Week 4 – Museum of London – LAARC – Bones, the signposts of archaeology

Bone bonanza
Bone bonanza


Can I be honest? I have been stalling on writing this post. I have come to the conclusion that piles of bone just don’t excite me, in fact they actively make me feel uncomfortable. I know it’s silly, I am not a vegetarian, I am not particularly squeamish, but I don’t enjoy packing up bits of animal.

I knew what week 4 of my Museum of London volunteer project at the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC) would be about and the thought of getting stuck into bones did not appeal. But as ever, this project is full of surprising little gems and this week we were treated to a fascinating and (in my case) enlightening talk on the archaeology of not just bones, but all sorts of organisms.

Alan - Zoologist from MOLA
Alan – Zoologist from MOLA

Alan, a Zoologist from MOLA gave us a great overview of what it means to find animal remains. What you look for from the smallest single cell organism – foraminifera. How complex ostracods, a type of crustacean, are to identify. We looked at animal bones, how to decide what part of a skeleton you have in your hand regardless of species. We looked at the shape and contours; the morphology of the bone. We got to play bone jigsaw by trying to work out how the bone fuses together and what this means in terms of identifying the age of an animal. How many left legs and how many right legs? Believe me it all makes a difference in terms of animal numbers.

Context popped up once again as a crucial aid to dating a site. Alan made us realise when you don’t have structures to look at or pots to dig up, how the bones have been butchered, the marks left by humans are crucial signposts to who has inhabited a site, how many settled there, what type of activities they were carrying out.

It was a great start to the day and armed with this knowledge surely a few bones from the Keston – Warbank site would now pose me no problems. Unfortunately the first bag I pulled out of the box said “baby burial” which kind of threw me a bit as I thought we were dealing with animal bone. Suddenly all Alan’s talk and my bravado went out the window. I have thought about this a lot over the last few days and I think if it was my baby buried in some field in Keston I don’t care if I was dead and all my ancestors were dead; and it all happened 2,000 years ago, the thought that the bones would end up in a plastic bag in a box on a shelf in an archive kind of left me feeling a little bereft. Maybe I am not cut out for this type of work after all. I know it is silly, bones are bones at the end of the day, but it is an instinctive feeling, one I can’t seem to reason myself out of so I am going to go with it for all its idiosyncrasy.

So while I sat there and gingerly packed a few bones in boxes, my colleagues were getting stuck in with unashamed glee and abandon. They certainly had some interesting finds I could appreciate from a far.

Man's best friend in bone form
Man’s best friend in bone form

A near complete dog skeleton engaged them in a game of rebuilding. There were scary looking skulls and hefty looking chunks of some animal or other (I think you can tell my interest wandered a bit at this stage).

I can tell you it's not a cat
I can tell you it’s not a cat
Big bone (yeah!)
Big bone (yeah!)

So after a quick coffee I pulled myself together. The question of how to get past my uneasiness came to me when I pulled this bit of vertebrae out of the bag. I looked at it and realised this bit was actually really beautiful, its structure and shape. If it was made of wood or pottery we would all be clamouring over it.

Beautiful art (not bone)
Beautiful art (not bone)

If I could see past the bone and look at the structure, think of the beauty of the piece it might help. I thought about the Bone Church from my previous post, if the bone becomes part of something else, the emotive quality it has is lessened for me. I may have taken things a bit too far with my next bag but it helped so I stuck with it.

Happy bones
Happy bones

If I can look past the bones origins and intended use and give it a new function then I might just be able to get by. The problem is, in the back of my head I am just thinking this is someones dinner waste, this is what they threw away after Sunday lunch. A bit of pot wins hands down every time. I have tried to make a pot and it is not easy, there is thought and skill and intent. I love the fact someone wanted to decorate something they have made, maybe to show off and impress. Whilst I can appreciate the archaeology of bones for all the insight and knowledge they bring, they don’t quite bring history to life for me.

So I will leave you with a little quiz question since we love audience participation on this volunteer project. Take a look at the last picture I have to offer for Week 4 – What do you see? Is it a pile of bones? Or am I just having a LAARC?

Quiz for quizzers
Quiz for quizzers

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