animal bones

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!

Day of Archaeology – a little of this a little of that

Yo and Mo

Yorke Rowan and Morag Kersel at Marj Rabba

This day of archaeology was filled with not one single task but a variety of “to dos” in the lives of archaeologists. This is a study season for the Galilee Prehistory Project. We are not excavating, we are analyzing and writing, working toward a timely publication of the Chalcolithic (c. 4600-3600 BCE) site of Marj Rabba. It is sometimes difficult to get motivated each day to head to the containers to get boxes of flint for analysis or to comb through field notes and databases pulling together descriptions. We miss being in the field. But a large part of our commitment to the discipline is our obligation to publish the results of our research.

Artifacts from Marj Rabba in storage

Artifacts from Marj Rabba in storage

Yorke studying the lithics from Marj Rabba

Yorke studying the lithics from Marj Rabba

Natalie Munro and Ashley Petrillo taking samples of Chalcolithic animal bones.

Natalie Munro and Ashley Petrillo taking samples of Chalcolithic animal bones.

In the morning Ashley Petrillo, a grad student from the University of Connecticut, dropped by to look at some animal bones – she’s getting samples from the Chalcolithic for her dissertation work. Later in the day we met up with a group of archaeologists at the American Colony garden bar. In Israel it is legal to buy archaeological material from one of 60 licensed shops in the country. One of the licensed antiquities shops is located at the American Colony, so I continued the Day of Archaeology by stopping by and checking on the material for sale or “not for sale” in the shop.

Archaeological artifacts "not for sale" at the American Colony

Archaeological artifacts “not for sale” at the American Colony

My day started with a query from a museum professional about a potential donation from a private individual. The items for donation were purchased from a licensed antiquities dealer in Israel but there were still questions about the legal and ethical dimensions of accepting artifacts purchased from the market. The day ended as it began thinking about artifacts for sale in the legal marketplace in Israel. Truthfully the day ended with some martinis in the American Colony garden bar and a lively discussion about “diseases you have contracted while on excavation”… additional martinis were required.

Archaeologists and drinks at the American Colony

Archaeologists and drinks at the American Colony

A reminder from my Day of Archaeology last year – protect yourself from the sun!

A Day of Statistics, Isotopes and Drilling Bones

I’m Richard Madgwick,  a zooarchaeologist employed as a British Academy post-doctoral fellow at Cardiff University. So what’s my day of archaeology been like? Having just left Çatalhöyük on Wednesday after nearly three weeks in Anatolia, I’m very much playing catch up on research that has had to take a back seat since I’ve been away. I’ve spent much of the day feeling envious of the remaining Çatalhöyük faunal team who are all enjoying a trip to Göbekli Tepe today – I picked the worst time to leave!!

Me staring a bone out

Me staring a bone out

My day has been split between two research projects – one tedious (but worthy!) and the other more practical and interesting. I spent the morning doing some multivariate statistical analysis on a large dataset of around 25,000 animal bones. I’m using a snappily named approach called backwards stepwise binary logistic regression to assess what factors impact on the preservation and modification of animal bones in the archaeological record. This follows on from my PhD research and I’m currently looking in to the causes of abrasion of archaeological bones. Trampling, exposure to acidic conditions, utilisation, earthworm activity. bioturbation, boiling and roasting and water action have all been cited as causes of abraded (or polished) bone but until we know the factors that are important in its occurrence it’s difficult to make any sense of patterns.I spent the afternoon drilling, abrading, weighing and demineralising bone samples from the late Neolithic site of Durrington Walls, next to Stonehenge. I now have 50 chunks of pig jaw happily fizzing away in weak acid in the lab. This is the first part of the sample preparation for isotope analysis – in this instance I’ll be analysing the samples for carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotopes. Later I will also be testing the teeth from the jaws for strontium isotopes. This aim of the game is to understand more about how pigs were raised and where they came from. Durrington Walls is a huge feasting site and we know some cattle at the site came from Scotland thanks to the work of Sarah Viner and Jane Evans. It’s much more difficult to drag a pig over such distances, but I’m hoping I can get some evidence for long distance movement – pigs were of great importance to the feasts here and I think there’s a good chance they were sourced from a wide area. This will provide us with evidence of where people came from to take part in these great feasts.