Zooarchaeology 101 - Episode 01

Zooarchaeology and Animals.jpg

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/