Rachael completed her BSc and MSc by Research at Durham University. Her MSc thesis involved archaeobotanical analysis of Icelandic samples from the Landnám period through to modern day. Although she has a specific interest in the Viking area, she is also interested in the use of plants; particularly their healing properties, throughout the medieval period. Rachael has been employed by YAT since December 2011, firstly at the Gladiators: A Cemetery of Secrets exhibition in Durham and currently at JORVIK Viking Centre and DIG.
Hungate Faunal Bones Project
A limited number of short term placement opportunities were offered to YAT employees, and after applying, I was delighted to be offered the chance to further expand my knowledge of animal bones.
About 305 boxes of animal bone recovered from the Medieval ‘H2’ pits during the 2007-2012 Hungate excavation remained in storage, and rationalisation of this collection was required to gain an overview of the samples, and to identify pieces which held some intrinsic or extrinsic value. Samples were therefore categorised according to species and bone type and then photographed for future record.
In identifying items of intrinsic value the team were looking for bones of unexpected or unusual species for the time-period or area, or those which demonstrated unusual pathology. While samples with extrinsic value were able to indicate additional information such as taphonomic processes taking place on the site, burial environment, farming methods or a particular human activity.
The bones from Cattle species were most common, and while all bovine categories were represented, the distribution was not equal with ribs, vertebrae and feet appearing most often, while skull fragments and pelvic bones were quite rare. It was also common to find the epiphyses of long bones, but unusual to find these bones intact. Of the larger species, Horse bones were also represented, yet while the bones of horses and cattle were very similar, I soon found out how to differentiate between the two. In the pelvis for example, the socket joints display characteristics indentations (Acetabulum), commonly known “vinegar cups”, which tend to be diagnostic for all species. Equine and bovine hoof and toe structures are also easily distinguishable as on each hoof cattle have two toes producing a division in the hoof, whereas for horses there is but a single toe and so a single hoof.
Sheep/Goat and Pig were also abundant, and a greater number of large fragments of skull and even fairly complete skulls were recovered than for the larger bovines. Again ribs were extremely common and were extremely difficult to differentiate. Actually, the Ovine/Hercine anatomy was generally very similar.
These three groups (Cattle, Sheep/Goat and Pig) were recorded differently to the other species due to their frequency, on a 1-4 scale, 1 being Abundant, 2 – Common, 3 – Frequent and 4 – Rare. Other species were simply recorded as present or absent.
Categorising deer bones was a simpler task as the size of the bones tended to reflect the particular species: thus larger bones were from the Red Deer, medium sized from the Fallow Deer and the smallest from Roe Deer.
A number of dogs and cats were found within the samples, and easily distinguishable by size and features. More canine bones were represented, yet this may be because feline bones, being less dense and more lightweight, were more easily degraded and lost to the archaeological record. With dogs, almost complete skeletons were found in single sample contexts and, as there were no signs of butchery marks, it is likely these animals were utilised for hunting. Cats also had their use, keeping down the number of rodents. Rabbit and hare were, represented in small numbers, probably for meat, however with no butchery/processing marks (possibly due to the small number of bones recovered) this cannot be proved. Rodent remains included rats and mice also displayed minimal representation, however like the former group it is likely that many bones were lost through natural degradation over time or during the original site sampling process.
Now I knew very little about bird bones, so it was particularly fortunate that the team included Bethany Fox who is an expert in this area. There were lots of domesticated chickens within the samples; however the Hungate chickens tended to be the Avian equivalent of Andre the Giant. There were also lots of wild Geese and Duck, and some Swan, Raven and a variety of seabirds. Interestingly the Hungate samples also included the first recorded Golden Eagle to be found in York. The photograph below shows the delicate humerus of a particularly tiny bird.
Common frogs and toads were also represented and we found several hedgehogs, and a large claw identified as Ursine (Bear), which would have been of special Intrinsic value, probably indicating the importation of skins. Fish bones were primarily cod, yet several other species were also identified.
Bone is commonly carved to make objects and indeed in the Hungate area the foot bones of cows tended to be cut in an unusual way which probably denoted use in some craft process which, unfortunately, could not be identified. The photographs below however, illustrate more common uses of animal bones; the bone needle was carved from a pig’s fibula and was probably used for the manufacture of clothing.
Pieces of rib were often cut to size and flattened before being decorated and put together to make the sides and/or lid of a box.
Finally, I was really excited to find this example of an ice skate. This had been made from a Horse’s toe. The bone had been flattened on both top and bottom, and would have been attached to the shoe by leather thongs. It had been well used for the bottom surface was really worn down and the thongs had made grooves in the bone. It was an incredibly special find.
The rationalisation project allowed items of little value to be disposed of, while those of value were carefully retained for future use in exhibitions or for other purposes. Many bones had been recovered from cess pits and so were of very poor quality and additionally unhygienic. Bones which were sound and sanitary but in plentiful supply were selected for use at our DIG site. Thus the project achieved its objectives and the team gained valuable experience and understanding. I gained a great deal of enjoyment and inspiration from this opportunity and hope to be given a similar opportunity in the future.