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!

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!

Tales from the Stores

I am the maternity cover for the Archaeological Archives Curator at Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth. The team at the Fort are part of Historic England and provide advisory services to the archaeological sector as well as carrying out research. My post here at the Fort is incredibly varied. We have a number of stores in which the archaeological archives for projects carried out by Excavation and Analysis are maintained. The collections here are not permanent; instead we hold archives that are here for post-excavation assessment and analysis. We have a number of large sites; Raunds and Whitby Abbey to name two.

We also maintain paper and photographic archives from current and older projects. In particular, the Conservation team have a large archive that documents the work they have undertaken since 1950, initially as part of the Ancient Monuments Laboratory and more recently (1999 – this is recent for archaeology) as part of the Excavation and Analysis team here at the Fort. Their archive includes x-rays and ledgers detailing the work carried out on archaeological artefacts from sites across England.

My day to day role is to make sure that the stores are in working order, that the collections are maintained in a good condition and to enable access to the material. We have a large number of enquiries associated with the collections and the amount of data available to the public is extensive. We hold a large zooarchaeological reference collection and this includes a herd of sheep. Our reference collections are in continued use by both our internal specialists and visiting researchers.

The Fort is an incredible place to work. Fort Cumberland is situated on the south east tip of Portsea Island and as a result the weather coming off the sea is at times slightly bonkers. I had never properly experienced sea mist until I started working here. We also have some brilliant wildlife with foxes, a small owl, a kestrel, hibernating butterflies and swifts to name a few. Last month, I chased a moth around the garden behind my office to discover exactly what the bright, deep pink fluttery thing really was (the Cinnabar Tyria jacobaeae).

As well as the wildlife I also support a team of wonderful colleagues. We are currently in the process of implementing our digital archiving procedures. As you can imagine, this is a large task, with huge amounts of data being created by the Archaeology, Conservation, Technology, Dating and Enviro teams every day.

Today is relatively quiet for me. I am travelling North next week to deposit a number of archives and so I have been liaising with Curators at the English Heritage Helmsley and Wrest Park stores. We also helped the Dendrochronology team find space for the Dendro sample reference collection and I am sorting out the transfer of some of these cores to Sheffield University where they will be used for teaching. I have also been involved in some of the post-excavation work on our National Archaeological Identification Survey (NAIS) sites and this will be my afternoon’s task, bringing our assessment report to completion.

Exploring Prehistoric Cooking

Exploring Prehistoric Cooking

It grows stronger every year! Great to see Day of Archaeology come round again!

For me today will be a lab day – nowhere near as exciting as most posters on here, but still a bit of a treat for me. I’m a British Academy Post-doctoral Fellow at Cardiff University. My current project focuses on mobility and feasting in Late Neolithic Britain, involving a blend of isotope analysis, zooarchaeology and a number of other bioarchaeological methods. It only has six months to run so I’m spending most of my time analysing data and writing up results at the moment. That’s why a lab day is a treat!

Today I’m working on a different project – a pilot study into the use of Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) on bone collagen to reconstruct prehistoric cooking practices. This approach was pioneered by Dr Hannah Koon at the University of York and involves high resolution microscopy of extracted bone collagen to look at the way that that fibrils have degraded (a fibril image is attached to this post – the frayed end is characteristic of cooking). This can tell us whether meat was cooked on the bone, filleted first or in some instances discarded without being cooked at all. It has been shown to be successful for historic material but is unproven for prehistoric material, where fibrils may be so degraded that changes relating to cooking can’t be recognised. I have two placement students employed on the project – George Foody (who has posted to DoA too) and Katie Faillace, both of whom graduated with first class degrees last week.


We have selected samples from Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age feasting sites from Wales and Warwickshire and are getting more from Wiltshire on Monday. Touring museum stores is another fun part of the job! Today we are recording and photographing the bones and drilling small sections (c. 0.5g), which we will then crush and put in Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid to demineralise. Within a couple of weeks and with some fiddly sample preparation the collagen should be ready to put into the TEM. The project aims to tests whether the approach will work for prehistoric bone and will provide new insights into feasting practices. We hope to find out whether less desirable cuts of meat (to western stomachs at least) like pig’s trotters were discarded or consumed in the feast and whether different animals were prepared and cooked in different ways.

Social zooarchaeology at Nortwestern Argentina

I’m a zooarchaelogist, meaning that my field of research is the analysis of faunal remains at sites. These range from the refuse of killing and consumption of herd animals, to sacrifices made at burials. My work is focused on the agrarian communities of the semiarid valleys of Northwestern Argentina, from 500 B.C. to 1500 AD.

The first step on faunal analysis is the description of bones or bone fragments found at sites, identifying their anatomical source, taxonomy and the post-mortem traces left by humans and natural agents. The goal is to picture the chain of activities that produced the evidence in its actual state.  Later, you try to test different hypothesis about behavior and their cultural, economic or political constraints. My main interests are those practices that are conditioned by economic and political inequalities. From the 500 to 1450 AD the northwestern of Argentina was the stage of various complex organizations and polities (regional cults, chiefdoms). Later, it was conquered by the Inca Empire. These social transformations were based on the extraction of surplus production from peasant communities, and justified by tradition and ritual practices.

