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.

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!

Neanderthal Funerary Practices: Too savage to mourn?

My name is Sarah, and I’m a PhD student at the University of Southampton. I would love to be able to tell you I’m scrambling around in the dirt playing with some real archaeology, but right now I’m sat at my desk reading about how other people played around in the dirt and feeling a little envious. I’m actually reading excavation reports and articles about Neanderthal remains from across the world, from the famous La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France to Kebara in Israel.

Cast of a Neanderthal skull on display Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. Taken by Sarah Schwarz (@archaeosarah)

Cast of a Neanderthal skull on display Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. Taken by Sarah Schwarz (@archaeosarah)

My PhD project focuses on Neanderthal funerary practices – which, in short, is anything and everything that Neanderthals could have done with their dead. (This is normally the point where the entire dinner table goes quiet and I’m left trying to decipher whether the faces staring back at me are confused, intrigued, or terrified). I’m looking for evidence of any and all types of funerary practices, such as burial/inhumation; funerary caching, curation, defleshing and disarticulation. This involves me going through every record I can possibly find of every scrap of Neanderthal remains across the world and examining each individual for characteristic signs of each type of funerary practice – for example, a pit feature for a burial or cut marks for defleshing.

But why is that important? The treatment and honour of the dead through funerary practices and rituals is a key part of our society, and although a culturally sensitive issue it’s something every society does in some way. It is a key emotional display of our humanity, and the cognitive ability to understand the concept of death and being aware of one’s own mortality is quite a realisation. The ability to be able to understand that death will come to us all one day, and to understand that intervention in the lives of others can at least stave off the inevitable for a little longer is an obvious conclusion for us – but it is clear in the Neanderthal world too. For example, the ‘Old Man’ of Shanidar (Shanidar 1, Iraq) was an elderly individual with several traumatic injuries and deformities, which could have required the assistance of others to survive, shows that Neanderthals had this understanding. And understanding how this evolved in Neanderthals helps us understand how the same characteristics, emotions, and rituals evolved in modern humans.

What struck me was how easily the concept of a Neanderthal burying a relative or friend could be so easily dismissed, and how the idea that Neanderthals were a bit brutish and slow still seems to be the popular stereotype for this species. The idea that Neanderthals were a bit daft and weren’t capable of the same things as modern humans also frustrates me – just because we haven’t dug up a Neanderthal who died in middle of updating his Facebook status on his iPad, it doesn’t mean they were stupid. On the contrary, Neanderthals appear to have been routinely honouring their deceased loved ones well before Homo sapiens ever decided to join them in Europe.

Neand Facebook

A hint that things might not be looking up for Ned…


Although I’m still in the early stages of my PhD, so far the pattern emerging appears to be that the early Neanderthals began by defleshing and disarticulating individuals (I am deliberately avoiding the use of the term ‘cannibalism’ because I cannot conclusively prove they were routinely consuming the remains), and from around 115,000 years BP the later Neanderthals begin burying them. And it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, old or young, everyone is treated in the same way across the Neanderthal world. What a lovely thought.

I still have a lot of work to do on my research, so hopefully by next year’s Day of Archaeology I will have more to tell you. But in the mean time I’m sure my cheery topic will continue to destroy dinner party conversations for some time to come, and maybe, I will be on my way to mastering the art of discussing taboo subjects without scaring the general population.

Sarah Schwarz

PhD Student, CAHO, University of Southampton

Follow me on Twitter: @archaeosarah

Or read more about my research on my blog:

The Treasures of the Ottoman Era-Haifa

In order to raise the students’ awareness of the relevance and importance of archaeology to the modern world in my course on Christian and Muslim archaeology, I pointed out to them, as I always do, the different quarters of Lower Haifa – the section of the city where much of the Israeli-Arab population resides. We strolled along the shabby Jaffa Street with its historical Ottoman (from the early 20th century) and Christian’s remains  until we reached its eastern reconstructed part with Jewish buildings from the 1930s.  I further showed them the eastern Muslim quarter to be soon abolished and replaced by high-rises, as well as a few selected reconstructed houses from the Ottoman period used as hotels  or office buildings.


