Category Archives: Archaeozoology

Greek Horse Burials

News via Past Horizons of the excavation of 16 horses and a two-wheeled chariot in a grave dating back to the Roman Empire in north-east Greece.

Bird-Worshipping Cult in Cornwall

News from the latest edition of Current Archaeology:

Work has begun on the eighth season of excavation at Saveock Water in Cornwall, one of Britain’s most intriguing archaeological sites. Not only does the site, located in a sheltered river valley, have a Mesolithic dwelling platform and two large Neolithic water tanks lined with white quartz (purpose unknown, but probably ritual), there is also the little matter of the mysterious pits filled with swan’s pelts, bird claws, whole magpies, 55 eggs from different birds from bantam size to duck egg, quartz pebbles, human hair and fingernails and part of an iron cauldron.

So far 35 such pits have been excavated and the tops of many more have been recorded. The pits are typically rectangular, 42cm long by 35cm wide and 17cm deep and aligned north-south or east-west. In some cases the contents are clearly intact and complete and in others they have been removed, leaving just a few feathers and stones. A newly excavated egg pit, plotted in 2005 but only examined in detail in April 2008, has revealed the body of a black cat buried amidst a large number of eggs with embryonic chicks inside.

Site Director Jacqui Woods says, “I have spent most of my career in archaeology disproving the ritual tag that some archaeologists put on things they don’t understand. So it is ironic that I should be directing such a site that was so obviously the result of pagan rituals of some sort!”

Having failed to find any parallels so far, Jacqui has decided the pits might be connected with the Cornish St Bridget or St Bride, the patron saint of brides, who has the swan as her symbol. “My own theory (and it is only a theory),” she says, “is that maybe if you got married and did not get pregnant in the first year, you might make an offering to St Bride of a feather pit. If you finally got pregnant, you had to go back to the pit and take out the contents and burn them and set the spirit of the swan free. If you never got pregnant then the pit remained untouched.”

If so, this was risky business. Recent carbon dating test show that the contents of one of the pits dates from the 1640s, right in the middle of the period when, as anyone who has ever read Christopher Hill’s book, The World Turned Upside Down, will know, zealous puritans were seeking to eradicate superstitious and folkloric practices. The penalty for so-called ‘witchcraft’ was death. Perhaps this is why the ladies of Saveock chose this secluded site for their rituals.

Chickens in Oceania

A recent paper (Storey et al., 2008.) has attempted to synthesise the information on Oceanic chicken (Gallus gallus) distribution in order to develop a clearer picture of this species in Pacific prehistory as previously this information had been rather piecemeal. It is generally accepted that chickens were an important part of the ‘transported landscape’ of Oceanic populations (Storey et al., 2008: 240). This phrase refers to “the purposeful translocation of all or most of the plant and animal stocks required to recreate the range of subsistence items found at a colonist’s home island” (Storey et al, 2008: 240-241). It has been suggested that chicken was one of the first species to be intentionally introduced to Remote Oceanic sites, but data on this species does not feature prominently in site reports or articles. Yet for prehistoric Pacific peoples, chickens were clearly an important part of their diet and/or culture, as demonstrated by their presence on sites from Santa Cruz to Easter Island and Hawaii.

Near Oceania is the most obviously depleted as far as chicken populations are concerned with chicken being reported on only 3 out of 107 sites. The distribution in Remote Oceania is not uniform. Chicken was present at 108 Remote Oceanic sites out of a total of 321 that were analysed. Some areas such as New Caledonia are notable for the complete absence of chicken, whereas others such as Niue have an outstanding abundance. The earliest layers it appears in in this region are dated at c. 3000 BP in the Reef/Santa Cruz, and in Vanuatu and Tonga shortly afterwards. In Micronesia chicken is limited to specific pockets and there is no secure evidence from Polynesian outliers.

