The Cutting Edge: The Analysis of Historic Meat Cuts

Man prepares meat in the Kellogg Center 1959. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Man prepares meat in the Kellogg Center 1959. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The analysis of animal bones from historic MSU involves more than the identification of species. While it is important to determine the species that were being consumed, we are also very interested in the specific portions of animals that were being purchased and produced by MSU. Not only was MSU purchasing meat from local vendors, but, as an agricultural school, they also were butchering animals raised on campus. It is possible to determine what cuts of meat were being produced and consumed on campus from analyzing the faunal material uncovered during archaeological excavations. However, there is an added level of difficulty in this type of analysis. While animals were being butchered on campus, they were not being processed by professionals. Instead, MSU students were being trained on how to butcher and process meat from the campus farms. How do we know this you ask? Well, there are photographs in the MSU archives that show the butchering of animals, but we can also learn from studying the animal bones themselves. They allow us to see the many different cuts and angles present that suggest that the individual who was processing the meat was learning where and how to make specific types of cuts (AKA like student drivers, student butchers could not stay in their lane).

Students butcher meat, early 1900s. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections - Scrapbook #45

Students butcher meat, early 1900s. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections – Scrapbook #45

Butchered animal bones excavated by CAP.

Butchered animal bones excavated by CAP.

So how can we tell different meat cuts apart by looking at the animal bones? Not only can we talk to current butchers, there are countless books on the subject going back through time for butchering processes and preferred cuts. Below are some images that depict various meat cuts on different animal species. Through comparisons between the actual bones recovered and the illustrations of the types of bones that are the result of different cuts of meat, we can figure out what types of meat cuts were the most preferred on campus at the time.

Cuts of meat depicted as bone cuts. Image Source:

Cuts of meat depicted as bone cuts. Image Source: Evans and Greene 1973

Another factor that needs to be considered while conducting this type of analysis is the preference for specific meat cuts through time and by region throughout the United States and the world! Even today there are certain types of meat that are very popular in one area of the United States, but that cannot be found in another. For example, tri-tip in California is a very popular cut of beef from the bottom sirloin for barbecuing, however, in the Midwest, it is almost impossible to find in a grocery store! However, by understanding the skeletal anatomy of each species, archaeologists are able to determine what types of meat cuts were being produced and/or consumed during the Early Period of MSU’s history.

 

Different butchering techniques and cuts of meat from around the world. Image source:

Different butchering techniques and cuts of meat from around the world. Image source: Swatland 2000

Using all of this information, I will continue working on the faunal analysis from the Early Period of MSU’s history. After the faunal (animal) bone analysis is complete, I will be able to compare the meat cuts found within the archaeological record to the meat cuts listed within the MSU Archives detailing the purchasing records for the boarding halls.

Resources:

MSU Archives

The Meat Book: A consumer’s guide to selecting, buying, cutting, storing, freezing, & carving the various cuts by Travers Moncure Evans and David Greene [1973].

Meat Cuts and muscle foods: an international glossary by Howard J. Swatland [2000].

Zooarchaeology: The Study of Animal Bones and How it is Done

What is zooarchaeology and how is it actually done? This is a question that I get a lot when I talk about my research. Zooarchaeology is the study of non-human animal remains; specifically this involves the identification of animal species from archaeological contexts. However, it’s not as simple as just looking at a bone and easily knowing what it is right away! Typically, within archaeological contexts, animal bones are highly fragmented, leaving the zooarchaeologist with small pieces of an animal skeletal element. This fragmentation could be from both human and natural processes including: the butchering process, disposal practices, trampling, exposure to scavenging animals, and/or weathering.

Animal bone from Saints Rest Rescue Excavation

Animal bone from Saints Rest Rescue Excavation

So how are zooarchaeologists supposed to figure out what the broken bones are if they don’t look like a normal skeletal element, like an entire femur or scapula? To determine the identifications of archaeological animal bones, zooarchaeologists use a comparative collection. A comparative collection is a collection of identified animal bones by species and skeletal element.

Step One:

The first step in analyzing animal remains is to sort the bones by animal class: mammal, fish, reptile/amphibian, and bird. It is possible to separate bones by animal class because each animal class is different, and can be determined visually by zooarchaeologists.

Step Two:

After the animal bones are sorted by class, the next step is to sort them by skeletal element (if possible). These first two steps allow for easier use of comparative collections for specific identifications.

Step Three:

Zooarchaeologists then take the sorted animal remains one item at a time, and based off of their initial evaluations compare each bone to the bones of previously identified species within the comparative collection. For example, if I have a bone that is thicker and/or larger than most of my mammal animal remains from a prehistoric archaeological site that is located in an area that has a lot of white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), I would start by looking at the deer comparative skeleton to identify the bone.

Comparative Collection

Photo of comparative collection section – Illinois State Museum Research and Collection Center, Springfield, IL

Campus Archaeology

Assortment of fish bone from the West Circle Privy

Assortment of fish bone from the West Circle Privy

Conducting zooarchaeological research at MSU is a little more difficult than you would expect because there is not an established zooarchaeological comparative collection. However, I have been working with the MSU Museum for the past year on developing one! While it is not finished, we have selected complete skeletons that have been reviewed and deemed fit to be included in the comparative collection. After I finish as much analysis as I can using the MSU Museum comparative collection, I will take the remaining unidentified animal bones to Springfield Illinois, to use the collection at the Illinois State Museum Research and Collection Center.

Currently, I am in the process of pulling out the animal bones recovered during the Campus Archaeology excavations of site from the Early Period of MSU’s history (1855-1870). Below are some photos of the bones that I will be analyzing in the coming months!

With these identifications, we are able to estimate the number of individuals that are found, the seasonality of the resources exploited, meat cuts based off of butchering methods, or even how different pieces of meat from the same animal are distributed. Stay tuned to learn about the results of the animal bone analysis and the methods we use to make our interpretations!