More Than Just a Meal: The Importance of Animal Remains in Archaeology

This one’s by Ellis – our second guest writer!


We all share an interest in the past, though few of us take an active role in re-creating it. Our current understanding of human history is based on the accumulation of information, through any source that has survived the test of time. In archaeology, historical records, artefacts and ecofacts form the main basis of new research, though other disciplines are continuously used to provide further clarification and context. Noteworthy disciplines include geographical and biological studies that recreate the environmental, ecological and physiological characteristics associated with a site or object.

In archaeological research, the end result is typically a best guess of what happened and why it did. This interpretation is based on the most durable and pronounced material, as much of what was originally present has now degraded, been relocated or been destroyed. Despite the adversity, modern advancements in technology, reference studies and comparative material mean that information can now be gained from almost anything that’s been recovered. The typical limitation is cost and a lack of specialists, which is why I’ve decided to focus this article on animal bones (although, frankly a book or journal article can, and has been, written on every type of find imaginable).



  • Commonplace – Everyone eats. Typically this involves meat in some quantity (numbers of vegetarians weren’t too high in the past), resulting in a large deposition of leftover bones. Additionally, bones are durable and don’t degrade as quickly as other organic matter.
  • Repetitive – Typically, site fauna is dominated by main domesticates (e.g. cow, sheep and pig) and working species (e.g. horse and dog), making the methodology straightforward. At pre-agricultural sites, in regions with seasonal animal migration routes, and areas that relied more heavily on wild species, identification and subsequent interpretation can be a little harder. The process is still the same though, and repeated species boost the reliability and range of information gained.
  • Cheap and quick – In commercial, volunteer and research archaeology, one of the main limitations is cost. Analysis often involves specialists and laboratory tests, both of which are expensive and time consuming. In the case of animal bones, more specifically a morphological assessment of the bones themselves, a large amount of information can be obtained using just guides (many of which are cheap or free online) and a measuring instrument. This can be conducted anywhere and at anytime making it ideal to a budget restricted archaeological project. Laboratory tests such as DNA and isotope analysis are additionally useful in tracking ancestry, diet and environment, though these are expensive and typically restricted to funded research projects.
  • Simple – Guides associated with morphological assessments are typically straightforward and well-illustrated, making them easy to understand and apply correctly. Differences in species, age, sex, stature and individual bones are pronounced, with few exceptions (e.g. sheep, goat and some deer have similar skeletons). The result is a data set that is understandable, comparable and intrinsic, without a requirement of significant prior knowledge (though it does help).
  • Direct relation – Human-animal relationships are incredibly diverse. Animals are a food source, a work force, a pet and even sometimes ideological symbols. This relationship is permanent in some form throughout history, and with the small exception of natural deaths of wild animals on sites, there is a direct link to the human occupants. Every piece of information gained on the animals reflects the occupants. A cow could be a meal, but it could also be a source of milk and leather, or be used as a workforce for ploughing fields. The age could hint the social economic status of the consumer, with younger and more expensive cows (veal) typically consumed by elites, while old cheap cows were likely consumed by poorer individuals. As demonstrated above, the raw data allows a large amount of further interpretation on the exact nature of associated human populations.



Let’s make up an example to demonstrate what can be learnt!

We have an inland settlement in Britain during the Iron Age, that has just been excavated. There’s no prior information about the site but you have lots of pits filled with animals remains. So where do we start?

  • Species representation – Identify the species of each bone.
  • Element representation – Identify what element (bone on the skeleton) it is.
  • Age – Use tooth wear and epiphyseal fusion (fusion point between the shaft and end sections of long bones) to calculate an age or age range at death.
  • Stature and Sexual Dimorphism (difference in size between sexes) – Take measurements on each bone.
  • Additional notes – Record pathologies and further morphological changes to each bone.



species 1







As illustrated above, we can now make some assumptions about the site:

  • Cows were the main contributor of meat.
  • Cows were only reared for their meat and raised on site.
  • Sheep and pig were raised in significant numbers.
  • Carp and red deer indicate local trade, or hunting and fishing.
  • Cod reveal a long-distance trade network.

Detailed examination of each species, similar to cow, would reveal further details, though the current information provides the basic nature of the site. A significant settlement, with ties to the coast that is predominantly self-reliant on cows for a food source.

Comparison against sites in the neighbouring region further clarify the characteristics of the site and its relationship with the local region. For discussion I’ve created a small map of the local region, with key sites, especially those adjacent to the settlement highlighted.

species 5


Now our understanding has evolved and changed. Within the settlement an area for slaughter has been identified, along with an additional food source (milk) and the production of wool. The latter highlights the possibility of exportation and could even indicate a trade of wool for fish with the nearby river settlement. As a result, the settlement now shifts from self-reliant to a production and trading site for the local region. Although these results remain as interpretations and best guesses, the site and its role in the region has been clarified to some extent, using only a handful of guides and a measuring instrument.

As demonstrated above, the scale on information that can be gained from animal bones at minimal cost is undeniable! Additional studies can also be applied to clarify other aspects of the population (e.g. breed), while a combination of historical studies, environmental records and associated artefacts can create a relatively clear picture of a site or area that had previously been lost to test of time.


Did this article catch your eye? If you want to find out more about the importance and methodology of zooarchaeology check out the reference list below! 

Or did you want to write about a different topic? Let us know! 


  • Cohen, A. and Serjeantson, A (1996). A manual for the identification of bird bones from archaeological sites. Archetype Publications, Ltd.: London, pp. 109 – 112.
  • Grant, A. (1982). The use of tooth wear as a guide to the age of domestic ungulates. In: Wilson, B., Grigson, C. and Payne, S. (Eds.). Ageing and Sexing Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites; pp. 91108. British Archaeological Series, Britain Series 109.
  • Hillson, S. (1992). Mammal bones and teeth: an introductory guide to methods of identification. Institute of Archaeology, University College London.
  • Muldner, G. and Richards, M. P. (2005). Fast or feast: Reconstructing diet in later medieval England by stable isotope analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science, 32, pp. 39 – 48.
  • Muldner, G., Britton, K., and Ervynck, A. (2014). Inferring animal husbandry strategies in coastal zones through stable isotope analysis: new evidence from the Flemish coastal plain (Belgium, 1st – 15th century AD). Journal of Archaeological Science, 41, pp. 322 – 332.
  • Silver, I.A. (1969). The ageing of domestic animals. In: Brothwell, D. and Higgs, E.S. (Eds). Science in Archaeology; pp. 283-302. London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Skoglund, P., Ersmark, E., Palkopoulou, E., and Dalen, L. (2015). Ancient wolf genome reveals an early divergence of domestic dog ancestors and admixture into high-latitude breeds. Current Biology, 25, 11, pp. 1515 – 1519.

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