Climate in Your Dinner

Our latest contributor is Georgia Roberts. Georgia is currently in the second year of her PhD at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, and holds a Masters in Archaeological Science from Australian National University.

Investigations of Seasonality in the Archaeological Record of Southwestern Tasmania, Australia

Stable isotope analysis can support a range of zooarchaeological research. One such application is investigating seasonality – assessing the season of death of individual animals. When these animals are associated with archaeological sites, we can use this data to infer season of site use.

The rugged limestone karst landscape of southwestern Tasmania, Australia, contains several archaeological cave sites with exceptional preservation. This region has been described as an archaeological ‘province’ sharing many characteristics, including distinctive faunal collections, dominated by Bennett’s wallaby (70% by Minimum Number of Individual [MNI] counts) and the Common Wombat (27% MNI). The current project focusses on two of these sites – Warreen Cave and Bone Cave.

Related archaeological sites in southwestern Tasmania. Adapted from Cosgrove et al. 2010.
Related archaeological sites in southwestern Tasmania. Adapted from Cosgrove et al. 2010.
The wilderness of southwestern Tasmania.
The wilderness of southwestern Tasmania.

Wombat teeth are continuously growing, capturing the isotopic signature of the surrounding environment in the enamel as it forms. The mandibular incisor is the longest tooth (6-7cm) and records approximately 18 months of isotopic data. By sequentially sampling the enamel, a high-resolution record of local climate (δ18O) and vegetation (δ13C) can be retrieved. By assessing seasonal variation in modern analogues, the data can be used to determine season of death and thus inferred season of site use.

Sequential sampling of tooth enamel along the mandibular incisor from a modern Common wombat.
Sequential sampling of tooth enamel along the mandibular incisor from a modern Common wombat.

Dr Anne Pike-Tay and colleagues (Pike-Tay et al. 2008) used odontochronological analysis to identify that Bennett’s wallabies, the primary prey species, had been killed in the same season throughout the chronology of each site – autumn/winter for Warreen Cave and summer for Bone cave. My PhD uses stable isotopic analysis of Common wombat (Vombatus ursinus) teeth to test this trend, investigating when and how wombats were being utilised by Tasmanian Aboriginal people at the end of the Pleistocene (35,000 to 11,500 years ago).

Tasmanian Common Wombats – female with joey.
Tasmanian Common Wombats – female with joey.

This research is supported by the La Trobe University Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Internal Funding Scheme, the Australian Archaeological Association Research Grant Scheme and Dr Michael Gagan of the Earth Environment Stable Isotope Laboratories (Australian National University).

References

Cosgrove, R., Field, J., Garvey, J., Brenner-Coltrain, J., Goede, A., Charles, B., Wroe, S., Pike-Tay, A., Grün, R., Aubert, M., Lees, W., O’Connell, J., 2010. Overdone overkill – the archaeological perspective on Tasmanian megafaunal extinctions. Journal of Archaeological Science 37, 2486–2503.

Pike-Tay, A., Cosgrove, R., Garvey, J., 2008. Systematic seasonal land use by late Pleistocene Tasmanian Aborigines. Journal of Archaeological Science 35, 2532–2544.

Introducing the i-bone Project

This contribution comes from Dr. Thomas Doppler, who is based at the University of Basel, Switzerland, at the Integrative Prähistorische und Naturwissenschaftliche Archäologie (IPNA) (Integrative Prehistory and Archaeological Science) and the Department of Environmental Sciences. We’ve also added the IPNA to our list of stable isotope facilities-get in touch if we’re missing yours!

Isotope analysis of well dated cattle and red deer bones from Swiss Neolithic lakeshore settlements as indicator for herd management, dairying, environment and human impact

The project (April 2013 to March 2016, based at the University of Basel, Switzerland) aims at studying cattle economy and cattle management on one hand and human impact on the red deer population on the other, as represented in the archaeology of the Swiss lakeshore dwellings.

Organic remains are well preserved at the site of Arbon Bleiche 3. Photograph: © Amt für Archäologie Thurgau, Daniel Steiner.
Organic remains are well preserved at the site of Arbon Bleiche 3. Photograph: © Amt für Archäologie Thurgau, Daniel Steiner.

