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.

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.

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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).

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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).

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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).

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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…?

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

References

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

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

Note: As you can see, I’m no longer on hiatus! But there will be some changes to my blogging moving forward…as much as I love writing, I need to put my PhD studies first. This means that blog posts will not be weekly, but will come out a bit more inconsistently – basically whenever I have a bit of free time to blog! 

Hopefully you’ll still tune in for some weird, archaeological ramblings, even if they’re only every once in a while. Thanks to everyone who has stuck around this long!

Today’s comparative mini-post comes from a question I received from Trisha J. (thanks Trisha!),  who asked for a bit of a comparison between rodent and bird bones. Now, while I have written about both rodents and birds before, I’ve never actually compared the two in one of these posts – which is a bit of a surprise, as I totally get the confusion between them! They can look pretty similar,

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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?

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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!

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

References

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

 

OM NOM NOM (Part Two) or Did I REALLY Use That Same Old Bad Joke To Introduce A Post on Butchery

Note: Today’s blog post will be the last one for a bit – due to my workload piling up for my PhD, I’ve decided to take a month long hiatus from blogging. Hopefully, having the entirety of February to catch up on my lab-work (and also celebrate my birthday on my downtime because I’m a February baby! Please send all birthday coffees here thank you) will get me ahead of schedule and I can get back to weekly blog posts come March. Thanks again for all of your support and hopefully I’ll see some of you when I get back – until then, remember you can also follow me on Twitter where I’m sure I’ll occasionally pop in to complain about animal bones!

Okay…I know I said that I wouldn’t use that extremely bad, extremely old joke to introduce a blog post…but this one is basically a companion piece to the previous OM NOM NOM post on gnawing, so it doesn’t count…I think.

Well, I promise I won’t use it again after this, okay? Okay.

Anyway, let’s talk about butchery.

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Various animal bones that show evidence of butchery.

“Butchery” is basically what zooarchaeologists call any physical characteristics that may indicate that the bone has been modified by humans. There can be many reasons why bones will be modified, but most commonly its for consumption. Here’s a brief overview of three common butchery marks that can be found on faunal bone in the archaeological record:

Cuts

Cut marks look like thin striations in the surface of the bone. They are mostly associated with activities like skinning/de-fleshing. Based on other characteristics, zooarchaeologists can determine whether a cut mark was made by a stone blade or a metal blade. Stone blades create shallow v-shaped marks with parallel striations (Potts and Shipman 1981), while metal blades will made deeper, slightly angled v-shaped marks (Greenfield 1999).

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Cut marks on the surface of bone (Photo Credit: B. Pobiner)

Chops

Slightly different from cut marks are chop marks – these are marks that were made by blades that hit the bone at a perpendicular angle, causing a V-shape that’s much broader than a cut mark (Potts and Shipman 1981).

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A chop mark found on the shaft (Photo Credit: CG Turner 1999)

Marrow Cracking

One very specific form of butchery that’s pretty easy to identify is marrow cracking or marrow extraction. Marrow is a valuable product that can be extracted from various bones simply by breaking into the shaft. We can recognise bones that have been cracked or butchered for marrow by the fractures and splintered fragments left behind (Outram 2001). Depending on the tool used to break the bone, “percussion notches” can also be found along the fractures.

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Various animal bones that have been broken for marrow extraction (Photo Credit: Uamh An Ard Achadh/High Pasture Cave 2005)

Obviously there’s much more when it comes to butchery marks, but these three are arguably some of the common forms of butchery that you run into as a zooarchaeologist. To be honest, there’s something really wonderful about finding bits of butchery when you’re excavating – running your fingers along the striations in the bone, it’s amazing to think that hundreds, thousands of years ago, someone created these marks…probably with a stomach as hungry as mine, too.

I’m gonna be honest, I get so hungry when I work with animal bones sometimes…is that weird? It’s weird, right. Hm.

References

Greenfield, H.J. (1999) The Origins of Metallurgy: Distinguishing Stone from Metal Cut-marks on Bones from Archaeological Sites. Journal of Archaeological Science. pp. 797-808.

