Zooarchaeology

Bones and bytes from Lincolnshire to Jersey

Les Monts Grantez Neolithic passage grave, Jersey (photo by author)

Les Monts Grantez Neolithic passage grave (c.4000 to 3250 BC), Jersey

My previous Day of Archaeology posts (Returning to archaeology and On the trail of the elusive fallow deer) were written while I was a mature student, studying part-time for a Masters degree in Archaeology, in fulfilment of a long-held ambition. That went well — better than I expected, in fact — so, a few years later and with the encouragement of my MSc supervisor, I now find myself on the brink of starting work on my PhD. For me, this is the stuff of dreams and hard to believe, as the first in my family to attend university, many years ago. (more…)

Bones, teeth, isotopes and the Festival of Archaeology

Another year another Day of Archaeology! Big up the team that keeps this initiative going and sorry to hear that this may be the last!

My 2017 Day of Archaeology is typically varied. I’m a Lecturer in Archaeological Science at Cardiff University and am in the midst of a very busy summer! First up, writing, writing, writing. I’m working on a paper for a new Historic England project at West Amesbury, in the Stonehenge landscape. The site is only a couple of miles from Stonehenge and is Middle Neolithic, so a few hundred years before the stone circle’s heyday. We know that Stonehenge and nearby sites like Durrington Walls drew people and animals from far and wide in the Late Neolithic, but we know much less about the earlier phase. I did some isotope work on cattle and pigs from the site and results suggest that they were all from the local area, so perhaps the Stonehenge area was not such a hub in the Middle Neolithic. More information on the project can be found here:

https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/research/neolithic-farming-food-in-stonehenge-landscape/

Next up, a quick meeting with Katie Faillace, a dental anthropologist from the USA who is starting a PhD at Cardiff in October. She is coming in to look at some unusual teeth we have from a newly excavated cemetery in North Wales. They may have a very unusual trait that is rare in UK populations – but I’m eager for a second opinion!

After that I’m dashing up the road to the National Museum of Wales to give a family friendly and interactive talk on human bone analysis in archaeology, as part of the 2017 Festival of Archaeology.

https://museum.wales/cardiff/whatson/9633/Festival-of-Archaeology-Human-Bones-Why-do-we-keep-them-and-what-can-they-tell-us-/

The rest of the afternoon will be spent in the lab, preparing human bone samples from the Iron Age hillfort at South Cadbury, Somerset for thin section analysis. This involves cutting small pieces of bone, mounting them in resin and then cutting very thin sections to analyse under a microscope. By looking at how bacteria have attacked the bone, we can learn how the bodies were treated after death. The image aboveshows a poorly preserved bone, with lots of bacterial attack. This is very important for Iron Age Britain as we still don’t really know what people did with their dead. We don’t find many human bones and when we do they are often very unusual – odd fragments, skulls or other parts of the body, often deposited in disused grain storage pits. I’m working on this with two students, Lois Turnbull and Selina Trout, who are funded by the Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (CUROP), see the link for more information.

https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/why-study-with-us/leaders-in-research/research-opportunities

 

 

First Comes the Fieldwork, Then Comes the Cleaning

My Day of Archaeology was spent following up on some recent fieldwork I conducted on the south coast of British Columbia.  Fieldwork is only one part of archaeological work.  The second and equally important part is lab work.  Lab work gives us the chance to clean up what we’ve just found in the field and look for all the little details we hadn’t noticed before.  Sometimes we end up finding another artifact in our muddy faunal collection.  Sometimes an artifact becomes just another piece of faunal bone.  You never know until you get those collections clean!

Me (brown hair) conducting the fieldwork that brought me to my Day of Archaeology

I recently spent some time in southern British Columbia as part of a large field project I’ve been a member of for a few years.  This year was different, however, because some of my own grad school research was also tied into our field season.  For those of you who follow me on Twitter or have read my blog, you’ve probably heard me talking about glass beads.  A lot of talking.  And a lot of glass beads.  This year in the field I wanted to do a little bit of follow up work by putting in a small excavation unit to try to better determine the stratigraphy of the area where the glass beads were found.  Or find out of there was any noticeable stratigraphy at all.  Research spoiler: there was, but it wasn’t the most noticeable.

During the course of this small excavation, archaeological finds were inevitable, given the rich history of the site and surrounding area.  Plus our excavation was going through shell midden.  In BC archaeology, shell midden plays a significant role and where we find shell midden we find artifacts and other archaeological materials.  One of the wonderful things about shell midden is that it preserves bone beautifully, so we often find a lot of fauna.  This small excavation was no exception to that.  In addition to the faunal bones, we also found one bone point, several small pieces of slate (which has no nearby source, so by default its presence is because someone brought it to that site), one more glass bead, and several small glass bead fragments.

