Everything is Ritual! - Animals 8

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Wait (1985) "Ritual" is beliefs and behaviors functioning together.

When identifying ritual, context is everything. In the case of zooarchaeology, the location of the remains alone has much inference on whether ritual activity is involved. A notable example is perhaps the burial of dogs (or parts thereof) at the threshold of a structure, which is seen from the Neolithic down to Iron Age, from Italy to Kazakhstan, through Sweden and Britain. Ultimately, as is the case for the near entirety of populations which have not left a written record behind, we can only infer on intent and make a pretty good educated guess, but we will never know the full story. It is perhaps what is most fascinating about ritual: not the action itself, but the intent behind it.


  • Covesea Caves Project

  • -Cunliffe, B. (1992) Pits, Preconceptions, and Propitation in the British Iron Age. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 11 (1). pp. 69-83.

  • Morris, J. (2008) Associated Bone Groups: One Archaeologist's Rubbish is Another's Ritual Deposition. In "Changing Perspectives on the First Millennium BC: Proceedings of the Iron Age Research Student Seminar 2008". Oxbow Books.

  • Russell, N. (2012) Social Zooarchaeology. Cambridge University Press.

  • Wait, G.A. (1984) Ritual and Religion in Iron Age Britain. BAR British Series.

  • Grant, Annie (1989) Animals and Ritual in Early Britain: The visible and the invisible. In L’Animal dans les Pratiques Religieuses: Les Manifestations Materielles. J.-D. Vigne, ed. Pp. 341-355. Antrhopozoologica, Vol. 3. Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique


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The Cat's Out Of The Bag - Animals 07

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Felis catus is the domesticated form of the African wildcat Felis s. lybica. The latter is believed to have been domesticated in the Near East at the time of the Neolithic agricultural revolution, where keeping pests away from grain storage would have been paramount. It likely that, much like other domesticates, several domestication attempts would have taken place across time and geographical regions.

As rodents such as the rat and house mouse hitchhiked their way across Europe, cats were soon to follow. One notable case is perhaps Cyprus, which was never attached to the mainland and had no native cat population. Cats’ sudden appearance around 7500BCE (most notably with a young adult individual associated with a human burial) thus imply that these would have been tamed wildcats at the very least which had been brought to Cyprus by boat.

Perceptions of domestic cats were somewhat ambivalent, as can still be perceived from contemporary folklore. This led to them being viewed as creatures imbued with supernatural abilities, both revered and reviled. Cats were notably worshipped in Ancient Egypt, yet killed by the hundreds to be sold as mummies; persecuted in the Medieval period for supposedly being witches’ familiars, or simply being viewed as ratters or even pests. While their ‘dog cousins’ were being selectively bred for a variety of functions, cats merely lingered at the edge of human settlements - though cases of companionship exist. It was in fact not until the late 18th century that the cat fancy developed along with the vast majority of the breeds we see today.

It’s not easy being a cat.

Case Studies

  • Gussage All Saints

  • Dried Cats

  • Cyprus cat burials

Further Reading

  • Archaeology of the Domestic Cat

  • Dried Cats

  • https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/eh_monographs_2014/contents.cfm?mono=1089034

  • Brian Hoggard, 'Concealed Animals', in Ronald Hutton, The Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain, 2015, Palgrave, pp106-117.

  • Brian Hoggard, 'The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic', in Owen Davies & Willem de Blecourt, Beyond the Witch-Trials, 2004, Manchester University Press, pp167-186.

  • Margaret M Howard, ‘Dried Cats’, Man, no 252, November 1951, pp149-151.

  • Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, 1987, Batsford, London.

  • Bradshaw, J. (2013) Cat sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed. London, Penguin Books

  • Clutton-Brock, J. (1994) The British Museum Book of Cats. London, The British Museum Press

  • Fagan, B. (2015) The Intimate Bond: How animals shaped human history. London: Bloomsbury Press

  • Toynbee, J.M.C. (2013) Animals in Roman Life & Art. Barnsley: Pen & Sword

  • Van Grouw, K. (2018) Unnatural Selection. Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press

  • Houlbrook, C. and Armitage, N. (Eds.) (2015) The Materiality of Magic. Oxford: Oxbow Books.


