Back to the Bones

It’s been a while since we’ve written anything about the actual archaeology of the Lamoka Lake site, but that’s about to change. I’m starting the identification of a large assemblage of animal bones from the site that hasn’t been studied before. The first step is to get out the bone binders with photocopied and hand-drawn reference material. These are in need of some new binders.

Zooarchaeology Binders

The bone identification guides are also getting pulled out of the bookshelves. Yes, I know there are some duplicates.

Zooarchaeology Identification Guides

 

“because it looks like it, goddamit it!” On Identifying Bones and Fossils

One more quote from paleontologist Clayton E. Ray, this time on the epistemology of identifying animal bones:

“… the techniques [of comparative methodology, i.e., comparing unknowns to knowns] were not codified and universally applied until the nineteenth century under the influence of Cuvier, Owen, and Agassiz. This could not have occurred prior to the Age of Enlightenment/Reason, with the spread of the notion that all problems could be successfully solved through intensive inspection and that ordinary humans could rely on their own careful observations irrespective of authority.[emphasis added] … Until recently, this reliance was taken for granted, so much so that the sublime notion could be expressed profanely, if I may be permitted one homely example: Remington Kellogg, once asked by a colleague what criteria allowed him to conclude that a certain fragmentary whale vertebra was in fact identifiable to a particular species, immediately replied resoundingly, “because it looks like it, goddamit it!” He did not live to experience the postmodern entry of doubt introduced by phylogenetic systematics and social constructivism, in which we question the meaning of all our observations.” (p.7)

Prehistory of the “Feathered Tempest”

Beloit College has posted the video of zooarchaeologist Steven Kuehn’s talk on the prehistoric occurrence of the passenger pigeon in the Midwest.

Kuehn briefly surveys passenger pigeon bones at archaeological sites in the Southeast and Northeast (with a mention of both the Lamoka Lake and Cole Gravel Pit sites), but focuses on the area he knows best, Illinois and Wisconsin.

While I disagree with his assertion that Ectopistes bones are, in general, rare in prehistoric archaeological sites, Kuehn makes some interesting points about possible changes through time in the abundance of passenger pigeon and also shows how, at least in later prehistory, passenger pigeons may have had greater symbolic importance.

Kuehn also talks about his own work at the Late Woodland Fish Lake site in Illinois (not far from Cahokia Mounds), where a single feature contained 28 passenger pigeon bones, almost all from the distal wing. Watch the video to see his interpretation of this find.

Virtual Passenger Pigeon Bones and Digital Zooarchaeology

Digital model of passenger pigeon humerus
Digital model of a passenger pigeon humerus createdfrom an archaeological site. Created by the Virtual Curation Laboratory, Virginia Commonwealth University.

On the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University has just posted the results of a project to create 3D models of passenger pigeon bones. Most of the source bones were excavated from an archaeological site in Virginia. Its a fantastic idea that will make easier for everyone, including scientists trying to identify passenger pigeon at archaeological and paleontological sites.

There are already hundreds of prehistoric sites where this bird has been identified, but it is surprisingly less common to have passenger pigeon identified from historic period archaeological sites.  One factor complicating their identification in historical sites is the challenge of distinguishing passenger pigeon from the similarly sized rock dove, or common pigeon (Columba livia), that  was introduced to North America in the 1600s.  Often when pigeon bones of a certain size are found in historic period sites, they are classified only as Columbidae, or pigeon. It would be nice to see the VCL also produce 3D models of the rock dove, so zooarchaeologists without access to a comprehensive faunal collection might be better able to distinguish these two species.

For more information, see the VCL website.

Martha’s Anniversary: Passenger Pigeon Events

With the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, only days away, Ectopistes-related events are happening everywhere. Here are some to look forward to over the Labor Day weekend and beyond:

Passenger Pigeon Weekend at the Cincinnati Zoo. 

Held at the original home of Martha and co-sponsored by the Ohio Ornithological Society, this event includes a Friday night cocktail party, a Saturday symposium with Joel Greenberg and others, and birdwatching opportunities.

Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History

Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America has been open since late June. Martha herself can be found here. The Smithsonian is also having a twitterchat about Martha on September 2, 2-3 P.M. EST. Check out #Martha100.

MassMoca

Artists Sayler/Morris have created a new art exhibit at this fascinating museum in North Adams, Massachusetts,  that contemplates the life and death of the passenger pigeon. Here’s more from the museum’s press release:

Eclipse consists of a massive 100-foot video projection, screens on the walls and ceiling of MASS MoCA’s four-story atrium. The video loop shows a flock of passenger pigeons in reverse-negative silhouette lifting out of a life-sized tree, accompanied by sound design consisting of layers of digitally processed human voices. The exhibition offers a space for reflection with a limited-edition artist publication that will include writings by Kolbert, original photography by Sayler/Morris, and archival images.

Eclipse officially opens on September 1.