Factors that could have influenced the observed distribution are: human choice, taphonomy, extinction, extirpation and and incomplete faunal analysis, and these need further analysis. However, current evidence suggests that chickens were introduced by Lapita colonists into Western Polynesia. They were subsequently introduced into Central and Eastern Polynesia during the Polynesian expansion. In some places they became extinct, but in others they gained great importance, possibly due to the absence of other domesticates. They appear to have been introduced into Micronesia c. 2000 BP.

Reference: Storey, AA, Ladefoged, T, and Matisoo-Smith, EA. 2008. Counting your chickens: density and distribution of chicken remains in archaeological sites of Oceania. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 18: 240-261

Butchery of Fish

Fish, along with other aquatic resources, have played an important role in human biological, social and cultural evolution. Fundamental to our understanding of this role is the way that people have procured, processed and consumed fish, evidence for which manifests itself archaeologically in the form of burning, cut marks, body-part frequency and other patterns. However, despite being relatively common on archaeological mammal and bird bones, cut marks are rare on archaeological fish bones. This may be attributed to a number of factors, including butchery practices, taphonomic processes and fish anatomy, but many of these reasons remain speculative. For this reason the authors of a recent paper (Willis et al, 2008.) set out to perform a series of experiments designed to evaluate whether such practices would leave cut marks or other signatures on fish bones.

Experiments showed that cut marks resulting from butchery were common, both were stone and metal tools. Hand-held stone tools generally resulted in more cut marks than butchery using a metal knife. These cut marks were distributed on a limited number of elements. However, these were mostly the vertebral neural and haemal spines, transverse processes, ribs and pterygiophores. As it is not uncommon for spines and processes to break of vertebral centra post-depositionally, this might explain why they are often over-looked in faunal assemblages. Also, the majority of cut marks tended to be shallow and small; even on fresh, clean bone a magnifying glass was required to identify them. Fish bone, being less robust than mammal bone, could be subject to taphonomic processes than eradicated all evidence of butchery. It is, therefore, suggested by the authors that further experiments to address the influence of post-depositional processes on the preservation of cut marks on fish bone would be of value.

Reference: Willis, LM, Eren, MI, and Rick, TC. 2008. Does butchering fish leave cut marks? Journal of Archaeological Science 35: 1438-1444

Buried Dogs were divine ‘escorts’ for ancient Americans

Hundreds of prehistoric dogs found buried throughout the south-western United States show that canines played a key role in the spiritual beliefs of ancient Americans, new research suggests. Throughout the region, dogs have been found buried with jewellery, alongside adults and children, carefully stacked in groups, or in positions that relate to important structures, said Dody Fugate, an assistant curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Fugate has conducted an ongoing survey of known dog burials in the area, and the findings suggest that the animals figured more prominently in their owners’ lives than simply as pets, she said.

“I’m suggesting that the dogs in the New World in the Southwest were used to escort people into the next world, and sometimes they were used in certain rituals in place of people,” Fugate said.

To conduct her research, Fugate collected data on known dog burials and urged her archaeologist colleagues to note when canine remains were found during excavations. “I have a database now of almost 700 dog burials, and a large number of them are either buried in groups in places of ritual or they’re buried with individual human beings,” she said. Many of the burials are concentrated in northwestern New Mexico and along the Arizona-New Mexico border, she said.

Fugate’s database indicates that dog burials were most common between 400 BCE and 1100 CE. “The earlier the [human] burial, the more likely you are to have dog in it,” Fugate said. By the 1400s and 1500s the practice of burying people with dogs had stopped. Indeed, she noted, today’s Pueblo and Navajo Indians believe it is improper to bury dogs. What the ancient dogs looked like is an open question, she said, but their remains suggest that they were far more diverse than was previously believed.

Susan Crockford is a zooarchaeologist at Canada’s University of Victoria who has studied dog breeds in the Pacific Northwest. She agreed that dog remains have often been overlooked during archaeological excavations. Archaeologists tend to examine animal bones at excavation sites with an eye to what humans were eating, rather than what their relationships with dogs were like, she said. Crockford suggested that dogs’ spiritual role was among their most important functions in the region, second perhaps to their value as hunting or herding companions.