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Cryptozoology (featuring Archaeological Fantasies) - Ep 05

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Today's show is a crossover special with archaeology podcast "Archaeological Fantasies"!

Cryptids are creatures from fiction, folklore, and fantasy. There have been many alleged cases of "zooarchaeological evidence" to prove the existence of certain imaginary creatures, but most of these tend to be poorly identified real animal remains. Of course, there are some instances of intentional hoaxes, where creative manipulation and taxidermy have been used to create fake evidence (see: PT Barnum and other roadside attractions).

Further Reading

- https://animalarchaeology.com/2018/11/19/troweling-theme-parks-creating-cryptozoological-remains-in-expedition-everest/

- Loxton, D. and Prothero, D.R. (2013) Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. Columbia University Press.

- http://www.thecarpetbagger.org/2013/01/straight-out-of-fiji-merman.html


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Sheep vs Goats - Animals 04

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Sheep are the domesticated form of the mouflon (Ovis orientalis), which was domesticated around 11,000-9,000 BC and represents one of the earliest instances of domestication after dogs. As with all domestications, it is important to keep in mind that this was most likely not a single event, rather several attempts taking place in different locations and time periods.

Sheep husbandry quickly spread across Europe from the Near East. Up until the Iron Age, sheep would have largely been small, short tailed and varied in colour.

Goats were most likely domesticated in South West Asia, possible South East Europe. They are hardy and versatile animals which require relatively little care. Primitive goats would have had coarse hair and large horns. One such example is the present day British Primitive Goat, a rare breed now limited to few feral herds and captive individuals.

Sheep were a staple domesticate and, as such, used for a variety of products. In antiquity, wool was generally one of the most important products deriving from sheep farming. Goats would have also been kept for their hair and skins. Milk and meat would have also been important to different extents, and we can gage such extent based on what we recover archaeologically. Based on the kill off pattern of the specimens recovered within our assemblage, we can in fact argue what products sheep and goats would have been likely kept for. For instance, a high percentage of culled juvenile males suggest a milk-based economy

Sheep and goat are both Caprinae, and as such they will have uncannily similar morphological characteristics. The two can actually hybridise but this will inevitably result in infertile offspring, known as sheep/goat hybrids or geep. Telling the two species apart in the archaeological record is a task that requires outstanding observational skills and plenty of practice, and has been the focus of intensive research in recent years. Separating the two species is important as they will provide different information about the economy and environment they were part of.

A by no means exhaustive list of how to distinguish between sheep and goat bones is provided below:

1) Horns: Sheep horns tend to be parallel while goat horns are more divergent.

2) Teeth: In sheep, the third cusp of the third molar presents a small lip, while the third premolars appears square in sheep and triangular in goat.

3) Other diagnostic postcranial elements include the astragalus, distal humerus, calcaneum and metapodials.

Guest Interview: Albína Hulda Pálsdóttir

Find out more about our guest and her projects

Reference collection: https://www.icelandiczooarch.is/

Project website: https://www.mn.uio.no/cees/english/research/projects/690456/index.html

Follow Albina on twitter: https://twitter.com/AlbinaIcelander

Further Reading

  • Seder, M. , Latham, H. (2010) ‘Assessing the reliability of criteria used to identify postcranial bones in sheep, Ovis, and goats, Capra’

  • Journal of Archaeological Science (2010) 1-19

  • Crabtree, Pam J. 1995 The symbolic role of animals in Anglo-Saxon England: Evidence from burials and cremations. In The Symbolic Role of Animals in Archaeology. K. Ryan and P. J. Crabtree, eds. Pp. 20-6. MASCA Research Papers in Science and Archaeology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, University Museum

  • Russel, N. (2012) Social Zooarchaeology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory

  • Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

  • King, A. (1978) A Comparative Survey of Bone Assemblages from Roman Sites in Britain. Institute of Archaeology - London 15

  • Salvagno, L. And Albarella, U. (2017) ‘A morphometric system to distinguish sheep and goat postcranial bones’. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0178543.

