Zooarchaeology and the journal Environmental Archaeology

by Hannah Russ

Zooarchaeology is the study of the remains of non-human animals recovered from archaeological sites. This includes the remains of vertebrates; mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fishes, but also invertebrates, including molluscs, insects and crustaceans. Much zooarchaeological research focuses on establishing and understanding past human diet, but the knowledge gained from the study of animal remains also contributes significantly to the reconstruction of past climatic, environmental and living conditions, biogeography and ETC.  Zooarchaeological analysis involves much more than the identification of remains.

Zooarchaeology allows us to reconstruct the relationships that past human populations had with animals. Its study is aided by, and contributes to, research in other fields, including animal ecology, experimental archaeology, ethnography, history, taphonomy, and in more recent decades biochemical analyses. It is multi-disciplinary by its own making.

Vertebrate Zooarchaeology
VanNeeretalIn terms of vertebrate zooarchaeology, every piece of bone, horn or tooth is not only identified taxonomically, it is subjected to a range of analyses including the identification of skeletal element and the specific part of the element that is present (fragmentation). Standard measurements are taken to aid species identification and size reconstruction, which in turn provide information on hunting, fishing and farming practices, and changes in these. The age of animals is estimated by recording the eruption patterns and wear in teeth and fusion of postcranial skeletal elements, again providing evidence for hunting and farming regimes. A taphonomic assessment is carried out; this identifies and records the impacts and evidence for pre- and post-depositional processes including cut-marks, burning, animal gnawing, weathering and staining. All this data feeds into our understanding of how and why the remains of animals become a part of the archaeological record; but more importantly about the people that often lead to their accumulation there, or the conditions in which they were living. While generally the remains of large wild and domestic animals provide us with an insight into past relationships with animal, the remains of small vertebrates; small mammals, birds, amphibians and fish are more frequently used to understand environmental conditions, providing the backdrop for interpreting human living conditions in the past. 

The recently published research on the Swifterbant culture by Van Neer et al. (2013) provides exemplary example of high quality zooarchaeological research. The remains for mammals and fish provide evidence for deer hunting, exploitation of small mustelids (likely for fur), and the use of small, mostly freshwater, fish as a dietary resource. This zooarchaeological evidence is combined with archaeobotanical evidence to provide a fuller understanding of hunting, fishing and seasonality in Belgium in the transitional period between the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, an important period in human development.

Invertebrate Zooarchaeology
VickersPerhaps the largest area of invertebrate zooarchaeology is the study of molluscs. This can generally be split into two main areas. Firstly, the study of marine molluscs with the aim of understanding the exploitation of shellfish as a dietary resource in the past, but also with the potential for informing us about dye production, personal adornment as well as for for the production of musical instruments, lime and use in ornamental decoration. Secondly, the study of marine, freshwater and terrestrial molluscs to aid the reconstruction of past environments. The study of insects recovered from archaeological deposits can also provide information about climatic and environmental conditions in the past as well as human living conditions. Vickers and Sveinbjarnardóttir (2013) recently published their archaeoentomological research in Environmental Archaeology. Their paper provides an excellent example of the information that the study of insect remains from archaeological sites can inform us about past human populations. Vickers and Sveinbjarnardóttir use the evidence from Faxadalur midden deposit, Iceland, to interpret seasonality, site function and discuss traded commodities.

Aside from two special issues on agriculture (in 2010 and 2013) every issue of Environmental Archaeology has featured at least one zooarchaeological contribution. While research published in Environmental Archaeologyhas often focussed on European countries, it is increasingly attracting contributions from a growing international clientel. Zooarchaeological research in Environmental Archaeology spans the Palaeolithic period through to recent times, and topics including climatic and environmental conditions and variation, domestication, dairying, taxonomy, geographical distributions of species, site formation processes, hunting, fishing and fouling practices and animal husbandry (to mention only a few).

Environmental Archaeology’s contribution to the field of zooarchaeology has been significant; it provides an ideal location for the publication of zooarchaeological research of the highest quality.

Van Neer, W., A. Ervynck, A. Lentacker, J. Bastiaens, K. Deforce, E. Thieren, J. Sergant & P. Crombé. 2013. Hunting, gathering, fishing and herding: Animal exploitation in Sandy Flanders (NW Belgium) during the second half of the fifth millennium BC. Environmental Archaeology 18(2): 87-101.

Vickers, K. & G. Sveinbjarnardóttir. 2013. Insect invaders, seasonality and transhumant pastoralism in the Icelandic shieling economy. Environmental Archaeology 18(2): 165-177.