Right now I’m doing my postdoctoral research, and working on publishing the results of my doctoral research. I work at the Museo Etnográfico J. B. Ambrosetti (Universidad de Buenos Aires).


Carlos Belotti López de Medina, Phd.

Leftovers (Archaeology and Food!)

Recently, I’ve begun analyzing data for my dissertation project in historical archaeology.  My day is spent in the lab, surrounded by animal bones, small tools for detailed cleaning and measuring, spreadsheets, and more bones.  I’m interested in brothel household food practices, and animal remains from kitchen trash deposits are a good place to start.  As a zooarchaeologist I’m often asked about my lab process, especially about the kinds of things can I learn from studying animal bones and how I know what they are.  When I’m embarking on a new project I often ask myself the same kinds of questions.  How do I identify animal remains?  What categories are important to my basic research questions?  Does any of this actually matter?

As a point of reference, I’ve been starting with the same tongue-in-cheek query I’ve been asking myself since my first solo project: Who ate the hamsteak?  Broken down into basic parts, what I’m really posing is an answer to why zooarchaeology matters.  “Ate” implies an action, a human behavior.  “Who” implies a search for the identity of the eaters.  The “hamsteak” is what is left over for the archaeologist to find, a clue to discovering cultural identity.  Examining eating habits is a way for me to understand not only past diets, but delve into meaningful choices that indicate ethnicity, class consciousness, fashion, heritage, nutrition, and many other aspects of humanity.

Choosing categories in which to record data that might show patterns in food choices usually begins with a broad understanding of what is in that pile of bones sitting on my table.  Species, skeletal element, and age are necessary no matter what the project is about.  Published guides about bones with detailed drawings, measurements, and age charts are available for archaeologists, but the best way to identify animal remains is by comparison to complete zoological specimens.

Since my focus is on food, I also collect data on how the meat was prepared, including butchery marks, if the bone has been burned, and other human modifications.  Butchery marks can be very obvious, such as the relatively neat lines and even surface an industrial saw makes, or they can be difficult to distinguish, such as scratches from utensils during consumption.  Burning has more ambiguous meaning – for example, it can indicate food preparation or it can indicate how the remains were disposed.  Sometimes you can see that a bone was broken or smashed intentionally in preparation to recover the marrow inside for use as an ingredient.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, I determine the cut of meat from butcher charts.  Knowing the cut links a bone to specific recipes, serving methods, pricing, and food trends, all of which can be researched historically.  Analyzing food remains doesn’t end in the lab.  I spend a lot of time pouring over regional and historic cookbooks for popular dishes and personal records for family favorites.  Newspapers with restaurant and grocery advertisements, personal accounts, and food columns are also helpful in deciphering what I am looking at in that big pile of bones.

Início de estudos em arqueologia na minha vida acadêmica

Antes de ingressar no grupo de pesquisa e ser bolsista na área da arqueologia, aconteceu um episódio no mínimo interessante. Soube através de um amigo de classe que havia um anúncio, ao qual estava nos murais da Univille. Objetivo era realizar um “intercâmbio” entre alunos da Biologia Marinha junto ao Museu Arqueológico de Sambaqui de Joinville. Desde então começou meu contato com a prof. Dra. Dione da Rocha Bandeira. Entre uma ida e outra no museu, desenvolver algumas leituras, ver como é realizado a triagem do material faunístico, etc.; não obtivemos sucesso na proposta de “intercâmbio”.

Mantive contato com a prof. Dione sobre uma possível bolsa em um projeto que estava para sair. Depois de em encher a caixa de email da Dione com questionamentos, como “Olá prof.ª saiu alguma coisa do projeto?”, nos reunimos no MASJ e concretizamos minha participação no projeto ATLAS. Iniciou-se assim minha participação nas atividades arqueológicas. Leitura de diagnósticos arqueológicos da região da Baía da Babitonga (São Francisco do Sul, Itapoá, Garuva, Barra do Sul, Joinville, Araquari); quadro comparativo dos sítios pesquisados por Piazza (1966, 1974), Rohr (1984), Martin et al. (1988) e Bigarella et al. (1954), apresentação dos trabalhos, reuniões, etc. No ano de 2012 estive vinculado ao projeto Ilha da Rita com o subprojeto “A fauna do sambaqui Ilha da Rita – inferências sobre hábitos pré-coloniais na alimentação”. Vinha trabalhando em cima de um flotador, e hoje está concluído.

Hoje estou trabalhando com o material faunístico do Sambaqui Cubatão I, já pré-curados, terminando a triagem do ano da escavação de 2009. O Sambaqui, objeto deste projeto, localiza-se na margem direita do Rio Cubatão, em Joinville/SC, próximo à sua foz no Canal do Palmital. Este sítio foi parcialmente destruído pela retirada de material para aterro de estradas. Atualmente, o sítio vem sofrendo processo erosivo em sua face nordeste decorrente de ação flúvio-marinha intensificada por atividades antrópicas, como trânsito de embarcações e retificação do rio. Resultando em um perfil de aproximadamente 10m de altura por 80m de comprimento. A erosão tem evidenciado a existência de artefatos de fibras vegetais e madeiras nas camadas inferiores do sítio, aspectos de grande interesse.

