How many deer make trouble?

A news item this morning made the remarkable claim that there are more deer in Britain now “than at any time since the Ice Age”. I call this remarkable, not because I think it may not be true, but because I am a little surprised that anyone feels they can defensibly say such a thing. In fact, the story was about some recent research on roe deer and muntjac numbers in East Anglia. There certainly are more muntjac in Britain than ever before because they are a relatively recent introduction. But roe deer? This species is common enough today, and techniques for estimation of numbers are quite robust. So how many roe deer were there in Britain around 5000 years ago?

We have, of course, little idea, beyond saying that their bones turn up regularly but in small numbers throughout British prehistory. Beyond that, we have little hope of putting population numbers on the species in the past. Studies of roe deer genetics based on ancient DNA from their bones might give us some ball-park estimates, though those figures would be based on assumptions about their distribution and breeding behaviour.  Otherwise, we know they were present, we suspect they were quite common and widespread, but beyond that it would be a brave zooarchaeologist who staked their reputation on comparing absolute population numbers now and back then.

Even if deer are so abundant, is that a problem? Maybe so, as they have quite an impact on the vegetation around them, and that in turn may affect other species. Removal of scrub by grazing off seedlings may affect small birds and invertebrates, and competition for grazing may affect hares. There are calls for a cull, of course, as any animal that gets out of hand in our largely artificial countryside has to be culled. Why not delegate the cull to another species? We need a predator that would take out small deer species in a landscape of mixed woodland and clearings, without presenting a danger to the human population. Yes, I am going to recommend re-introduction of lynx. They fit the purpose excellently, and were a native species until Anglo-Saxon times. Ramblers need not fear being stalked and slaughtered by lynx, but the possibility of a sighting on some misty morning would certainly add a frisson to walks in Thetford Chase or Kielder Forest.  Zooarchaeology does a good job in reminding us what has been altered, gained and lost over the millennia. England has gained muntjac and lost lynx. The solution is obvious.

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My kingdom for a horse au poivre?

The ladies and gentlemen of the press have already had quite a lot of fun with the coinciding news stories of horse meat traces found in supermarket beef products, and a skeleton identified as that of King Richard III found in Leicester. I am not sure which was the more surprising of the two. Historical record has it that Richard’s body was buried in Leicester, and an astute desktop exercise identified where it would be if it was there at all. Excavation then found a male of about the right date, age and build, with a spinal deformity and with DNA showing a female ancestor in common with a living Plantagenet descendant. So far we have had a press conference and lots of newspaper and tv coverage. The full, detailed, peer-reviewed publication of the evidence will make good reading, and one hopes that it will not be too long in coming out. And then, perhaps, it will be clear to us non-Ricardians why a skeleton with a severe scoliosis was so immediately accepted by historians who have spent decades assuring the world that the ‘hunchback’ image was just Tudor propaganda.

Delicacy or abomination?

Delicacy or abomination?

As for horses, was anyone really surprised? Adulteration of food is not exactly a recent phenomenon, and I do not doubt for one moment that meat or offal from cheap beasts was passed off as something more desirable in the past. It is not exactly unusual to find horse bones amongst the debris in medieval towns in England, often butchered in much the same way as contemporary cattle bones. The ambiguity stretches back to Pope Gregory III (aha, another ‘the Third’…) in 732, banning decent Christian folk from eating horses, a practice that he regarded as abominable and pagan. That said, an 8th century Pope would probably regard modern supermarkets, indeed most of 21st-century European culture, as abominable and pagan. So when we find butchered horse bones, the inclination is to find another explanation. Meat to feed the dogs is a popular get-out, rather than admitting that some medieval folk probably ate horse willingly and some probably ate it unknowingly. As many have pointed out over the last couple of weeks, horse meat is lean, flavoursome and surprisingly tender. Given a decent accompanying sauce, it would pass muster as beef or venison. Rather than getting too hot under the collar about the 2013 horsemeat scandal, maybe we should be content that a fine old tradition is still being maintained. We have grown accustomed to labelling that says ‘may contain traces of nut’, so why not ‘may contain traces of horse’?


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Season’s Greetings

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers!

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Another thing of beauty

Further to my previous musings about bones as Things of Beauty, a copy of Katrina van Grouw’s The Unfeathered Bird has just fluttered in to roost on the shelves. Actually, ‘fluttered’ is hardly apposite for a book that weighs 2kg, but the metaphor was irresistible. And so is the book, a delightful integration of art and science that presents drawings of birds, not as usually presented in all their finery, but skinned and skeletal to show the underlying structures. Detailed illustrations feature feet and beaks, and the articulated skeletons stand in remarkably life-like poses. Most of them are far from the conventional anatomical positions beloved of formal textbooks, but they show birds in characteristic positions: a penguin shuffling a stone around at its feet, a skeletal bittern rigidly upright with beak skywards, a skinned guillemot plunging through the water. And a macaw that appears to be sharpening a pencil with its beak, whilst regarding the reader thoughtfully. That one alone is worth the price of the book.

