Theorising in Animal Bone Research

Krish Seetah, & Aleks Pluskowski, (McDonald Institute and Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge)

Zooarchaeological investigations, as with many ‘scientific’ archaeological sub-disciplines, have recently witnessed an expansion in methodological and analytical techniques. However, despite extensive and deliberate use of theory, for example from ethnographic and anthropological research as well as within a framework of animal behaviour and broad issues of animal domestication, theory in zooarchaeology has not received the same attention as methodology. This session aims to address this imbalance and seeks papers from a zooarchaeological perspective that either contributes to, or has depended on, a theoretical framework. Papers are particularly encouraged where links between material culture and faunal research have been forged as well as those that have employed social, anthropological and cultural theory.




In theory, what is zooarchaeology?

Terry O’Connor (KEY NOTE), University of York


In practice, zooarchaeology is what zooarchaeologists do. In theory, therefore, zooarchaeology is what zooarchaeologists think they do. We explain our discipline in terms of investigating past interactions between people and the animals around them; hunters and prey, farmers and livestock, households and vermin. Thus we resolve the distinction between studying archaeological remains of animals for their own sake, and studying them in order to learn about people. The past behaviour of people towards those animals is reflected in the animal remains, so the study of the animals becomes archaeology. But there is a spurious dualism inherent in this approach. Zooarchaeology counterposes animals (them, zoo-) and people (us, -archaeology). A more holistic paradigm would argue that this is a category error, that the category 'animals' subsumes the category 'people'. For the purposes of understanding mutual interactions, and responses to changes in the abiotic environment, people and other animals are highly interconnected by community ecology and by the social embedding of animals in symbolic and ceremonial aspects of our cultures. We could reverse the categories and argue that 'people' subsumes 'animals', as animals, whether hunted, husbanded, worshipped or petted, become a part of the human social network, and part of the noosphere of ideas and beliefs. The distinction between 'us' and 'them' is fallacious, and obstructs a more synthetic understanding of the place of past people and other animals in each others' lives.



Are Emic and Etic principles useful for zooarchaeology?

Krish Seetah, University of Cambridge


Since its development as a tool for studies in linguistics, Emic vs. Etic types (c.f. Pike 1967) have received much attention as a theoretical basis for application to archaeological research, for example, as a mechanism for bridging indigenous and archaeological typologies (Hayden 1984). This paper presents a novel perspective that moves beyond the use of Emic vs. Etic types purely as a one dimensional system of classification, to one where the principle of an ‘intrinsic’ (Emic) verses ‘observer defined’ (Etic) paradigm are used to extend the interpretative value of practical roles. The example used is that of carcass processing, but the underlying tenet is applicable across of range of archaeological material types where a chaîne opératoire is identifiable.

Pike, K L (1967). Language in relation to a unified theory of structure of human behavior 2nd ed. The Hague: Mouton

Hayden, B (1984). Are Emic types relevant to Archaeology? Ethnohistory 31 (2) 79-92


What were animals thinking....a thousand years ago? Ethology in medieval


Aleksander Pluskowski, The University of Reading,


Humans have left behind material traces of their behaviour in the Past, but how can we possibly know what animals were doing and thinking a thousand years ago? Our understanding of animal behaviour today is informed by the study of ethology and its sub-disciplines, which investigate everything from predation, mating and imitation through to memory and tool use. As archaeologists interested in animal behaviour in the Past, we are completely reliant on the ethological paradigm to infer how different species interacted with each other within any given environment. Underpinning this is a strong evolutionary framework, highlighting the fact that we cannot simply project the way species behave today back into the Past. What then is possible and how important is it really to understand animal behaviour in the Past? This paper will tackle these questions with a case study of large carnivore predation in medieval Europe.


The 'proper study' of medieval animal remains (…or, NOT a paper for zooarchaeologists)

Tara-Jane Sutcliffe, University of York


Whilst the ‘modus operandi’ of the zooarchaeologist is, indeed, the physical study of animal remains, focus on methodology has come to stifle the diversity of inferences made about the past. Those analysing medieval animal remains are foremost zooarchaeologists; almost exclusively, they are NOT medievalists seeking to use fauna to further understanding of the period. In consequence, the interpretation of medieval animal remains is largely subject to the prevailing techno-economic orthodoxy of zooarchaeology, rather than being informed by the particular substantive enquiries of a period-specific archaeology. Thus, in a constructive vein two areas for advancement - in respect of publishing and integration – are identified and recommendations made for the 'proper study' of medieval animal remains. Whilst this paper proposes that a distinctively zooarchaeological approach has a central role to play in medieval archaeology, it is not, however, exclusively intended for a zooarchaeological audience: ALL ARCHAEOLOGISTS WELCOME!


Feeding the Roman army: multi-nationals or farmers’ markets?