Haifa Eastern Quarter-to be abolished

Haifa Bayclub Hotel-reconstructed






Before raising a few questions, I also drew attention to the annual multi-ethnic cultural events called “the Holiday of Holidays.  This symbolic action organized by the municipality and taking place in the densely populated and segregated Arab quarter in Lower Haifa has contributed in part to upgrading the city’s status and boosting its economy. Recently, the multi-ethnic demographic character of Haifa (90% Jews: 10% Arab), has also been mentioned in a letter sent to president Obama by the mayor of Haifa inviting him to visit the city and witness the “over 100 years of ongoing dialogue” between its Arab and Jewish citizens.

I, then, asked the students to express their opinions on the following questions:

1-Is the selective reconstruction by the municipality, which puts emphasis on the past of the dominant majority (Jews) and obliterates extensive parts of the past of the minority (Arabs), in the name of modernization and gentrification processes reasonable?

2 – Who should be the main beneficiary of the cultural events taking place in the segregated quarter inhabited solely by Arab citizens – the locals whose poor conditions of living should be ameliorated by the municipality, or the   dominant Jewish majority which resides in other parts of the city and appropriates the Palestinian heritage without acknowledging it?

Most of the students who participated in the debate that followed my questions were in favor of the gentrification processes and modernization of downtown Haifa.  They thus consented to the municipality’s partial preservation of the Palestinian past.  Only two students considered also the welfare of the Arab citizens who resided in Lower Haifa.

I was surprised by the student responses.  Not only does the majority of my class consist of students who belong to the minority community but from my acquaintance with other young Arabs I was expecting a different, more militant, reaction. I concluded that either the students felt uninterested to express their opinions in an Israeli academic institute with both Jews and Arabs participating in the class, or that I had failed to point out that both gentrification that neglected the urban infrastructure of parts of Lower Haifa and redevelopment efforts in other parts were selective and clearly differentiate between Arab and Jewish groups, in spite of some symbolic actions of the municipality toward the former.




Digging on the Web

On this “Day of Archaeology”, I’m busy preparing to head off to the field (in sunny Tuscany (!!)), square away some data, and finish work on some tech consulting.  That last bit is a clue that I’m not really a “normal archaeologist”. Actually, I’ve never met an archaeologist that I’d consider normal –  which is what attracted me to this field in first place. But even among archaeologists, I’m something of an odd-ball.

I have a background in Near Eastern archaeology, and did my dissertation research looking at interactions between Egypt and the Levant (modern Israel, Palestine, Lebanon) in the Early Bronze Age. But for various reasons, both personal and professional, I shifted gears toward the digital side of archaeology, co-founded a nonprofit with my wife (and boss!), and for the past 10 years, I’ve loved almost every minute of my work day. Except writing grant proposals (but there are some necessary evils in all work).

My research and professional interests focus on archaeological data, and much less on digging and field work for myself. This focus means I have a very different professional network, set of collaborators, and work life. Though I work closely with other archaeological professionals, I’m also heavily engaged with folks well outside the discipline, including Web and information scientists, digital librarians and archivists, technology companies, “digital humanists”, and researchers in scholarly communications.

I keep such odd company because I’m really interested in improving the way archaeologists communicate and share their research. Archaeology is intensely multidisciplinary and collaborative. It involves inputs from all sorts of different sciences, and many archaeologists work together in large teams. Sharing the results of all this research needs to reflect the collaborative nature of the field, and it needs to speak with people in other disciplines and walks of life. That’s why I’m so interested in making it archaeological data more open, easier to share, and easier to reuse.

My primary project is Open Context. It’s a system for publishing archaeological data, openly, on the Web, for all to browse and reuse. On this “Day of Archaeology”, I’m busy indexing tens of thousands of detailed records of archaeological contexts, objects, bones, and other material from Kenan Tepe, a major excavation in Turkey led by Bradley Parker. This collection represents the monumental effort of almost 10 years of field work. You can browse around its photo archives and see many thousands of pictures, mainly of dirt. Though it is free to access and use, the data are priceless. Excavation is a destructive process, and the documentation describing such excavations will be the only record available to revisit and re-analyze excavation results. That’s why comprehensive publishing with platforms like Open Context, as well as archiving with digital repositories like tDAR, the ADS, or the CDL is so important.

