I am involved in a project that is intended to analyze the archaeological remains of a shaman’s cave in Kern County. My part of the project is the faunal remains – the bone, shell, and other animal parts that provide evidence of ancient people’s somewhat-less-than-vegan activities.
Bone in archaeological sites tends to come from a lot of different animals, and tends to be fragmented. For these two reasons, identifying the source of the bone is rarely a straightforward process, and none but the most experienced faunal analysts can pick up a bone and announce what it is, where it came from, and how old the animal was – and even these most experienced analysts can be stumped from time to time.
Enter the comparative collection.
A comparative collection can best be thought of as a road kill library. It’s a collection of bones, teeth, hooves, shell, and sometimes hair and scales, from whatever animal was unfortunate enough to buy the farm in the general vicinity of an archaeologist. Often the collection also contains human bones – increasingly from willing donors, but many collections contain the now decades-old remains of unfortunates who died in third-world countries and were sold to medical schools and science labs in the U.S. and Western Europe.
So, this morning I entered the faunal laboratory at UC Santa Cruz, and began trying to figure out where the bone in the collection I was examining came from. Entering the room, I was delighted to see that in addition to the bones in cabinets that I had come to make use of and the obligatory articulated skeletons on the walls, the lab also housed a desiccated monkey’s head and an articulated skeleton that had either had the soft tissue surrounding it plasticized, or else had very realistic soft-tissue attached to it. This skeleton was posed in a way intended to allow anatomy students to see how the muscle, nerve, and skeletal systems work together, but also made it look as if the poor fellow were still ambulatory AND had realized that some dick of a medical student had stolen his skin. I decided to nickname the guy “Screaming Eddie.”*
Having taken in the local color, I decided to get to work on my appointed task. I got off to a good start; I chose my first bone – the humerus of a large herbivore of some sort – and opened my first cabinet, thinking that I’d start by comparing it to a mule deer. Amazingly, I pulled the bone out of the collection drawer, and it matched the one from the archaeological site exactly. Nice.
So, feeling cocky, I pulled out my next bone – the articular end (part that connects to another bone) of a scapula (shoulder bone). I compared it to the mule deer’s. No dice. I then compared it to an elk, antelope, several sea mammals, and even a human. No match. I never did find out what animal it belonged to. It was the right size for a deer, but there was a small channel on the bone that is not found on deer Scapulae, so I was at a loss.
Well, sometimes you don’t get a match, so I decided to move on to the next bone. This was a tarsal – a bone from the back foot, again from a mule deer. Okay. Next bone, a radius, again from a mule deer. And so on.
In the end, I identified bones from rabbit, gopher, deer, and mice. I was left with a large number of bones that I could find no match for – unfortunately the UCSC collection is rather small, and so there are numerous animals for which a match is not possible. Still, I think I made a respectable showing.
So, there ya’ go, next time you go thinking that archaeology is all Indiana Jones adventure or amazing discoveries in tombs, think of me in the lab surrounding by road kill, mummified monkey heads, and Screaming Eddie.
*I wanted to get pictures of the mummified monkey (mumkey?) and Screaming Eddie, but it seemed likely that the grad student working in the room would probably find that disturbing and disrespectful. So it goes.