Foto aérea do Sambaqui Cubatão I, mostrando a equipe de escavação


Imagem de detalhe da escavação do Sambaqui Cubatão I, realizada pelo Museu Arqueológico de Sambaqui de Joinville (MASJ) em parceria com o Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia da USP (MAE-USP), a Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública da FIOCRUZ e o CNRS/França


As análises arqueológicas no Cubatão I identificaram além dos sepultamentos, artefatos de rocha e concha e os seguintes tipos de ecofatos: ossos de fauna, carvões, rochas e conchas de bivalves e gastrópodes.  Até o momento o projeto está em andamento, mas seguem algumas fotos

Amostra 2

Amostra 3

Dente golfinho

Placa dentária Baiacu


Inicialmente entrei no curso de Biologia Marinha com a ideia de trabalhar com Aquicultura. Entrar no projeto de arqueologia foi uma oportunidade de conhecer uma área diferente e totalmente nova para mim. Aos poucos fui aprendendo a gostar cada vez mais desta ciência.

Hoje o que me impulsiona é a pouca expressão de biólogos trabalhando com a arqueologia; o clima agradável de trabalho, propiciado pelos amigos de grupo de pesquisa; e principalmente a oportunidade que me foi dada, juntamente com o crescente interesse.

Zooarchaeology at Çatalhöyük

From Jennifer Jones, Cardiff University, Zooarchaeologist, Bioarchaeologist.

I’m part of the faunal team at the Neolithic World Heritage site of Çatalhöyük this year, and have been residing here for the past 4 and a half weeks (two more to go!). Çatalhöyük is a Neolithic town in the Konya Plane in Turkey, and for three months every year is home to 120+ archaeologists all studying and researching at the site, allowing for great interaction between specialists, excavators, and theorists.

Today is actually a bit of an unusual day for us here as it is our day off, and we have made the mammoth 8 hour long journey to Gobekli Tepe, which answers the question “what do archaeologists do on their day off?”- go and visit more archaeology of course! Gobekli Tepe is an amazing site with many weird and wonderful stone sculptures, which have been suggested as having ritual significance so we are very lucky to have this opportunity to go and see it for ourselves and see how it compares to the archaeology we’ve been finding at Çatalhöyük.

Typically I’ve been spending my days analysing large quantities of bone. I’m working on a post-doctoral project looking human: animal relations in the early co-mingled human and animal bone deposits. I’ve been working with Chris Knüsel in the human remains team, which has been a great opportunity to share knowledge and information. I’ve been looking in detail at processing of bones, looking at butchery patterns, and fragmentation, and other features that can give hints as to what has happened to the bones before they made it to my lab. So far I’ve identified over 2000 specimens to species, and measured/examined fragmentation of 11,400 pieces of bone. I’ve been finding a nice range of Auroch, Boar, deer, and sheep/goat (a particular favourite of the former inhabitants of Çatalhöyük), and lots of dog bones. The deposit I’m looking at is unusual as it is from an offsite area of the mound, and has much higher proportions of wild species than assemblages from the mains settlement, so I have to try and think about why there are differences in the species represented.

Working here has been a great opportunity to make connections with other specialists from all around the world, and we work long hours (7am-7pm!) because we love what we do. We’ve had a lot of fun in the process too, attending 1920’s themed costume parties, participating in pub quizzes (with beer as a prize-a major incentive to win!), and playing in table tennis tournaments, and socialising within the multi-national team.

It’s been a productive field season so far, with huge numbers of burials, animal bone installations being found, and who knows what the next few weeks will bring?

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!

Osteoarchaeology with the WEA in Sheffield

This is my last summer of ‘freedom’ before I start writing up my PhD thesis, and so I thought I would spend some time avoiding my database and volunteering for the WEA, who are now well into the first year of their Inclusive Archaeology Education Project. The project is being rolled out across Yorkshire and the Humber, and aims to provide opportunities for people under-represented in archaeology to learn about and participate in archaeology.

The three year project will enable 300 people, including adults with learning disabilities, mental health service users, adults with physical disabilities and members of black, asian and minority ethnic communities to get involved in archaeology. The courses include a classroom component and then a number of field trips to archaeological sites across the region.

This week I was involved in a ‘bones’ session with the Sheffield group. A couple of us from the Osteoarchaeology group at the University of Sheffield ran a session looking at both human and animal bones. This involved an ‘exploding sheep’ activity, where each of the learners were given some bones from a sheep and had to work out what part of the body they were from, and re-fit them. We also did a similar activity for our human skeleton. We also talked about bones from different animals and the learners had to guess which animals some bones belonged to. It was a great afternoon, the learners were very enthusiastic about the activities, and we had loads of fun!

I’m very much looking forward to volunteering on some of the upcoming field trips with the group over the next month. It has been a pleasure working with them!

To find out more about the Inclusive Archaeology Education Project then visit their blog here: http://digability.wordpress.com

To find out about Zooarchaeology and Human Osteology at the University of Sheffield go to: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/archaeology