End of the Year Round Up! 2017 Edition.

I think its clear to everyone that 2017 was, collectively, not the best year on record. And even on a personal level, it was very difficult for me..however, this was also the year that I finally met those challenges head on. As someone who has spent most of her life as other people’s doormat, this was an important year for me: the year I put myself first, for once!

It was the year I put emphasis on my work – physically, academically, mentally, and spiritually. This includes this very blog, as well! And I’m thankful that I took the chance and extended my social media presence – there are so many fellow archaeologists and academics that I’ve met through Twitter that have become great friends and inspirations to me.

So despite the small size of options to pick from, here’s a highlight reel from this first year on the blog, as well as some pieces I wrote elsewhere on the Internet.

The Best of Animal Archaeology™: the Blog (and other Alex-Related Writings)

To 2018 – may it be a bit brighter and full of opportunities for us all!

Have a good New Year’s Eve and Day, everyone!

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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!

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.

 

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!

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

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

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

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

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

Pig

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

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

Dog

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

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

Cat

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

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

Sheep

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

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

Cow

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

Cow teeth
Compare these cow teeth with the sheep teeth above

Rodents

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

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

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

On Seals, the Dogs of the Sea

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

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

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

Seal and Canine Mandibles

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

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

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

Seal Skull

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

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

Seal pelvis

On Fish, the Bane of All Archaeologists’ Lives

Well, not all archaeologists…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to learn more about fish bones?

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

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

 

On Getting Started in the Field: An Origin Story

After getting asked about hidden treasures and dinosaurs, the next most common question is, “So how did you even decide to become an archaeologist?”

It’s pretty simple, really. After I first saw the Indiana Jones films as a kid, I immediately went into my backyard and dug a 1 foot deep hole. I then proceeded to go to my best friend’s house and also dig a 1 foot deep hole there.

No one was particularly happy about my new obsession with digging holes at the time, if I’m being honest.

In school, I found myself drawn to subjects such as biology and history. I also realized that I’ve got a knack for learning by actively doing things. Combine those three together and next thing I know, I’m trying to explain to my guidance counselor what archaeology is.

I suppose I was lucky – I knew exactly what I wanted to do early in life and was stubborn enough to keep at it. I’ve also been lucky enough to have been in the type of circumstances that allowed for many valuable teaching experiences prior to graduate school (i.e.; easy access to museum/museum jobs, opportunities to get training through school programs, etc.).

But if I learned anything, it’s that with a little luck and a little stubbornness, you too can find yourself in Scotland, far from your hometown in New York, being looked at as a peer in the field that you’ve loved since you were making a mess in the backyard as a kid.

A (good?) photo of me from my first ever excavation during my undergrad

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On Birds, or Why Light Bones Freak Me Out

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

An Atlantic Herring gull skull and beak

 

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

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

The left ulna of an Atlantic Herring gull

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

A furcula from a duck

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

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

On Zooarchaeology, or Looking at Dead Animals All the Time

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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