Terry O'Connor

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Useful advice for newbie zooarchaeologists


These few handy tips do not appear in scholarly textbooks, nor are they likely to feature in any university course. They are not, in short, the sort of thing that experienced zooarchs ought to be telling the younger generation. However, in the course of several decades of pushing bones around a bench, a strange sort of cynical wisdom develops, knowledge of how things actually are, rather than how they ought to be in a well-ordered world. The aim of this short essay is to save you the bother of having to find this stuff out for yourself.


Any non-descript straight longbone shaft lacking its articular ends and about as thick as your finger or thumb will turn out to be a sheep-goat tibia shaft. The only exceptions are the 5% or fewer that are whatever other medium-sized artiodactyl is native to your study area (e.g. cervids, antelopes). Any such bone found with a cold-stage Pleistocene fauna will be an intrusive sheep, not the saiga antelope that you would like it to be.

Linnaeus was not a zooarchaeologist. Although Linnaean binomials should be used correctly and with care, other forms of taxa may be more expedient. Hence small ungulate, medium ungulate, big ungulate (smungs, mungs and bungs) and, for beginners faced with bird bones and inadequate reference material, nachos (not-a-chicken).

If a colleague asks for help identifying “A weird hook-shaped bone”, it will be an artiodactyl premaxilla.

Speaking of artiodactyls, there are almost no circumstances in which you need to differentiate between an anterior left 4th first phalanx and a posterior right 3rd first phalanx.

Rib fragments were invented to irritate zooarchs. Don’t let them get to you. Treat them with the contempt they deserve.

Get to know small rodent and amphibian bones. They give you a reason to sit quietly at a microscope, lost in thought or actually asleep, and nobody will disturb you for fear that you will ask their opinion of some obscure bit of anuran.
Reference specimens

In any well-used reference collection, at least one disarticulated skeleton will have three femora.

When prepping bird carcasses, never pluck an owl. After an hour or so, you will have enough down feathers to stuff a king-sized duvet and will have lost the will to live. Owls consist almost entirely of downy feathers and eyeballs: do not mess with either.
Data analysis and recording

Pencil and paper records are fully compatible with all versions of Windows, OS, Linux and Android software.

Statistical techniques are like cars. There are far too many makes and models that all do the same job. If a technique is called something like ‘the Al-Khalili-Milligan-M-statistic’, the odds are that chi-squared will do the same job in half the time.

Avoid getting interested in tooth-marks. They are the gateway drug to a full-blown obsession with bone taphonomy from which you will never, ever escape.

When interpreting mortality profiles of domestic livestock, remember that in the real world, most animal husbandry decisions are the result of collective beliefs that have no basis in fact combined with individual cantankerousness. Optimal productivity is an occasional, and largely inadvertent, by-product.

If asked “What is the best way to measure cattle horncores?”, reply “That would be an ecumenical matter” and quickly change the subject.

Bone pathology is fascinating or baffling or both. If desperate for a diagnosis, emulate our human osteoarchaeology colleagues and make up a name such as “Richards’ Dysplasia” or “Marks-Spencer Syndrome”. It usually works.
Finally don’t forget to spend time watching live animals. You will subconsciously learn a lot about how they run, fly and feed. More importantly, it will get you out in the fresh air.

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