The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, July 18, 2011

Workin' the Bone

I have been spending my free time working with bone.

I volunteered to help out a friend of mine with a research project. My friend is a professor at a university in England, and has, over the last several years, put together a team of other archaeologists who spend time working on aspects of his principle research project - the excavation and analysis of a series of sites in the south of California's San Joaquin Valley* - and I am his faunal guy. The upshot of which is that I have a box filled with bone, most of it in small slivers due to taphonomic** processes, and I am sorting and doing a basic analysis of it.

It's an odd experience. On the one hand, it is tedious work, sorting through several pounds of bone slivers, most of them less than an inch long, and figuring out what category they belong in (large mammal, small mammal, medium-sized mammal, sea mammal, fish, reptile, etc.), and with large enough pieces, trying to figure out exactly which type of animal it belonged to (deer, skunk, coyotes, and so on). On the other hand, it's also a skill - being able to look at a sliver of bone and see the features that clearly identify it as being from one creature and not another, or knowing how thick a large mammal's cortical bone is vs. a small mammal's, etc., and I have amazingly not lost my skill over the years in which I have primarily written reports and done surveys - in fact, I seem to be getting sharper.

It's also a bit odd for me because this is pure research - there's no resource management angle and no regulatory reason for the work. My friend is an academic, so all of this is done for the sake of generating data, hopefully learning a thing or two about Californian archaeology, and publishing it. So, on the one hand, this means that I do the work on my own time without being able to use company time or resources on it. On the other hand, this means that I am largely free to do what I think is appropriate with the materials, provided that my work meets the needs of the rest of the team working on the research project.

One of the things that this is reminding me of, though, is just how much pains-taking, often monotonous work one must engage in when doing research. It is possible that the analysis of the animal bone will reveal something important about the site...but it is equally possible, perhaps even more likely, that it won't. Still, we have to do it so that we can be certain that we haven't unnecessarily left an obvious route of investigation out***. One of the things that I often hear or read when I see pseudo-archaeologists respond to criticism that they haven't bothered to do basic due-diligence in working out their conclusions is something along the lines of "what, do you honestly expect us to sift through every rock, piece of bone, and scour each part of the ground?" To which I can only respond "why not, we have to."

*The irony of these people leaving a country where the normal summer temperatures are relatively conducive to fieldwork to travel to a hot, arid location where heat stroke is common does not escape me.

**Taphonomy is the study of post-depositional processes - that is, the study of what happens between the time that archaeological materials are discarded and the time that an archaeologist comes along and digs them up. Taphonomic processes include items being moved due to soil movement, broken due to animal and plant activity, eaten away due to soil acidity, etc.

***That being said, there will always be something that you couldn't research, look into, or evaluate, either because you didn't think of it, because doing so would have prevented you from investigating something that seemed more important, or because you simply didn't have the time and/or resources. It's unfortunate, but a fact of life.

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