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.

Season’s Greetings


This has been a very busy year for me; fieldwork for projects in Mongolia and France has been completed and a new project has begun in Nigeria, all against the background of a move to the University of York.  As those projects reach the end of their lifespans, however, I get to look forward to with some excitement to 2012 and new projects beginning in Mongolia and Tanzania just as other projects enter new phases of post-excavation analysis, including my work in Exeter.

All in all, 2012 promises to be just as busy as 2011 and as I look forward to the new year I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my colleagues and clients for their help and support in the last year and to wish them A Very Happy Yule.


lion skeleton


The field season in Khanuy delivered some good data, and it was nice to catch up with old friends and make new ones.  Several articles for publication are planned from the results of this research and updates will appear here as they become available.

Among many emails awaiting me when I returned was one from the organisers of this year’s AEA conference in Amsterdam on 21st-22nd October this year, informing me that my presentation had been accepted.  A copy of the abstract can be found below:

Make Do and Spend

The development of towns and cities occurs in relation to their region – that is not only their hinterland but the wider province for which they are the cultural, religious and economic centre. Often, these regions are difficult to determine archaeologically and with animal products forming the largest sector of the pre-industrial economy their analysis might be seen as one potential way in which to do so. Such analysis might lead not only to the re-evaluation of economies, but also to a more refined understanding of social gradation within urban societies.

The characterisation of archaeological sites by affluence and social standing is commonly accorded following analysis of zooarchaeological material and (sic) subsistence. This kind of classification has been successfully demonstrated numerous times on Mediaeval sites but presents specific problems on Mediaeval urban sites where the mixing of material from several different family (and thus social) units is probable.

This paper uses the zooarchaeological assemblage from Mediaeval Exeter (UK) to suggest that such considerations of social status may be applicable within urban assemblages, just as they are between rural assemblages. Individuals and families with the widest contacts and social and economic importance within a city’s region might be supposed to consume a greater proportion of higher status foodstuffs, such as wild animals in the Mediaeval period. Conversely, those of lowest status probably subsisted to a greater extent on what food they could produce themselves – within British Mediaeval cites this was most commonly the raising of pigs. Social and economic status in-between these two extremes could be characterised by the purchasing of livestock held to be common and low status in rural areas, such as cows and sheep, not raised within cities themselves.

The analysis of the urban zooarchaeological assemblage presented here aims to show the proportions of urban subsistence, hinterland subsistence and delicacy procurement within a city’s wider province, and hence the proportions of the population which might fall into the self-sufficient (producing) base, the procuring wealthy (with province-wide contacts and status) and those in-between – that is, those that ‘make do’ and those that ‘spend’. This kind of analysis, though stopping short of the identification of social units, may suggest the social balance characteristic of developing cities and the intra-urban subsistence and extra-urban surplus levels necessary for such a community – the demand-supply feedback loop which enables and drives the development of urban centres and their regions.

Return to Khanuy

Today I leave for the final season of fieldwork in the current phase of the Khanuy valley project and shall be returning at the end of June.

This promises to be a very exciting and productive month, the results of which will be written up and published over the next year or so.  During this time, of course, email communication will be sporadic.

It’s been a very busy few weeks preparing for the expedition, notably with report writing and also organising the 4th Applied Sciences Postgraduate Conference at Bournemouth University.  The abstract of my own presentation, entitled “The Economy and Ecology of Historic Exeter” can be seen now on my Academia profile, whilst the conference programme can be downloaded from my Mendeley profile.