Recently, I’ve begun analyzing data for my dissertation project in historical archaeology. My day is spent in the lab, surrounded by animal bones, small tools for detailed cleaning and measuring, spreadsheets, and more bones. I’m interested in brothel household food practices, and animal remains from kitchen trash deposits are a good place to start. As a zooarchaeologist I’m often asked about my lab process, especially about the kinds of things can I learn from studying animal bones and how I know what they are. When I’m embarking on a new project I often ask myself the same kinds of questions. How do I identify animal remains? What categories are important to my basic research questions? Does any of this actually matter?
As a point of reference, I’ve been starting with the same tongue-in-cheek query I’ve been asking myself since my first solo project: Who ate the hamsteak? Broken down into basic parts, what I’m really posing is an answer to why zooarchaeology matters. “Ate” implies an action, a human behavior. “Who” implies a search for the identity of the eaters. The “hamsteak” is what is left over for the archaeologist to find, a clue to discovering cultural identity. Examining eating habits is a way for me to understand not only past diets, but delve into meaningful choices that indicate ethnicity, class consciousness, fashion, heritage, nutrition, and many other aspects of humanity.
Choosing categories in which to record data that might show patterns in food choices usually begins with a broad understanding of what is in that pile of bones sitting on my table. Species, skeletal element, and age are necessary no matter what the project is about. Published guides about bones with detailed drawings, measurements, and age charts are available for archaeologists, but the best way to identify animal remains is by comparison to complete zoological specimens.
Since my focus is on food, I also collect data on how the meat was prepared, including butchery marks, if the bone has been burned, and other human modifications. Butchery marks can be very obvious, such as the relatively neat lines and even surface an industrial saw makes, or they can be difficult to distinguish, such as scratches from utensils during consumption. Burning has more ambiguous meaning – for example, it can indicate food preparation or it can indicate how the remains were disposed. Sometimes you can see that a bone was broken or smashed intentionally in preparation to recover the marrow inside for use as an ingredient.
Finally, and perhaps more importantly, I determine the cut of meat from butcher charts. Knowing the cut links a bone to specific recipes, serving methods, pricing, and food trends, all of which can be researched historically. Analyzing food remains doesn’t end in the lab. I spend a lot of time pouring over regional and historic cookbooks for popular dishes and personal records for family favorites. Newspapers with restaurant and grocery advertisements, personal accounts, and food columns are also helpful in deciphering what I am looking at in that big pile of bones.