regions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, pp. 311.

Ubisoft Sofia (2014) Assassin’s Creed Rogue. Ubisoft.

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.


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.

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 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!

Screenshot_2020-01-27 Let's Play The Witcher 3 - Part 4 - Griffin's Nest - YouTube
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.

Screenshot_2020-01-27 Witcher 3 Blood and Wine - Contract Bovine Blues - YouTube
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…


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.

Guardians, Gods, or Geodudes? Pokemon and Battling Animals in Antiquities

A Pokemon battle in Pokemon Moon (2016)
In the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon (or “pocket monsters”, as it directly translates to English) are catchable creatures that can be trained for battle between Pokemon trainers. Pokemon battles have developed an extensive amount of lore through the video games and associated anime series, particularly through myths and legends that the Player can learn about on their journey. The Veilstone’s Myth from the Sinnoh Region, for example, uses the myth of a human killing a Pokemon with a sword and causing a Pokemon to temporarily disappear to provide one explanation for why Pokemon battles exist.

In the Alolan region, Pokemon battles have been incorporated into rites of passage. One type of battle practiced during this rite, known as the Battle Royale, is fought between four Pokemon trainers and is said to be based off of the war between the Guardian Deities of the region.

A character from Pokemon Moon (2016) saying, “Hoo-ee! Another great battle this year!”

We can draw some parallels between these battles and some actual, similar concepts found within the archaeological record – particularly those that take place in the Alola region, which have an especially significant place within the cultural rites of the region. Generally speaking, we have a plethora of evidence for ritual events that utilise non-human species in one form or another. However, with Pokemon battles in mind, let’s focus on forms of more ritualised, or culturally significant, combat.

Elephants in an Ancient Roman amphitheater
Elephants being fought by humans in a Roman amphitheatre (Image: Stefano Bianchetti)

Animal fighting is more or less frowned upon today, but we can find much archaeological (and textual) evidence of the cultural and ritual importance of animal combat in antiquity. Evidence for dog fighting can be seen amongst Etruscan tomb art and Greek vases (Kalof and Taylor, 2007). Cock-fighting, perhaps the most known form of animal combat, has a long history, with depictions found in Greece on Corinthian and Attic vases and amphorae (Lewis and Llewelynn-Jones, 2018). Although both dog and cock fighting were most likely used as entertainment amongst the ancient Greeks, the latter also had a significant ritual dimension as well; cock-fights were annual affairs in Athens, with cocks being associated with both Ares and Athena for their fighting prowess (Shelton, 2014).

Terracotta figure of children watching a cockfight, from the Archaeological Museum in Naples (Image: Mary Harrsch)

There are also instances of inter-species fighting, specifically between humans and other animals. The ancient Romans, of course, are commonly associated with the grand spectacle of gladiatorial fights in popular media – and there’s historical evidence to support the existence of these gory shows, too. Animals – particularly exotic animals caught and shipped to Rome – were used in “venationes“, or hunts in which they were pitted against humans for entertainment, and also as a common tool of execution, known as damnatio ad bestias…again, for entertainment (Wazer, 2016). These animals were also pitted against other animals in arenas in a way that could be argued as ritually staged, as it demonstrated and affirmed the Roman domination over nature itself (Gilhus, 2013).

A man executed by leopard, as depicted in Roman mosaics from the Archaeological Museum of Tunesia (Image: Rached Msadek, 2007)

Another particular form of this inter-species fighting that was culturally significant throughout antiquity is that of the mythological. Artwork, such as Greek vase art, often depicted the heroic battles of legends like Heracles against creatures both mythological and non-mythological. In these depictions, the concepts of humanness, beastliness, and perhaps something in-between are on full display (no pun intended)…sometimes even more literally, with hybrid creatures made from both human and animal, like the Minotaur, put in combat with others (Beier 2017).

A Tyrrhenian amphora that may depict the mythological Calydonian boar hunt, displayed at the Altes Museum (Image: Bibi Saint-Pol, 2008)

Despite the battle-based gameplay of the Pokemon series, creator Satoshi Tajiri has also said that a core concept of the games was communication and community – players were encouraged to not just compete against friend, but also trade Pokemon with each other as well (Yokada, 1999). And perhaps that’s truly the connecting tissue between Pokemon and the animal battles of ancient times…at the end of the day, it was the community that was the core of these rituals and stories, bringing people together with shared mythologies, cosmologies, and activities.

Although, I don’t know if folks in antiquity were desperately looking for friends to trade Pokemon so you could evolve your Haunter into Gengar…?

Gigantamax version of Gengar from Pokemon Sword and Shield (2019)…I love you, Gengar! (Image: Prima Games, 2019)


Beier, C. (2017) Fighting Animals: An Analysis of the Intersections between Human Self and Animal Otherness on Attic Vases. In Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (eds. T. Fögen and E. Thomas). De Gruyter: Berlin. pp. 275-304.

GameFreak (2007) Pokemon Diamond/Pearl. Nintendo.

GameFreak (2016) Pokemon Sun/Moon. Nintendo.

Gilhous, I.S. (2013) From Sacrifices to Symbols: Animals in Late Antiquity to Early Christianity. In Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives (eds. C. Deane-Drummond, D.L. Clough, and R.A. Kaiser). Bloomsbury: New York. pp. 149-166.

Kalof, L. and Taylor, C. (2007) The Discourse of Dog Fighting. Humanity and Society 31(4). pp. 319-333.

Lewis, S. and Llewellynn-Jones, L. (2018) The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: A Sourcebook with Commentaries. New York: Routledge.

Shelton, J. (2014) Spectacles of Animal Abuse. In The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (ed. G.L. Campbell). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 461-477.

Wazer, C. (2016) The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/exotic-animals-ancient-rome/475704/

Yokada, T. (1999) The Ultimate Game Freak. TIME Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.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.

Bones That Look Like Other Bones: Rodent Bones VS Bird Bones

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,

Herring gull skull (left) and brown rat skull (right)

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?

Herring gull humerus (left) and corvid humerus (right)

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!

Corvid humerus (left) and brown rat humerus (right)
Corvid femur (left) and brown rat femur (right)
Corvid ulna (left) and brown rat ulna (right)

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!

Corvid skull (left) and brown rat skull (right)

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).

Jackdaw (bird) skull fragment

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.

Corvid vertebra (left) and brown rat vertebra (right)

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.

Prehn, N. et al. (2018) Beginner’s Guide to Identifying British Mammal Bones. Natural History Museum. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/content/dam/nhmwww/take-part/identify-nature/british-mammal-bones-ID-guide.pdf

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.