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. 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.

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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

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, 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.

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Hunter-Gatherer Interaction and Learning from the Pastoralist Past

This month, a news article in Science focussed on Jeff Leach’s latest research among the Hadza. Jeff’s previous positions, such as in the archaeology department at the University of Leicester might, at first glance, suggest a change of direction when compared with his current position at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine but in truth his research has always focussed on the effects of diet on an individual. Indeed, his research career is based on a very personal story and, however much the ‘palaeodiet’ fad may, to my cynical eyes, appear to be a direct descendent of the noble savage paradigm, his research may turn out to be important.

Part of me wonders at the way in which such projects are typically reported, however. ‘One of the few last remaining hunter-gatherer peoples’ can often be swallowed and spat back out by the media as ‘endangered’. Indeed, the Hadza are themselves often portrayed in this way (I chose that link not because of any exceptional reporting content but because it has some very good photographs!). The truth is probably rather more complex than that, however. The Hadza are, it is true, surrounded by modern life. The thing is, they always have been. Today it’s a disinterested (embarrassed? well-meaning?) government, before that it was farmers, but, before that, it was pastoralists. It’s only the nature of the ‘modern’ that changes in this story and we could perhaps place more emphasis on the cultural resistance of the Hadza.


Long-time readers of this ‘blog will be aware of our catchily named ‘Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania’ project, which focuses on identifying the spread of pastoralism in Sub-Saharan Africa. An important contextual area of study for that though is to understand the mechanism for spread and, therefore, herder/hunter-gatherer interactions (an important primary research interest for Mary Prendergast, one of the project’s co-directors). From a zooarchaeological point of view, for example, it’s probably overly simplistic to suggest that an assemblage containing domesticated animals from this period is necessarily produced by pastoralists – trading and raiding undoubtedly took place on both sides, just as they continue to do so today.

That said, the presence of domesticated animals clearly indicates that pastoralists, with their livestock, were in the area if not on the site, which does at least help us to identify the spread of the phenomenon. Understanding the nature of that spread is probably a topic which will continue to be debated for the rest of my lifetime. Following our fieldwork in 2012, we are now able to confidently assert that this spread was occurring in Northern Tanzania at least as early as 1023-846 BC. We published this date as part of an article in Azania last month, discussing the results of one part of our survey work that year. The full abstract for the paper is repeated after the break.

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Pastoral Neolithic sites on the southern Mbulu Plateau, Tanzania

As part of a larger project examining the introduction of herding into northern Tanzania, surveys and excavations were conducted at the southern edge of the Mbulu Plateau, documenting the presence of Narosura ceramics dating to the early third millennium BP, as well as a Later Stone Age occupation dated via ostrich eggshell to the tenth millennium BP. This marks the southernmost extent of the Pastoral Neolithic in eastern Africa. The paucity of sites attributable to early herding in this area may be due to a lack of survey in landscapes likely to have been preferred by livestock owners and to extensive contemporary cultivation in those same areas. Links can be drawn between the study area and previously documented sites with Narosura materials near Lake Eyasi, and between the study area and obsidian sources in the Lake Naivasha area of the Rift Valley, making the plateau and its surroundings a potentially promising area for further research.

Animal Other Than Horse Found in Diet Shock!

With the British currently horrified at having been tricked into breaking one of their most cherished taboos and the associated scandal now spreading to Europe, it’s with peculiar timing that I should learn that my paper (co-authored with Jean-Luc Houle) “More than Just Horse: Dietary Breadth and Subsistence in Bronze Age Central Mongolia” should have recently been published in Mongolian Journal of Anthropology, Archaeology and Ethnology.  Of course, the real issue in the European meat trade scandal is one of labelling and honesty (although I’d question the intelligence of anyone who honestly believed that bargain processed meat was ever anything but suspicious) but the way that it has been reported in Britain serves to remind us of the cultural implications of dietary choice.  Were this a muslim country then it’s safe to assume that the pork that ended up unlabelled in beef meatballs would have been more controversial.

The reasons behind the British taboo on hippophagy remain as obscure as its origins.  The simple truth is that we do not know when the taboo began or why.  I recently read an archaeologist who referred to the consumption of horse-flesh in Mediaeval Winchester but did so without fully explaining that interpretation, which is a great shame when related to such a controversial topic and in a period which sees butchered horse remains more commonly interpreted as dog-food waste in Britain.  Others have suggested that the taboo extends back into at least the Iron Age.  What we do know is that the taboo is not shared by our neighbours across the English Channel: the taboo is a peculiarly British phenomenon not shared by our Europeans cousins.

Given the prevalence of this taboo, largely carried over to other British-settled states such as Canada, Australia, South Africa and the USA, it may seem odd that academics might argue for the existence of a people subsisting on nothing but horse meat.  Nevertheless, that is just what has been suggested in the case of prehistoric Mongolia; a case of the projected ‘barbarous other’?  Our work in Mongolia has revealed a far more complex society than hitherto suggested, with a dietary base already broad in the Bronze Age.  Here’s a copy of the abstract of that article I mentioned that’s just been published:

Our current state of knowledge of subsistence strategies and dietary breadth in Bronze Age Mongolia has been hampered by a monument focused research paradigm, which has largely ignored habitation sites. This approach has skewed our understanding by extrapolating the ordinary from the extraordinary. The Khanuy Valley Project has recently excavated Bronze Age transhumant habitation sites in central Mongolia and recovered the associated faunal remains. Analysis has revealed a complex subsistence strategy focused on the herding of several species of domestic animal, with dietary breadth increased through the minimal exploitation of wild resources.

