Drawers were open left, right and centre. It had been a long day in the lab and I was getting tired. The assemblage I was working on was interesting though and despite the clock ticking past dinner time I continued to compare specimens with those held in our reference collection.

I’d been woken so many hours earlier by my clock-radio clicking on to a discussion of what Britain’s national bird should be. I half listened to a roll-call of all the usual candidates –the robin, the blue tit, the blackbird – but also the wren and the red kite. This raised slightly uncomfortable questions for me as I walked into work, mulling things over in my half-awake state. Is Britain a nation? If it is then presumably all those birds I just listed are fair game. If, on the other hand, you believe the wren to be the national bird of England and the red kite to be the national bird of Wales, as many do, then surely those birds are not only taken but the very fact they exist suggests that Britain is not a nation and therefore cannot have a national bird.

It’s a largely frivolous debate, of course, without any real meaning for many people. I suspect the reason the idea is being mooted, however, is to focus attention on bird species. Perhaps the organisers might even be hoping for the endangered hen harrier to win the vote. Voting for a bird is an interesting concept – it suggests a level of support at a base level. That level of support (and identification?) can be galvanised in a very real way.


The national bird of Cornwall is the red-billed chough (also sometimes known as the Cornish chough). Those from elsewhere may be unfamiliar with this unassuming bird or its story in Britain’s far Southwest. The last successful breeding season here took place in the early 1960’s. A few birds lived on (there was some speculation that several unsuccessful breeding attempts thereafter may have been from a gay pair) until the solitary survivor fluttered off this mortal coil in the 1970’s. By that point, there were already efforts underway to reintroduce the species.

This was easier said than done. Red-billed choughs are a long-lived, gregarious corvid. They live in family groups, the young remaining with their parents for 2-3 years, learning the ropes as it were. Once paired off, they stay together and use the same nest for the rest of their lives. Reintroducing them then, would probably involve moving an entire family group – except that family would be unfamiliar with its new home. Some attempts at reintroducing the birds were made in the 1980’s but these were unsuccessful.

At the turn of the millennium, Cornwall submitted a petition asking for devolution to Westminster and achieved Objective One funding from the EU. In 2001, the choughs returned. It seemed like an incredibly good omen. Chough watch was started. For a few years, the precise location of the (now successfully breeding) small population was kept secret and a 24hour watch on them was kept. Video footage and news of their activities was broadcast to an enthused Cornish public. The chough was depicted on the charter granting the earldom of Cornwall to Piers Gaveston in 1307 and still features on the Cornish coat of arms today, following public outcry when it was nearly removed. It was, in fact, once so closely associated with Cornwall that ‘the Cornish chough’ was used as a racial slur for Cornishmen.


Recolonization by the red-billed chough in Cornwall is a process that continues to be monitored and actively managed through the creation of appropriate habitat – grassland close-cropped by traditional livestock breeds. In 2014 five pairs, now spread through three locations, raised 17 young. This might be thought of as some success but there’s clearly a long way to go.

Those specimens I was comparing with the reference collection were bird bones from the archaeological layers at Gwithian, in Cornwall. Among them were two corvid bones. The best match I could find for them was jackdaw but I wasn’t entirely happy with this. As I made my way back to my desk and prepared to enter them into the database my mind wandered back to that radio report in the morning. Could these be real Cornish ‘Cornish choughs’?

The rarity of choughs in twentieth century Britain (basically present on Islay and its surrounding islands and parts of the Gower Peninsula) means that they’re not in most osteological reference collections in this country. Fortunately though, the European corvids are one of the few groups of birds that have a good criteria published for differentiating them1. My misgivings were well founded – those two bones could not have been more like those of a chough.


Historical records of the red-billed chough are surprisingly sparse. They were shot as game in Cornwall in the early nineteenth century; by as early as the sixteenth century Cornwall was allegedly the only place to find them. Just how far back does this association go though? Archaeological evidence is equally scant. Two sites have produced remains of the red-billed chough from Holocene mainland Britain: one from Mesolithic Port Eynon (where they are still found today) and a skull from fourteenth century Exeter.

