Bone

Exploring prehistoric cooking practices through Transmission Electron Microscopy.

From George Foody:

gfoody

On today, the Day of Archaeology I am currently part of CUROP (Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme), aiming to investigate prehistoric cooking practices at feasting sites in Britain. The Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age sites of Whitchurch, Potterne, East Chisenbury and Llanmaes all have large midden deposits, believed to be the result of large-scale feasting. It is not clear whether meat was filleted or cooked whole on the bone, this is important as methods of food preparation are often seen to have significant meanings. By analysing collagen in bone samples under a TEM (Transmission Electron Microscope) we hope to identify whether these bones were cooked. Though this type of method of identifying cooked bone has been proved successful before, it has never been attempted on prehistoric remains.

Pig and sheep were selected as they are the most numerous animals on these sites. In order to the see the difference between cooked and uncooked bone humeri, which would have contained large amounts of meat, and phalanges, which were more likely to have been discarded, were selected.

As I’ve just finished my third year in university, CUROP offers a great opportunity to see the aspects of a research project. Despite the fact that this is only the first week of the programme CUROP has already provided me with experience in a lab, sample preparation and opportunity sharpen my bone identification skills. Overall I’m thoroughly enjoying this Day of Archaeology being at CUROP, investigating archaeology.

All the lovely skeletons!

Just finished recording a juvenile skeleton with lovely skeletal preservation, which meant a range of pathological changes were clear. The most obvious change was destruction of the bone at the base of the tooth root for the second deciduous molar in the mandible, with the bone destruction surrounded by a layer of porous new bone formation. The tooth crown had been destroyed by caries (cavity) and it seems likely that a secondary bacterial infection had developed into an abscess, which had drained into the surrounding gums. This is quite a severe change considering the pattern of tooth eruption suggests the child was only aged about 4-5 years when they died.

This particular child had also suffered from previous episodes of disease; their leg bones, particularly the femora (thigh bones), showed marked bending most likely indicating a vitamin D deficiency rickets. We need to form vitamin D either in our skin following exposure to the sun or from our diet, oily fish and eggs containing natural sources of vitamin D. A poor calcium intake in the diet may also be an important factor influencing the onset. It’s likely that a range of factors such as poor living and working conditions, limited diets and increased air pollution during the post-medieval period contributed to cases of rickets. There were also plaques of bone formation over the inside of the cranial bones, with prominent outgrowths forming in the occipital bone at the base of the skull. The deposits were thickened and formed of a long-standing remodelled bone layer, which suggests they had survived with the cranial inflammation or non-specific infection for quite some period.

Bone destruction at the base of the tooth roots and porous new bone formation caused by infection from a dental abscess in a child’s mandible. Copyright AOC Archaeology


Dead deer and ancient cattle: A day in the lab

A day in the life of an archaeologist can consist of many things. My own experiences have ranged from digging in ice filled holes in freezing midwinter to throwing projectiles at hay bales in some attempt to experience prehistoric technologies. A rather less active pursuit involves processing excavated material in the lab.

This summer most of my days are spent working on an assemblage of animal bones which were excavated in the late nineteenth century and have been sitting in a museum store house without much work done.

Working with this sort of material is a little different to working with material which might be excavated today, because the recording methods have developed so much over the past hundred years of archaeological investigation. Much material which was stored in museums in the 1800s was not always deposited with proper plans and diagrams, which make it rather difficult to piece together the exact story of what, went on on-site.

My work involves looking at the bones in detail, starting off with basic identification of the species which were present on site, and moving on to look closely for evidence of human use of the bones, in the form of cutmarks from butchery, as well as evidence for what happened to the material after the prehistoric people who used and ate these animals threw the bones away.

The material I’m looking at mainly consists of cattle remains; these seem to be of domestic animals, though there are also remains of now extinct aurochs, an ancient form of massive wild cattle. We also have red deer, with some absolutely huge antlers from them present on site. In addition there are horse bones, and some from wild boar and wolves.

Closely inspecting an ulna in the lab. This is where the magic happens.

There are claims that much of what I’m looking at is from the Mesolithic period, which dates approximately between the end of the last Ice Age, and the arrival of agricultural practices in Britain, when the main form of subsistence for the human occupants was hunting and gathering, but I compare a lot of the specimens to reference material, and it looks to me like there are a lot of domestic animals, especially cattle and horse, possibly dating to the Bronze Age, which is rather later, as well as earlier Mesolithic material.

These zooarchaeological studies allow archaeologists to piece together the story of what past people were doing with animals, their diet and their economy. What I’m hoping to do is to be able to tell the story of the site and shed some light on material which hasn’t been looked properly in the modern period. For me it involves sitting in the lab working through boxes of sometimes rather crumbly bones and Excel spread sheets where I record the data. Once this is finished I should be able to write it all up in a stylish report.