Outram, A.K. (2001) A New Approach to Identifying Bone Marrow and Grease Exploitation: Why the “Indetereminate” Fragments Should Not Be Ignored. Journal of Archaeological Science. pp. 401-410.

Potts, R. and Shipman, P. (1981) Cutmarks Made by Stone Tools on Bones from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Nature pp. 577-580.

 

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.

The Perfect Pokemon: A Brief Look at Selective Animal Breeding

Is there a “Perfect Pokemon”? Well, I guess technically there is the genetically engineered Mewtwo…but what about “naturally occurring” Pokemon? Can Trainers “breed” them for battle?

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Pokeballs wait to be healed up.

A form of “Pokemon breeding” has been a vital part of the competitive scene for years. Players took advantage of hidden stats known as “Individual Values”, or “IV’s”, which would influence a Pokemon’s proficiency in battle. These stats could be changed based on training and utilising certain items in-game. In order to have the most control over a Pokemon’s IV’s, it is best if a Player breeds a Pokemon from the start by hatching them from an Egg, allowing for modification of stats  from the very start. This is in contrast to usiong caught Pokemon, which are often above Level 1, so some of their important stats have already been changed “naturally” (Tapsell 2017).

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By looking at the stats of your Pokemon, you can figure out how best to perfect it through training.

But what about real life animal breeding? More specifically, “selective breeding” – this refers to human-influenced or artificial breeding to maximise certain traits, such as better production of certain materials (for example, milk or wool) or better physicality for domestication (stronger builds for beasts of burden, etc.). This is in contrast to natural breeding or selection, in which the best traits towards survival and adaptation are passed through breeding, although these traits may not be best suited for human use of the animal. Selective breeding is most likely as old as domestication itself, but its only been recently (at least, in the past few centuries) that humans have more drastically modified animal genetics (Oldenbroek and van der Waaij 2015).

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Various dog breeds represented by their skulls – an example of how breeding can dramatically modify the anatomy of an animal (Image Credit: A. Drake, Skidmore Department of Biology)

But can we see selective breeding archaeologically? For the most part, this sort of investigation requires a large amount of data – zooarchaeologists can see dramatic modifications to bred animals by examining large assemblages of animal remains over time. Arguably one of the best examples of this can be seen in looking at dog domestication and how breeding techniques have drastically changed aspects of canine anatomy (Morley 1994).

Zooarchaeological data can be supplemental by other sources of evidence, such as text and material remains. Perhaps the most powerful innovation in archaeological science, however, is DNA analysis – using techniques such as ancient DNA (aDNA), we can see specific genetic markers to further investigate exact points of change (MacKinnon 2001, 2010).

The most recent additions to the Pokemon video game franchise, Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee have not only streamlined gameplay, but have also made the previously “invisible stats” more visible and trackable to the chagrin of some seasoned Pokemon players. However, for new players this is undoubtably a welcome change…now if only we could make it just as easy to see in real life zooarchaeology!

References

MacKinnon, M. (2001) High on the Hog: Linking Zooarchaeological, Literary, and Artistic Data for Pig Breeds in Roman Italy. American Journal of Archaeology. 105(4). pp. 649-673.

MacKinnon, M. (2010) Cattle ‘Breed’ Variation and Improvement in Roman Italy: Connecting the Zooarchaeological and Ancient Textual Evidence. World Archaeology. 42(1). pp. 55-73.

Morey, D.F. (1994) The Early Evolution of the Domestic Dog. American Scientist. 82(4). pp. 336-347.

Oldenbroek, K. and van der Waaij, L. (2015) Textbook Animal Breeding and Genetics for BSc Students. Centre for Genetic Resources The Netherlands and Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre. Retrieved from https://wiki.groenkennisnet.nl/display/TAB/Textbook+Animal+Breeding+and+Genetics

Tapsell, C. (2017) Pokemon Sun and Moon Competitive Training Guide. Eurogamer. Retrieved from https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-12-15-pokemon-sun-and-moon-competitive-training-guide-how-to-raise-the-best-strongest-pokemon-for-competitive-play-4925

“Death Positivity” for Pets: Are We Changing Our Attitudes Towards the Death Of Animals?