Williams Center for the Arts, Lafayette College, Easton PA

Michael Pestel’s multimedia art exhibition Requiem, Ectopistes migratorious, “ metaphorically places Martha at the center of the installation in the form of a human-scale birdcage, encouraging visitors to contemplate extinction—of the passenger pigeon, of other species, and perhaps even author Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction.” It opens September 1 with a presentation by the artist, music, and readings.

Beloit College Center for the Sciences, Wisconsin

On September 8, Steve Kuehn will give a talk entitled The Prehistory of “The Feathered Tempest”: Passenger Pigeon Zooarchaeology in the Upper Midwest focusing on pigeon bones from archaeological sites in Illinois and Wisconsin.

A Shadow Over the Earth: The Life and Death of the Passenger Pigeon

The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History created this exhibit, which is being presented at many venues throughout the country, including the Florida Museum of Natural History, the New Jersey State Museum, and the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society. Many locales are supplementing the display with material from their own collections.

Have Deer Gotten Smaller Since the Archaic?

A white-tailed deer in the Adirondacks of New York.  Late Archaic deer were larger than modern New York deer.
A white-tailed deer in the Adirondacks of New York. Deer in the Adirondacks tend to be smaller than those found in Central New York. Late Archaic deer were larger than modern New York deer. Source: Mwanner. Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons.

The average white-tailed deer killed during the Late Archaic at Lamoka Lake weighed 77 kg, or 170 pounds.

That’s the estimate derived from measuring the astragalus, a bone in the lower leg of white-tailed deer.  By the Late Woodland to Protohistoric Period in New York, deer found at the Engelbert Site averaged 64.5 kg, or 142 pounds.

How big was the largest identified deer at Lamoka Lake? Over 155 kg, or  342 pounds.

To learn how these weight estimates were derived, and learn more about deer body size, get the paper:

Preliminary Archaeological Evidence for a Decrease in White-Tailed Deer Body Size in New York during the Holocene.

 

 

Seneca Subsistence and Trade in the Eighteenth Century

A recent study of bones from an early historic Iroquois site includes a comparison with the much earlier animal bones from the Lamoka Lake site as well as some interesting passenger pigeon finds.

Adam Watson and Stephen Cox Thomas studied animal bones from the early 18th century Townley-Read site in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. The Seneca who lived at the site may have hunted deer year-round. Deer hides, as well as furs from other animals, would have been traded with European colonists. The detailed taphonomic analysis also indicates that deer bones were likely processed to extract the fat-rich grease from the spongy portions of the bones. This is usually considered to be evidence of nutritional stress, but they make the case that processing for bone grease was “a planned accumulation of resources rather than an ad hoc response to seasonal food shortfalls.” (p. 115)

Also of interest is the identification of passenger pigeon bones from one feature at the site. Passenger pigeon, of course, tends to be present at prehistoric archaeological sites in the region with good bone preservation, but in this case, four of the bones are from immature pigeons, providing good evidence specifically for the procurement of squabs in the springtime.

A small number of American eel bones, in contrast, are more likely to indicate fishing in the fall, when eels are heading downstream to spawn.

As a whole, the assemblage has some interesting differences from both earlier and later archaeological sites in New York.  The authors provide a detailed and well-researched analysis of the animal bones from this Iroquois site to make the point that “the evidence for economic resilience and stability at Townley-Read contradicts a narrative of pervasive and unimpeded decline, and reinforces the importance of continuing to build and test empirical models grounded in both local and regional archaeological and historical data.” (p. 115)

Watson, Adam S. and Stephen Cox Thomas

2013The Lower Great Lakes Fur Trade, Local Economic Sustainability and the Bone Grease Buffer: Vertebrate Faunal Remains from the Eighteenth Century Seneca Iroquois Townley-Read Site. Northeast Anthropology 79-80: 81–123.

 

Zooarch Papers Published, and They’re Open Access

The journal Assemblage has just published the Proceedings of the Postgraduate Zooarchaeology Forum held at the University of Sheffield in 2012.  All eight papers can be freely downloaded at the Assemblage website.

All but one of the papers deal with Old World assemblages. The exception is Sofia Tecce’s analysis of animal bones from Estancia Pueyrredón 2 in Argentina. This hunter-gatherer site dates to between 4,900-3,500 BP (yes, roughly the same time period as the Lamoka Lake site). The faunal assemblage is dominated by guanaco (although there are also a lot of unidentified rodents) and Tecce present a pretty comprehensive taphonomic analysis of the guanaco bones.

Publication of these papers is notable for another reason. As the editors, Lizzie Wright and Angela Trentacoste point out, the organizers

…had no funding for this conference, but charged our participants just £10, in the knowledge that many postgraduates are limited by financial constraints. The Sheffield Zooarchaeology team hosted (sometimes multiple) participants in their homes. It is worth mentioning the real lack of opportunities for funding an event such as this – postgraduate conference funding was cut by the Arts and Humanties Research Council in recent years, and The University of Sheffield had no appropriate money that we could apply for. This is a real problem when postgraduates often have little funding themselves.