Dusty Muddy Stuff (“I think you will find its called Archaeological Mateeeeriaaal!”)

Elena Jones: Assistant Registrar/Registration Assistant, Department of Prehistory & Europe at the British Museum.

Today I am sitting down in an ancient and threadbare office swivel chair at my bubble-wrap and acid free tissue covered desk. I am in a British Museum office – away from the main Bloomsbury site – that has been little changed, by my reckoning, for 25 years or so.

To fill you in on what I do, my current work here is on the same project it has been Monday to Thursday for over a year now. It involves the registration of an archaeological assemblage from an excavation of the Etton Landscape in Norfolk (if you want to know more see http://www.eaareports.org.uk No.109, 2005: Archaeology and Environment of the Etton Landscape, by Charles French and Francis Pryor ISBN 0 9520616 2 7).

This site, of late Neolithic and Bronze Age features has delivered to us, in the department of Prehistory & Europe, a large assemblage of flint implements, pottery sherds, animal bone and human remains. It has been my privilege (and my job!) to sort, identify, photograph and document the finds, working from the finds themselves and the site publication.

All this, often very repetitive work, eventually culminates in a well-organised collection of objects properly housed in long-term storage and marked with a unique registration number which refers to a detailed online digital record which can be found on the British Museum website

But back to today! and this snap shot into the world of museum Registration. I am ‘registering’ the last of ten Etton Bronze-Age human burials. I have a particular interest in human remains and as such I take my time to carefully identify, side (is it from the left or the right side of body?) and individually bag each bone of this skeleton. The burial in question is of a young male with relatively good preservation and no apparent health problems. It is quite common for me to come across the bony growths, spurs and polished surfaces of an individual with arthritis or the carious legions on the teeth that tell me this person probably had tooth ache. Moreover, after working with so many burials from numerous sites you soon come to appreciate the splendid variations in the dimensions of people’s facial bones. Beetle brows, high cheek bones and prominent chins are all in the mix!

The burials from this particular site are taking a little longer than one might expect because, although they have been given a burial number, many of the bone fragments have also been assigned an individual field number. This means that I must transcribe the full site details onto the new bag for each of these pieces of bone rather than just noting down the burial number.

After accurately transcribing the site details from the original, and now rather ropey, finds bags I group bones and fragments within larger bags and label them with general skeletal parts such as “pelvis”, “ribs”, “skull” or “right foot”. I hope that when someone- probably a student- comes to study this individual, my careful bagging and labelling will speed up their task and reduce any possible confusion. To those of us who work in registration and documentation it is always essential that things are well ordered, accurate and above all, make sense.

Throughout this packing process I keep a detailed list, for the database description, of the various pieces of bone I come across and the proportions that have survived. I also use a visual method of recording the burial and colour in, on a schematised drawing of a skeleton, the portions of each bone we have, annotating the number of fragments or loose teeth and any oddities or pathology. Finally, the burial and this skeleton sheet are carefully packed into archival boxes, with bubble wrap and acid-free tissue for protection, which are marked in permanent marker with their individual registration number and the number of boxes for that particular number.

It will be a very satisfying day when the last of this Etton Landscape material is marked and placed in its cabinet or on to its shelf, the table is stripped of its cushioning bubble wrap and I begin to consider how to tackle the next- and there always is a ‘next’!- dusty unregistered archaeological assemblage. Any day now!

A day in the life of a zooarchaeologist – playing with bones at the Natural History Museum

This week I have been at the Natural History Museum in London collecting data for my PhD project.

My project is looking at the size and shape change of the Aurochs across Europe over time. The Aurochs was the ancestor of domestic cattle, it appeared during the Middle Pleistocene and went extinct in Poland in 1627AD. In Britain they went extinct during the Bronze Age. This animal was quite commonly hunted by humans until domestication took place. The Aurochs was very similar to our modern day cattle, but larger. Some of the males were massive – often over 2 metres tall. Below you can see a couple of pictures of what they look like. You can imagine the amount of meat that you would get from one of these if you successfully hunted it, and you can see the size of the bones that I’m dealing with! My data collection consists of visiting Aurochs assemblages and taking measurements from the postcranial (limb bones) and teeth, as well as from the skulls.

Me with an Aurochs at the Zoology Museum in Cambridge

 

The data collection part of my work has taken me to various places across Europe. So far I have visited Portugal, Denmark and Poland, and later this year I will also visit Italy and France. This summer I am concentrating on the British material. This will take me to a number of museums, including the Natural History Museum in London and the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

This blog post will talk about what I have been up to over the whole week, because then this gives you a sense of the different material I have been working on.