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All Quiet?

Things haven’t been quite so quiet around here as my silence would suggest.  We managed to gather some very useful ethnoarchaeological data on the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project, but while I was away my laptop broke: hence the deafening silence here.

In that time I’ve had copies of book reviews published of Living With Herds by Natasha Fijn (in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society) and Food, Craft and Status in Medieval Winchester by Dale Serjeantson and Helen Rees (in Hortulus).  Both are available now via my profile.

In terms of the dissemination of research, I also heard that a paper jointly presented with Mary Prendergast, Oula Seitsonen, Katherine Grillo and Audax Mabulla has been accepted for this year’s AEA conference in Reading, concerning the spread of Pastoralism in East Africa.  A full copy of the abstract for this is given after the break.

On the teaching front, the next Introduction to Zooarchaeology short course at the University of Sheffield has now been fully booked, dates about the next one will be published here when they are settled.  Bookings are now open though for both the Introduction to Zooarchaeology and Introduction to Ethnoarchaeology courses at the University of York.

After such a lightening round up it only remains for me to excuse myself for another absence.  My bag is now packed and I’m about to leave for more fieldwork as part of the Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania project.  Before returning home and teaching in Sheffield I’ll be visiting Helsinki for the EAA conference; I may be able to access the internet and post something from there but otherwise I’ll be out of contact until the second week of September.

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No Flies on Us: The Diffusion of the Neolithic in Africa


The emergence of the Neolithic in Sub-Saharan Africa was not accompanied by a move towards sedentism, as in many other parts of the world, but instead accompanied the diffusion of a nomadic pastoralist lifestyle. Although pastoralist Neolithic sites are known in both East and West Africa as well as in Southern Africa, the precise route, timing and method of this diffusion through a tropical environment which would require acclimatisation to different ecologies and diseases is still the subject of some conjecture but two competing models have gained wide support among archaeologists working in the area. The more favoured model supposes that livestock (and, therefore, pastoralists) could have moved relatively freely through a tse-tse fly free corridor in the eastern side of the continent stretching from modern day Kenya to South Africa.

The Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania project was conceived to identify sites in the northern most part of this corridor in order to test this theory and to examine issues of Neolithic – Hunter-Gatherer interaction. This presentation aims to highlight the on-going work to answer some of these questions through the initial results of the zooarchaeological analysis of the sites identified thus far.

1, Department of Archaeology, University of York, The King’s Manor, York. YO1 7EP. UK. 2, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, St. Louis University in Madrid, Avenida del Valle, 34 28003 Madrid. Spain. 3, Department of Geosciences and Geography, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 64, FI-00014. Finland. 4, Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1114, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899, USA. 5, Archaeology Unit, P.O. Box 35050, University of Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam. Tanzania.

Out, About and Away

I arrived in Mongolia last week and it’s been good fun catching up with old friends.  We have managed to get some good work done already and tomorrow we leave for Bayan Olgii on an early morning flight.  Returning in late June, I’ll be out of email contact until then.

Since I last posted here my review of Ethnozooarchaeology (by Albarella and Trentacoste) has been published in Ethnoarchaeology.  A copy of this is available on the Left Coast Press website or through the usual channels.

Also recently announced is the next Sheffield Zooarchaeology Shortcourse, to take place September 5th-7th.  This continues to be extremely popular: a review of the last course can be seen here –  For more details of the course see

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The Tortuous Process of Ritualisation

imageIn the post today I received a copy of “The Ritual Killing and Burial of Animals: European Perspectives”; a glossy hardback volume that should be of some interest to many zooarchaeologists and perhaps others too.  It includes my paper “Ritualisation (or The Four Fully Articulated Ungulates of the Apocalypse)”, based on research carried out in 2008 and first presented at a conference in 2009 (the proceedings of which form the basis of this publication).

Alongside ethnographic work carried out in Ethiopia I discuss a broad range of topics, including Mediaeval European conceptions of famine and disease, in relation to the interpretation of fully articulated animal bone groups (ABGs) in archaeology.  ABGs are often interpreted as ritual deposits by archaeologists but this paper argues that such interpretations are often no more than the poorly considered results of a an undefined prejudice.  It’s several years since the paper was first researched and written and I’d undoubtedly set about it in a different way now, nevertheless it is there for posterity and a copy of the abstract is included after the break.  A link to purchase a copy of the book is also included on the ‘books’ page of my website.

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Ritualisation (or The Four Fully Articulated Ungulates of the Apocalypse)

It is now common practice amongst British and European archaeologists to interpret burials of fully articulated animal skeletons as evidence of ritual activity, particularly on sites from the prehistoric or Roman periods. This interpretation of ritual activity has become an accepted analysis for many archaeologists, despite the full meaning behind such an interpretation remaining obscure. It is sometimes applied as a short-hand for these deposits without full consideration of other potential explanations.

Whilst conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Ethiopia during 2008, many fully and partially articulated bovid skeletons were observed on the ground, and were reported buried. The reasons behind such methods of disposal were discussed with the local people and are here presented with reference to other examples, in the hope that they may aid future interpretation of archaeological sites and zooarchaeological assemblages as an analogue of use in a variety of temporal and climatic situations.