Yes, it’s Dung Awareness Day (and I bet you didn’t even send a card). I don’t know if this will become an annual feature – probably not – but this time around it’s been inspired by the arrival of the new issue of Environmental Archaeology. It’s a special issue devoted to bioarchaeological research on animal dung. The intention, according to the editorial, is to provide “a base for increasing the awareness of dung as an important archaeological find category and for standardisation of its study” (p.2). So, to do my bit towards this laudable aim, I’ll provide a brief review of this volume, with a focus on one particular article, looking specifically at what dung can tell us about farming in the past.
Before continuing, I should specify that we’re talking here about actual preserved faeces, not just trace evidence of dung (such as where phosphate analysis of soils is used to identify manuring or stabling – something I should write about in another post). And I don’t want to give the impression that archaeologists have only just discovered dung. Back in 1996, the very first issue of Environmental Archaeology included papers such as “Disentangling dung: pathways to stable manure” (Hall & Kenward 1996). In Viking-age York, the famously large – ahem – ‘deposit’ at Lloyd’s Bank has no doubt livened up many a school visit. I’ve even found charred dung-like pellets in my samples from Lyminge (yet to be interpreted!). Bringing us up-to-date, the current volume of Environmental Archaeology stems from an international, interdisciplinary workshop held in 2010 at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, with a view to establishing “more common methodological approaches” (p.1). If I weren’t writing this on a train, I’d dig out a copy of Manure Matters, another recent dung-related publication, for comparison (Jones ed. 2012).
Now, a cursory glance at the bewildering number of authors responsible for some of these papers (e.g. the eight people behind Kuzmicheva et al. 2013) will tell you that this is something of a sciencey volume. And sure enough, the very first paper gives us some molecular diagrams (Linseele et al. 2013). This paper’s about the preservation and recovery of archaeological dung, and the methods we can use to identify what species produced a given faecal deposit: its size and shape, its biological contents, its chemical composition, even ancient DNA. Given a good state of preservation and ample funding, we could stand a good chance of identifying the species from which some dung ultimately derived.
There then follow two experimental papers. The two Michaels (Wallace and Charles 2013), examine the dung of modern sheep whose diet is already known, in order to find out how well different plant parts survive the sheep digestive process: in short, cereal grain and chaff rarely survive, whereas various wild plant seeds survive pretty well. In this way, the authors demonstrate a crucial rule for interpreting the botanical contents of archaeological dung: “What goes in does not always come out.” In a rather different experiment, meanwhile, Valamoti 2013 compares undigested glume bases (chaff) of einkorn – a hulled wheat – with those derived from the pellets of a modern goat, and finds that goat digestion creates a “rugged” surface on the glume bases. Hence, it is possible to distinguish dung-derived glume bases from those otherwise burned, in the archaeological record.
Three archaeological case studies then follow, looking at what hyrax dung in Ethiopia can tell us about long-term vegetation history (Kuzmicheva et al. 2013) and the gut contents of elephants and other animals from a Predynastic cemetery in Egypt (Marinova et al. 2013). But it is the paper by Kühn et al. that is perhaps most relevant for Farming Unearthed – specifically, animal husbandry unearthed. They consider dung from the well-known Neolithic Alpine lakeshore settlements – famous for being waterlogged (thanks to rising lake levels) and therefore often extremely well-preserved. Two German sites on Lake Federsee are chosen as a case study. In terms of chronology, we’re talking early 3rd millennium BC. Dung from both sites was analysed, including micromorphology of the dung itself, the parasites preserved within it, and the botanical remains too. In this way, a substantial difference is revealed between what you might call the two site’s ‘dung signatures’. At Alleshausen-Täschenwiesen, we have the pellets of sheep/goats, whose botanical contents suggest that the animals were overwintered within the settlements and fed on twigs and leaves (p.55). At Alleshausen-Grundwiesen, but contrast, we have “a huge layer of cattle manure” (p.53) from cattle which grazed, free-ranging, during the daytime throughout the year, but were brought back into the settlement at night – where they were sometimes perhaps foddered, and where they evidently also produced a lot of manure (p.55).
Clearly the wider significance of these findings will only become apparent when more analysts follow the authors’ example, and provide comparative dung studies for many more Neolithic lakeshore settlements. But this is a useful and thought-provoking contribution to a useful and thought-provoking volume. Give it a try, if you can get hold of a copy. It may not be glamorous, but it’s surely time to embrace dung-studies as an integral part of agricultural archaeology.
Hall, A. & Kenward, H. (1996). “Disentangling dung: pathways to stable manure”, Environmental Archaeology 1(1), pp.123-6.
Jones, R. (ed.) (2012). Manure Matters: Historical, Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives; Ashgate: Farnham.
Kühn, M., Maier, U., Herbig, C., Ismail-Meyer, K., Le Bailly, M. & Wick, L. (2013). “Methods for the examination of cattle, sheep and goat dung in prehistoric wetland settlements with the examples of the sites Alleshausen-Taschenwiesen and Alleshausen-Grundwiesen (around 2900 cal. BC) at Lake Federsee, South West Germany”, Environmental Archaeology 18(1), pp.43-57.
Kuzmicheva, E.A., Debella, H.J., Khasanov, B.F., Krylovich, O.A., Babenko, A.N., Savinetsky, A.B., Severova, E.E. & Yirga, S. (2013). “Holocene hyrax dung deposits in the afroalpine belt of the Bale Mountains (Ethiopia) and their palaeoclimatic implication”, Environmental Archaeology 18(1), pp.72-81.
Linseele, V., Riemer, H., Baeten, J., De Vos, D., Marinova, E. & Ottoni, C. (2013). “Species identification of archaeological dung remains: a critical review of potential methods”, Environmental Archaeology 18(1), pp.5-17.
Marinova, E., Ryan, P.W. & Van Neer, R.F. (2013). “Animal dung from arid environments and archaeobotanical methodologies for its analysis: an example from animal burials of the predynastic elite cemetery HK6 at Hierakonpolis, Egypt”, Environmental Archaeological 18(1), pp.58-71.
Valamoti, S.-M. (2013). “Towards a distinction between digested and undigested glume bases in the archaeobotanical record from Neolithic northern Greece. A preliminary experimental investigation”, Environmental Archaeology 18(1), pp.31-42.
Wallace, M. & Charles, M. (2013). “What goes in doesn’t always come out: the impact of the ruminant digestive system of sheep on plant material, and its importance for the interpretation of dung-derived archaeobotanical assemblages,” Environ