Osteoarchaeology – part 1

Osteoarchaeology is the study of bones in archaeology, and it can tell us a huge amount about individuals that lived in the past, both animals and humans. Today we will explore the first part of a series of posts – beginning with how to ‘read’ the Animal skeletons, learning all we can about them.

   Archaeological animal bones can tell about human behaviour, such as diet, provisions, production, animal husbandry, butchery, living conditions, and even social status. They can represent waste from production, consumption of food, and the use of many animal products used in crafts, such as antler, horn, sinews, and bones. They also may represent deliberate burial, such as animals died from disease, loved pets, or ritual offerings.

   Let’s explore some of these different ways to understand osteoarchaeology, starting with diet.

   In the past, an abundance of animals were commonly eaten, indeed, ones that we might not dream of eating today! The skeletal remains, and butchery marks on the skeletal remains, can inform us of which animals were eaten, and the age at death of the animal will tell us further the types of meats that were eaten. (Was this sheep Mutton or Lamb when eaten?)

   Social status played an important part in the past, and the identity of Kings, nobles, and generally men and women higher on the ‘social ladder’ was often expressed in access to foods that people lower on the ‘social ladder’ were not allowed to access. This is why all the swans of England belong to the queen – because for hundreds of years, only wealthy landowners were allowed to feast on the swan. In the end, it became only royalty, and this law has stuck, seemingly having more to do with tradition than anything else!

   Secondly, animal management and husbandry. Where animals were farmed, the types of animals farmed can inform on the process of domestication, and the husbandry of herds and flocks. Bone and tooth measurements can tell the size of the animal, while death rates and the ratio of male-to-female can tell us about the exploitation of the livestock, whether it be for meat, or secondary products (this includes milk and wool, e.g. products that are taken from an animal without having to kill it).

   These, and other features, can inform on social happenings, such as the old (and rather cruel) sport of cock-fighting. Modifications made on the bones and teeth can also provide information on the use and management of livestock, e.g. the wear from a horse’s bit.  

   We shall continue to learn about animal Osteoarchaeology next week. Until then,

   Stay curious!