These bones date from the fifth to eighth centuries AD and so are not only a rare find of British chough but push our known dates for its occurrence in Cornwall back by a millennium or more. More importantly than that however, they have been found at a site where the recent analysis of the animal bones has suggested an important role for pastoralist transhumance in the economy2.

A few summers ago we shared our campsite during our fieldwork in Mongolia with two resident families. One of these lived in an old Soviet structure adjacent to a well, the use of which they allowed us. The other lived in the same building and was a family of red-billed choughs. This was evidence for me that choughs do not mind the presence of humans so long as they have access to that short-cropped grassland habitat. In other words, their presence in this assemblage not only supports interpretations previously made but their presence against the background of those interpretations adds further support to the land management strategies being adopted to promote their recolonization of Cornwall.


A short report detailing these finds will be included in the next issue of Palores and a short news story on the same subject will also feature in the next issue of Cornwall Today.

lion skeletonwww.zooarchaeology.co.uk


1. Tomek, T., Bocheński, Z.M., 2000. The Comparative Osteology of European Corvids (Aves: Corvidae), With a Key to the Identification of their Skeletal Remains. Wydawnictwa Instytutu Systematyki i Ewolucji Zwierząt PAN, Kraków.

2. Broderick, L.G., 2014. A Review of Subsistence in Mediaeval Cornwall and Analysis of the Mammal Bones from Mediaeval Gwithian. Unpublished MA dissertation. Institute of Cornish Studies, University of Exeter.

Terry O’Connor

I’d arrived a little late. Trying to cause as little disturbance as possible, I still had to shuffle crab-like down a whole row of people who were committed to an involuntary Mexican wave in my wake. This wasn’t the impression I’d wanted to make.

I’d spent the night in Sheffield and, despite having to wait for four friends to assemble at my car before departing we weren’t that late. At least we wouldn’t have been. Although we had at least one Yorkshire native in the vehicle – sat in the passenger seat, in fact – it fell to me to query our progress. I was fairly certain that the best way to York from Sheffield didn’t lie through Bradford but, nevertheless, it took sometime before my misgivings were strong enough to overpower the fug of a late night and it wasn’t before we were some miles out of our way that I sloughed the car around. Direct action taken, I proceeded to ignore the bleating Sat-Nav for the next hour.

Red in the face then, flustered and trying vainly to appear as if I’d been there all along, I sat at the back of the room as Terry O’Connor introduced the next speaker. I’d been in the same room as Terry at least twice before now but I’d never actually spoken to him. I’d emailed him earlier in the week to ask if I might have a chance to talk to him while I was at this event, explaining who I was, my current situation and enquiring plaintively whether there might be any opportunities for me to study for my PhD at York.

As we broke for coffee I made my way back down the aisle of rising humanity as quickly as I could, thinking to grab a much needed cup of coffee and then loiter by the biscuits in the hope of introducing myself to Terry. What would this behemoth of my chosen subject make of me and my disruptive entrance? Somehow I’d managed to get to the front of the queue and, as I filled my cup, I was hailed brusquely but friendlily by someone making their way passed me:

‘Ah, Lee, we must talk.’

Bewildered and more than slightly flattered that I was recognised and that he’d taken the time to come and talk to me first I stumbled out a ‘yes, thanks Terry.’

That day and on two more occasions in the following weeks I was very touched, not to say astounded, by how Terry was so willing to make time for me and talk through my concerns. Eventually, of course, I did move to York and become his PhD student. I’m still amazed at how he can make time for everyone, his incredible memory and breadth of knowledge and perhaps most of all by his unfailing capacity to instantly make people feel at home and that what they have to say is interesting to him.

AEA banner

Around this time last year, not long after hearing from Terry that he intended to retire, I suggested to Clare Rainsford and Eva Farinell that we should try and organise a conference for Terry to mark his retirement. The AEA agreed with us and our call for papers has just been announced. Terry’s impact on so many fields of archaeology, but particularly zooarchaeology and environmental archaeology, cannot be overstated. A long track-record of post-excavation analysis has been mirrored by concerns in questioning the role of environmental archaeology, of teaching archaeology and of practising the subject in the field.

