Tag Archives: zooarchaeology

Bears, Humans and Deer: disambiguation at last.

Human and Bear cuboid bones compared. Source: Smart 2009.

Some graduate theses are clearly meant to be both a research excercise and produce a demonstrably useful document.  I’m not saying these are any better than any other kind of thesis, but they do have an aura of public service and virtue about them.  The best example of these which I have seen recently is Tamela Smart’s 2009  Carpals and tarsals of mule deer, black bear and human: an osteology guide for the archaeologist.  If you click here it will start an automatic download of the 3.7 meg PDF from Western Washington University (unfortunately, no way to link to a download page).  (edit: try this link instead)

The premise of this research is that despite obvious differences on the outside, there are surprising similarities between the hand/wrist and ankle/foot bones (carpals and tarsals) of bears, deer, and humans.

Continue reading

Archaeomath’s advice for archaeology graduate school

Fish skeleton tattoo by Russell Fortier. Source: http://lucky7tattoo.net

I linked once before to the excellent quantitative zooarchaeology blog written by a mysterious anonymous figure.  Turns out the anonymous fish guy also has some great advice for graduate students – two pages worth, tailored to different stages.  I found myself agreeing with quite a bit of it.  Here are a few excerpts, but there is much more in the two excellent posts here and here.

Continue reading

Green cod heads and the case of the missing halibut

Copper kettle full of cod heads. Source: Alaska OHA.

I was feeling sick yesterday and this picture didn’t help: from the Castle Hill excavations at Sitka, Alaska (previously 1, 2) is the nearly complete copper kettle.  Inside, the archaeologists found the green-stained bones from the heads of three codfish (true cods, Gadidae, are 35% of the fish assemblage).  One of the great things about archaeology is to get these tiny slices of life: someone’s kettle of fish, set aside one day 200 years ago.

At a bigger scale, archaeology isn’t always so straightforward though.  Interestingly, from the site as a whole, only 1% of the fish bones are from halibut (11 bones in total).  This is despite the fact that:

Cod dominated the Castle Hill assemblage, and yet, Emmons (1991:148) stated that cod was considered an unimportant part of the Tlingit diet if salmon and halibut were available. Historic records confirm that cod was popular in Sitka, because it was available almost year around (Gibson 1976:40, Khlebnikov 1994). Halibut was also popular because of its year around availability and was sold to the Russians in large numbers. Between 22,000 and 138,000 pounds of halibut were purchased each year from the Tlingit from 1846 to 1866 in addition to the yearly average of 13,000 pounds of halibut the company procured itself (Gibson 1987:94). The emphasis on halibut brought to Sitka and sold to the Russian-American Company would lead to the prediction that halibut should dominate the assemblage, yet this is not the case. It may be a case where cod were readily available and not worthy of special consideration in historic documents.

Two things strike me about this.  One is that the Tlingit, using largely traditional methods at the time, were able to produce up to 138,000 pounds of excess halibut for trading purposes.  That’s a lot of fish.  The other is that so much halibut renders down to so few bones.  Halibut is long known on the NW Coast as being strongly under-represented in archaeological sites, probably because it may have been butchered on the beach and the bones, which separate cleanly from the meat, would end up in the intertidal zone and be washed away or eaten by dogs.  It also seems possible  that the Tlingit were trading in dried, boneless halibut (which makes the tonnage involved all the more impressive).  And certainly the entire site was not excavated, so there may be a mother lode of halibut bones somewhere.  But this case makes an interesting cautionary tale in zooarchaeology: we seldom have an accurate sense of the scale of the incoming fish quantities to compare to what is left in the ground, and when we do, the degree of difference between the written and material records is often quite startling!

Tlingit women and children cleaning fish on the beach, ca. 1907. Ignore the racist caption. Source: U. Washington.

Quantitative Zooarchaeology Blog

killer, qmackie, and archaeomath: three people who like fish (maybe just a little too much).

It’s a niche blog for sure, but at archaeomath someone is writing a series of highly detailed posts on quantitative zooarchaeology, with an emphasis on fish bone.  The posts on inference of net gauge, intensification of fishing practice, and estimation of MNI are particularly interesting and definitely relevant to the Northwest Coast.  Anyone who can introduce their blog with: “The purpose of this blog is to share my experiences using various mathematical tools to address archeological problems that interest me. Mathematical models, when done well, make assumptions explicit and clarify how processes operate” has my admiration and appreciation.  Anonymous Faunal Analyst with your Geospatially Ambiguous Shell Midden and Bones of Unspecified Taxa: we salute you!

dSpace: Caldwell on Comox Harbour Fishtraps

Chevron-shaped fishtraps in Comox Harbour. From Caldwell 2008.

The University of Manitoba is in on the dSpace trend.  The most notable thesis I found there was Megan Caldwell’s excellent analysis of some Comox Harbour fishtraps in relation to the Q’umu?xs Village site (DkSf-19).  Sixteen carbon dates are now available on these traps, thanks mainly to the work of Nancy Greene.  Caldwell takes a theoretical stance of Optimal Foraging Theory, arguing that fishtraps amount to “artificial patches” which can alter choices made under Patch Selection principles.  Essentially, a similar and more holistic argument could be made using principles of the “built environment” in an Ingoldian sense, but OFT is more structured and maybe more suitable for an MA thesis.  Interestingly, Caldwell’s work on auger sampling of the Q’umu?xs Village site shows a preponderance of herring, which is also interpreted as the target prey of the fishtraps.  This runs against the grain of the ethnographic work she conducted, where she was told that salmon were more important — mind you, salmon have difficult taphonomy and site formation processes, which she acknowledges.  In any case, this is a well organized, focused thesis which reflects a lot of high quality original work and while I haven’t read the whole thing I intend to do so!  Caldwell mentions Nancy Greene is still working on her fish trap study and I hope to see the results of that soon as well — these Comox Harbour trap complexes are very likely the finest of their type anywhere on the Northwest Coast and may well offer key insight into cultural construction of the landscape and its resources.  Download her thesis here!

Map of Fishtrap Stakes in Comox Harbour. From Caldwell 2008.

Schematic of two basic fishtrap designs. From Caldwell 2008.

Dog Burial Field Guide

From PacificID's Dog Burial Field Guide.

From PacificID's Dog Burial Field Guide.

Dogs are such an important source of evidence for past human life.  Not just as “man’s best friend” and all that but because of the insight they give into domestication, into evolutionary processes, as proxies for stable isotope studies of human diet, and so forth.  So, pretty great to see PacificID is putting out a field guide to dog burials and in situ dog remains in archaeology, complete with snazzy laminated ID card. The book itself is also printed on waterproof paper.  There are also downloadable diagrams (PDF) for recording dog burials.  The author, Dr. Susan Crockford, is an authority on the evolution of dogs and other domestication and evolution issues, and on dog osteology.  This looks like excellent value for money.