  • https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0178543

  • Fagan, B. (2015) The Intimate Bond: How animals shaped human history

  • London: Bloomsbury Press


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Who Let The Dogs Out? Animals 03

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The skeletal remains of dogs are simultaneously very distinct in their characteristics, but also very similar to other animals. Compare a dog skull to grey seals or foxes to see what we mean!

Dogs seem to have had a special relationship with humans - this can be observed in some burial and ritual rites involving dog remains. There is currently a lot of interesting research happening that combines aDNA (ancient DNA) analysis with zooarchaeology to better understand human-dog relations and the domestication of the dog over time.

Due to breeding techniques, the skulls of certain modern dogs have been transformed beyond recognition - if you're brave enough, Google some of the breeds we mention in the episode.

And we unfortunately have no idea who let the dogs out still...sorry.

Further Reading

  • Fagan, B. (2015) The Intimate Bond: How animals shaped human history

  • London: Bloomsbury Press

  • Toynbee, J.M.C. (2013) Animals in Roman Life & Art

  • Barnsley: Pen & Sword

  • Merrifield, R. (1987) The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic

  • London: Guild Publishing London

  • Van Grouw, K. (2018) Unnatural Selection

  • Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press

  • Houlbrook, C. and Armitage, N. (2015) The Materiality of Magic. Oxford: Oxbow Books.



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Old McDonald Had A Farm - Animals 02

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The distinction between domestic and wild animals is sometimes difficult, especially if the domesticated species is still morphological very similar to its wild counterpart. Cat being a notorious example. Size is usually a good indicator (wild counterparts often being bigger). Differentiation is usually achieved by means of biometry, which consists of set measurements taken from the bones. Previous research has established standards for measurements taken from individuals of known ID (wild and domestic), to compare your assemblage to. However one needs to bear in mind that modern animals may not look exactly like they used to, and things become even complicated when a species also presents several different breeds bearing distinct morphological differences (e.g. domestic dogs)

Further Reading


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Zooarchaeology 101 - Animals 01

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Zooarchaeology is, as the word suggests, the study of animal remains from archaeological sites. It is a relatively new discipline that has been steadily  gaining popularity since the 1970s. Zooarchaeology can provide inference on past people’s economy, dietary habits, society and culture. 

Faunal remains recovered from archaeological sites are initially processed, identified to element and species whenever possible and finally used in quantitative and qualitative analyses to further our understanding of a given archaeological site. Zooarchaeologists will frequently attempt to gather information on the animals’ age, sex and season of death as well as looking out for bone modification (either pathological or taphonomical i.e. signs of disease and butchery/burning/gnawing). This data will then be analysed within the regional and historical context of the site.

When carrying out the analysis of a faunal assemblage, the first step is to identify as many bone fragments as possible to element and species. It is important for this process to be as accurate as possible, thus if in doubt it is best to label the specimen as unidentifiable rather than risking biasing your sample). As not all recovered fragments will not have retained enough diagnostic characteristic for confident ID, the whole sample is somewhat biased from the very beginning, hence it’d be best not to add to that with potential misidentifications. Identification of skeletal remains is largely carried out by morphological analysis, though species which present a similar anatomy may require additional tools such as biometry (which relies on measurements): this is the case for sheep/goat, to mention a few. Morphological ID is a skill that takes a lot of practice to refine, and reference collections represent an invaluable asset in order to learn and maintain your knowledge of comparative skeletal anatomy. These will be mostly comprised of modern specimens of known ID. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the morphology of a given species is unlikely to have remained static throughout time and your archaeological material may thus slightly differ to the modern reference specimen. Some species also present remarkable morphological and size variations (dogs, for instance), so these are all factors to be mindful of when analysing an archaeological assemblage.

