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).


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

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

On 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/


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

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

On Excavation Season, or How to Battle the Great Outdoors With a Trowel

It’s just about excavation season for most of us in archaeology! I will be excavating for a few weeks so this blog will go on a bit of a hiatus until I return – until then, here’s a few tips for anyone about to set off on their first excavation this summer.

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A busy day excavating the site of Swandro in the Orkney Islands.

The weather is getting warmer, which means for many of us archaeologists, its excavation season! Some of you might be about to set off on your first excavation as well, and I can understand if you’re getting a bit nervous…about a month before I was off to my first excavation (also my first trip abroad!), I nearly got cold feet and cancelled. But thankfully I went ahead and basically changed the direction of my career after that – I don’t know if I’d be a zooarchaeologist in the UK right now otherwise. So for those of you who may be freaking out a bit about your first excavation, here’s a few tips that might make things go a bit more smoothly!

  • Check, Double Check, and then Triple Check Transportation

Some archaeologists have an easy commute to their sites, but most of us have a fair bit of travelling to do to get to where the excavation is happening. So be sure you have your travel plans locked up! Especially if you’ll be doing international travel – it probably sounds dorky, but I literally travel with a folder full of my paperwork (flight tickets, hotel bookings, visa information, etc.) these days. My first excavation included a series of missed flights that ended up costing me an extra $250, so I am also very strict on being at the airport early. But hey, better safe than sorry, right?

Also be sure to figure out how you’ll be getting to your accommodations for the duration of your excavation, or if you’re supposed to be meeting your team somewhere. There’s nothing worse than getting stranded at an airport…

…yes, I do know what that feels like, thanks for forgetting to pick me up, Mom.

  • Pack for the weather…

Depending on where and how long you’re going, you’ll want to be sure to pack for any sort of weather you might run into! Especially if you’re travelling far enough that there is an extreme difference in weather between your places of departure and arrival. In general, though, you’ll probably want some waterproof items of clothing (you can also buy waterproofing spray/liquid as well – in my experience they have been handy in a pinch). Even if it’s a warm summer, you might want to also bring some outerwear just in case – better safe than sorry!

  • …but also pack for the work.

Between your rain coat and parka, however, make sure you pack your work clothes too! Let’s be real: archaeology is dirty work. Even if you have access to the best laundry services on site (I wish!), you probably don’t want to wear your favourite clothes to site. I personally rock some cargo trousers and a tank top when I excavate – oh, and with a jumper too. Layering is your friend, so be sure to bring tops that can easily be layered for any situation. Be sure to check what sort of footwear you’ll need as well – most excavations will require that you have steel toe work boots.

  • Remember to cover up your trowel!

This is a pretty simple tip, but it’s also easy to forget! If your trowel doesn’t have a case or cover, it might be a good idea to wrap it up in a bag. Otherwise you may find your trowel has done some damage to your favourite clothes while in your luggage. Or, if you’re me, find yourself sitting on your trowel and getting stabbed in the butt. Ouch

  • Pack. Unpack. Pack.

This is a basic travel tip that I follow for anytime I need to pack for something. I’m notorious for bringing way too much, so to minimise the extra stuff, I’ve taken to packing up my suitcase, unpacking, and then packing again with some items removed. It may be a lot of work, but you’ll be thankful when you don’t have to lug around a 100 lb suitcase across an island to find your accommodations.

  • Relax and enjoy yourself.

Fieldwork is a lot of strenuous work, but don’t freak out! It’s a learning experience, so don’t feel pressured into being a perfect shovel bum. Ask for help when you need to, take breaks when you can, keep yourself safe and relax! You’re contributing to some great archaeological work, it’ll be an amazing experience.

Oh, and definitely take advantage of days off. Explore the area, do new things, just enjoy while you can!

I’m off for excavation for a few weeks, so see you when I’m back! If you’re interested in my excavation, feel free to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress. We’ll be blogging about our work and posting lots of photos!

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Sorry to everyone whose face I’ve blurred out but let’s just focus on how stylish I am on site.

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

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

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

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

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

In the 2014 video game Dragon Age: Inquisition, you play as the Inquisitor who heads the latest Inquisition against an army of demons and heretics. As the leader of such a massive organisation, your character is able to get supplies and aid from all corners of the world of Thedas, including some incredibly fantastic and exotic mounts. One of these mounts is known as the “Bog Unicorn” – a horse that had been preserved in a bog environment that has been brought back to life by the sheer power of the spirit. Although the game does not go into much more detail regarding the backstory of the Bog Unicorn, the design of the mount somehow manages to hit a lot of really interesting points about the phenomenon of “bog bodies” in real world archaeology. So let’s break it down…

To start, what is a “bog body”? In short, it is a body that has been preserved within a bog due to the acidic and anaerobic conditions of the surrounding environment. Bog bodies have been recovered since the 17th century. Prior to focusing on the conservation of archaeological finds, most bog bodies were either discarded or, in some cases, ground up into a medicinal powder called “mumia” (Aldhouse-Green 2015).

