Blog Carnival – Four Stone Hearth #41

The 41st edition of the Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival, entitled ‘Remote Redux’, is available for viewing now at ‘Remote Central’. All contributions are well worth a read, but I would particularly recommend The Cannibalism Paradigm: Assessing Contact Period Ethnohistorical Discourse by James Q. Jacobs.


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

Blog Carnival – Four Stone Hearth #40

The fortieth edition of the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is up for folks to read at ‘Remote Central‘ so why not take a moment to peruse what is an interesting assemblage of entries.

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

Refutation of Hobbit Filling Claim

And as a follow-up to the last piece of news about the ‘Hobbit’: Peter Brown refutes Flores filling claim.