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.



Eclipse of the Crescent Bone: zooarchaeology in Eger, Hungary

The Neomilk Project

Sorry I’m late! I wrote my day of archaeology blog post on a (blissfully air-conditioned) bus from Eger to Budapest! I am currently in Hungary for a week and a half collecting zooarchaeological data for my PhD, which looks at bone fat processing and butchery in Neolithic Europe as part of the Neomilk project. Neomilk is an ERC funded international collaboration which investigates the emergence of dairying in Neolithic Europe. Lipid residue analysis on ceramics forms the main line of evidence used, but the affectionately named Team Bone use zooarchaeological methods to look for dairying and its effect on diet. The research involves a lot of travel around Europe (mainly tracking the Linearbandkeramik or LBK culture) and analysing key sites, especially those sampled for lipid residue analysis by the team in Bristol. For each site I analyse I try to look at every Neolithic bone fragment, sorting them into size classes, determining species and element and analysing fracture patterns, butchery and taphonomy. This leads to some pretty big datasets!

My aim in coming to Eger was to analyse Apc, but I finished that yesterday! So at the moment I am working on a site called Füzesabony-Gubakút, a settlement which dates from the early ALP culture. I’m hoping to finish the analysis of this site, but I also have a sampling strategy in place if it looks like I won’t finish. I analysed just over 1000 bones yesterday, here’s what I’ve got so far!


Preservation of the bones of this site is amazing, with bone and fracture surfaces very well preserved, which is good for my butchery and fracture analysis. Butchery marks are thin on the ground, which I’ve found is typical of sites from this time period as stone tools make precious little marks on bones (as opposed to butchery with metal objects!). The fracture analysis is very interesting. To try to find out whether people were smashing long bones to get the fat-rich marrow I look for fresh, dry and mineralised fracture characteristics. Fresh fractures (in high quantities) suggest that marrow was important to diet. Dry (and mineralised) fractures can be caused by deposition/re-deposition, carnivore gnawing, burning or trampling, so are often present on sites even where marrow is highly prized. At Füzesabony, the majority of fractures are dry, or happened when the bone was drying. This suggests that people weren’t that desperate for the fat inside bone shafts. My sun-addled brain however is thinking that it’s so hot  here that bones would dry out more quickly – the bones certainly aren’t whole, so something is breaking them! Hopefully the rest of the assemblage will tell me what!


Fresh fracture on a cattle radius (complete with impact scar!)


Dry fracture on a mandible fragment

So, back to why I composed this on a bus to Budapest – I can’t work at the place where the bones are stored (a disused mental institution, not as creepy as it sounds) on the weekend, so I’m off to Budapest to join Team Pot member Jess to do some less dusty work and eat our weight in delicious ice cream and pöttyös, strange cheese-chocolate bars that we are a bit addicted to.

The sum of all our dreams!

The sum of all our dreams!

You can find out more about the Neomilk project on their website, read more stories from my PhD here or follow me on twitter @zooarchaemily.

Happy day of archaeology!

Researching the Human Remains at Hampshire Cultural Trust

Today I’m working at Hampshire Cultural Trust with Dave Allen. I’m lucky because my visit times with the regular weekly volunteer day at the Archaeology Stores, managed by the Curator of Archaeology, David Allen.

To find out more about the work of David and the team, visit their excellent blog, which has a new post every Monday.

Hampshire Archaeology blog:

Nicole Beale

Cynthia is working with Garrard to select samples for dating, to find out more about the human remains from the Danebury environs. Today they are working on the bones from an Iron Age cemetery, Suddern Farm. The work is part of a project with Oxford University, University of Glasgow and University of Leicester, and is ongoing.

Garrard and Cynthia look at the remains from the Danebury environs

Garrard points out that there is a visible healed fracture on the radius of the left wrist of the individual that they are looking at.

Garrard points out the healed fracture

Garrard is working on an individual from Weyhill Fair that was found under the foundations of a building. There had been very little information about the individual because the remains were under a floor and did not have any other means of dating associated with them.

The work area at Chilcomb HQ

Hampshire Field Club funded the radio-carbon dating and Garrard is assessing the materials which will make up part of the report covering this research.



Nicole Beale

Less Glamorous Summer of One College Professor

By now it should be clear that college professors don’t really have summers off. Some of my colleagues have posted about their summer fieldwork, teaching, or writing, but many of us are also preparing for the coming academic year.

Starting this fall, I am entering into a partnership with the local National Park Service to provide them with archaeological expertise and my students with real-world experience in cultural resource management. On the surface that seems like great fun, and it is, but it also a lot of work. I’ve spent weeks upgrading an archaeology lab to handle the influx of projects, artifacts, and student workers. This takes time, money, and a large dose of patience.



How difficult is it to order trays for the archaeology lab?

For example, I ordered 24 trays to hold artifacts for analysis. A week after placing the order I received a large box with one tray in it. Several phone calls later it was clear that if I returned this one tray they would send out a new set of 24. Single tray returned and one week later I received another large box with one tray in it. Phone calls… return single tray again… 24 trays arrive three weeks after placing the order. (If you think that is crazy, you don’t want to know how many emails it takes to get an electrical outlet installed.)



These birds crashed into my office window and now they are part of my comparative collection.

