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.

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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.

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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.

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  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.

Salt and Mud on the Atlantic Coast of France

I’ve just returned from a week’s fieldwork in France collecting invertebrate samples for analysis as a part of the EcoSal Atlantis project.  Working on the ecological side of the project, we’re particularly interested in how these intensively managed landscapes provide a habitat for a consistent community of invertebrate species and (often) migratory birds along Europe’s Atlantic coast, from Portugal to Scotland.

This was the first portion of fieldwork in the project and more will follow this year and next as we seek to establish precisely how these ecosystems develop through the year and how they are connected to eachother.  More information on the research project can be found at http://ecosal-atlantis.ua.pt/ (a website concerning the British portion of the project is in production).