The age at death of an animal is frequently determined based on epiphyseal fusion. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, most bone is comprised of two parts: the central diaphysis (commonly known as the shaft) and the two epiphysis, which stand at the periphery of the bone. In several bones, these three parts are not fused together at birth, and research has been carried out to determine fusion age stages for different elements and species. 

Another frequently used method for ageing is tooth eruption and wear. 
Assigning age at death is useful in order to determine kill off patterns, which ultimately provide inference on animal exploitation. For instance, a sample mostly comprised by adult/elderly cattle indicates that they may have been used as working animals. Similarly, if the sample is comprised by numerous juveniles as well as adults, dairy production is a likely candidate. 

Further inference on exploitation is provided by sexing the animals, which is usually carried out by looking for sexually dimorphic traits (i.e. morphological traits which will differ between males and female - e.g. antler in male cervids, with the exception of reindeer). 

Pathology is the study of disease. It can provide information on animal exploitation and sometimes pet keeping. The latter hypothesis is for instance argued when an individual presents numerous pathologies which required constant human care and that would render the animal economically unviable to keep, yet it was still looked after. 

A common marker of animal exploitation which is not uncommon in cattle remains is a bone growth within the metatarsal/tarsal articulation, known as spavin. The latter is caused by chronic inflammation, most likely induced by traction. 

Taphonomy is a huge subject and an academic discipline in its own right. Within zooarchaeology, the aspects of taphonomy which are mostly looked at are man/animal induced bone modification. This can take the form of butcher marks, scorching caused by cooking, and gnawing from domestic animals and scavengers alike. 

Further Reading

  • "Identifying and Interpreting Animal Bones: A Manual" - April M. Beisaw (2013)
  • "The Archaeology of Animal Bones" - Terry O'Connor (2000)
  • "On the Average Day of a Zooarchaeologist, or Like, So What Do You Even Do?" - Alex Fitzpatrick https://animalarchaeology.com/2017/11/09/


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Introducing ArchaeoAnimals - Animals 0

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Welcome to a brand new podcast from the Archaeology Podcast Network - ArchaeoAnimals! Our hosts, Alex Fitzpatrick and Simona Falanga, will guide you through the world of animals, humans, and archaeology. This first episode will tell you what the show's about and a little about Alex and Simona.


  • Follow #archaeoanimals on Twitter.


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Zooarchaeology with Alex Fitzpatrick - WIA 45

Archaeology News and History From a Woman's Perspective.

Do they have squirrels in Scotland? Maybe you enjoy in depth discussions about ancient ceramics. In today's episode we discuss one of the myriad of sub-fields within archaeology, with zooarchaeologist Alex Fitzpatrick. We cover what is zooarchaeology (in short animal bones), how it has been used to learn about humans and the world in the the past, and some of the projects she works on. We also discuss some of Alex's work on various science communication projects.




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Woodland Heritage Festival - Issue 3 - Zooarchaeology

Welcome to a special edition of the Archaeology and Ale Podcast;

For the next few podcasts we’ll be taking you through the Woodland Heritage Festival. 

The Woodland Heritage Festival was a two-day free public event at the J. G. Graves Woodland Discovery Centre in Sheffield, which had talks and hands-on displays on all kinds of archaeological topics.

The talks aimed to explain our archaeological interests in a family-friendly and accessible way, so all of the visitors to the Woodland Heritage Festival could come away with some new information about the past and how we study it. If you have any young archaeologists in your family this talk might be of interest to them as well.

Last week we looked at Virtual Heritage this week, it’s all about Zooarchaeology.

Apologies for the background noise – we were recording in the function room next to the cafeteria at the J. G. Graves Woodland Discovery Centre and it was a very busy day!

Stay tuned for another special edition introducing some more activities at the Woodland Heritage Festival. Next time we’ll be presenting a talk on making White Coal using Q-Pits, and some hands-on experimental archaeology.

If you’d like to know more about the Archaeology in the City Programme or the regular monthly Archaeology and Ale talks, visit our website; you can follow the link from the Archaeology Podcast Network page, or come and find us on facebook under Archaeology in the City. 

Thanks again to the Archaeology Podcast Network for having us.

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