There has been an observed phenomenon of recovered bog bodies across parts of continental Europe, with additional cases found in Ireland and Britain. Most of these bodies have been dated to around the Iron Age, and many have been observed to have characteristics that may reflect a violent death (sometimes referred to as “overkill”). This has led to one interpretation of bog bodies representing those who were killed as part of a ritualistic sacrifice or as a punishment (Giles 2009).

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

The design of the Bog Unicorn manages to convey a lot of detail about bog bodies without actual textual explanation. For example, let’s take a look at the physical appearance of the mount. The Bog Unicorn is not skeletal, but has what appears to be a dark, leathery hide covering its body. Its hair is also a strange, rust red colour.

As you can see from the photo above of an actual bog body, this is the typical appearance of organic material that has been preserved within a bog. Sphagnum, released once bog moss dies, is the agent that causes the “tanning” effect on any soft tissue – this is what causes the colouration in both skin and hair found on bog bodies (Aldhouse-Green 2015).

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

Another noteworthy detail in the Bog Unicorn’s design is the sword thrust through the horse’s head, creating the “unicorn” effect – this is perhaps a nod to another phenomenon in the archaeology of bogs and other watery environments. Water has often been considered a liminal space (in other words, a sort of boundary or in-between place), as well as a source of life. It is possible that the deposition of remains in watery environments reflects a belief in water as a pathway to the spirit world, or perhaps more indicative of cyclic beliefs in regeneration and fertility (Bradley 2017). Weapons and other artefacts have also been noted to be recovered as deposits from water – possibly used as proxies for the human body in a ritual? It should also be noted that many weapons that are deposited in this way are often fragmented or ritualistically broken, perhaps to mark a sort of “death” of the object (Bruck 2006).

To wrap this discussion up, let’s move on from the physical appearance to talk more about intent. The Bog Unicorn, in the lore of the game, is explained to be a restless force that has moved beyond death to serve again. In other words, the Bog Unicorn is between life and death, floating somewhere in the middle as a sort of undead creature. To represent such a force as a preserved corpse from a bog is actually quite fitting, especially when one considers how a bog body is basically suspended between life and death (or at least, decay). As mentioned above, watery environments appear to have been identified as a liminal space – bogs even more so, as they were sort of in between land and water. If we take into consideration that bog bodies were part of a “punishment” involving their ritualistic killing, it might be that this liminal space proved to be the final, posthumous punishment – unable to decay and “pass on”, these bodies were left preserved, floating in some natural purgatory. But even if that’s all conjecture, there is still something so perfect about having a Bog Unicorn, who is between life and death, this world and the next, be your spectral-yet-physical steed for a battle that takes place between our world and the spirit world.

References

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

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

Bioware (2014) Dragon Age: Inquisition.

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

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

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


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

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

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

Note: Is it morbid to look at rabbit and hare skeletons on Easter? Maybe. But more importantly, please remember that caring for rabbits as pets is a commitment – don’t buy them as an Easter Day gift for kids if you’re not committed to caring for them! More information can be found here.

So, moment of truth: how long did it take you to realise that rabbits and hares are two different animals? I’m pretty sure I was hitting double digits in age before that dawned on me…embarrassing? Maybe. But it’s an easy mistake to make: rabbits and hares look extremely alike! And that’s not just limited to their outsides either…today’s mini comparative anatomy post is about the bones of hares and rabbits!

Good rule of thumb with differentiating between hare and rabbit bones is to look at the size of the bones – hares are generally larger than rabbits. This is definitely noticeable just looking at the skulls of a hare (on the left, above) and a rabbit (on the right, above).

Hares also have larger, stronger hind legs, which can also be easily seen when you compare these bones to rabbit bones – in the above photo, are two femora, with the larger and more robust femur belonging to the hare.

Despite being from different species, however, both rabbits and hares do share similar physical traits in their skeletons, with explains why some archaeologists may have some confusion when it comes to differentiating between the two (for example, compare the two tibia bones above – besides the difference in size, they’re rather similar!).

If you’re interested in more archaeological work on hares, check on the Exploring the Easter E.g. project undertaken by the AHRC and the University of Nottingham!