I had visited the NHM very briefly before so I knew pretty much what to expect, however you never know what you might find in hiding away there, so I was pretty excited about my visit. At the start of the week I was booked in to look at material held by the Mammal Group, then later on in the week I visited the Palaeontology Department too. The general rule is that the Palaeontology Department deals with anything up to the end of the Pleistocene, and then the Mammal Group keeps material from the Holocene (the Mesolithic onwards), with a few exceptions.

An Aurochs displayed at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

When you first arrive at the NHM you have to go through a number of security checks and they issue you with a security pass so that you can get ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak. I arrived at the Fleet theatre entrance on Exhibition road with a lot of stuff – I had all of my equipment, and other stuff to keep me going for the week. The security guard wanted to search all of my bags and was especially intrigued by the metal implements that I had with me. These included two pairs of callipers. One smaller pair for taking smaller measurements, and a larger pair curved callipers which I had brought in order to take measurements from massive skulls. In the end he seemed satisfied that I wasn’t going to try and kill anyone with them and let me go through.

Next I met up Roberto Portela from the mammal group who organised my security pass. Only then was I allowed loose on the bones. In the mammal group you aren’t allowed to take any bags or food down to the stores, you have to take everything you need down in a plastic box, so this always takes a little while to sort out. Then we went down to the basement. I was given a desk in the centre of the mammal collections surrounded by tall cupboards full of bones, and glass cases with articulated skeletons. There was no one else down there and it might have been a bit scary if it wasn’t for the fact that I was thoroughly distracted by the bones.

In the mammal group I was primarily interested in material from the site of Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in Yorkshire. A lot of aurochs were excavated from here, along with a large amount of Red Deer, and other wild animals. I was given access to the appropriate cupboards and then it was up to me to have a rummage through to see what I could find. Often it takes longer to find good bones to record than to actually record and measure them. Every museum (or even museum department) has a different system and many museums do not have an electronic database so you have to check things manually. This can be annoying, but also exciting because you could always randomly come across things that you weren’t expecting.

I managed to track down all of the material I needed and by the end of the day I had made a good start on it. On Tuesday I was able to get going a lot earlier because I didn’t have to deal with so much security and working was much faster once I had got into a rhythm.

The way that zooarchaeologists record bones can differ depending on their project. Some people try to identify every piece of bone if they can, but this can be very time consuming, especially if you have a very large number of bones. One way of getting round this is to decide on specific parts of bones that you will record. Because primarily I am interested in measurements, my protocol focuses on the parts of bones that will be able to provide me with that information. For example the distal end (the bottom end) of long bones, because these provide very useful information. I record all of my bones in an access database which, along with excel, I will later use to do my statistical analysis.

By the end of Tuesday I had finished recording most of the aurochs bones from Star Carr and a few other sites with less material. These included Thatcham, and East Ham. On Wednesday morning I only needed to come back to measure 3 skulls – these were in great condition, and absolutely massive. This may have something to do with the fact that they were much older than a lot of the bones I have been looking at – they were from the Pleistocene.

By Wednesday afternoon I was finished in the Mammal Group so I phoned Andy Currant in the Palaeontology Department and went over there to see what stuff they had. I spent the remainder of Wednesday afternoon and the whole of Thursday there.

The Palaeontology department had material from a site called Ilford in Essex. This material has been dated to the late middle Pleistocene so is much older than the Star Carr stuff, and much bigger! Surprisingly, considering it’s age, this material was also in much better condition than that from Star Carr, with many complete bones. Complete bones take longer than partial bones to record because there are more measurements to be taken so it actually took me a fair while to record all of the bones. There were a number of skulls found at Ilford, some with complete horncores. These were neatly packed into a cupboard but were extremely heavy and difficult to get out. We spent a long time figuring out what was the best way of moving them.

After I had recorded all of the bones from Ilford I had a hunt around to see if there was any other material that could be useful. The staff in the Palaeontology department were extremely helpful, and provided me with a list of potential sites, and cupboard numbers. Still, I had to hunt through quite a few cupboards and drawers before I eventually found another assemblage that would be useful. The material was from a site called Grays Thurrock. This stuff was less complete than that from Ilford, but there were an awful lot of teeth, which took a while to record.

Finally at 4pm on Thursday I finished with all of the material in the Palaeontology Department, and treated myself to some tea and cake in the museum cafe (I recommend the lemon drizzle – a real treat!).

 

So that brings us to the end of your whirlwind tour of my time at the Natural History Museum. If you have been inspired by zooarchaeology and want to find out more about the kinds of things that we do, then go here to the webpage of my research group: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/archaeology/research/zooarchaeology/

 

I would like to thank the NHM Mammal Group, especially Roberto Portela, and the Palaeontology Department, especially Andy Currant and Spyridoula Pappa for their help with access to the collections and their general enthusiasm during my week at the Natural History Museum.