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.

lion skeleton


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