Content Warning – Today’s blog post will talk at length about animal death and will have some photos of taxidermy animals. Please proceed with caution and feel free to skip the blog post entirely if this is too upsetting.

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Caitlyn Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death, gives a talk at a Death Salon event in Seattle (Photo Credit: @DeathSalon on Instagram)
The “Death Positivity” movement has truly become part of the mainstream discourse recently, ranging from a general increase in appreciation for all things aesthetically macabre, to more organized events that educate others on death and the culture surrounding it. Arguably at the forefront of this movement in the United States is Caitlyn Doughty, a mortician who started the Order of the Good Death as a means of engaging with death and dying in a more positive manner and combatting the anxieties that surround death in modern society (Troop 2013). Doughty eventually began working with other organizers to create “death salons” – based on 18th century intellectual salons, these events gather academics, professionals, and creatives (such as musicians, artists, performers, and even chefs!) together to discuss aspects of death and the culture around death (Rosenbloom 2013).

But while our attitudes towards human death may be changing, what about our attitudes towards animal death? This may be a more complicated question than I originally thought – after all, given our utilisation of animals as subsistence, product manufacturers, and sometimes companions, humans will find themselves constantly confronting animal death. However, there are two specific examples of recent trends that I’ve noticed as someone who consistently works with animal remains in their everyday life…

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Alex Fitzpatrick ( afitzpatrickarchaeology) • Instagram photos and videos
A typical array of “vulture culture” collections, processed and used in artwork by artist and seller Ossaflores (Photo Credit: @Ossaflores on Instagram)

Perhaps one example of changes towards animal death is the popularisation of “vulture culture” online – this term often refers to enthusiasts for collecting animal remains, either as skeletal elements or as taxidermies. Not everyone in the community processes their own remains, but everyone expresses a passion for collecting specimens via online sellers or by finding naturally defleshed remains in the wild. Some enthusiasts are also artists that incorporate animal remains into their artwork somehow.  It is usually emphasised that “vulture culture” collections are derived from naturally deceased animals as part of their ethics (Miller 2017).

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An example of “pet aftercare” in the form of full taxidermy, done by Precious Creatuer Taxidermy (Photo Credit: @PreciousCreature on Instagram)

Another example of “animal death positivity” could also be seen in the rise of pet mortuary businesses that specialise in “alternative aftercare”. This can either be as a full taxidermy piece, as a partial piece (for example, preserved tails or paws), or in skeletal form. Precious Creature Taxidermy, an alternative aftercare and taxidermy business run by Lauren Lysak in California, offers various aftercare services in lieu of what we may consider “traditional human funerary services” that includes the previously mentioned processes as well as cremation (Lysak 2018). Although it may seem a bit macabre to taxidermy one’s pet, you could also consider this as a deeper acceptance of death and its constant presence around all of us…in taxidermy form.

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Alex Fitzpatrick ( alexleefitz) • Instagram photos and videos

So, are we entering a new phase of “death positivity” with regards to animals? Do we even have a right to feeling “death positive” towards non-human species – after all, of course, many animal deaths are directly caused by human activities. I think that, ultimately, this is a very complicated topic that has many layers to it regarding concepts of posthumanism, of ethics, of agency, and so on – perhaps this requires another, more lengthy blog post! However, at least with regards to how humans experience the death of animals, specifically pets, I think we are making strides to better understanding the processes of death and utilising some aspects of “death positivity” as we apply it to humans in our overall understanding of the concept as a whole.

References

Lysak, L. (2018) About Precious Creature Taxidermy. Precious Creature Taxidermy. Retrieved from http://www.preciouscreaturetaxidermy.com/new-page.

