Zooarch in the Lab

With any archaeological assemblage, excavation is only a small part of the research process. Preliminary care and identification in the field is not designed to hold up for long-term storage and analysis. You may remember my previous post about the faunal identification process, which was based on a teachable moment in the field. Since then, I have inherited the CAP faunal collection from Saints’ Rest to use as data for my historic sustainability project. Management and analysis of a zooarchaeological collection such as this has been a great love of mine since my first experience with it in college.

Washing a pig jaw.
Washing a pig jaw.

Step 1: Washing. Once the bones are out of the ground, they’re muddy, wet, broken, and frequently full of small roots or salt deposits. Washing them typically involves a plastic basin under a lab sink faucet and a used toothbrush. The irony of scrubbing pig teeth in this manner is never lost. Bones are tough, so a good hard scrub is usually in order, otherwise it can be difficult to see small modifications. Drying can take up to a week.

Step 2: Identification. I like to start by creating a chart of things I want to know, such as bag number, element, species, age, and types of butchery that can been seen on the bone. The data from the chart can be entered into a more comprehensive artifact database later. Butchery and tooth wear forms are also useful. Sources tend to be spread thinly, especially for historical archaeologists, but I never leave home without Schmid’s Atlas of

Reconstructed scapula and Schmid.
Reconstructed scapula and Schmid.

Animal Bones. While it is not strictly necessary to reconstruct individual bones, it can be helpful for identification purposes to glue pieces together that were obviously broken after ending up the in trash heap or during excavation. Having been trained on ancient Near Eastern materials, I sometimes have trouble with the convoluted butchery methods that saws made common in the historic period. Comparing the problem bone to known elements is very helpful. Noting modifications is extremely important, because these give us information about human behavior.

Step 3: Documentation and statistics. Entering as much data as possible into the chart makes seeing patterns easier. Drawing butchered bones with every little modification mark can be tedious, but worth the time to make the information more easily accessible. When the chart is complete, you have a whole mess of numbers and little idea of how many animals are represented by the assemblage. This stage is where MNI (Minimum Number of Individuals) and NISP (Number of Identified Specimens) become the zooarchaeologist’s best friends. Both calculations are necessary to get a range of possible animals divided however you choose, with MNI as the low figure and NISP as the high.

Duco Cement is great for reconstruction.
Duco Cement is great for reconstruction.

Step 4: Care. Usually faunal food remains can be put into archival bags or set on shelves without much hassle if the environment is stable. When they do break during excavation or handling (they are also known to explode during washing) gluing with a stable, clear adhesive compound is an option. For particularly delicate pieces gluing is sometimes necessary to prevent further damage.

Author: Grace Krause



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