Zooarchaeology is the study of animal remains found on archaeological sites. These remains, generally hard tissues such as bones, teeth, shells, otoliths) bear some important bearing upon the nature of the relation between man and animal in the past as well as the nature of the environment. They can shed light upon the way animal resources were exploited for food, transport, utensils and even ritual practices. Chronological sequences of such faunal remains help to improve our understanding of the evolution of species and changes in their relations with our ancestors in the course of time.
Modern animals – Skeletons in the reference collection. Argyrosomus regius, captured in the Tagus estuary
Identification of part of body – Identification of archaeological material using the reference collection. Roman period, Pagrus auriga pré-maxilla.
Reference collection – Reference collection (índex collection). Humerus Corvidae. Note: the cells contain, if possible, two bones, one of each sex.
Reference collection. A general view of rodent long-bone index collection.
Reference collection. A detailed view of the rodent collection (skull, jaw, scapula, pelvis, femur, tibia).
Reference collection. A general view of the index collection of bird bones.
Alongside other archaeological sciences such as palaeobotany, geoarchaeology, lithic technology, traceology, physical anthropology, chemistry etc., zooarchaeology contributes towards our understanding of the way of life and the environment in which our ancestors lived.
While this is the central theme of zooarchaeological studies, zooarchaeology can provide much that is of interest regarding the animals themselves in the course of the period also known as the Quaternary. For instance when did certain animals become extinct and when were other exotic species introduced? When were animals first domesticated and why? When and where were livestock improved and how have fishery techniques changed with time? These are just a few of the questions zooarchaeology attempts to answer.
In the laboratory, the first task is to identify and record the faunal remains. The use of identification manuals can help but is unsatisfactory. A more reliable method is to compare the archaeological specimens with modern ones. This calls for the establishment of a reference collection of securely identified modern skeletons of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and amphibia. It also helps to know whence they came, as well as their age-at-death, sex, health and size. We began and still continue to build up our reference collection. The skeletons are organized not only systematically by order, family, genus (and breed in the case of domestic livestock), but also by part of skeleton; the last being a series of index collections.
While lists of taxa found on a site may help to elucidate the nature of the environment and the kinds of food people were eating, there is much more information that archaeological remains of animals can provide. These include genetic information, parts of the skeleton preferred, animal size, sex and age. Another area of study we undertake is to try and determine the agents that were first responsible for the accumulation of such remains.
Our reference collection
Our reference collection (the Osteoteca) is our main tool enabling us to make accurate identifications of archaeological remains. It also serves the scientific community in general. We now have 2,900 mammal, bird, fish, reptile and amphibian complete or partial skeletons. Most of the mammals of the Iberian Peninsula are represented as are a large proportion of the birds and fish. These are available for study (see conditions of access at “Regulamento do Laboratório de Arqueociências”. Prior notice is necessary as part of our reserve collection is still housed in the attic of the Natural History Museum in the centre of Lisbon. We hope to move this to our premises in Ajuda in the coming years.
Our reference collection also helps us to understand the osteology of vertebrates. Our particular strengths include substantial holdings of wolf, merino sheep (both black and white), cattle of the barrosã breed, genet, otter, griffon vulture, black vulture, quail, meagre and mullet, all from the Iberian Peninsula.
Since 2010 when our laboratory moved there has been a substantial increase in the number of visitors using our collection. They include not only zooarchaeologists and biologists, but also conservationists and students.
Detailed tabulation of what we have.
The attached four tables show what birds, mammals, fish and amphibia+reptiles we have. Within each table specimens are organized alphabetically by Genus and Species. The information for each specimen (where available) includes the collection accession number (LARC Nº), Latin binomial name (Genus and species), sex, age-at-death, region whence it came, country of origin, completeness (see below), and breed (where known, for domestic livestock).
Mammals: 1 = complete skeleton; 2 = partial skeleton (at least one mandible, scapula, humerus, radius, metacarpal, pelvis, femur, tibia, astragalus, calcaneum, and metatarsal); 3 = skull and mandible only; 4 = very incomplete; 5 = other.
Birds: 1 = complete skeleton; 2 = partial skeleton (at least one scapula, coracoid, humerus, radius, ulna, carpo-metacarpus, femur, tibio-tarsus and tarso-metatarsus; 3 = skull and mandible only; 4 = very incomplete; 5 = other.