Zoo-what???

I am a zooarchaeologist.

‘Zoo’ from the Ancient Greek ‘zôion’, or ‘animal’
‘Archaeo’ from the Ancient Greek ‘arkhaios’, or ‘ancient/prehistoric times’
‘Logy’ from the Ancient Greek ‘logia’, ‘to speak’ (has come to mean ‘study of’)

Image of the top portion of a cow skull with large asymmetrical horns
As much as I wish this was my photo, it’s actually a 1970s print made from 1920s glass plate negatives taken by Johann Wolfgang Amschler during his early morphological studies of domestication.

So animal, prehistoric, study– wait, wouldn’t that just be paleontology? Not quite. While paleontologists study the fossil remains of plants and animals, I study remains that (generally) still retain their original bone chemical composition, and, more importantly, which are associated with humans. There can be some crossover with paleontology when working on paleolithic sites, but the goal of a paleontologist is usually to study the animal independent of humans, while my goal is to understand the interactions between humans and these animal remains we find on archaeological sites.

Image of the skull and mandible of a Brown rat
One of the R. norvegicus skulls and mandibles from my recent project on p-XRF analysis of archaeological rat bone

This can obviously manifest itself in a myriad of ways. After all we eat some animals, keep others as pets, and angrily coexist with others (I’m looking at you, rats). When excavating, some bones and shells on a site are concentrated in an area of refuse, others are a single animal bone group (or special animal deposit, depending on who you’re talking to), others are seemingly randomly distributed. An excavator or site director might be at a loss, initially, to describe the exact reasons behind animal bone deposits on a site.

Which is where a zooarchaeologist comes in.

Zooarchaeology, sometimes referred to as archaeozoology, faunal osteoarchaeology, and faunal analysis (more about that one in a minute), is the study of animal remains in relation to human occupation on an archaeological site. It is a subdiscipline within Environmental Archaeology and, thanks to rapidly evolving technologies and analyses, is one of the most exciting areas of study within the vast world of archaeology. A small, but amazingly varied, sample of zooarchaeological projects from around the world includes those focusing on rats, shells, chickens, cows, Neanderthal diet, and dogs.

You’ll notice that most of those very exciting studies and research projects are on medieval, prehistoric, or even paleolithic contexts– so what exactly does a historical zooarchaeologist do?

Image of shelving unit containing dozens of skeleton boxes of bird and fish, as well as the skull of a whale, two deer, and moose
We mostly sit at desks with a view like this.

Well, in the Northeast US and Canada (where most of my work is concentrated), you count a LOT of sheep, deer, pig, cow, chicken, turkey and cod bones. Think of the most cod bones you’ve ever seen. Double that. That’s maybe half of the amount of cod bones I’m dealing with over here. Historical zooarchaeology used to focus almost exclusively on diet reconstruction, especially that of European colonizers, but there has been a concerted effort in recent years to diversify the assemblages we look at.

Diet reconstruction, human-environment interaction, migration and movement patterns, animal husbandry and management– these are all aspects of zooarchaeology that historical zooarchaeologists might look at. We also can look at European-Indigenous interactions, the experiences of free and enslaved Africans, the creolization/ethnogenesis/insert-buzzword-of-the-week of mixed African and Indigenous populations, the persistence of Indigenous foodways throughout colonization, and the effects of urbanization and industrialization on the development of a uniquely American food system.

That last point is something I’m looking at with my thesis, which is on the diet, consumerism, and food culture surrounding the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls in Dorchester, Massachusetts. I’m interested in how the increasingly bureaucratized late 19th-century Boston society impacted the methods of food procurement open to a girls school which relied heavily on donations to supplement their independent purchases. Before I was able to start thinking about all the impacts of social status, dietary reform movements, and consumer choice on the resident girls and Board of Managers, I needed to do some simple faunal analysis.

Faunal analysis is the systematic study of archaeological animal remains with the intended goal of identifying bones to a suitably close taxonomic category. This usually involves a lot of sitting in a room full of skeletons (anywhere from a few dozen in small, personal comparative collections to thousands in larger University zooarch labs) and comparing really old bones to modern bones in the hopes of identifying what bone you have (called an ‘element’) and what kind of animal it is from (the ultimate goal is Genus and Species, but sometimes you can only get to Family or Order). When we look at elements (bones), we’re looking for characteristic landmarks on the bone surface, overall shape, weight, size, etc. Sometimes it’s also a feeling and process of elimination– you have to think about what the likely species are at your site, what supporting evidence you have for an identification, what an identification might mean in the broader context of the site, and weigh all of this information with the osteological evidence to make a reliable ID.

Image showing an archaeological supracleithrum compared to an image on a computer screen of the same bone
Shoutout to the Uni of Nottingham’s Archaeological Fish Resource for saving my ass.

Zooarchaeologists use a combination of text references, online resources, and comparative collections to make their identifications, and then from there we can begin to interpret the database in context with the archaeological site. Some zooarchaeologists are only hired to make preliminary conclusions and provide the dataset to the principal investigator on an archaeological project. Others ARE the principal investigator, and are involved at all levels of excavation and laboratory processing. Others, like myself, are students who work on sites associated with our school — although I’ll soon be graduating, so if anyone in the NE area wants to hire a consulting zooarch hit me up! I’ll still have access to two zooarch labs, as well as a small personal collection.

The end goal is to understand how humans interact with their environment. Sometimes that is accomplished through faunal analysis and site interpretation, sometimes further methodologies are applied. I’ve personally used x-ray fluorescence spectrometry to study lead levels in archaeological rat bone, and I’m in discussions with others on how to expand that study to include lead and strontium isotope analysis. Others have been developing incredible methodologies like zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS), which uses protein fingerprinting to identify animal remains. Still others have been focusing on ancient DNA and dental thin-sectioning. These all combine to make zooarchaeology a very exciting field with options for collaboration with everyone from geneticists and biochemists to marine biologists and food historians.

Three shelves containing two deer skulls, a horse skull and mandible, and a horse and cow pelvis

It also lets us play with bones and make all the bone jokes we want, and really, isn’t that the point?
Cheers,
Liz

MORE BLOGS & POSTS BY ZOOARCHAEOLOGISTS

  1. Animal Archaeology by Alex Fitzpatrick
  2. I Feel It In My Bones by Dr. Emily Johnson
  3. “In Defense of (Studying) Food” by Dr. Flint Dibble
  4. Ossamenta by Lena Strid
  5. From the Bones of the Land by Dr. Clare Rainsford

Twitter List of Zooarchaeologists and Zooarchaeology-focused Accounts

OTHER ZOOARCH RESOURCES AND GROUPS

  1. icelandiczooarch.is
  2. ICAZ
  3. SAA Zooarchaeology Interest Group
  4. Nottingham Archaeological Fish Resource
  5. Bone Collecting (not zooarch, but Jake has a lot of good resources about cleaning and ID-ing bones for the interested public)
  6. ArcheoZooA
  7. Uni of Sheffield Zooarch Lab Website

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