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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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.

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

#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.

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!

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.

 

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!

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.

On Seals, the Dogs of the Sea

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

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.