Sam started his career with the Jorvik Group as a Visitor Service Host back in 2010 for the Medieval attractions, having graduated a few years beforehand with a BSc in Archaeology at the University of York. Since coming to the Trust he has completed a Masters in Bioarchaeology at York, with an interest in human and animal bone and the ways that they can be presented to the public. Sam currently works across the Medieval attractions as both a Visitor Service Host and Site Supervisor.
I was chosen to assist in a rationalisation project of the animal bones from a 1978 excavation of 118-126 Walmgate. This rescue excavation, carried out in advance of housing development, showed signs of occupation from post-Roman to modern day. In the medieval and post-medieval period, three timber framed structures were built and thirteen clay-lined pits were found during excavation. Near to (and overlain by) these features were four less regular pits which most of the animal bone was discovered in. These pits seem to have been cut into a working floor which contained a number of sheep bones. The majority of remains were hand collected, but one context had been sieved (1097). A fasicule of some of the selected groups of bone was published by the York Archaeological Trust (Fasicule 15/1) and the bones analysed by Terry O’Connor.
Our task was to go through the boxes that contained the animal remains from this site to determine what remains were present and if there were any that were of interest. When we started it was clear that some of these remains have not been analysed for a long time, whilst others had been neatly organised by other people. We then went through each box, identifying the quantity of material, the condition and the identity of the bone as well as if there were any unusual features; butchery marks or pathologies for example. It also allowed us to identify any misplaced artefacts, such as bone handles, pottery, metal artefacts, and clay pipes, and set them to one side.
What we found was an abundance of sheep remains; mainly phalanges, which numbered in the thousands. Cow bone was often found, but in a fragmented state, and these remains often contained evidence of butchery. It is clear just from the cataloguing of the remains alone that archaeological investigation must have excavated an area dedicated to the disposal of butchered animal remains, especially parts which were of little use for consumption, such as the lower limbs of sheep. Indeed O’Connor suggests that this may have been a site dedicated to the manufacturing of parchment from sheep skin (O’Connor, 1984, page 55). Other animals that were occasionally discovered were fish (mainly their vertebrae) and chicken. Certainly these quantities of animals primarily used for food consumption indicate a waste disposal site on a somewhat industrial scale.
It was also fascinating, discovering the more unusual remains within the contexts. Sometimes we discovered tiny vertebrae and long bones from contexts, the remains of the rats and mice that inhabited these sites. The well preserved nature of these small bones made them fascinating to identify and to wonder at their survival. One day we also came across the nearly entire remains of a dog, an unusual occurrence. Usually we found a single skeletal element, such as a rib or a long bone, and we would consider ourselves lucky to find it intact, especially larger elements. The dog on the other hand was well preserved and it was clear that these skeletal elements all belonged together.
This secondment reminded me of the importance of cataloguing. By knowing exactly what remains are present and where they are located means that research can be conducted more efficiently when requested. Whilst it is not glamorous, large quantities of sheep metacarpals may be useful for osteological research. Dental remains could be important for genetic research. An entire well-preserved dog skeleton can be used as part of a reference collection. Cataloguing is highly important in that it is the basis on which scientific research can be conducted into the past.
Besides this reminder, the cataloguing has also assisted in improving my identification skills. I feel extremely confident in identifying certain skeletal elements, especially the first, second, and third sheep phalanges. These skills are essential in zooarchaeology and only arise through practice. I feel more confident in distinguishing animal remains and determining which animals they may arise from.