Zooarchaeology: The Study of Animal Bones and How it is Done

Written by: Autumn Beyer

Primary Source:  MSU Campus Archaeology Program, November 29, 2016

What is zooarchaeology and how is it actually done? This is a question that I get a lot when I talk about my research. Zooarchaeology is the study of non-human animal remains; specifically this involves the identification of animal species from archaeological contexts. However, it’s not as simple as just looking at a bone and easily knowing what it is right away! Typically, within archaeological contexts, animal bones are highly fragmented, leaving the zooarchaeologist with small pieces of an animal skeletal element. This fragmentation could be from both human and natural processes including: the butchering process, disposal practices, trampling, exposure to scavenging animals, and/or weathering.

Animal bone from Saints Rest Rescue Excavation

Animal bone from Saints Rest Rescue Excavation

So how are zooarchaeologists supposed to figure out what the broken bones are if they don’t look like a normal skeletal element, like an entire femur or scapula? To determine the identifications of archaeological animal bones, zooarchaeologists use a comparative collection. A comparative collection is a collection of identified animal bones by species and skeletal element.

Step One:

The first step in analyzing animal remains is to sort the bones by animal class: mammal, fish, reptile/amphibian, and bird. It is possible to separate bones by animal class because each animal class is different, and can be determined visually by zooarchaeologists.

Step Two:

After the animal bones are sorted by class, the next step is to sort them by skeletal element (if possible). These first two steps allow for easier use of comparative collections for specific identifications.

Step Three:

Zooarchaeologists then take the sorted animal remains one item at a time, and based off of their initial evaluations compare each bone to the bones of previously identified species within the comparative collection. For example, if I have a bone that is thicker and/or larger than most of my mammal animal remains from a prehistoric archaeological site that is located in an area that has a lot of white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), I would start by looking at the deer comparative skeleton to identify the bone.

Comparative Collection

Photo of comparative collection section – Illinois State Museum Research and Collection Center, Springfield, IL

Campus Archaeology

Assortment of fish bone from the West Circle Privy

Assortment of fish bone from the West Circle Privy

Conducting zooarchaeological research at MSU is a little more difficult than you would expect because there is not an established zooarchaeological comparative collection. However, I have been working with the MSU Museum for the past year on developing one! While it is not finished, we have selected complete skeletons that have been reviewed and deemed fit to be included in the comparative collection. After I finish as much analysis as I can using the MSU Museum comparative collection, I will take the remaining unidentified animal bones to Springfield Illinois, to use the collection at the Illinois State Museum Research and Collection Center.

Currently, I am in the process of pulling out the animal bones recovered during the Campus Archaeology excavations of site from the Early Period of MSU’s history (1855-1870). Below are some photos of the bones that I will be analyzing in the coming months!

With these identifications, we are able to estimate the number of individuals that are found, the seasonality of the resources exploited, meat cuts based off of butchering methods, or even how different pieces of meat from the same animal are distributed. Stay tuned to learn about the results of the animal bone analysis and the methods we use to make our interpretations!

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Autumn Beyer
Autumn Beyer is a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology. Her research focuses on prehistoric foodways through the analysis of animal bones in the Midwestern United States. This is her first year as a CAP fellow and she plans on working with returning fellow Susan Kooiman on a project to recreate historic MSU meals based on artifacts recovered from a privy.