References

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

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


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

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

#FolkloreThursday: On High Status Animals, or Imagining Scrooge McDuck’s Vault But Filled With Pigs and Horses

When we think of “high status” in the archaeological record, we usually think about intricate metalwork or elaborate jewellery…but what about animals? If that sounds strange, remember this: we still have animals and animal-based foods that are culturally considered “high status” today! Think of things like caviar, lobster, peacocks, etc…cover them all with some gold leaf and you’ve got yourself a millionaire’s prized possessions.

As I’ve talked about before on this blog, one of the greatest strengths of zooarchaeological research is that there are so many elements of the past that can be derived from animal remains. So to demonstrate this point, here’s a quick look at two of the high status animals from Iron Age Britain…

Ignore the fact that this is a more medieval-looking high status feast…no offence to the British Iron Age, but it’s just way easier to find images like this online! (Photo Credit: Costume Company UK Ltd)

The humble pig as a high status animal may not come as a surprise…after all, how many feasting scenes in films have you seen where one of the main courses is a giant roasted pig complete with an apple in the mouth? Raising pigs for consumption in the Iron Age took up a considerable amount of resources and land, so it follows that higher status individuals would be the few to keep and consume pigs (Serjeantson 2007). Many archaeological sites with evidence of feasting have been observed to produce many pig bones as well – it seems like that cliche has a long history! Given how difficult it was to maintain pigs, it could be interpreted that feasts with large amounts of pigs consumed were important, possibly reflecting an important event or ritual that deserves a large portion of one’s wealth being used (Madgwick and Mulville 2015).

Pigs also have a symbolic value as well by having a wild counterpart in the form of boars. Beliefs in Iron Age Britain seem to have placed emphasis on concepts of “liminality” (or the “between” places that are neither here nor there) as well as ideas of the domestic sphere and the wilderness. With that in mind, its possible that this duality of pig/boar, domestic/wild could have made pigs (and boars) high status in symbolic/ritual value as well. Boar were often hunted during this period, and were especially appreciated for its fierceness, leading to many boar motifs found in Iron Age weaponry and armoury (Green 1992, Parker Pearson 1999).

A bronze figure of a boar from a Late Iron Age chieftan’s grave at Lexden, Colchester, Essex (Photo Credit: Miranda Green)

Probably one of the more equally valued animals at the time was the horse. Unlike pigs, however, horses were more useful to humans alive than dead; horses allowed people to move quickly across long stretches of land and transport large numbers of goods – what isn’t there to like about ’em? Horses were also important to both hunting and warfare, especially with the invention and use of chariots (Green 1992, Chadwick 2007).

Although highly valued in life, it is how horses are treated in death that provide evidence to their status in the Iron Age. There are many examples of horse burials that display a sort of reverence that isn’t afforded to other animals: for example, there are instances of horse remains that have been deposited with human remains. Chariot and cart burials – which were common in the Arras Culture of Iron Age Yorkshire – can also be interpreted as emphasising the importance of horses through the activities they were associated with (warfare and transportation), although most of these did not contain horse remains. However, in 2017 a chariot burial with a horse skeleton was recovered in Pocklington, Yorkshire (Keys 2017).

An Iron Age horse and chariot burial from Pockington, Yorkshire (Photo Credit: David Wilson)

So there you have it – a quick look at how zooarchaeologists can interpret aspects about social status and hierarchy in the past from animal bones – obviously, there are other animals that are considered relatively high status, and that all pigs and horses weren’t treated this way everywhere in the Iron Age – there’s lots of nuance that needs to be used in interpretation. But we have lots of evidence to suggest that pigs and horses were indeed considered high status animals – and hey, I have to agree…I mean, have you ever had pork cracklings? Mmm…

References

Chadwick, A. M. (2007) Trackways , hooves, and memory-days – human and animal movements and memories around the Iron Age and Romano-British Rural Landscapes of the English North Midlands. Prehistoric Journeys. Oxbow Books.

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

Keys, D. (2017) Iron Age Chariot and Horse Found Buried Together in Yorkshire. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/iron-age-chariot-horse-yorkshire-archaeology-significant-find-half-a-century-buried-together-a7659091.html

Madgwick, R. and Mulville, J. (2015) Feasting on Fore-Limbs: Conspicuous Consumption and Identity in Later Prehistoric Britain. Antiquity.

Parker Pearson, M. (1999) Food, Sex and Death: Cosmologies in the British Iron Age with Particular Reference to East Yorkshire. Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Serjeantson, D. (2007) Intensification of Animal Husbandry in the Late Iron Age? The Contribution of Sheep and Pigs. The Earlier Iron Age in Britain and the Near Continent. Oxbow Books.


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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.

From the Question Bag: Fish Remains in Scotland

From the Question Bag: Fish Remains in Scotland

James Green asked: I know in the US South amia calva is one of the most common fish remains found in sites. What is the most common there?

