Somehow, the other day, I ended up holding a deer’s skull, and my son sat next to me examining a small, black bear’s skull. We were discussing faunal remains in the field with a zooarchaeologist, and what would normally strike me as a very creepy topic (bones), actually did not totally gross me out.
Archaeologists generally do not deal with human bones. That’s for the anthropologists. However, archaeologists do study animal bones, which help them to determine what humans ate long ago, or if they had beasts of burden, or even pets.
For instance, five bones may be found that originate from different deer, often eaten by Native Americans. Or, an excavation may uncover 50 bones, yet all from the same deer. So an abundance of faunal bones does not necessarily mean an abundance of animals.
And when handling bones from digs, the pros use gloves. Usually. Generally.
Well, I do, for one. Petya does, also.
When we screen and run lots of dirt through large, mesh sifters, you never know what kind of remains you may come across. Those who use bare hands often get cut on glass, pottery, or projectile points. We found just today a beautiful prehistoric point fashioned out of stone that may have been used as a spear head or knife. Often, bones or teeth pop up, usually from animals.
Believe it or not, archaeologists who need to study faunal remains sometimes have different species of dead animals given to them as gifts. This is what academia can do to you. They put the carcass in a “drying closet” where the meat dries and ages.
Next, when fully ripe, chewy, and pungent, the carcass is placed in a terrarium of sorts, filled with beetles who enjoy such taste delights. They pick the bones clean in no time. Or their larvae do, or something like that. I had to keep consciously thinking to close my gaping mouth during the lecture at this point, so some of the details are kinda fuzzy.
Finally, the bones are processed to remove greasy residue as the marrow works its way out, and then soaked in peroxide to bleach the bones white. So by the time students study such things in the classroom or lab, they’re fairly sanitary.
Not so in the field.
Which is why we wear gloves. And wash our hands before lunch. And brush our teeth after dinner. And hang up our clothes after they’re washed. And do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Anyway, I thought you would want to know. We were excavating in pouring rain and blistering sun, and that was just our first hour. Other than lunch, the lecture, and some outstanding finds, the rest is a bit hard to remember….
————-Tags: archaeological field school diary, are animal bones in archaeology sanitary?, digging in blazing sun and pouring rain, wearing gloves while doing archaeology, what do zooarchaeologists do?, why study animal bones?