“Where’s the Duck?”

“Where’s the Duck?”

It all started with one simple question, “where’s the duck?” As a zooarchaeologist, I keep a reference collection of native and introduced fauna of Virginia and neighboring areas. This collection is growing constantly thanks to donations from wildlife rehabilitation centers, colleagues at other museums, local veterinarians, staff cats who are responsible for many rodents and small birds in the collection, and members of the public who find serviceable roadkill and give us a call.

This summer in the Virginia Museum of Natural History archaeology lab, we have had several zooarchaeology projects in various stages of analysis, from just starting to packing for return. These include material from a Middle Woodland (ca. A.D. 400) coastal occupation that has a shell midden filled with microfauna, a 19th century slave quarter assemblage, an 18th century Colonial cellar deposit excavated this summer by Dr. Carole Nash at James Madison University, a sample of oysters from an 18th century French encampment during the American Revolutionary War, a 19th century canal deposit, and an 18th century tavern. Organization in the lab is always critical; especially so when there are several projects under analysis at one time. Nobody wants a cow bone to end up in the prehistoric midden sample.


With all of these different projects underway, the reference collection gets a good workout. Skeletons are pulled out to aid with identifications, and are put away constantly throughout the day. Add to that new skeletons being processed through our dermestids and coming in for cataloging and the reference collection can quickly get a bit messy.



Today, when I was asking (mostly to myself), “where’s the duck?” and it took more than just a couple of minutes to find the exact specimen I was searching for, I knew I had to spend my afternoon doing some cleaning and reorganizing after technicians and volunteers left mid-day. Not one to work in half-measures, I decided to reorganize several cabinets that hold the reference collection, incoming archaeology collections headed for long-term curation, and ongoing projects. I found the duck, everything has a new home, the drawers all have temporary labels which will be replaced with neatly typed labels next week, and the only casualty was my toe when I dropped an empty drawer on it.

I think I’ll re-alphabetize my spices when I get home, that’s just the kind of mood I’m in today.

Cows’ Ankles and Urchin Spines: A Day of Zooarchaeology at Tel Akko

The zooarch corner of the lab at Tel Akko this morning – so many bones!

My alarm went off at 4:15 am today. Work starts early at Tel Akko, and I like to run in the morning to wake myself up and collect my thoughts. When I open the lab at 5:30 am, I’m feeling alert and ready to meet the past. And it’s a good thing, too, because my tables are covered with piles of fragmented animal bones. It looks more like a mess than information.

I’m the zooarchaeologist at Tel Akko this year, and it’s my job to identify, record, and interpret the animal remains recovered by the excavations. Animal remains are an extremely common find on archaeological projects, and they provide a wealth of information about diet, economy, environment, social status, mobility, and other aspects of ancient cultures that archaeologists work to understand. But getting from broken bits of bone to a reconstruction of something like ethnic differences in food choice is a complex and painstaking process.

Astragalus bones from cattle (Bos) and a sheep or goat (Ovis/Capra)

How does zooarchaeological analysis begin? One bone at a time. I examine each bone or bone fragment for the shapes and features that would allow me to identify it to species – if I’m lucky – or as close to species as possible. All kinds of factors come into play when I make these identifications. For example, an astragalus (ankle bone) of a cow has basically the same shape as the astragalus of a sheep or goat, but of course it’s much bigger. Telling the difference between the astragali of sheep and goats is much more difficult – only a few parts of the bone are different, and it’s best if all of them are preserved for me to make a really secure identification. Often this can’t be done, and I’ll record a bone as “sheep or goat.” That particular bone won’t help me tell if Akko ever developed an intensive wool-producing industry, but it will contribute to answering other questions, such as how food preferences at the site changed over time with the influence of new ethnic groups. Zooarchaeological analysis is many-layered, and the only way to get at all the questions we’d like to answer is by collecting a lot of data.

A cattle ankle bone (calcaneus) heavily gnawed by a carnivore

Every bone fragment provides some kind of data – even those that are unidentifiable. Unidentifiable bones can still show evidence of being chewed by carnivores, often an indication of the presence of dogs on the site. Similarly, many bone fragments preserve evidence of rodent gnawing. Some bones may preserve cut marks and help us understand ancient butchery practices (one of my favorite studies in zooarchaeology uses differences in butchering practices to look at inter-ethnic marriage in the ancient world*). Burned bone fragments can tell us about both cooking and trash disposal.

Even tiny bones are important sources of information, and some of the bones I study at Tel Akko at very tiny indeed. These are the bones recovered through the process of flotation – taking samples of excavated sediment and processing them with water to extract carbonized plant remains and other tiny finds. The resulting animal remains are often only a few millimeters in size, but they can be one of our most important sources of information for the use of marine resources and the presence of reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals like mice on the site. If you’re not sure what mice have to do with to understanding the past check out this excellent study.

Sorted microfauna remains: fish (top on the right), sea urchin spines (second from on the right), snake (small vertebra second from bottom), and small mammal (rib bone at bottom right).

Zooarchaeology takes a long time, and today I worked seven hours before lunch and still feel like I’ve barely made a dent. After lunch, I’ll attend a lecture by another of the specialists at the site and then spend two hours washing the new bones that have come in from the last few days of excavation. At this point in the season, it feels impossible. I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that no matter how daunting it looks, it will all get done in the end. And when it does, we’ll be thousands of fragments closer to understanding the past at Tel Akko.


Waiting for me on Monday…

*  Gil J. Stein. 2012. Food Preparation, Social Context, and Ethnicity in a Prehistoric Mesopotamian Colony. In S. R. Graff and E. Rodríguez-Alegría (eds.), The Menial Art of Cooking: Archaeological Studies of Cooking and Food Preparation, pp. 47-63. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

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:

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.

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.