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to find—they rot quickly, scavengers carry them away, and such essential practices as eating are often not mentioned in historical documents.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.

Author: Grace Krause

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