Despite the joy of the illustrations and their intelligent accompanying text, the book leaves me in a bit of a quandary. Have I purchased a useful textbook, one to be recommended to the University Library and placed on students’ reading lists? Or was this pure indulgence, the equivalent of a coffee-table book of Romney portraits? It may not be a simple matter to distinguish these two things. A textbook has to convey information and ideas with clarity, and The Unfeathered Bird certainly does that. The text draws attention to small details of the adaptation of different groups of birds without being didactic, and the drawings combine charm and precision, yet the book does not feel like a textbook. It does not lecture to the reader, and the illustrations give the impression of having been done for the challenge and satisfaction of replicating the complexity of a 3-dimensional animal in a 2-D medium, but doing so without undue artistic licence. And perhaps that is its greatest merit: one could spend hours (OK, I have spent hours) leafing through it with sheer pleasure, whilst almost inadvertently learning a lot of useful avian anatomy. Result!

Tarsometatarsus of a moa. Not all bird bones are small and delicate.

Tarsometatarsus of a moa. Not all bird bones are small and delicate.

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Writing Zooarchaeology

Why not write a textbook? It is one of those things that, along with bungy-jumping and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, probably seemed like a good idea at the time. ‘Way back at the end of the 1990s, I wrote a slim text book called The Archaeology of Animal Bones, thinking that students might find it useful. And some evidently did, and continue to do so. Trouble is, zooarchaeology has moved on, and nothing dates so rapidly as a textbook in a quickly-evolving field. Looking back through AAB more recently, I keep thinking how dated it seems, how much the sources need to be updated, how the illustrations could be improved, the additional chapters that it needs, and so on. So over the last few weeks, having screwed my courage to the sticking place, as Macbeth advises, I have begun the process of revision. AAB2 is under construction.

Even before I have begun to take account of a decade-plus of research, it is remarkable how the whole process of constructing a textbook has changed in that time. Of course, the author knows the key sources for most of his/her subject, but occasionally it is necessary to get an overview of recent literature on some topic or other. Google Scholar has only existed since November 2004 (a factoid which, incidentally, I looked up on Wikipedia), so how on earth did we manage before then? And illustrations: for the 1st edition of AAB, I booked time with a photographer, she took photographs, developed the film and made prints, then the printers did something clever with those prints….. For AAB2, I can produce hordes of digital images, crop and process them as necessary, transmit them digitally: job done. Just the sheer mechanics of the whole business of communication has changed so much since 1999, it fair takes the breath away.

So what has remained the same? The need for a logical structure, clear text, lucid explanation and well-chosen case studies: those things are still in the hands of the author, and no amount of digiwizardry can replace them. Whether AAB2 meets those essentials will be for others to decide. At this stage, all I can do is to revise, amend and expand, and aim to keep the book both informative and interesting.

If a textbook is highly informative, but uninteresting, does it do the job? In other words, is there a place for textbooks that are full of necessary detail but are written in a style that is, frankly, boring? I will not name specific examples, but the literature of archaeology has a number of examples of informative books that somehow fail to engage the reader. Granted, I do fall asleep rather readily, but the least a book can do is to keep me awake. If writing is about communication, doesn’t that communication have to hold the attention of the reader? It is, I think, fair to ask whether an academic who can write a meticulously detailed, agenda-setting research paper will necessarily be the one to author an entry-level textbook that students actually want to read (and, of course, vice versa). And that applies as much now as it did in the days of leather-bound tomes of digested wisdom.

So how best to communicate the fascination of zooarchaeology? Show people how the subject works, what we can find out from old bones, and summarise some of the excellent research that has gone on over the last decade or so. And do so with enthusiasm. Many years ago, I worked with a delightful retired zoology prof by the name of John Phipps. John was, in his prime, a leading authority on grasshoppers and locusts, a subject of considerable importance in tropical Africa. Right to the end of his life, he kept an infectious enthusiasm for the living world, chatting excitedly about the latest discoveries regarding starfish, or whatever, often concluding with the words “Clever little beggars, aren’t they?”. Enthusiasm for one’s subject is such an important attribute in a successful textbook, and I will do my level best to get that across in AAB2. After all, it is difficult not to be enthusiastic about zooarchaeology. Bones are like that.


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A thing of beauty?

Are bones beautiful? I suppose that depends what the term ‘beautiful’ means to you, and it may seem to be misapplied to bits of dead biological tissue. People can be beautiful, as can fine art and scenery, but lumps of bone? My reason for raising this question is having spent a sunny Saturday pottering about a sculpture park, trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to develop the refined aesthetic sensitivity required in order to find beauty in some irregular blocks of stone or large blobs of bronze. Somewhere about the tenth Miró sculpture, as I was losing the will to live, it struck me that there is more aesthetic pleasure to be had in browsing through a skeleton reference collection than in most art galleries. The shapes of bones are curiously pleasing, and a drawerful of specimens of the same element of the skeleton is a fascinating series of variations on the same form, subtly differing from one iteration to the next. Underlying that variation is the complex story of form and function, moderated by the family relationships between species. Bird bones, in particular, have this appeal, their slender delicacy appealing in much the way that intricate glass sculptures or fine porcelain attract the eye. Perhaps if the eye of the beholder is not in too much of a hurry, then bones can be beautiful.