Though I may be a little less in awe of his person today than I was a few years ago I remain awed by both his intellect and his easy-going, gentlemanly personality.

The conference website, including the call for papers, can be found here: http://www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/news-and-events/events/conferences/aea/

lion skeletonwww.zooarchaeology.co.uk

Big Pictures are Made of Small Details

The above Tweet was made in response to a presentation which explicitly criticised the sweeping generalisations made by climate change models at the recent Association of Environmental Archaeology Conference, held in Plymouth. Billed as ‘The Big Picture’ the conference actually featured a number of papers dealing with Big Data. Some of these research projects were fascinating and its an area of academic enquiry that’s only become available to archaeologists recently, as computers capable of dealing with large amounts of data become widely available and archives of data are accessed.

Being an environmental archaeology conference held in a geography department, it was perhaps inevitable that climate modelling would have been a theme of some papers. It struck me though, that climatologists are coming at the problems from a different direction to many archaeologists. A warning that broad models might mask some stories is superficially fair but also, importantly, misrepresents what a model is for. Climate modellers, in particular, and perhaps some palaeoecologists too, are interested in modelling climate change as a way in which to understand future patterns as much as past ones. This means that they have to understand the differences from one valley to the next if they are to get an accurate grasp of the story. As they get more data, they struggle to redefine their models to accommodate it.

Either side of the conference, I’ve been working on an assemblage from the Oyo Empire, in modern day Nigeria. The first day back in the lab after the weekend I performed the kind of eye-roll and exasperated, irritated sigh that will be familiar to many zooarchaeologists upon finding human bone in their material.


It’s always a source of potential unwanted problems getting these gangly bipedal mammals in your assemblage and the usual frantic discussion with the site director ensued with the predictable and routine answer of ‘no, there shouldn’t be any humans in it’. Well there are, but why?


Closer inspection of the 3rd metacarpal responsible for my vexation revealed small puncture marks at the distal end consistent with what might be made by a small dog or jackal if it were to pick the bone up and move it (not that I’m implying that small canids might deliberately sabotage future archaeology sites). Here then, is one possible explanation for human bones ending up in a midden. It’s a small part of the story on this site but it’s a part of it, nevertheless – an episode in the life of the site for which we have few other clues.

Archaeologists have got better at combining different types and scales of evidence to understand sites. This is probably driven in part by an acknowledgement of the weaknesses in the archaeological record but its a problem that other disciplines are perhaps only now beginning to worry about. My own presentation at AEA 2014, I hope, epitomised this approach (feel free to criticise me in the comments below!) by combining geomorphological, stable isotopic, zooarchaeological, ethnoarchaeological and landscape archaeology data, complemented by regional palynological studies, to understand the relationship between human settlement and subsistence patterns and the environment through four millennia in Central Mongolia.

The point is though, that whether I’m discussing bone-moving agents in West Africa or shifting settlement patterns in East Asia, there comes a point where some portion of the assembled data doesn’t fit the model. That doesn’t mean you throw the model away and start again – this is precisely what models are made for.

Perhaps modelling climate change is different – our needs for doing so might well be – but in archaeology we do not, or at least should not, seek to create general models which explain everything. If everything fitted it, either that would mean that the world is a very boring place or else that the data are wrong. The point of a model is to highlight inconsistencies. These aberrations in the data are the twists in the plot – the small details that make the big picture interesting.

There is a place for sweeping generalisations and there is a place for fine detailed analysis. Both should exist side by side, testing each other to form a cohesive tale; trying to force both together into a single strand would be like expecting a student’s 500 word summary of War and Peace to be in any way comparable to the original. It misses the subtlety of the little things as well as the sweeping grandeur of the big picture.

lion skeleton


To Assume Makes etc.

We’re always told in archaeology, as in pretty much every other walk of life, not to hold prior assumptions – or at least to test those assumptions, not to be prejudiced. I don’t know how many archaeologists would publicly agree with me but to my mind, again like in pretty much every other walk of life, assumptions – ‘working knowledge’, ‘received wisdom’ and ‘common sense’ – are a common feature of the discipline and its related profession.

