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.


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].

For the Love of Food: Digital Outreach, Animal Bones, and Early Food Habits on Campus

Analyzing and interpreting past food practices has always been one of my passions. This year for CAP, I will be working with Susan Kooiman to explore and recreate the food environment during the Early Period of MSU’s campus (1855-1870), as explained in Susan’s previous blog post. While Susan will take on more of the background research of this period, I am going to delve into the animal bones uncovered through Campus Archaeology excavations. I began my training as a zooarchaeologist while earning my Master’s degree at Illinois State University. Most of my experience has been with prehistoric animal remains and I am very excited to work with the animal bones recovered from Campus to better understand food production, preparation, serving, and consumption at Michigan State!

Women with cows on campus, 1908 - Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Women with cows on campus, 1908 – Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Standard Cuts of Meat (1908) - Image Source

Standard Cuts of Meat (1908) – Image Source

I will first begin by sorting the animal bones by animal class: mammal, bird, fish, and reptile/amphibian. After this initial sorting I will use a osteological comparative collection to conduct my identifications. From previous initial zooarchaeological analysis, we know that there are many different butchering marks present on many of the mammal remains. This will be one of my focuses during analysis. I hope to be able to determine what types of cuts of meat were being produced on campus, or if there were students learning butchering practices.

In addition to conducting a faunal analysis on the remains from the privy and Saints Rest excavations, I will be working on creating a website for this project. While we are in the initial stages of the project, we are working on formulating how we want to portray this project online. Currently, we would like to highlight the various aspects of food practices at MSU during this period including cooking, sustainability, production, ceramics, animal bone analysis, and food reconstruction. In addition to discussing our results from this project, we will also be documenting each step of our research. Our hope is to create videos showing how we learn about MSU’s history, from searching through archival records, visiting with MSU’s farms, to animal bone analysis. I can’t wait to see where this project takes us!

Animal bones, some butchered, from the West Circle Privy - Image via Lisa Bright

Animal bones, some butchered, from the West Circle Privy – Image via Lisa Bright

Diving Deeper

Hi! When we last left each other, I had just begun my research at the Archives, digging in to see what I could find in the immense amount of resources we have there. Since then, I have continued to search through the archives, and have also started to research the artifacts themselves, in the hope of finding dates, locations, and the manufacturer’s associated with them.

As far as the Archives go, I have moved on from The Eagle, towards some older sources. I have been reading the diaries of three MSU Alumni from the three oldest decades of Campus History: Edward Granger, written in 1858-1859, Peter Felker, written in 1868-1870, and Albert Crane, written in 1872. By adding these three Alum to my research, I am starting to encompass campus life from when this college was founded in 1855 to the turn of the 20th century.

Portion of Butchered Cow Humerus

An interesting quote I found in Granger’s diary, for example, relates to the night when his roomate “[went] on some very particular business, probably roasting pigs tails, as they buchered here today” (December 9th, 1858). Although the majority of the bones we found were cow, we have had some luck in finding pig bones, suggesting here that the artifacts have a good chance of matching up with our records, a thrilling thought.

The other side of the research I’ve been doing is a lot more challenging. I’m not only researching the basics behind artifacts we find a lot (such as brick, glass, and pottery) but I am also trying to find out some specifics on the artifacts we have been lucky enough to find either in tact, with words or manufacturing marks, or with some other form of identification we can use.

In this I’m having some problems. It seems as though most of what we find was either: A) handmade B) bought from local areas, and harder to trace in a Sear’s Catalog or C) ordered by their parents in their respective hometowns and then sent to them later.

SHA Bottle Typing: Harrison Ink

Although relating the objects to the students themselves is proving difficult, I have been lucky enough to find information on some of our artifacts. One of these is the ink well we found completely in tact. The brand is Harrison’s Colombian Ink, and dates from the 1840’s to early 1860’s. The inkwell we found has a blow pipe pontil scar, which, if you don’t speak glass, means that on the bottom is a rough spot of glass that was broken off once the bottle was shaped, leaving the bottom imperfect, but recognizable to glass experts. I also found that this specific brand of ink was very popular during this time, and since it lost its popularity in the early 1860’s, we can use this to date it to the earliest days of campus.

Within the next couple of weeks, I’m hoping to do a plethora of things, including finish up research at the Archives, get a lot more research done on the artifacts themselves, round off everything I’ve gathered so far, and start creating the OMEKA exhibit. I’ll catch you up later on how everything turns out!

Cow Elbows and Archaeology

When considering food as a topic of archaeological research, one of the biggest obstacles is how.  Food remains are often difficult to find—they rot quickly, scavengers carry them away, and such essential practices as eating are often not mentioned in historical documents.  Despite the odds against finding a complete assemblage of food waste, it is still possible to study cultural processes through food.  Faunal remains in particular are a lasting record of culinary practices, with the ability to tell a story not only of taste preferences, but economic means, cultural beliefs, social standing, and daily life.  Zooarchaeology is the study of human-animal relationships of all types, a definition that allows us to interpret non-human bones in a cultural context.

Cow humerus

To analyze a bone, such as the one pictured found during the MSU Campus Archaeology Summer Field School, the first step is determining the species and part of the skeleton.  This bone was difficult to identify, due to the unusual cut, but after cleaning there were specific features characteristic to the distal end of a humerus.  The size, weight, and shape as well as the site context of a trash pit at an agricultural college indicate the genus Bos.  In other words: the upper half of a cow elbow.

Butchered bone

After identifying the bone, we can look at other notable features of the remains.  Our cow humerus has been sawn through in two places, a sure indicator of butchery.  The saw marks are all relatively parallel but very uneven, rather than displaying the tidy crosshatched lines of an industrial saw, which means this animal was butchered by hand.  Upon closer inspection there are small, narrow marks around the point of articulation made by the butcher’s knife during dismembering.  This cut was intended to be a foreshank, but further evidence reveals mistakes.  Another deep saw cut can be seen on the other side, but the butcher stopped before it went through.  The cut that should separate the foreshank from the brisket would normally not go through the humerus.  Both of these observations could indicate inexperience, perhaps a student learning how to butcher as part of their curriculum or required labor.

Other factors—age, sex, quantity, types of butchery, range of species, treatment of remains—analyzed together can create a distinct picture of the human-animal relationships preserved at a site.  Our cow humerus described here is a fragment of the larger picture, but even that single piece helps us to interpret life on campus.