They call me the Boneman

by Matt Bullock
     Along with the ubiquitous pottery and other artifacts uncovered at the Eleon excavation, we also find ancient bone fragments. These remains may represent domestic animals like dogs, sheep and cows or they can originate from local wild fauna such as red deer and brown bear. While these animal remains may not be as beautiful as painted pottery or decorative bronze pieces, they can be valuable in giving us a glimpse into the lives of the ancient inhabitants of a site. They’re also pretty neato. Since Kinsey and I are both anthropology majors (rather than Greek and Roman studies) with experience in zooarchaeology, we’ve been tasked with performing an analysis of the bones that we recover from the site.
Our first task is to clean the bones. We do this during our customary pottery washing time, carefully scrubbing the sometimes delicate remains and laying them out to dry overnight on mesh screens (I should mention that these screens were hand made by a handful of us during the early days of the project and they are magnificent). After the day’s bones have been cleaned, we lay out our previously dried specimens from earlier days for recording. A true faunal analysis makes use of a reference collection of real bones in order to identify assemblages, but we do the best we can with only our field guide of mammal remains and our massive intellects. We sort our bones according to their element (which bone of the body it is) and subsequently identify them either by species or by size class when it is ambiguous. Many fragments that come back form the field have been worn or broken to the point where they are unidentifiable, but some still bear tell-tale landmarks that held us to make a definitive ID. We record the element, portion of bone, and species of each identifiable fragment in a notebook to later be entered into the project’s database. Each bag will also be weighed to give a further impression of the actual amount of bone that was recovered from each locus of the site.

So many bones…

What can this field analysis tell us about Eleon? First, we can tell what types of animals were being consumed for food. This could let us infer the social standing of the individuals at the site by seeing if they eating more valued, prestigious animals like cows, or more common food like sheep. Perhaps we could find that higher class individuals were eating more cow in certain time periods and less in others, suggesting differences in levels of social inequality over time. The presence of other remains, such as those of horses, might imply wealth. The general age of animals at the time of their deaths could tell us things about which animals were being consumed for their meat and which animals were being allowed to grow to maturity and used for products such as milk or wool. The state of an animal’s remains could tell us whether they were butchered or if they died of natural causes, whether they were cooked, or if they were scavenged by dogs and other animals after being discarded.
The task of processing the sheer volume of bone that comes in each day has been a little daunting. Our experience at Uvic was based on each of us individually analyzing an assemblage of approximately 350 bone fragments over several weeks, and that number can easily come out of the trenches every day. We also had access to Uvic’s fantastic zooarchaeological reference collection. It’s a bit overwhelming, but I’m loving the experience of being one of the first people to examine these bones while we’re still in the field. It also feels pretty good to have one of the directors call us over to identify a bone while we’re in the trenches. We’re getting better at it every day, too. At this point, I bet we could both identify a dirty, broken and chewed on goat tibia from fifty yards… by smell alone.

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