My little cleaning station

These collections were brought back to Ontario with me (with full permission of the Indigenous nation we closely work with) and were in need of some cleaning.  Which brings me to my Day of Archaeology.  I started my day by pulling out my trusty cleaning tools and setting up a little cleaning station.  Some people go high-tech.  I like to stay low-tech.  All I needed was an Ikea clothes drying rack, a screen with some window mesh, a small plastic bin, a tooth brush, a toothpick, a small sieve, and water.

I started with the fauna first, seeing as how it takes the longest amount of time to dry.  Fauna can be a little tricky to clean.  If the cancellous bone (that spongey stuff inside of bones) is exposed it tends to be easily destroyed by toothbrush and water.  Other bones are simply too small and fragile to clean super thoroughly.  I put some of the bones into the small sieve and dipped them in the water to start.  Then, one at a time, I used a toothbrush to gently brush away the first from the bones large and sturdy enough to do so.  Following the fauna I turned my attention to the small slate pieces first, paying close attention to any sort of striations I might see on the surface of the slate (which indicates it was worked beyond simply being brought to the site).  My final bit of cleaning time was spent on the glass bead and bead fragments.  Using the toothpick, I carefully cleaned the dirt out from inside of the fragile, hollow bead.  I then carefully used the toothbrush on the small fragments.  Several hours later (you’d be surprised

The red fox mandible – notice the straight cut on the left side?

by how long cleaning can take), I had everything clean!

While nothing has been analyzed in depth yet, what I have I learned from the newly cleaned collections?

  1. We have a partial mandible of a red fox (which was determined to be red fox after consultation with several people online and via email)!  While red foxes are found in BC, they’re uncommon in coastal regions.  This mandible was also intentionally cut, which is something we might want to look into later!
  2.  There was a good variety of fish consumed, and species we’re all used to in BC – herring, salmon, and dogfish
  3. A juvenile seal was also consumed at some point (we found one of its vertebrae)
  4. We actually collected two artifacts!  The first was a very obvious bone point.  The second was a piece of bone that had been ground down as though it was en route to becoming a tool, but broke before it could be finished.
  5. The bone point had a neat, but unimportant feature to it.  The bone had been broken along the nutrient foramen (a small hole in bones for blood vessels that allow nutrients to be supplied to the bone marrow inside).  Because of this break I could clearly see the canal that the blood vessel rested in.  For a bioarchaeologist like myself, this was nerdishly fun to see.
  6. None of the slate pieces had any striations on them.  They were probably leftover pieces from whatever the slate was actually being used for.
  7. The glass bead was clear – no metallic interior coating like many of the other beads I had previously found.  That doesn’t mean the metallic coating was never there, it just means it didn’t preserve in the acidic BC soils.

And there you have it!  My Day of Archaeology!  It wasn’t the most glamorous or exciting of days, but not every day of archaeology is!  Sometimes days are a little more quiet than others.  It was the necessary step two of a three step archaeological process.  Step one, the fieldwork, is done.  Step two, the cleaning, is now finished (and drying).  Coming up next will be step three – writing up the research.  Which will require more than just one day of archaeology.

Do you see the nutrient canal on the side of this bone point? It’s that groove in the middle, moving towards the right from the top to the bottom!


Veau, vache, cochon… castor : le quotidien d’une archéozoologue

Je m’appelle Charlotte Leduc et je suis archéozoologue à l’Inrap. Pour ce Day of Archaeology, je souhaite partager avec vous plusieurs aspects de mon travail et de « mes » quotidiens d’archéozoologue.

Il est 8h, et je viens d’arriver au centre de recherches archéologiques Inrap de Metz, où je travaille depuis maintenant deux ans. Je découvre en pénétrant dans mon bureau, un crâne de chevreuil, trônant sur ma table de travail, avec un post-it laissé par un de mes collègues « cadeau pour ta collection de comparaison » ! Et oui, c’est le genre de cadeaux que l’on me réserve à l’issue de balades forestières dominicales. J’en suis ravie, car j’ai toujours besoin d’étoffer ma collection ostéologique de référence. Je dépose donc le nouveau venu aux côtés de ces congénères. Ce spécimen est intéressant car ces bois (il s’agit donc d’un mâle) sont bien conservés.

Collection ostéologique de comparaison © C. Leduc, Inrap

Je reprends mon travail du moment, l’étude de la faune d’un site d’habitat daté du Premier Moyen Âge, découvert sur la commune d’Obenheim (67) en Alsace.

Les fouilles, réalisées par un collègue P. Dabek, ont notamment permis de mettre au jour les vestiges d’un habitat rural daté du Haut Moyen Âge. Plus de 1300 restes fauniques y ont été découverts. Aujourd’hui, je continue la détermination des fragments d’os. Je trie la faune par espèce afin de faciliter l’enregistrement dans ma base de données. Celle-ci rassemble tout un panel de données : espèce, os, parfois l’âge et le sexe de l’animal, état de conservation, présence de traces de découpe… Les principaux objectifs de cette étude sont d’une part de caractériser les pratiques d’élevage et les modalités d’exploitation des animaux mises en œuvre par les occupants du site et d’autre part de documenter la diversité des activités humaines qui ont pu s’y dérouler.