As this blog post should make clear, I love working with the Web. And what I like most about it is that I work with a growing and vibrant community of like minded people who want to see more from archaeology than costly journal articles read by a narrow few. The developers of ARK, Portable Antiquities, all the collaborators of Pelagios, and the bottom-up group linking archaeological data, are all hugely talented and make my work life rewarding and fun. All this makes archaeology (for me) as much about community and the future as it is about the past.

Bethlehem Nomination File

Bethlehem Nomination File “Birthplace of Jesus, Church of the Nativity and the pilgrimage route” was a special project to Palestine in general and Bethlehem in specific. Bethlehem was the first city nominated in the Palestinian territories to the UNESCO world heritage list, and hoping that this process would include more heritage sites including, Ancient Jericho (Tell El Sultan, The religious routes in the holy land, Mount Gerizim and the Samaritans …etc

The process in getting Bethlehem accepted as a world heritage site will take time till next year July 2012, where it will be voted through the world heritage Committee. However, inscribing Bethlehem at the UNESCO list should happen a long time ago, but due to political tensions between Palestinians and Israelis’ the inscribing was held backwards several time.

The Nominations file was a big chance for Palestinians to demonstrate their outstanding culture heritage that was damaged during Israeli’s occupations, especially the Israeli invasion of Bethlehem in 2002 and surrounding Church of Nativity for 40 days. Israel had bombarded the church more than one time which caused damages to it that could be seen today.

The Nomination file was prepared by Center for Culture Heritage Preservation , Bethlehem (CCHP) in corporation with, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Bethlehem Municipality and UNESCO office in Ramallah. It consists of nine parts; each one of them deals with a specific matter.

They are as follow:

  1. Identification of Property
  2. Description
  3. Justification for Inscription
  4. State of Conservation and Factors Affecting the property.
  5. Protection and Management of the Property.
  6. Monitoring
  7. Documentation
  8. Contact Information of Responsible Authorities
  9. 9. Signature on behalf of the State Party

My job was mainly focused at the second chapter “Description” I’ve worked as a researcher in (CCHP) in the project helping the team in the historical and archaeological perspective of the nativity church.I would like here to thanks both coordinator of the project, Arch. Nada Al Atrash from CCHP, and my friend Geroge Al Ama (from CCHP) for their fantastic and outstanding work in the project, where it push forward the Nomination file to its final stages.

Thanks you very much!


I hope you have enjoy it

Regards, Haytham Dieck

Managing the Monster

I’m Keeper of Collections at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, in London. The collection was founded back in 1937, and has over 80,000 objects from all around the world, with a sum total of two staff to manage the monster. Mine is an academic post, so I’m expected to combine teaching duties with museum work. My day is often an eclectic mix of activities – with my lecturer’s hat on I might be writing or giving lectures, marking, meeting with students, reviewing chapters my doctoral students have drafted, revising course handbooks, attending meetings or writing papers. But with my museum hat on I might be getting objects ready for other people’s handling sessions, cataloguing backlog material in the collections, updating our databases, writing a blog post for the collections, fielding research queries, supervising visiting researchers or finding jobs for my volunteers. I never really know what the day is going to throw at me, and when I do make plans I often find they get overturned the minute I get to my desk.

Today I have four researchers booked to visit the collections, so I’m hoping this will give me some free time to work on other things. But we shall see … (more…)

A Day of Archaeology in Tennessee

The first task each day is to check email and phone messages to see what inquiries have come in. Part of my role with the state’s Division of Archaeology is to help inform the public about Tennessee’s prehistoric past, and on an average day I’ll receive questions and requests from a variety of sources. These typically include property owners with archaeological resources on their land, collectors interested in identifying their finds, and students, academics, and Cultural Resource Management firms conducting research. The type and number of requests seems to cycle, and recently there has been a marked increase in calls from members of the public curious about prehistoric artifacts they have found or inherited.