Context matters, of course. A few bleached bird bones washed up on the tide, recalled in tranquility as Wordsworth recommended, may linger in the memory because they recall a particular place and time. Reference collections generally lack those personal associations, but present bones in all their diversity in large quantities. We hold these collections because they are useful: they enable us to confirm the identification of ancient bone specimens by comparison with bones known to have originally grown in a gannet, a cat or a halibut. Without those collections, our identifications could not be validated, and much of what we try to do in zooarchaeology would become approximate and unreliable. So our collections of skeletons are clearly useful.

William Morris, he of the oppressive wallpaper designs and clunky furniture, reckoned that you should have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. We know reference collections to be useful, so that alone should justify cluttering up our labs with skeletons on shelves, in drawers, and hung on the walls. But do all of those specimens have to be useful?  Can we justify giving space to specimens that are probably of little practical utility? I am unlikely ever to work on material from the Antarctic, but if someone offered me a penguin skeleton, would I find room for it? Yes, of course I would, and I bet that many of my zooarchaeological colleagues have specimens in their reference collections that are of doubtful usefulness, but that are aesthetically attractive, or intriguing, or simply amusing. And why not? Perhaps we can admit to ourselves and to each other that we have nothing in our reference collections that we do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful, and find a niche for William Morris in the unlikely surroundings of our labs. But please, not the wallpaper.

Part of the York bird skeleton reference collection
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Cited by CITES

It is not often that zooarchaeology coincides with the weekend newspaper supplements. By and large, zooarchaeologists do not lead alternative lives as cookery writers, nor are we dedicated followers of fashion. That said, I’m often dressed in designer labels: Craghoppers, Regatta, Edinburgh Woollen Mills … what? Ah yes, get to the point.

Saturday’s Independent Magazine carried a nice piece about the remarkable skull collection of Alan Dudley, an article illustrated by some excellent photographs of crania weird and wonderful. It is not difficult to see how someone could become so fascinated by skulls, and the article struck a chord with me (see previous blog on this site). What the magazine article also revealed was that Dudley had been successfully prosecuted on seven counts of breaching CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Quite unintentionally, in purchasing some skulls from dealers abroad, he had been involved in the aforesaid international trade. The possibility of similar convictions arising in relation to zooarchaeology comparative collections was raised a few years ago by the late Jennie Coy, biologist and zooarchaeologist. She was concerned that some collections might include specimens that were obtained legally at the time, possession of which would now be questionable because of changes in the law generally and in the degree of protection given to that species in particular. A certain shiver went down the spines of a few of us responsible for such collections, and I am sure I was not the only one who took a careful look around the lab to see if anything jumped out as clearly a cause for concern.

It is a fascinating conflict of ideals. On the one hand, we want collections to be comprehensive and therefore useful. A lion or tiger skeleton would be very useful indeed as a teaching resource, but neither I personally nor (probably) the Department for which I work could legally own such a skeleton. On the other hand, nobody in their right mind wants to encourage the trade in animal parts that has done so much to reduce populations of, for example, black rhino and tigers. I might want a tiger skeleton for purely research and educational reasons, but some deluded people with far more money than sense will pay huge prices for the same bones because of their alleged and wholly imaginary medicinal properties. I fully support CITES and other wildlife protection legislation, and would not want to do anything to reduce their effectiveness. However, I cannot help feeling that there must be some better way of ensuring that commercial trade in animal parts is clamped down upon without impacting the curation of collections held for educational reasons, and putting the frighteners on harmless zooarchaeologists.

Coincidentally, the same issue arose at York this week while I was sorting through some post-medieval bird bones from a site in the Outer Hebrides.  One small tibiotarsus required a lengthy rummage through the collections. It is clearly of the Family Rallidae (and what a great folk group they were!), i.e. the rails, such as water rail and moorhen. This specimen is of neither of those species, most resembling a rather large, robust water rail. I am nearly certain that it is a corncrake, Crex crex, a species that is still to be heard though rarely seen in the hay meadows of the Hebrides. Today, corncrakes are rare and protected, and we do not have one in the reference collection, nor are we likely to acquire one. A partial solution to this problem may lie in the rapidly-developing techniques of 3D-resin printing. If museums that hold specimens of rare species could be persuaded (or paid, bribed, coerced, whatever it takes) to make detailed 3D laser scans, those scans could now be used to produce detailed resin ‘prints’ of the specimens. A corncrake in every lab! And a tiger would be nice, too.

Crocdile dentary, Leeds Discovery Centre. Should all zooarch collections be able to include such specimens?

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