This article appeared in the Winter 1971 (Issue #27) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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Animal Bones for the Beginner (1).
It is not the purpose of this short article to instruct the reader in the study and identification of animal bones, but merely to try to raise the enthusiasm of beginners in archaeology, in an aspect of the subject which does not command the support it deserves.
Many beginners soon show an interest in one particular feature of archaeology; pottery, coins, etc., are popular, but the study of bones is sadly neglected by most. The reason for this I believe to be twofold. Firstly, there seems to be a natural revulsion to dirty old bones and teeth, but I believe this will be overcome as the student begins to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of anatomical mechanisms. Secondly, the fact that most bones found in an archaeological context are usually in a fragmentary condition, due to decay, butchering and splitting to obtain the marrow, and to obtain suitable material for the fabrication of tools and decoration, tends to leave the excavator with a mass of bits and pieces that appear to defy any one but the trained osteologist to identify them. This is NOT the case and a large proportion, even if quite small fragments, will after a relatively short study become obvious and identifiable. This is because the vast majority will belong to mammals which all have a fundamental similarity, and differences in species are ones of degree and proportion. Once the basic mammalian structure has been learned, the identification of individual species will gradually be mastered. This is not as formidable a task as it might appear, as sheer size and variation of bones will eliminate a number of possibilities. Also, as one learns the reason for these variations, a number of other possibilities can be eliminated.
Having, I hope, aroused interest in the subject, how is this knowledge to be acquired? Firstly, I would recommend the beginner to obtain a copy of Dr I W Cornwall's book Bones for the Archaeologist. This fine book contains most of the information required, with chapters on the background to the subject (including the various technical terms which it is necessary to know), the skeletal structure of most species to be found, and interpretation. The value of this book is that it deals specifically with the archaeological aspect, which saves the student not only time, but the uncertainty of knowing what to learn and what not to learn when reading other books on anatomy.
However, the finest text book is not enough and there is no substitute for practical experience. I suggest this can best be obtained by forming one's own collection of modern bones. This will not only teach the student as he or she collects, but will serve as comparative material for later studies. This collection can quite easily be made by giving a little thought to one's "Sunday joint," and by persuading a friendly butcher to let you have other bones that are not usually sold in joints, i.e., large leg bones, feet and even heads. Bones from these sources may be cleaned by boiling to remove most of the residual meat and sinews. The remainder can be scraped off with a knife and after bleaching with a household bleach, a final rinse and thorough drying, they will be perfectly clean and white. If stored in boxes containing a small bag of Silica Gel they will keep well with little further attention. Of course a collection of this kind will be limited to the bones of ox, sheep, pig, rabbit, fowl, etc., but even these will make identification possible of 80-90 per cent of bones on a Romano-British site. A study of bones from other species such as deer, dog, etc., will have to be obtained from visits to natural history museums where permission to handle specimens should be sought. Once a basic knowledge has been acquired, to what practical use can it be put on a dig? This could at first consist simply of sorting and making a record of the common species. This preliminary work will reduce the amount of material by up to 90 per cent. This percentage will be further reduced as experience is gained until all that remains is a small amount of material which needs to be sent to a specialist for examination. This in itself will be of great benefit.
These days when the expert is overwhelmed with material, this preliminary sorting is the only way in which important material will receive expert attention in time for the main excavation report. The results of the preliminary sorting will also be of great use. The beginner on a dig will notice the importance paid to objects made by man and may possibly form the opinion that artefacts are the only items worth studying. It must be remembered that archaeology has progressed past the stage of the study of a culture by its artefacts only and is not complete without reference to the environmental setting. Study of animal bones will go a long way to supplying some of this data. Questions regarding types of wild life, domesticated species, how species differed from other periods, results of selective breeding, etc., are only a few of the problems that this study will answer.
I must stress that information received from examination will be useless unless strict attention is paid to keeping bones in their respective stratified groups and it is just as important to mark and record these as scrupulously as all other material.