Hi everyone! It’s been a while, but in my defence, I’ve been pretty busy with post-excavation work for my PhD research. How busy? Well… after nearly a year, I’ve finally finished identifying and recording over 7,000 bone fragments from our various excavations in the Covesea Caves (if you’re new to the blog, feel free to go back and read our earlier blog posts, which are from the 2018 excavation season!).
Now that most of the arduous recording has been completed, I figured we’re due for a blog post! More specifically, I want to talk a bit about my process as the project’s faunal bone specialist and how a recent trip to the Natural History Museum at Tring helped me finish my post-excavation recording.
For zooarchaeologists, one of the most important tools in our kit is the reference collection – we are often faced with such a wide berth of species in various states of preservation, which can make identification difficult. Using a reference collection of the skeletal elements of various species can help us narrow down our IDs and, most importantly, streamline the process a bit more – after all, animal bone assemblages often come with thousands of bone fragments, so time is of the essence (for more on the zooarchaeological process, read my blog post about it here). Of course, most – if not all – zooarchaeologists end up working with a somewhat limited reference collection; in my collection, for example, we do have many examples of domestic animals found in Britain, but if you asked for, say, an elephant bone, I’d be pretty hard pressed to find one in our storage! Our collections are usually tailored towards the common fauna in our specific regions – domestic animals such as sheep, cows, horses, etc.
But of course we sometimes hit a snag and find ourselves with a truly unusual bone…so what do we do? Well, there’s a few things. If you can manage the funding for it (as we did through a research grant from the British Cave Research Association), you can try to get your bones IDed through various archaeological science methods – this can include ZooMS (or Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry) or aDNA (ancient DNA analysis), both which will provide pretty confident identifications, provided your samples have enough preserved material to analyse. Unfortunately in our case, our bones were unable to get IDs due to lack of preserved material.
This is where the Natural History Museum comes in. Dr. Joanne Cooper, curator for the museum’s avian collections, was gracious enough to allow me access to their enormous bird reference collection to help me identify some rather large bird bones that were giving me a bit of trouble. It was amazing to get to utilise their amazing and thorough collections, and to pick Dr. Cooper’s brain for helpful advice with regards to birds.
Afterwards, I took a quick walk around the museum itself and honestly, that was just as helpful! You see, I feel like as a zooarchaeologist that it’s easy to forget the actual scale and scope of the animals we are working with – after all, most of our bones are heavily fragmented and hard to imagine belonging to a once living creature. So it was nice to walk around the taxidermied animals in the museum and get a better idea of how many of the animals from the Covesea Caves once roamed the lands.
As of the identification of that particularly big bone…well, let’s just say it’s a large surprise that I’m excited to write about soon for Cave and Karst – stay tuned!
Thanks again to the Natural History Museum at Tring and the British Cave Research Association for their contributions to our post-excavation analysis!