Well, as someone who seems to have been knee-deep in fish bones since 2014, I’m glad you’ve asked! Let me preface this by saying my area of expertise is North and North-east Scotland – so the Orkney Islands and the Covesea Caves. And this is based on my experience as well! So I might miss out on some more common fish finds. But here are the common fish remains that I seem to run into time and time again.

Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus)

Atlantic herring

The bane of my zooarchaeologist life…the reason why I strained my eyes during my masters dissertation…the fish that made me hold my breath while I worked because a sigh could easily send the vertebrae flying…let me present to you: the Atlantic herring.

Not necessarily something I find in abundance at my sites, but I’ve found a couple (read: about one hundred bones) here and there. It’s also found on the other side of the Pond!

Pollack (Pollachius pollachius)

Pollack bones

Not necessarily the bulk of many of my fish bone assemblages, but I find that the pollack shows up time and time again – especially pollack vertebrae! Of course, the vertebrae of  a fish are some of the most durable parts of a fish’s skeleton – that’s why you will see them more commonly than other, more fragile bones.

Whiting (Merlangius merlangus)

Whiting bones

Similar to the Atlantic herring, the whiting has also caused me much distress due to the tiny size of its bones. Very common in some Iron Age contexts that I’ve worked in, the bones of a whiting are so small that I’ve had to use a scanning electron microscope to analyse them for butchery marks and signs of erosion! Not to mention the many hours I’ve had to move their bones around with tweezers…fish bones are surprisingly hard work.

Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua)

Atlantic cod bones

Last, but not least – especially not least – is my good friend, the Atlantic cod. Surprisingly one of the most common fish bones I find at sites! So common, in fact, that it’s the easiest fish for me to identify by eye. But maybe that’s not so surprising – after all, cod is still one of the most popular fish for food! And I don’t blame people, I do really enjoy fish and chips.

Remember to send me any questions or topics you’d like to see me cover about zooarchaeology or archaeology by contacting me!


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

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

Bones That Look Like Other Bones: A MiniPost About Rodents and Fish

Bones That Look Like Other Bones: A MiniPost About Rodents and Fish

Yet another minipost in my comparative anatomy series! But this one might be the strangest paring of all.

Rodents and fish – could there be any more different animals? And yet, I find that students just starting out in archaeology tend to confuse the two together. To be fair, it’s very understandable – the size of rodent bones can be comparable to the size of many fish bones. So let’s break it down and see how different they really are.

Rat and Fish Cranium

For starters, let’s look at the cranium of a rat (left) and an Atlantic cod (right). As you can see, most elements of the skeleton look completely different. The rat has the sort of skull you would expect to see with any animal, while the fish…well, fish are basically made of a head and a tail, so most fish bones you find will be part of the cranium. As I’ve mentioned before in my previous post on fish bone, they will also have a different sort of texture and look compared to mammal bone – in my opinion, its a very “fish-like” texture, a bit shiny and flaky. Always a good giveaway that you’re dealing with a fish!

Rat and Fish Vertebrae

So how is it possible to even confuse the two? Well, let’s look at something a bit trickier…here’s the vertebrae from a rat (left) and from a fish (right). Now, if you don’t know that there’s a difference in shape between rat and fish vertebrae, you might not be able to differentiate the two right away. And given how weird vertebrae can be in varying shapes between types of vertebrae in an individual body, who knows! Maybe they’re from the same animal?

Luckily, there is a visual difference between the two. Rat vertebrae look relatively similar to any other mammal vertebrae (“relatively” being the key word here, of course…but talking about the differences in mammal vertebrae is a post for a different day!). Fish, on the other hand, have very distinct-looking vertebrae and vertebral bodies. Unfortunately, distinguishing between the two can be more difficult if the vertebrae are more fragmented – I’ve seen many students get the two confused if most of the vertebral arches and “wings” are missing.

“But Alex!” I hear you say, “these bones look so different, I don’t believe that anyone could get them confused!” Okay then…let’s take two random, slightly fragmented bones from a herring and a mouse then, shall we?

Mouse scapula and herring fragment
Can you tell the difference?

As you can see, it can get tricky! Fragmentation, size, preservation of bone – these are variables that you encounter with archaeological bones that make things a bit more challenging than you’d think! The best way to get better, of course, is to practice, practice, practice. It gets easier…

…well, eventually.


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 Looks Like Other Bones: A MiniPost About Birds and Rabbits

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbit Bird Tibias

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

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

Bird Rabbit femurs

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pig

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

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

Dog

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

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

Cat

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

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

Sheep

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

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

Cow

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

Cow teeth
Compare these cow teeth with the sheep teeth above

Rodents

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

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

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


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.