Au cours de l’étude, je découvre la présence d’au moins quatre probables spécimens de patins à glace réalisés sur os. Il s’agit de radius ou de métapodes entiers de cheval, qui présentent une face aplanie dans l’axe longitudinal de l’os, résultant du frottement de la pièce sur la glace, et parfois des aménagements de chanfreins aux extrémités. Ce type d’objet est fréquemment documenté pour les périodes antique et médiévale, notamment en Alsace. Les quatre exemplaires d’Obenheim viennent donc enrichir le corpus et confortent l’hypothèse d’une particularité régionale déjà soulevée par d’autres collègues archéozoologues.

Patin à glace sur métatarse de cheval découvert au sein de l’occupation du Haut Moyen-Âge à Obenheim (67) en Alsace (France) © Photo : F. Verdelet, Inrap ; PAO : C. Leduc, Inrap

Cela entrainera certainement un travail de synthèse collectif  afin de mieux les caractériser et de comprendre leur valeur culturelle régionale.

Après la pause de midi, changement de programme. Je vais maintenant me consacrer à la préparation d’une mission à l’étranger dans le cadre d’un projet de recherche que je développe avec Louis Chaix professeur émérite au Muséum de Genève et qui porte sur l’exploitation du castor européen au Mésolithique en Russie. En effet, si l’essentiel de mon travail consiste à analyser les restes de faune issus des fouilles préventives réalisées en Grand Est, toutes périodes confondues, je suis également une spécialiste du Mésolithique (environ -9600 à -6000/5000 ans av. J.C.). Je m’intéresse tout particulièrement à l’exploitation du monde animal par les sociétés des derniers chasseurs-cueilleurs qui ont occupé l’Europe avant le Néolithique et le développement des sociétés agro-pastorales. Je travaille sur des groupes culturels d’Europe du Nord et de Russie et notamment sur un site exceptionnel, Zamostje 2, localisé à 150 km au nord de Moscou et fouillé depuis 1989 par V. Lozovski (†) et O. Lozovskaya (Institut d’Histoire de la Culture Matérielle de Saint-Pétersbourg, Académie des sciences de Russie ; Musée d’état d’histoire et d’art de Serguiev Posad. Le système économique des chasseurs-cueilleurs ayant occupé ce lieu de 7000/6500 à 4800/4300 av. J.C. reposait en grande partie sur la pêche et sur la chasse de deux espèces : l’élan et le castor. Le castor y a été exploité de façon très intensive, pour sa fourrure, sa viande et aussi pour ses mandibules qui étaient prélevées pour être utilisées comme outils pour travailler le bois. Des milliers d’exemplaires ont été mis au jour au cours des fouilles à Zamostje 2. Ils témoignent d’une exploitation quasiment industrielle et très standardisé de l’animal, c’est tout l’objet de mon projet de recherche.

Outil sur mandibule de castor, Zamostje 2, fouille 2011 © C. Leduc, Inrap

Je dois donc aller régulièrement à Moscou et à Saint-Pétersbourg pour étudier ces restes de castors et procéder à de nombreuses analyses, notamment ostéométriques pour mieux comprendre les stratégies de chasse.

Enregistrement de données ostéométriques sur des castors modernes au Muséum d’histoire naturelle de Berne, Suisse, en compagnie de Louis Chaix © A. Rehazek

Et puisqu’un tel travail nécessite de bien connaître cet animal, quoi de mieux que de s’y intéresser également lorsqu’il est encore vivant ! Le castor ayant été réintroduit dans les années 80 en Lorraine, je participe également au suivi des populations locales. Je réalise des prospections annuelles en parcourant des tronçons de rivières, en enregistrant et en géo-localisant tous les indices de présence de l’animal, avec le Groupe d’Etude des Mammifères Lorrains (GEML). C’est l’occasion de rencontrer des naturalistes passionnés, fins connaisseurs du monde animal et d’observer les talents de bâtisseur du castor.

Barrage construit par des castors sur un petit affluent de la Moselle © C. Leduc, Inrap

La journée de travail se termine… J’ai maintenant rendez-vous avec plusieurs de mes collègues pour un entraînement hebdomadaire de football, puisque nous avons décidé de participer à la Winckelmann Cup, la coupe internationale de football des archéologues, un moment sportif et festif annuel à ne pas manquer et qui permet de découvrir ses collègues sur le terrain … mais avec du gazon !

Winckelmann Cup, coupe internationale de football des archéologues © Inrap