A Day in the Life of a Zooarchaeologist

Hi everyone! I’m a zooarchaeologist, PhD student, and American transplant here in England and today I’ll be taking you through the average day of a zooarchaeologist in the lab.

Quick rundown on what a zooarchaeologist does for those who don’t know: basically, I specialise in animal bones. May sound a bit niche to some, but I find that zooarchaeology is incredibly rewarding! Not only do you get to study how fascinating animals are, but you also get to figure out how they fit in to the overall archaeological record alongside humans. Studying the relationships that exist between human and animal at different sites has been an incredibly interesting journey for me!

Now, back to my day…

11 AM: I’ve finished up reading through my emails in my office and drinking my fifth cup of coffee for the day, so now I head into my lab down the hall to start sorting through today’s assemblage.

Usually I get assemblages of bones fresh from excavation, so I’ll have to start cleaning them off first. Oddly enough, I find this task really relaxing! Although there’s probably something strange about getting into a Zen-like state while washing up dog bones…

12 PM: Now that I’ve cleaned the bones to the best of my ability (there will always be a bit of dirt that will not come off no matter how hard you try!), its time to look at what we got.

Probably looks a bit intimidating, huh? When I first started out as a zooarchaeologist, assemblages were terrifying! The more I stared at the pile of animal bones, the more they all looked the same to me.

But everything takes time and practice, and nowadays I can look into an assemblage and quickly start picking out bones that I recognise – there’s a mandible, a lot of bird bone, some humeri and ulna bones…etc.

Of course, not every bone is ingrained in my brain yet (hopefully one day!). So that’s when I start pulling out specimens from our reference collection.

Having a reference collection is so vital to being a successful zooarchaeologist – not only does it help you learn all the different bones you’ll need to know in the field, but its also helpful to have something to compare to when you get a little stuck. Animal bones are very fickle and you’ll usually get them very fragmented (especially if there’s been some butchery involved!).  So it becomes a very complicated puzzle, where you’ll start pulling out bones and comparing the two.

This isn’t the most fragmented bone I’ve ever worked with, of course, but this is a pretty good example of how I use the reference collection. The mandible on the top is from an assemblage I’m working on and the mandible on the bottom is a grey seal mandible from the reference collection – think it could be a match?

The longer you work in the field, the more “shortcuts” you discover that will help you identify bones faster and more accurately. For example, one of my go-to tricks for identifying mandibles is looking at the teeth. Many animals have very distinct looking teeth – in the above photo are teeth from a boar. How can I tell? I’ve always found that pig/boar teeth look similar to human teeth…but much, much more disgusting. Kinda like someone took a human tooth and put it in a microwave and it popped like popcorn…maybe that makes more sense to me, but hey! It works!

Its not just about identifying the bones to species and elemental, however – I’m also looking out for any evidence of modification. This could be any charring, cut marks, teeth marks, pathology…anything that looks different gets analysed and noted on my recording forms. The above photo shows an Atlantic cod that’s displaying clear signs of butchery.

4 PM: Most of the day has gone by and the assemblage has been identified and recorded to the best of my ability. With a bit of time left in the day, I’ll be doing a bit of a photo shoot! Unfortunately not with me…but with some bones. The eventual goal is to have a database of our bones uploaded onto tablets with photos, but for now I’ve been keeping a photo record of some of the more notable bones in my assemblages. Taking good, clean photos for publishing is a skill I’m still working on! But I also get a bit of practice in taking photos of our reference collection for posts on my blog, Instagram, and Twitter.

5 PM: And that’s a wrap on my day! Time to clean up the lab, shut the lights off, and spend at least 10 minutes trying to remember how to lock the door (fun fact: our doors lock differently in America, so locking doors in the UK has been a learning experience for me!).

I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick look through my average day as a zooarchaeologist! Its been a blast blogging about it for Day of Archaeology – looking forward to be back next year!