Source: National Geographic News

Faunal Exploitation in the Stone Age

An interesting review of an in press paper on faunal exploitation in the Middle and Late Stone Age can be found at Anthrosite’s Blog.

The Archaeology of Wool

The first domestic sheep were introduced to Britain during the Neolithic c. 4000 BC. The only evidence of these sheep comes from their skeletal remains and they are presumed to have a coat not dissimilar to their wild forebears with bristly fibres, known as kemps, obscuring an undercoat of fine wool.

It is thought that the small, brown Soay sheep that survives in a feral state on St Kilda off north-west Scotland best represents Bronze Age breeds in Europe, evidence for this coming from the similarity of skeletal remains with those of the Soay, and the similarity of wool in Bronze Age cloth with the fleece of the Soay. This wool was already much less hairy than the coat of wild sheep.

Further changes to the coat appeared in the Iron Age when white sheep seem to make their first appearance. White wool has been found in a Scythian burial mound in central Asia dated to c. 400 BC. But there was in fact a range of colour: black, white and grey, in addition to the brown of the Soay. Evidence for this comes from textile remains and surviving breeds.

Roman textiles from Britain and the Continent show that more changes in fleece type took place at that time. The predominant wool type at that time, in addition to being white, was fine to the naked eye. It is presumed that selective breeding was taking place at this time.

Sheep were found everywhere in England during Saxon times, as judged by place-name evidence. Saxon wools are comparable to those of the Roman period, ranging from hairy medium wools through the generalised medium type to the true medium fleece and even the fine fleece, evidence for the latter including some yielded from the Sutton Hoo burial. At around this time, many northern areas were occupied by those of Viking descent and it is possible that some northern breeds contain Norse and Danish influence.

In the early Middle Ages, the main function of sheep was to provide milk to make cheese for winter food; wool, manure and meat were by-products in that order of importance. Breeds in the modern sense did not exist, although a classification of sheep by fleece type was already in use by wool buyers. Records and the wool in cloth remains confim the persistence of coloured sheep. The predominant fleece type appears to be the hairy medium/generalised medium fleece comparable to the surviving short-tailed and vari-coloured breeds in Orkney and Shetland. Skeletal remains support this conclusion.

Reference: Ryder, ML. 1984. Medieval Sheep and Wool Types. The Agricultural History Review 32.1: 14-28

The Boneyard – Edition #18

Welcome to the 18th edition of the Boneyard, the blog carnival devoted to all things palaeo, from dinosaurs to pollen to hominids and everywhere in between.

We begin this latest edition in the Middle Palaeolithic with Julien Riel-Salvatore of ‘A Very Remote Period Indeed’ who discusses the interpretation of a new isotopic study of Neanderthal diet, based on material from a Neanderthal tooth from the French Middle Paleolitihic site of Jonzac.

A little further back time, we find Tim Jones at ‘Remote Central‘ discussing Pre-Clovis Humans in the Oregon High Desert, whilst at the same blog Terry Toohill puts ‘Human Evolution on Trial – North to Alaska’.. Meanwhile, here at Archaeozoology, we examine the later evolution of Pleistocene Horses in the New World.

We move into the Tertiary period with Emile of ‘The World We Don’t Live In‘ who discusses The oreodonts: the tylopods successful venture. Meanwhile, Brian Switek at ‘Laelaps‘ describes the ‘Truly Terrifying Entelodonts’ of the Early Miocene and Oligocene. In the same blog we also find a tale of another fearsome predator, this time of the middle Eocene: the Bad Cat from Wyoming, the largest meat-eating mammal from what would become the Wind River Formation.

Travelling back into the Mesozoic, we have two blogs about the ever-popular topic of dinosaurs. Darren Naish of ‘Tetrapod Zoology‘ talks about the land ‘Where the scelidosaurs and iguanodontians roam’, whilst GrrlScientist at ‘Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)‘ reviews ‘What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease and Death in the Cretaceous’ by George Poinar, Jr., and Roberta Poinar.

