Day of (Zoo)Archaeology

Hello from Perth, Western Australia! My name is Carly and I’m a zooarchaeologist, which means that I work with animal remains (usually bones) to explore how people and animals interacted in the past. Right now, I’m in the late stages of my PhD research. I’ve been working on my PhD for almost 3 years, and I’m planning to submit my thesis in February. Last year when I wrote my Day of Archaeology post I was in Sydney, preparing charcoal samples for radiocarbon dating. This year, I’m writing the part of my thesis that puts those dates into context, allowing me to analyse and interpret my data.

Sorting through excavated material in the lab

Sorting through excavated material in the lab

A chuditch (sometimes called a "native cat") might end up in a site as food, but they're also predators! Working out how they ended up in the assemblage - and what other bones they might have contributed - is something I need to think about. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

A chuditch (sometimes called a “native cat”) might end up in a site as food, but they’re also predators! Working out how they ended up in the assemblage – and what other bones they might have contributed – is something I need to think about. Image source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Because I’m working from home today, I won’t have a chance to get into the lab, but on a normal day I usually try to get in a few hours of lab work. Most of the data collection required for my thesis is now complete, but I still have to finish identifying animal remains from a small portion of my assemblage. The main site I’m working on is a large limestone cave located a few hours drive north of Perth. This cave was periodically used for shelter by Aboriginal people over tens of thousands of years, but it was also used by carnivores like the thylacine, dingo, chuditch (an Australian “native cat”), and owls. This history of site use means that the bones I look at include animals from the size of a grey kangaroo to small native mice! With this information I can look at how Aboriginal people selected and used certain animals for food, what the environment was like, and how that changed through time.

The skull of a thylacine

The skull of a thylacine from the museum’s reference collection

Identifying animals requires a lot of time spent learning about the animals and their anatomy, and comparing specimens to reference collections held by my university and the Western Australian Museum. I’ve been very fortunate to have generous supervisors and mentors who have spent many long hours with me in the field, the lab, and at the museum, sharing their knowledge. Faunal identification skills are not something that can be learned just by reading books: the best way to learn is to hold the bones in your hands, and to learn from an expert.

Some animals are easier to identify than others (like these fragments of bettong jaws)... which is why access to good reference collections is important!

Some animals are easier to identify than others (like these fragments of bettong jaws)… which is why access to good reference collections is important!

Having worked through most of the assemblages now, I have a pretty good feel for the animals that were present in my sites, and how they are connected to people’s use of the sites, environmental changes, and each other. Now, I’m starting to analyse the data and look for patterns or things that stand out. I’m also writing up results, and in a month I’ll be in Europe presenting some of these results at two conferences. That’s where today’s tasks come in!

Thesis writing (in fact, any writing) can be a long, drawn out process filled with draft after draft and plenty of revisions, so I try to mix my day up a little. Today I’ll be writing, creating some tables and graphs showing the distribution of different animal species through time, and drafting a conference paper. I might even do some mapping if I get time… conference presentations need high quality maps! While I love the challenge of the field and lab-work side of archaeology, the writing and analytical side of the job requires almost as many diverse skills. But I have to admit, after a few days of office work, I do love to get back into those bones!

Just some of the reference materials used to identify kangaroo and wallaby teeth!

Just some of the reference materials used to identify kangaroo and wallaby teeth!

 

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