Osteoarchaeology – part 2

Animals have played a key role in belief systems and ritual practices in many parts of history over the world. Belief systems may be expressed in the adoption of animal-focused totem poles, consumption or avoidance of particular meats, animal sacrifice and animal-based worshipping.

Naturally, skeletal remains are the most common evidence of these acts, as bone, dental features and antler obviously decay much slower than the rest of the animal. From these remains, a conclusion must be drawn, explaining as much as is possible about the remains in question.

   When the skeletal remains of both humans and animals are collected, they are first cleaned, both in cases of hand-collected and dry sieved items. This should be done as soon as possible following the initial excavation, to ensure their readiness for assessment and to ensure appropriate storage. Animal bones and teeth are generally quite robust, so most can be cleaned in tap water, but they must not be left to soak, as the excess exposure to water can cause the sample to deteriorate over time (most likely in storage). Polluted water is avoided, as chemical components can provide a hazard, but more importantly, it may affect bone preservation. Seawater should be avoided too, as the dissolved salt crystals will crystallise in and on the bone upon drying.

   All samples must be totally dry before being bagged and sent for examination. This is best done away from direct sunlight and heat, in an open, clean location. Because bone is very variated (the structure and different thicknesses) it must be dried slowly and gradually, as drying puts a lot of stress on the bone, which can lead to the bone warping or cracking, and teeth shattering. If the drying process is too slow, mould might set in and make the bones unsuitable for biochemical analyses, and it will also affect their long-term preservation. Once clean and dry, the bones are sent for examination – the subject of next week’s post.

   Until then,

   Stay curious!