David Hone of ‘Archosaur Musings‘ brings us a series of three posts on the Early Triassic pterosaur Raeticodactylus filisurensis: part one describes the pterosaur, part two introduces Rico Stecher, the man behind Raeticodactylus, and part three is an interview with Rico about his work. Also from the Triassic comes the story of enigmatic hellasaurs, some of the most important insect fossils in the world from the Madygen Formation of Kyrgyzstan, courtesy of ‘microecos‘.

Reaching the Permo-Triassic boundary we find Peter Ward discussing ‘Suspending Life’ in Seed magazine; If almost every species on Earth was killed some 250 million years ago, how did our ancient ancestors survive and evolve into us?

We take a look at ancient plant-life with Christopher Taylor of ‘Catalogue of Organisms‘ as he tells us about Prototaxites, one of the Giants of the Silurian.

Dinochick, meanwhile, brings us more proof that only money speaks in a discussion of the recent news about fossils for sale.

We finish on a lighter note with Zach of ‘When Pigs Fly Returns‘ and Spinodracus dysonii, the porcupine dragon.

Thanks go to everyone who contributed to this edition of the Boneyard. The next edition will be hosted by Familiarity Breeds Content on May 3rd.

Pleistocene Horses in the New World

The later evolution of horses can be problematic and this is perhaps best illustrated in the Americas, where more than 50 species of Pleistocene equids have been named, most of them during the 19th and early 20th centuries (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0001). Whilst it has been argued that this number should be drastically revised, no consensus has as yet been reached about the number of valid species or their phylogenetic relationships (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0001). It was to address this problem that a recent study by Weinstock et al., looked at a segment of between 349 and 716 base pairs of the mitochondrial control region of fossil equid remains from a number of different localities in North and South America and Eurasia ranging in date from c. 53,000 years ago to historical times (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0002).

Using maximum likelihood, phylogenetic analysis resolved Hippidion, New World ‘stilt-legged’ horses (NWSL) and caballines (including the domestic horse, Equus caballus, and the extant wild Przewalskii horse) as three genetically divergent species within a monophyletic group (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0002). African zebras and asses and Asian asses (onager and kiang) form a basal polytomy (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0002). However, the close phylogenetic relationship between Hippidion and caballine horses is in direct contrast to palaeontological models of hippidiform origins (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0002; Benton, 1997: 342).

It is suggested that the origin of Hippidion should not be seen as a descendent of Miocene pliohippines; instead, its origins appear to be more recent, probably during the last stages of the Pliocene (c. 3 Ma), which is close to the time of the first fossil occurrence of this genus (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0003). This is in opposition to views expressed by authors such as McFadden (1997) who claim that hippidiforms (genera Hippidion and Onohippidium) were present in North America as early as the late Miocene (c. 7 – 8 Ma).

The situation with the phylogenetic position of the NWSL is also apparently resolved with the molecular evidence, which places them as North American endemics tather than Eurasian migrants (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0003). Specimens from both north (Alaska/Yukon) and south (Wyoming/Nevada) of the Pleistocene ice sheets clearly belong to the same taxon. This apparent large geographic distribution raises the possibility that other Late Pleistocene NWSL currently described as different species (E. francisci, E. tau, E. quinni, E. cf. hemionus, E (Asinus) cf. kiang) may in fact represent the same taxon (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0003). Their origins probably lie south of the Pleistocene ice sheets, where Mid-Pleistocene remains (c. 0.5 Ma) with similar limb characteristics have been found (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0003). Frequencies of NWSL are much lower in the north and they appear to have a restricted temporal distribution. It would appear that, despite their presence in eastern Beringia (unglaciated Alaska/Yukon), they failed to disperse through the Bering land-bridge into western Beringia (north-east Siberia) (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0003).