Among British zooarchaeologists, for example, it’s not uncommon in an informal chat to note that the zooarchaeology of the Early Modern and Modern periods is rarely studied. Various reasons have been suggested as to why this might be the case, most notably by Richard Thomas1 and Eileen Murphy2. Whatever the reasons, if ever the subject is lamented then it’s usually closely followed by a contrasting statement which eulogises the situation in the U.S.A., where, as it appears from this side of the Atlantic, this particular circumstance does not exist.

http://xkcd.com/1339/Is this really the case though? The grass, famously, always appears greener on the other side and there’s little data to back these arguments up. A received wisdom, then, if ever there was one. A case, in fact, for questioning our assumptions and testing them. At the ICAZ conference in 2010, in a session on the zooarchaeology of the Modern era chaired by Richard Thomas, I presented the results of a survey I’d carried out to try and answer some of these questions. How often is material from these periods, in fact, studied? Where is it studied? How often is it published and who makes the decisions as to whether it should be studied, published, etc.?

The results of that survey were inconclusive and, afterwards, I carried out a second survey asking many of the same questions but with some more detailed ones too. The results of that survey have been published as a part of the session proceedings, in a special issue of Anthropozoologica, while I was away on fieldwork. The results may surprise some people – there appears, for instance, to be far more of this type of work carried out in the UK than is often assumed. On the other hand, there is clearly a greater importance attached to these studies in the White Settler States than there is in the Old World. David Landon suggested that this importance may be a result of the history of the discipline3, but surely there must also be an argument for this being at least in part a result of national histories and concerns?

A copy of the abstract of my article ‘Commercial Zooarchaeology of the ‘Modern’ Era: A Survey of Attitudes and Practices’ can be found below and the full paper in the usual places, links from my website.

lion skeleton



Commercial zooarchaeology of the ‘modern’ era: a survey of attitudes and practices

The study of animal bones dating to the ‘modern’ period (AD 1750-1950) has been perceived as neglected and undervalued by some zooarchaeologists working in Britain and Ireland, while North America is frequently held up as a beacon of good practice. Here, survey data are presented which compare practices and opinions between these two regions and the rest of the world. It is suggested that the principal difference may be one of perception and it is shown that research into the ‘modern’ era is undertaken by commercial zooarchaeologists in every region; however, outside of the white settler states (USA, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and Uruguay) it is very rarely published. A conclusion is reached that the gap may be bridged by raising aware- ness of how zooarchaeology can contribute to our understanding of the period.

Zooarchéologie commerciale de l’époque «moderne»: un survol des attitudes et des pratiques.

L’étude des ossements d’animaux datant de la période « moderne »(1750-1950 AD) a été perçue comme négligé et sous-estimé par certains zooarchéologues de travail en Grande-Bretagne et en Irlande, tandis que l’Amérique du Nord est présenté comme un phare de bonnes pratiques. Cet article présente des données de son- dage comparant les pratiques et opinions entre ces deux régions, ainsi qu’avec le reste du mode. Il est suggéré que la principale différence en est peut-être une de perception, et il est démontré que l’étude de l’époque « moderne » est entreprise par des zooarchéologues commerciaux dans chaque région; cependant, à l’extérieur des états coloniaux blancs (États-Unis, L’Argentine, l’Australie, le Canada, le Chili, la Nouvelle-Zélande, l’Afrique du Sud et l’Uruguay), cette recherche est très rarement publiée. La conclusion émise est que cet écart peut être refermé en sensibilisant la discipline à la manière dont la zooarchéologie peut contribuer à notre compréhension de l’époque « moderne ».


1. Thomas, R.M., 2009. Bones of Contention: Why Later Post-medieval Faunal Assemblages in Britain Matter, in: Horning, A.J., Palmer, M. (Eds.), Crossing Paths or Sharing Tracks?: Future Directions in the Archaeological Study of Post-1550 Britain and Ireland. Boydell and Brewer Ltd., Woodbridge, Suffolk, pp. 133–148.