Miller, L. (2017) What is Vulture Culture? Vulture Gear Blog. Retrieved from https://vulturegear.com/blogs/vulture-gear-blog/what-is-vulture-culture

Rosenbloom, M. (2013) Death Salon LA…and Beyond! Death Salon. Retrieved from https://deathsalon.org/2013/11/04/death-salon-la-and-beyond/.

Troop, S. (2013) Death Salon Interviews Caitlyn Doughty. Death Salon. Retrieved from https://deathsalon.org/2013/10/02/death-salon-interviews-caitlin-doughty/.

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

The Sadness Of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains

Content Warning: This post will be talking a lot about death and the emotional resonance of dead bodies, both human and non-human. No images of human remains will be shown, but there will be images of non-skeletal (mummified) dead animals, so if this may be upsetting, please skip this post.

I was on Twitter the other day when I came across a Tweet about the recent archaeological discovery of the well-preserved body of a dog that had recently been recovered from permafrost in Siberia (Siberian Times Reporter 2018). Looking at photos of the dog’s paws, which still have some fur, I thought, “Oh, how sad.” And yet, I work with animal remains all the time! So what is so different about these remains?

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One of the preserved paws of the Siberian dog (Photo Credit: Sergey Fyodorov, NEFU)

This dog is one of a couple of recent, well-preserved finds in Siberia – in August, a preserved body of a foal (young horse) was recovered (Associated Press 2018), and just weeks after the dog recovery, the well-preserved remains of a 50,000 year old lion cub was also found (Gertcyk 2018). Note the language and imagery used in these articles – Gertcyk refers to the lion cub as “cute” with significant emphasis of how young the lion was at death, the Siberian Times article on the dog makes certain to stress how some of the fur is still present, and an additional article on the foal by Michelle Starr (2018) utilises up-close photos of the hooves, face, and nose of the foal which were especially well-preserved.

Focusing on the young age of the animals – and how this increases the “cuteness” factor, so to speak – is arguably a tactic to incite sympathy and emotion, as well as relatability. This is also seen in human advertisements, especially regarding charity and other social activism for the sake of the living – this phenomenon has been widely studied, with many philosophical and psychological explanations given for why this is both so widespread and effective (Seu 2015). With regards to the dead, emphasis of youth also invokes an emotional reaction akin to something like grief – a life not fully lived, innocence struck down too early.

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The head and front limbs of the preserved foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

What is more interesting, and perhaps more effective in evoking an emotional reaction is the constant emphasis of preservation. The ability for viewers to see the recognisable, the things we associate with the living, is what helps in empathising with the body.  A very evocative example is the bog body (which you can read more about here, CW: for a photo of actual human remains). The high level of preservation caused by bogs results in such a recognisable appearance that it creates a sensation that Wright (2017) refers to as the “sublime” – an interplay between empathy for the recognised humanity and also a sort of horror at the personification of death. It can be argued that it is this unique ability of bog bodies to invoke such an emotional reactional that led to the numerous art and prose inspired by  them – take, for instance, Seamus Heaney’s work.

The power of such reactions may also be evident from the response to a lack of recognisable features. Mummies, for instance, are technically well-preserved bodies. Yet the concealed nature of most mummies creates a need for additional elements to invoke more empathy and relatability; this is further explored by Day (2013), who questions the necessity of facial reconstructions of Egyptian mummified bodies in order for Western audiences to “relate” better to them.

Of course, this is not to say that just “fleshy bits” – skin, hair, fur, etc. – necessarily equate to instant empathy. There is an element of “intactness” that also must be present. The preserved animals that have been previously discussed in this blog post have all been more or less completely intact, again a testament to their preservation. Separating an element, like a limb, from the body would most likely invoke a reaction closer to horror, as we often associate such separation with mutilation and other acts of violence, even if the separation is caused naturally by more taphonomic means.

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Close-up photo of the preserved hooves of the foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

So, if we accept the argument that having these “preserved” elements causes empathy and emotional reactions, then perhaps we must also accept that there may be some truth to the reverse of this – that skeletal remains, both animal and human, are more difficult to empathise with. To an extent, this is certainly true for animal remains – skeletal animals are often see without issue at museums, in decoration and jewellery, and in the past sometimes utilised for tools and materials. The caveat to this, of course, is the last few decades during which animal rights activism has become more prevalent and acceptable in the public eye.