Sue Stallibrass (English Heritage Archaeological Science Adviser, University of Liverpool),  & Richard Thomas (University of Leicester)


There are many people working on aspects of the Roman Empire including epigraphers, political and economic historians, field archaeologists and post-excavation specialists, but few (if any) know what the rest of them are doing. Theory-testing offers a means of linking projects with common aims but disparate materials and skills. This presentation demonstrates the value of explicit hypothesis testing using case studies about to be published in Thomas & Stallibrass 2008: Feeding the Roman Army: the archaeology of production and supply in north west Europe. Oxford: Oxbow books. It demonstrates that, whilst there are some commonalities, the realities of how the army was supplied with meat and veg varied locally with time, place and circumstances. Grand-scale economic theories can stimulate hypotheses for testing, but their general acceptance requires supporting data, and theories should be constantly refined, revised or rejected. We make some recommendations to facilitate future holistic studies of how the Roman army was supplied: projects should be expressly linked by theory and use the Three-I working practices (Iterative, Interactive and Interdisciplinary).



Domestic (re)defined: some thoughts on a familiar dichotomy

David Orton, University of Cambridge


The contrast between domestic and wild animals plays a fundamental structuring role in most European zooarchaeology, being attributed near-complete analytical primacy in faunal studies of the Neolithic and all subsequent periods. Accordingly, domestication is a major theme in zooarchaeological research, but while the causes, mechanisms, archaeological correlates and socio-cultural implications of animal domestication are subject to endlessly fertile debate, the basic coherence of the label ‘domestic’ has rarely been questioned by (zoo)archaeologists. This paper reviews the traditional definitions of domestication before discussing some more recent approaches from anthropology and animal studies. The conclusion reached is that while ‘domestic’ is a potentially useful category, the twin criteria at the core of a coherent definition are not those upon which the efforts of archaeologists – and especially zooarchaeologists – have typically focused. In evaluating these ideas, two underlying themes become apparent: the role of domestication within narratives concerning the separation of nature and culture, and the unhelpful divide between materialist/universalist and idealist/relativist treatments of animals. I echo several recent authors in calling for zooarchaeologists to approach animals neither purely as physical resources nor as arbitrary symbols but rather as animals, living beings that may to varying extents become engaged in social relations both with and between humans.



Animal biographies and the zooarchaeologists use of theory

James Morris, Bournemouth University


This paper explores the sessions themes by investigating one type of faunal deposit, associated bone groups (ABGs) also known as ‘special animal deposits/burials’. The interpretations zooarchaeologists use for such deposits show a link with current theoretical vogues, as well as the passive nature in which they relate to archaeological theories.


Such deposit types are also subjected to a dichotomous mind set of ritual or functional. In most cases the description of the deposit is also an explanation for its presence, ‘it’s a ritual animal burial, created for a ritual’. However, zooarchaeologists have the means to break such cyclical thinking. By examining the zoological and associated contextual data in detail we can investigate the biography of the individual animal. This in turn can lead us away from such dichotomous explanations and instead focus upon the ‘how’ and the ‘why’. From being a living animal to becoming an ABG, a number of processes occur, all of which transform the animal and its associated meanings. It is by investigating the nature of these transformations we might start to understand the rationality of such deposits.


Theoretical considerations concerning withers height estimation from skeletal measurements.

Torstein Sjövold, Stockholm University


Withers height estimation based skeletal remains from archaeological sites provides estimates of animal size which may visualize the comprehension of the animals kept or hunted. Most methods so far have been concerned with domesticated animals such as cattle, dogs, horses, sheep and pigs. Two different principles have generally been used: simple factors with which to multiply a given bone length in order to obtain the withers height, and linear regression. The factors are based on the proportion between the withers height and the bone length in a source material for which both withers height and bone length are known, but little is known about the theoretical properties of this principle. Linear regression is also based on such a source material, and has the property that the sum of squared errors between the actual withers heights and the estimated heights based on the corresponding bone lengths is a minimum. 

However, other alternatives for estimating the withers height also exist, and the different alternatives and their theoretical and practical properties are compared based on a large sample of horses for which both the withers height when living and the bone length after death have been measured. This shows that the crude factors should not be used at all, and that other alternatives possess both theoretical and practical properties that outweighs the minimizing property of linear regression.   



Defining improvement: is bigger really better?

Louisa Gidney, Durham University


The quest for evidence of "improvement", in the sense of larger bones suggestive of a larger type of animal, may be seen as the Holy Grail of zooarchaeology. This paper examines definitions of "improvement", with particular reference to medieval and post-medieval cattle. The continuing influence of the propaganda of the 18th - 19th century livestock breeders will be examined. Too often, bigger bones are hailed as "new and improved" stock without any critical consideration of the economic role of such animals. The basic assumption generally made is that the prime objective must have been to acquire more meat and therefore a larger animal is a "Good Thing". The reverse view will be proposed that "Small is Beautiful". The consistent presence of smaller animals can require a great deal more skill on the part of the breeder and are not a product of poor feeding regimes stunting growth. Larger animals may merely result from a relaxation in the culling of specific calf phenotypes and changes in the age of castration. The modern Dexter will be used to demonstrate these suggestions.


Environmentalism, Materiality and Paradigm Shifts in Archaeology: A Zooarchaeological View

Dr. James Barrett, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge


This paper explores the growing impact of global environmentalism on the interpretation of causation in archaeology. Using examples from zooarchaeology and artifact studies, it argues that a paradigm shift has already happened, in which two decades of emphasis on social causation and human agency have receded in the context of implicitly (and often explicitly) materialist perspectives. In assessing the impact of this development on the discipline, it is optimistically proposed that 'post-climate change' archaeology may be well equipped to interpret the complex interrelationship between human agency and the material world.