Within archaeology I specialize in bone identification. Preparing to teach forensic anthropology this spring means many hours spent in the lab sorting bones that have become unorganized over the past year. Boxes, bags, labels, and a good music playlist make time fly by as I work to re-associate a femur with a tibia and a clavicle with a sternum. Once the human collection is reorganized it is time to clean off some of the new animal skeletons and get them in color coded and labeled boxes. Until last week I had 15 animals decomposing in my backyard. Now I have two.



A geocache was hidden against the outside wall of this crypt but it looks like people have broken into it.


Because my love of the outdoors goes along with my love for archaeology, I am taking breaks from all this lab and administrative work to go geocaching. This spring I am teaching a new course called Maps, Culture, and Archaeology. I hope to use geocaching to teach students how to navigate with paper maps and with handheld GPS units. That means I need to get better at geocaching and setup the new GPS units. The last cache I found was at this crypt – coordinates are N 40° 49.994 W 083° 07.923


My Day of Archaeology may not have been glamorous but I accomplished a lot of things that will help make the next academic year run more smoothly.

Experimental Archaeology: Bones, Stones, and spears

Cleaning bones


Today is getting close to three weeks since a recent experiment using some hammerstones on bones, and I’m trying to see how they’re cleaning up. Lots of the sciences use experimental research (sometimes it’s called actualistic research in archaeology) to try and understand the world around us. Archaeology is no exception, and we’ve been doing these kinds of projects for decades. Sometimes these projects are more along the lines of reconstructing past ways of life but there are lots, myself included, who take a more scientific approach to trying to understand what our human ancestors were doing.

I’m in my first year of a PhD at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology (, and I’m interested in the earliest known weapons in the archaeological record, which are simple wooden spears: how did they fly (did they?), how well do they work as hunting weapons, and what were our human ancestors doing with these weapons? A big part of my research is involving capturing data on to answer these questions, using state of the art equipment at the ballistics facilities at Cranfield University, located in the Defence Academy of the UK. It’s a lot of fun, and among other things I’ve also been brushing up on my basic physics so I will really understand the instrumentation and results. But this last experiment involved bashing bones with stones – something lots of archaeologists and anthropologists have done before me to answer slightly different questions about what earliest hominins through to Neanderthals were doing to maximize the meat on animals and especially marrow and fat inside bones. Essentially we’re interested in whether some kinds of damage on bones you see in the archaeological record could be caused in multiple different ways – just another way that archaeology is so confusing but so interesting!

My bones are finally getting pretty clean, which is a relief. I’m much more comfortable with stones, or fossilized bones. This particular experiment has really forced me to engage with animals in a way that hominins would have had to on a daily basis. (Well, they probably were not soaking them in detergent for a few weeks, but certainly in handling them.) We’re so distanced now from getting and processing meat – especially in the Western world. This project really highlighted to me, on a personal level, how much work our ancestors would have invested on a daily basis to eat, and how unpleasant some of it must have been!

Annemieke Milks

Writing About Bones

Although we are zooarchaeologists, not a single archaeological animal bone has passed across our desks this week! Instead we’ve been working on sector support projects. Today we have been working on the Animal Bones and Archaeology Guidelines. This is one of the English Heritage guidelines for best practice in archaeological science, which we will be publishing in 2013. The Guidelines will provide advice about how to ensure that due consideration is given to the information potential, recovery and analysis of animal bones from archaeological projects, from the start of a project to final archiving of animal bones, and publication. It covers general project management, field and laboratory procedures (sampling, assessment, analysis and archiving of animal bones), and general methodological (for example, taxonomic identification or biometry) and specialist taxonomic sections (eg. small mammals and amphibians, bird bones, fish). The specialist sections have been written by colleagues working in a range of universities, and archaeological units, along with some sections we’ve written ourselves. They have all now mostly been submitted and we are beavering away on management and procedural sections. We are planning on holding a preliminary review of the Guidelines at the next PZG (Professional Zooarchaeology Group) meeting planned for Saturday, July 14th, so working hard to get it all pulled together in time!

English Heritage Environmental Archaeology Guidelines Cover

The ‘Animal Bones and Archaeology’ guidelines will be part of the series of English Heritage guidelines for archaeological science.

For us the PZG is one of the highlights of our role within zooarchaeology. It’s an interest group, which we’ve helped coordinate from its inception about seven years ago. It now has about 80 members, all animal bone specialists working in the commercial, academic and public sectors (have a look here if you’d like further information on the group). We meet twice a year to study a particular topic, often taught by members themselves, with anywhere from around 15 to 25 members attending. The meetings consist of seminars and practical hands-on work, short presentations of particular case studies, of work recently completed or in progress by members (employer agreement permitting!), and we also hold a mini taxonomic workshop, during which we review the identification criteria for distinct taxa and run blind tests, just to keep us on our toes!

Photograph of three shetland rams

Shetland rams at Lerwick Market, photographed by Sebastian Payne

We are hosting the forthcoming PZG, so another of today’s tasks was administration and planning for the meeting. Its taxonomic workshop will focus on distinguishing sheep and goats’ bones and teeth – they are more similar than you might think! Over the years, focused studies have identified several criteria, which can tell them apart, so today we have been compiling worksheets which draw together relevant references that we’ll use at the workshop to test out the criteria on some our reference skeletons. In the afternoon of the meeting we’re planning a visit to the Iron Age farm at Butser, where Peter Reynolds originally set up different experiments in Iron Age husbandry.  We’ll have a tour of the structures and activities, and in the evening Butser is also holding the Lughnasa festival.  Who says you can’t combine work and play!