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.

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:

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.

How Can Different Methods of Deadstock Disposal Inform Zooarchaeologists About Past Taphonomies?

I’ll be presenting a case study on Carcass disposal and inter-site variability at the PZG workshop on Taphonomy: spotting it, recording it, and making sense of it… at the University of York on Saturday the 16th of July.  This presentation will compare ethnographic research carried out in Ethiopia and Mongolia and the different uses these have been put to in interpreting archaeological assemblages.