As for human remains, there is a long and lengthy history regarding the ethicality of display that is also intertwined with colonialist and racist scientific practices. It has only been recently that the repatriation of human remains – specifically those of Indigenous peoples – have become generally accepted as the “right thing to do” by the general public, although of course there remains some within anthropology, archaeology, and museums who fight against the act of repatriation in the name of “scientific process”, despite the horrific racial and colonial implications of said process. Even more recently, this debate has turned towards exhibitions that utilise real human remains to educate others about the body – touring exhibitions such as BodyWorlds have been as extremely controversial as they have also been extremely popular (Redman 2016).

Perhaps another blog post is necessary to further explore the ethicality regarding human remains, both in display and in analytical practice.As technology and preservation practices continue to advance, what new obstacles will we face with regards to our ability to preserve and display the dead? Redman (2016) perhaps offers the best glimpse at what troubles might be ahead, mentioning that BodyWorlds often runs into the issue of displaying the human body like an art piece, rather than an actual person. May there be a time when our conception of the body becomes so far removed that we no longer empathise with the dead, even as well preserved as they are? What does this mean for the future of ethics?

References

Associated Press. (2018) Ancient Horse Found Perfectly Preserved in Siberian Permafrost. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/foal-permafrost-1.4797543?cmp=rss

Day, J. (2013) Facing the Mummy: Physiognomy, Facial Reconstruction, and the ‘Delirious Biographies’ of Egyptian Mummies. 8th International Congress on Mummy Studies.

Gertcyk, O. (2018) Cute First Pictures of 50,000 Year Old Cave Lion Cub Found Perfectly Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/cute-first-pictures-of-new-50000-year-old-cave-lion-cub-found-perfectly-preserved-in-permafrost-of-yakutia/

Redman, S. (2016) Reconsidering BodyWorlds: Why Do We Still Flock to Exhibits of Dead Human Beings? The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/reconsidering-body-worlds-why-do-we-still-flock-to-exhibits-of-dead-human-beings-57024

Seu, I.B. (2015) Appealing Children: UK Audiences’ Responses to the Use of Children in Humanitarian Communications. The International Communication Gazette. 77(7). pp. 654-667.

Siberian Times Reporter. (2018) ‘Sibling’ of Oldest Mummified Puppy in the World Found Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/n0386-sibling-of-oldest-mummified-puppy-in-the-world-found-preserved-in-permafrost/

Starr, M. (2018) Incredibly Preserved 40,000 Year Old Extinct Baby Horse Has Been Unearthed in Siberia. Science Alert. https://www.sciencealert.com/extinct-equus-lenensis-lena-horse-pleistocene-foal-found-preserved-near-perfect-permafrost

Wright, P. (2017) Empathising with Bog Bodies: Seamus Heaney and the Feminine Sublime. Brief Encounters. 1(1).

On Weird Animal Bone Science, or How I’ve Become Accustomed to Watching Fish Bones Dissolve in Acid

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably have a good idea of what zooarchaeology is (and if you’re new, feel free to read that post here). But it’s not just about looking at animal bones and identifying them…well, okay, it’s a lot of that. But there’s lots more to it than just that.

Let’s get scientific, shall we?

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A series of fish bones dissolving in acid to prepare for collagen extraction for stable isotope analysis.

Back in the United States, I was introduced to archaeology as part of the humanities – my BA degree was in classical archaeology and anthropology, so I didn’t really get much training in the practical aspects of the discipline, let alone any of the scientific approaches to archaeological analysis.

Cut to a few years later and I’m desperately trying to relearn what an electron is! That’s not really an exaggeration, either – by the time I was in my MSc program for Archaeological Sciences, it had been probably five years since I had my last science class. It was definitely a struggle at times, but completely doable with an extra bit of studying and work towards understanding and grasping concepts that seemed so far out of my reach when I first began.

