Adventures in Time and Space… and Animal Bones

Regular visitors to Farming Unearthed will know that, on the whole, it’s archaeobotany that floats my flot. But I also take an interest in zooarchaeology – the study of animal bones in archaeology. Indeed, I’m devoting a chapter-or-so of my thesis to the subject. And it’s while reading for this chapter that I encountered an interesting title that I’d like to review in this post:

Wilson, B. (1996). Spatial Patterning among Animal Bones in Settlement Archaeology: An English regional exploration (Oxford: BAR Brit. Ser. 251).

If you’ve ever studied British archaeology, Bob Wilson will be a familiar name, as the author of very many zooarchaeological analyses in excavation reports (particularly in the Thames valley area), besides a number of respected stand-alone studies, such as this volume.

David Miles’ preface indicates that the book is a result of Wilson’s “time for reflection” gained, most unfortunately, through illness. But the work is also a testament to the prolific activity of the Oxford Archaeological Unit in its optimistic youth, and to Wilson’s earlier writings, several of which have been expanded and revised to produce chapters in this volume.

So, the book addresses spatial patterning in animal bones – specifically, patterning among the bones within a given site (intrasite analysis), as opposed to the more common practice of comparing assemblages from different sites (i.e. intersite analysis). Chapter 1 provides a literature review, highlighting the dearth of such intrasite spatial analysis of animal bones from sites in the UK, despite the development and application of studies in other parts of the world. Important exceptions are noted, but the general impression is that Wilson finds the approach to have been under-used in some excavation reports and, worse still, that awareness of existing work has remained low among non-specialists.

Wilson’s dataset is drawn from sites in the Upper Thames valley, most lying within 40km of Oxford (Ch.2). For students of my generation, it’s enlightening to read Chapter 2’s brief history of archaeology – and especially environmental archaeology, with an emphasis (of course) on animal bone studies – in the Upper Thames valley, emerging from the somewhat frantic early days of ‘rescue archaeology’. A reminder, amongst other things, that the sub-discipline as we know it is a relatively youthful one. An important implication for this book, however, is that the excavation methodologies employed at these Thames valley sites evolved over time.

Hence, the series of site-by-site case studies in subsequent chapters 3-12 (chronologically and thematically arranged, culminating in a study of Wilson’s own table refuse from the early 1980’s!), tell a methodological as well as a historical story. There are some interesting nuggets here, from both points of view. One memorable image: before the advent of GIS, the key modern tool for spatial analysis, there was tracing paper, graph paper, and the ‘Mingies Mandala’ (pp.20-1).

Finally, the volume concludes with some synthetic, modelling chapters. In general, radial patterning appears to characterise bone distributions, to some extent, at settlements of very different date:

“Size of bones, crudely related to both animal size and fragment size, was positively associated with increasing distance from centres of major and pottery concentrations.” (p.70)

Various interacting processes must have contributed to these patterns – e.g. butchery practices, rubbish disposal, and the action of scavenging birds and animals – and Wilson offers valuable insights expressing how the radial patterns may have emerged. Beyond such functional interpretations, there lurks the spectre of ritual, symbolic activity, which gets some consideration in the closing chapters – all very diplomatically addressed, for an avowedly scientific writer. I’ve a particular liking for this sentence:

“…we may increase our mental dexterity about what constitutes the economies of other culture while allowing for the diversity if their values, symbolism and behaviour…” (p.87)

So, a recommended book. A short, readable volume that’s “good to think with”, as they say. But what, you may ask, has this to do with Farming Unearthed? Fair question. At best, surely, this is butchery unearthed? Well, yes, and that’s why I found this a thought-provoking read. For how often do we read something like the following in an excavation report: “cattle were an important part of the pastoral economy along with, to a lesser extent, sheep and pigs”, with an implicit assumption that bones = animals, or rather that bone quantities = animal importance. It’s difficult to escape this kind of paradigm, not least because it’s easy to calculate, easy to understand, and in many instances probably not too inaccurate. But clearly, if by chance we discover only the centre (or periphery) of a settlement with a radial pattern of bone distribution, we’re only going to have half of the boney story. In short, if we’re going to reconstruct patterns of animal husbandry, we’ve got to work backwards – from fork to farm, so to speak – and that means starting with biases in the final depositional patterns of animal bones. A tall order, and one that we’re often unlikely to be able to fulfil, but a crucial thought to have on the periphery.



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