2. Murphy, E.M., 2007. An Overview of Livestock Husbandry and Economic Practices in the Urban Environments of Post-Medieval Ireland, in: Horning, A., Ó Baoill, R., Donnelly, C., Logue, P. (Eds.), The Post-Medieval Archaeology of Ireland 1550-1850. Wordell Ltd., Wicklow, pp. 371–392.

3. Landon, D.B., 2005. Zooarchaeology and Historical Archaeology: Progress and Prospects. J. Archaeol. Method Theory 12, 1–36. doi:10.1007/s10816-005-2395-7

All at SEAA

The Western Mongolia Archaeology Project team (mainly in our previous guise as the Khanuy Valley Project) hit the 6th SEAA conference, in Ulaanbaatar, in a big way this week. Oula Seitsonen presented a condensed version of our recent Past Mobilities paper as a poster (GIS approaches to movement and mobility in the monumental landscape of the Bronze Age Khanuy Valley) and I delivered a paper focusing on the identification of remains from Mongolian stone circles and their corresponding re-interpretation (Rings of Fire?) as well as one outlining the domestic economy of the Bronze Age and Xiongnu periods in the Khanuy Valley (The Culture Changes but the Herd Stays the Same: Bronze Age and Xiongnu Subsistence). Jean-Luc-Houle, meanwhile, focused on the seasonal movement of families in the Bronze Age and contrasted the situation in Khanuy with that in the Altai, based on data gathered during our first season of the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project (Long‐Term Occupation and Seasonal Mobility in Mongolia).

Other highlights of the conference included the big reveal of the finds from the Gol mod 2 cemetery excavations that took place in 2011, by Erdenebaatar, during the opening ceremony and excellent presentations by Julia Clark and Camilla Kelsoe discussing their recent work in Hovsgol province. Camilla used the ceramics from their excavations as a launching pad for discussing the reasons for adopting, or not, new technologies whilst Julia emphasised the need for us to consider hunter-herder interactions in the north of Mongolia. William Taylor presented a pilot study using 3D morphometrics to argue for ridden horses being present in horse-head mounds, examining them at a population level using several criteria to produce a range. Also working at a regional level were papers examining the spread of bronze metal working in East Asia, using compositional analysis (Gary Hsu) and the spread of starchy crops (Xinyi Liu).

It has, then, been a full and tiring week. At 4.30am tomorrow though we leave our rooms in Ulaanbaatar and head for Bayan Olgii and the next phase of fieldwork in the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project. We seem to have another good group of students and volunteers joining us, many of whom took the opportunity to attend some of the conference sessions as well as the usual sight-seeing in the city and we’re looking forward to working with them as we gather more data to improve our understanding of the prehistory of the region. We’ll be back, at the earliest, on July 6th.

lion skeleton


Publication, Publication, Publication

The recent launch of two new open access archaeology journals, Open Quaternary and the Journal of Lithic Studies, has seen me uncharacteristically enter into debate on Twiiter, regarding the merits of journal access models. My arguments were particularly inspired by Open Quaternary – although I never mentioned it by name I suspect that anyone who knows me would have guessed that anyway, so it would seem churlish to pretend otherwise. One of the founding editors of Open Quaternary is one of my oldest friends; Matthew Law and I were at school together and we have, over the years, developed a deep mutual respect for each other’s ideas and opinions (or so I hope!). With that in mind, it’s probably fair to explain the genesis of the journal in Matt’s own words:

“I wasn’t attached to any university at all, which made keeping up with research – too often locked away in expensive to access journals – a pain. Things have improved, more and more researchers are self-archiving their work online for example through services like academia.edu, but I made it my mission back [then] to try to help make research more widely available. Late last year, I published a paper on bryozoans in archaeology, and when I was looking for [a] venue to submit it [in], I realised that Quaternary science and environmental archaeology are quite poorly served for so-called open access journals.” – Matt’s full blog post can be found here.

