Fish Bones at Portland State University

Maxillae of the Great Sculpin. Source: PSU

OK, I have written more exciting headlines in my life.  But as I noted before, zooarchaeologists – the specialists in identifying and interpreting animal remains – are some of the unsung heroes of archaeology.  The discipline requires encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds of animal skeletons,  the ability to relate even small fragments from archaeological contexts back to whole specimens of known species, and a thorough understanding of both culture and ecology – all this in addition to the normal skill set of a typical archaeologist.  Master all this, and your reward is to be called “Bone Guy” (or worse) for the rest of your professional life.

Anyway, it is welcome to find another online guide to some common archaeological animal remains from the Northwest.  While I know it is a bit too much information for many readers of this web site, it is important to share the link and information, since considerable time and effort was put into this admittedly niche set of illustrated fish bones, and archaeologists need to be aware of it.

Pacific halibut basioccipital. Source: PSU

The page was set up by Dr Virginia Butler at Portland State University.  The PSU collection focuses on just a few fish species (bu important ones) such as halibut, coho, rockfish, herring and sturgeon: you can browse the rest of the comparative collection to see what they have, and what might yet get put online.  Most species have a clickable map of the fish in case you just want to focus on head or tail bones, or you can browse a list of bone elements and the various views available.  The photos themselves range from excellent to good.  They all have a scale, and the URL for each photo includes the body element as well as the species, which is an efficient way to quickly build a photo gallery like this.  By the way, there is also a page of photographs of PSU faunal analysts and work, and play, which I understand is often the same thing for Bone Guys (many of whom are actually Bone Women, it must be said).

As with the RBCM example not that many specimens are online, and most of these are illustrated by only the most distinctive elements from the species.  Nonetheless it is a valuable resource, the product of a lot of careful work, a service to the discipline, and hopefully part of a trend.  While there will never be a full substitute for having a full comparative collection to hand, I can imagine a faunal analyst making at least some identifications from a distance using this collection and thus removing a few bones from the “unidentified fish bag of bones” to a species-specific one.  It strikes me that if the right photographic work-flow was set up, then it would be possible to do at least one species per day in this manner, and a co-op student could probably do several hundred species in a single work term.  This might be some of the best money we could spend, if it improved faunal identification among those with less access to comprehensive collections.  It would be a nice co-op hire for a consulting firm, for example.

White sturgeon vomer. Source: PSU.

7 responses to “Fish Bones at Portland State University

  1. Fish are fundamental and Portland State is Awesome!


  2. The Hand Mauler

    Fish are slightly over-rated, actually. Birds are accurately rated, while sea mammals are somewhat under-rated.

    Portland State is also under-rated: an institution which punches far above its weight, mostly because they hired good people.


  3. pronouncements on taxonomic coolness hierarchy from hand mauler!


  4. I found an animal tooth on the coast of Oregon and am interested in getting it identified. Can I email or post a picture some where?


  5. Hi amy, sorry for the late reply. If you see this, sure, send me a picture (qmackie at gmail) and I’ll post it or pass it around.


  6. more evidence that Portland State is Awesome:

    Their 2010 ‘Herring Synthesis’ project (coordinated by the now Oxford-based anthropologist Thomas Thornton) brought together a huge amount of information on the social, cultural, archaeological and historical/ecological role of herring Southeast Alaska. This information was instrumental in an even larger analysis of archaeological fisheries data published this week in PNAS. PSU Professor Virginia Butler and UOregon- anthropology Professor Madonna Moss (also a major contributor to the Synthesis project) are contributing authors on this latest paper. Thanks to PSUAnthropology’s inspiration and contribution to herring archaeology.

    the herring synthesis project can be found at:

    this latest paper can be found at:


  7. and for new and even more interesting news about herring, visit for stories from folk about this important fish


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