Even though I knew exactly what I was getting into, it was still a bit of a surprise to me that by the end of my MSc year, I was in the lab doing independent work for my dissertation research. I was investigating fishing activity in the Orkney Islands, using scanning electron microscopy (or SEM) to examine small fish vertebrae for evidence of consumption (digestion, burning, butchery), and stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen to see whether or not these fish were locally caught and contributed majorly to the inhabitants’ diet. I spent most of my summer watching fish bones dissolve in the isotopes lab, extracting collagen, and using the biggest microscope I’ve ever used in my life – it was certainly a change of pace for someone who, just two years ago, was writing ethnographic pieces as part of my anthropology degree!

So, if you’re looking into archaeology as a career and feel as though you’re lacking in your science training, fear not! For starters, archaeology is a vast discipline that draws from both the humanities and the sciences, so it isn’t necessary, although it is probably helpful to have a more rounded idea of the field as a whole. But if you’re really interested in the science side and feel woefully ignorant, I’d like to believe that I’m an example of someone who was completely science illiterate who can now comfortably refer to themselves as an archaeological scientist. It’s totally possible!

To wrap-up, here are a couple of examples of utilising archaeological science for the purposes of zooarchaeology – of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list at all, but these are arguably the most popular scientific approaches to zooarchaeological research:

  • Stable Isotope Analysis

Stable isotope analysis isn’t a new method – its origins can be traced back to the 1970’s – but its still a popular and useful tool for utilising faunal remains and furthering the amount of information that they can provide. Isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, strontium, and oxygen can be measured through this method and used to investigate past diets, subsistence strategies, and migration of both humans and animals from the archaeological record. To analyse stable isotope levels, collagen from the bone must be extracted and placed within a mass spectrometer to isolate the isotope ratios for measurement. This method is one of the best ways for zooarchaeologists to connect their faunal bones to the “bigger picture” of the archaeological context of their site, in particular, stable isotope analysis can reveal the finer details regarding the relationship between humans and animals in the past.

  • Zooarchaeology By Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS)

ZooMS is arguably one of the most useful advancements in archaeological science, specifically for zooarchaeologists. This method allows for better identifications of faunal bone, especially smaller, more fragmented pieces of bone that may be utterly unidentifiable by the human eye. The way ZooMS works is based on the concept that species have certain protein sequences that correlate specifically to themselves. ZooMS allows for these sequences to be isolated and measured – this provides us with a sort of “code” that correlates to a species, allowing for identification. Although not perfect – this method is not always reliable with regards to identifying between two very close species (for example, differentiating between a wild and domesticated version of the same animal – see: wild boar vs domesticated pig) – it’s still a huge improvement in confident identifications for faunal bone analysis.

  • Ancient DNA (aDNA)

Ancient DNA is one of the more recent developments within archaeological science – by utilising the DNA recovered from archaeological remains, archaeologists can examine how processes such as domestication affected the genetics of animals in the past. aDNA, often paired with other morphological analysis, can provide archaeologists with clear patterns regarding genetic modification over time and track morphological variation that could provide more detail into how animals adapt to their ever changing environments. Given how new this method is, I’d argue we’ve only really scratched the surface with what zooarchaeologists can do with aDNA – be on the lookout for new breakthroughs and amazing research coming out of this field in the near future!

References

Anonymous. (2018). Palaeobarn. School of Archaeology: Research. University of Oxford. http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/palaeobarn.html

Higham, T. (2017) Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry. Science Learning Hub. https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/videos/1606-zooarchaeology-by-mass-spectrometry

Madgwick, R. (2016) “No Longer Do Archaeologists Have to Rely Solely on Seeds, Bones, and Shells”: Isotope Analysis is the Future of Environmental Archaeology”. Environmental Archaeology. Association for Environmental Archaeology. http://envarch.net/environmental-archaeology/no-longer-do-archaeologists-have-to-rely-solely-on-seeds-bones-and-shells-isotope-analysis-is-the-future-of-environmental-archaeology/