I couldn’t agree with Matt’s feelings more and they echo the sentiments of a number of researchers, indeed, a lengthy debate on this issue was held on the ZOOARCH jisc mailing list last year. Most academic journals charge exorbitant fees for access. Some associations, such as the Association for Environmental Archaeology, include their journal in membership packages which are quite reasonable. Some don’t even do this though and even if they did, researchers certainly couldn’t afford to subscribe to all of the journals which might occasionally publish articles relevant to their research. Individual article access is no better (currently £15 for Antiquity and $35.95 for the Journal of Archaeological Science, for example) and so institutional affiliation, and associated journal subscriptions, are really the only legal option.

File:Open Access logo PLoS white.svgIn practice, of course, there’s a pretty free ‘illegal’ trade in journal articles. Digital printing has made a mockery of the ‘off-print’ once distributed by an author among his or her peers. These days a pdf is emailed. Once out there, that pdf can be pretty freely circulated among still more people. An author is, of course, entitled to distribute a certain number of copies of their articles and often an email request for such to an author will be favourably received. Now though, other people are often happy to freely distribute articles not their own on email discussion lists and to post their own papers for free download on websites. These technically go against contracts but many researchers are happy to engage in this in the spirit of cooperation and I’m unaware of publishers taking action to stop it. Yet.

It’s big business though. The journals are published and marketed and, for that, there ought to be recompense. Yet they’re often edited on a voluntary basis. Peer-reviews are almost by definition carried out on a voluntary basis. Authors, too, receive no recompense and the research that they describe may have been publicly funded. The internet, clearly, could provide a medium for the free dissemination of research among scholars from less developed countries and less wealthy universities (whose libraries cannot afford to pay many subscription fees) and among researchers unaffiliated with any institution – of which there are many in archaeology. Peer-review, though, despite some criticism, is a model of academic credibility which is still desired by most scholars.

Open Access, then, is a good thing, right? Well, not necessarily. It’s that issue of recompense again. Even a digital platform requires some money to keep it going. The most common form of open access journal (and open access models within traditional journals) has simply shifted the income source. Instead of the reader, the author now pays to have their work published (perhaps we should begin to refer to traditional journals as ‘open access publishing’? Just a thought). I’ll leave aside for now any questions of how this model could be open to abuse and posit my main objection: this model restricts publishing options from those who need them most.

The Journal of Lithic Studies, amazingly, is exempt from this, but Open Quaternary will charge £250 for publication of an article. PLoS ONE, arguably the most prestigious open access journal open to archaeologists, currently charges $500 to researchers from developed nations. Some universities now have a fund set up to help cover some of these costs for their staff. Not all do though and many of those that exist are quite small. For the most part then, the same people that can access journals under the old model can now publish in them under the new model. People that were restricted from reading those older journals though are now blocked from publishing in the newer ones. An independent researcher, or a recently graduated PhD researcher, will very probably not be able to afford these fees.

There’s no easy answer to this debate, which will probably run for many years, but at worst, this model places a value judgement on research before it has even gone through the peer-review system: if you can’t afford to pay these fees, your research is not worthy of publication.

Journals are, of course. not the only form of publication and archaeology, in particular, has a very strong tradition of publishing research in edited volumes. The rise and ubiquity of the internet poses questions for this form of publishing, too. The implausibly named Doug Rocks-Macqueen and Chris Webster have recently self-published a free ebook on blogging archaeology. Clearly, the big publishing houses have to make a return on their investments, which include staff, printing and marketing costs, but I cannot think of a justification for ebooks being priced the same as hard-copy.

