A New Dawn in Taphonomy?

It’s an exciting time to be a zooarchaeologist: we’re winning prizes. Who’d have thought us humble, bone-fixated weirdoes would ever be feted scientists? I’m certainly not about to argue with the judges though, after Brian Crandall and Peter Stahl’s 1995 Journal of Archaeological Science paper, ‘Human Digestive Effects on a Micromammalian Skeleton’, won an Ig Nobel prize last week.

It’s a brave man who offers to serve his friends and colleagues parboiled shrew. It’s a braver man still who accepts. Yet bravest of all is he who looks for it afterwards.

Such taphonomic studies are nothing new in bioarchaeology – off the top of my head I recall Rebecca Nicholson doing something similar with fish bones and Alan Hall with some plant seeds. Archaeology can be a famously dirty profession but this probably isn’t the image most people have in mind of us. These studies are important though – as the man of the moment, Brian Crandall, said on receiving his award:

“I don’t know why it has taken 18 years to recognise the greatness of the work, but that’s ok. The paper has been cited almost 50 times. It is not just important in archaeology, but also palaeontology. People find these bones all over the place. How you interpret them is tricky.”

That’s the rub of it – how do we interpret all those bones presented to us by kindly excavators? Well, by analogy with other stuff – stuff we’re pretty sure we know the causes of. Sometimes these analogies can be observed ethnographically, sometimes they can be drawn from the historic record and sometimes experiments like this one can be devised with which to test hypotheses. Using uniformitarian assumptions (shrews and people are biologically unchanged for the last few thousand years) we can record what shrew bones are present on a site and compare them with what we might expect to survive human digestion thanks to Crandall & Stahl’s experiment – if some bones are present which don’t usually survive the digestive process then it’s safe to assume that people weren’t eating shrews. If they’re missing however…

Bones in a petri dish. Source: http://images.uk.ask.com/fr?q=sorting+bones+petri+dish&desturi=http%3A%2F%2Feducatoral.com%2Fowl_pellet_lab.html&initialURL=http%3A%2F%2Fuk.ask.com%2Fpictures%3Fqsrc%3D1%26o%3Dffx%26l%3Ddir%26q%3Dsorting%2Bbones%2Bpetri%2Bdish&fm=i&ac=112&fsel=1&ftURI=http%3A%2F%2Fimages.uk.ask.com%2Ffr%3Fq%3Dsorting%2Bbones%2Bpetri%2Bdish%26desturi%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Feducatoral.com%252Fowl_pellet_lab.html%26imagesrc%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Feducatoral.com%252Fclass_movies_02%252FMVC-020F.JPG%26thumbsrc%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Fmedia4.picsearch.com%252Fis%253FPYGSUvCXGd76aKv725uE9wd8NStP1lI9Q1wdqsU9nGk%26o%3Dffx%26l%3Ddir%26thumbuselocalisedstatic%3Dfalse%26thumbwidth%3D128%26thumbheight%3D96%26fn%3DMVC-020F.JPG%26imagewidth%3D640%26imageheight%3D480%26fs%3D26%26f%3D2%26fm%3Di%26fsel%3D1%26ftbURI%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Fuk.ask.com%252Fpictures%253Fq%253Dsorting%252Bbones%252Bpetri%252Bdish%2526page%253D1%2526o%253Dffx%2526l%253Ddir%2526pstart%253D0&qt=

These studies fall within the remit of a discipline which, as the quote above points out, sits somewhere between archaeology and palaeontology. Taphonomy is, literally, the study of burial processes. More hermeneutically, for archaeologists, taphonomy is the study of bias – of everything that alters a record which might disguise what we want to know (usually, for an archaeologist, just as for a palaeontologist, what has happening before an organism died). For zooarchaeologists, then, ‘taphonomic factors’ is a broad term covering everything from the moment an organism died to the moment it was recorded – butchery, deposition, scavenging; even excavation and recording introduce biases of different sorts which are important to understand.

Sometimes taphonomic factors, in themselves, can tell you a lot about the past history of a site. This, in fact, is the focus of my PhD and it’s also the focus of a session I’ll be running at next years ICAZ conference, in San Rafael, Argentina, with Richard Madgwick. Specifically, we’re interested in gathering a number of researchers together to look at new ways in which we can understand the movement of bones in space and what this can tell us about past human behaviours on archaeological sites. As such, this should be considered as a first call for papers and a full abstract is provided below.

lion skeleton



Bones in Space: Taphonomy and the Pre- and Post-depositional movement of bones

Taphonomic analysis has come to the forefront of zooarchaeological research in recent decades, as its immense potential for reconstructing the history of faunal assemblages has been realised. Research on early prehistory has often focussed on identifying agents of accumulation by characterising deposits in terms of their modification and the bones they comprise. Research on later assemblages has tended to pay closer attention to processes of carcass division, dispersal and to a lesser extent refuse management. This session aims to reconcile these approaches by focusing on the movement of bones in space, bringing together researchers from a broad spectrum of zooarchaeological studies; the pre- and post- depositional movement of bones being equally relevant to all archaeological assemblages. Recent research on the pre- and post-depositional movement of bones covers a wide range of taphonomic processes and this session aims to establish a more holistic and less period-specific means by which to study the accumulation of faunal material.

Non-human (including scavengers and geological/fluvial processes) and accidental (such as trampling by humans or animals) agents can redeposit bones – in what ways does this effect an archaeological assemblage and can it be identified? To what extent can carcass processing and distribution, perhaps for food or for craft activities, be recognised and what can it tell us about the societies studied? Do refuse management practices obliterate other pre-depositional taphonomies or are they still discernible? If the former, is the practice itself identifiable? How useful are specific taphonomic modifications as indices for understanding assemblage accumulation? Papers proposing new approaches to recording or analysing taphonomic data and its relevance these or related questions are particularly welcome.


2 Comments on “A New Dawn in Taphonomy?”

  1. […] that I’m co-organising two sessions at the conference: ‘Zooarchaeology of Pastoralism’ and ‘Bones in Space’. Both sessions are shaping up nicely with some good contributions and we’re looking into […]

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