All caballine horses from western Europe to eastern Beringia – including the domestic horse – would appear to be a single Holarctic species (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0003). This group can be split into two major clades. The first is broadly distributed from central Europe to North America north and south of the ice. The second clade appears to have been restricted to North America. If present in the Old World at all, it would appear to have disappeared before domestication of the horse took place, around 5,000 years BP, as all domestic horses cluster in the first clade (Weinstock et al., 2005: 0004).


Benton, MJ. 1997.Vertebrate Palaeontology. Second Edition. London: Chapman and Hall.

McFadden, BJ. 1997. Pleistocene horses from Tarija, Bolivia, and the validity of the genus Onohippidium (Mammalia: Equidae). Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology 17: 199-218

Weinstock, J, Willerslev, E, Sher, A, Tong, W, Ho, SYW, Rubenstein, D, Storer, J, Burns, J, Martin, L, Bravi, C, Prieto, A, Froese, D, Scott, E, Xulong, L, and Cooper, A. 2005. Evolution, systematics, and phylogeography of Pleistocene horses in the New World: a molecular perspective. PLoS Biology 3 (8): 0001-0007.

Horse Hunting in Magdalenian France

The site of Roche de Solutre is one of a series of ridges or cuestas in the southern part of the Maconnais region of Burgundy, France. The cuestas are oriented from east to west and are separated by broad valleys with minor streams. The archaeological site at Solutre is located at the base of the southern face of the Roche de Solutre.

The discoverer and first investigator of the site, Adrien Arcelin, tried to explain the mass of horse bones revealed during the 19th century excavations by describing Palaeolithic hunters driving herds of up to 600 animals at a time over the edge of the rock. This concept of Solutre as a ‘horse-jump’ site found favour in the late 1800s and was upheld even as late as the 1950s. However, in 1956 Jean Combier re-interpreted Solutre as a place to which hunters periodically returned to kill horses which were passing through the valley during their seasonal migrations.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the interpretations could be summarised as follows:

  • the site was used almost exclusively as a kill-site, at which horses were the most frequently hunted species of large game, but where reindeer and bison were also occasionally taken.
  • small bands of between 6 to 12 horses were intercepted in the valley below Solutre rock and either driven up against the base of the rock and slaughtered there or chased into a corral-like enclosure and killed.

A low proportion of juvenile horses were interpreted as the result of selective killing of adults and releasing of the young. The vast number of individual horses, many articulated remains, the scarcity of butchery evidence and the lack of evidence of transportation of skeletal elements away from the sites suggested that large numbers of horses were killed at any one time and that their intact carcasses were not fully exploited. The minimal butchery may reflect the way in which the horses were hunted. It is suggested that the horses were ambushed as they followed a migratory trail. Hunters would have killed as many horses as possible before the herd panicked and took flight. This method would have produced many carcasses, from which perhaps only a few were selected for further processing. Reindeer, on the other hand, showed more intensive evidence of butchery, indicative of full utilisation of their carcasses.

Examination of the cementum bands of the teeth showed that the horses died at Solutre from spring through to autumn (February to September), with the greatest concentration occurring in summer. Reindeer, on the other hand, were hunted in winter and spring.

Although death of perhaps one or two of the horses at the site due to natural causes cannot be ruled out, the location of the site precludes mass deaths of herds as observed at river crossings, deaths at waterholes or death due to bogging in quagmires. The bulk of the horse remains are therefore interpreted as resulting primarily from the hunting activities of the Magdalenian population. However, carnivores also utilised the carcasses extensively and were probably responsible for the destruction of some elements, e.g. the sacrum. This is interpreted as the opportunistic scavenging of the remains of animals killed by Magdalenian hunters, although the intensive gnawing means that the possibility of some carcasses by carnivore kills cannot be ruled out.

Reference: Turner, E. 2005. Results of a recent analysis of horse remains dating to the Magdalenian period at Solutre, France, pp 70-89. In Mashkour, M (ed.). Equids in Time and Space. Oxford: Oxbow.