The morning before last I received a copy of the latest volume to which I have contributed, Past Mobilities: Archaeological Approaches to Movement and Mobility, through the post – and a very handsome volume it is too. I am, however, disappointed to see that the ebook versions cost the same as the hardback. Jim Leary has done an excellent job editing (as well as writing a brilliant introduction to) a collection of papers which seeks to move archaeological discussion away from a fixation on apparently static sites and reminds us of the dynamic nature of people’s lives and belongings. My own contribution is as a co-author to ‘GIS approaches to past mobility and accessibility: an example from the Bronze Age Khanuy Valley, Mongolia’ with Oula Seitsonen and Jean-Luc Houle. This seeks to build on the work of Torsten Hägerstrand, and his ideas about time geography, in interpreting seasonal movement patterns in one region of prehistoric Mongolia. As such, this places the experience of past people and their mobility in the landscape as the centre of focus rather than any particular archaeological sites. Oula must take most of the credit, both for his theoretical background and his informed use of GIS approaches to our subject. The book can be found now through the usual place on my website.

lion skeleton


The Shoat

Shoats. Sheep-Goats. Sheep/Goats. Ovi-Caprds. Ovicaprids. For some reason never ‘geep’. Anyone who’s ever read a zooarchaeological paper or report from the last forty years will almost certainly have come across at least one of these terms and it’s been a bugbear of mine for quite some time. For anyone unfamiliar with the lexicon or the problem it’s thus: domestic sheep (Ovis aries) and goats (Capra hircus) are very difficult to distinguish from each other osteologically. Various researchers have looked at the problem over the years and it is possible to separate them through a select few elements1, but this is necessarily reliant on the vagaries of taphonomic factors as well as researcher experience. Careful readers will note that I said ‘a few select elements’ though – so even if preservation and recovery are perfect, and the zooarchaeologist vastly experienced, there will still be a large number of bones that are impossible to definitively assign to either species.

Hence the Shoat. It’s been pointed out before that the two species, although closely related, are vastly different ecologically, ethologically and symbolically and so we should not, perhaps, consider them in this interchangeable way2. These are valid points which all researchers should consider, even if the fundamental aim of separating them proves more difficult. My gripe is slightly different however. It is, in fact, essentially etymological. The shoat, the sheep-goat, exists – as the BBC kindly reminded us this week.


Before zooarchaeologists the world over roll their eyes with irritation though, let me elaborate. Sheep-goats exist, as the BBC cameraman delighted in showing us, and we should not be using the term to describe an animal whose precise identification we’re unsure of. I would hope my peers will agree with me that as scientists we have to be very careful and precise in our use of language – it could be said that the value of the research depends upon its effective communication. Sheep/goat is perhaps marginally better but Ovicaprid is meaningless. There is, however another alternative – one which I, like many other specialists, have used for years: caprine. Perhaps some people have avoided the noun through confusion with its definition as an adjective (goat-like); when used as a noun, however, it means any species belonging to the tribe Caprini. These are basically sheep, goats and their wild relatives.

I think this is important to get right. Working principally with pastoral societies I’ve identified a lot of caprines over the years and been frustrated that I’ve often been unable to take identification further than that. I’ve never identified a sheep-goat before though.


Also reported on the BBC in the last fortnight, the annual British garden birds survey saw a large rise in the number of blue tits. Regular readers of this ‘blog will know that I’m very keen on birds – both in the present and as zooarchaeological subjects. The paucity of garden birds in archaeological assemblages often puzzles me, as largely commensal species they should be far more common and it perhaps reflects the poor preservation and recovery of their small, fragile bones. Alternatively, it may reflect different patterns of waste disposal on past habitation sites and it’s noticeable that the wild bird species that are most often found on archaeological sites are usually those that were probably eaten. Last year, for example, I filed a report for Exeter Archaeology on the Roman period remains from the Princesshay development in the city centre (Broderick, 2013, Zooarchaeologica Isca Dumnoniorum) and found that woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) was the fifth most common ‘species’ on the site – following caprines in fourth place, a designation which certainly featured both sheep and goats.



  1. Such as some teeth and the mandible (Boessneck, 1969; Halstead, et al., 2002), the distal humerus, distal tibia, astragalus and calcaneum (Boessneck, 1969; Payne 1969, 1985; Kratochvil, 1969) and the distal metapodials (Boessneck, 1969). For full references see any of my reports.
  2. Barbara Noddle’s article of 1994, ‘The Under-rated Goat’, in the book ‘Urban-Rural Connexions’ remains an excellent overview of this topic although it’s been picked up by many more authors since, such as Umberto Albarella and Kristine Jennbert.