These dwellings – dated between 4300 and 2400 BC – have the richest and most detailed archaeological record in Europe, and provide a unique background for the examination of models of subsistence, intensification, cultural adaptations to climatic changes and human impact to the prehistoric environment. Waterlogged deposits have preserved many organic remains such as wood, seeds, animal dung; and hundreds of thousands of animal bones have been recovered. Based on dendrochronology the archaeological finds can be dated precisely at least to decades but even to single years, allowing a longitudinal study with unprecedented time resolution.

We focus our research on the eastern area of Switzerland, especially on the lakeshore settlement of Arbon Bleiche 3 at Lake Constance and sites in the lower Lake Zurich region, where vast and well documented archaeozoological collections cover a long chronological sequence of settlements in a small and clearly defined region.

Map showing the location of the study sites in Switzerland, including Arbon Bleiche 3 at Lake Constance and a range of sites in the lower Lake Zurich region. Figure: © IPNA, Thomas Doppler.
Map showing the location of the study sites in Switzerland, including Arbon Bleiche 3 at Lake Constance and a range of sites in the lower Lake Zurich region. Figure: © IPNA, Thomas Doppler.

The research questions will be addressed using carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and strontium isotope analyses on animal bones and high-crowned cattle and deer molars.

The project is financed by Swiss National Science Foundation and supported by different institutions in Switzerland, Germany and Great Britain. For further information see www.i-bone.ch

 

Chickens from Beyond the Grave

We’re continuing our series of posts this month with a piece by Elizabeth Farebrother, who is currently working towards her PhD at University College London investigating changing animal use in Western Asia during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Here, she shares her MSc research, which was part of the ongoing, multidisciplinary Chicken Project. Thanks to Liz and the Chicken Project Team for contributing!


An Integrated Faunal-centric approach to Stable Isotope Analysis at Wien-Csokorgasse Cemetery   

The integration of zooarchaeological research and stable isotope analysis can be incredibly insightful, allowing us to go beyond traditional research questions, and investigate, where relevant, socially-grounded questions from a scientific perspective. My introduction to the world of stable isotope research came through the AHRC-funded Chicken Project, and my MSc formed part of this ongoing collaborative research initiative to investigate human-fowl interaction.

Belle, a Nottingham local
Belle, a Nottingham local.

Wien-Csokorgasse – an Avar-period (6th-8th Century AD) cemetery site – is located in Vienna, Austria, and was excavated as a rescue operation in the 1970s. Zooarchaeologist Henriette Kroll carried out the faunal analysis for the site, and noted that the deposition of chickens within human burial contexts was both sexually, and hierarchically stratified; cocks were buried with males and hens were buried with females. Significantly, the length of each cockerel’s tarsometatarsus spur also corresponded with the inferred status of the human burial (Kroll, 2013).

Chicken bone is demineralised in order to extract the collagen for isotopic analysis.
Chicken bone is demineralised in order to extract the collagen for isotopic analysis.

To investigate the potential reasons for the inclusion of chickens within burials at Wien-Csokorgasse, carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios from the bone collagen of each bird were analysed and compared with the existing stable isotope study of the humans they were buried with (Herold, 2008). Prospective indicators for dietary differentiation, including biological sex, age, and cemetery chronology were explored. Perhaps the most striking result was the dietary correlation represented by δ15N values. This dietary signature would have built up in the bone collagen over differing life spans between human and chicken. To this end, the data suggest a significant overlapping period of time where each chicken may have lived alongside the human individual they were buried with.

Preliminary carbon and nitrogen isotope results for human burials and associated chickens.
Preliminary carbon and nitrogen isotope results for human burials and associated chickens.

The results of dietary stable isotope analysis were viewed through the lens of anthropological analogy, and interpretation included a diachronic survey of published and grey literature of contemporary bird iconography and bird diet in Europe. This meant that the wider social implications and behavioural patterns amongst the groups who used Wien-Csokorgasse were also considered in the study.

Acknowledgements:

Thank you to all involved in the production of this MSc dissertation. This study would not have been possible without the help and expert guidance of the AHRC-funded Chicken Project, Dr Naomi Sykes, Dr Holly Miller, Dr Henriette Kroll, the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory (BGS Keyworth) and the University of Nottingham.

References

Herold, M. (2008) ‘Sex Differences in Mortality in Lower Austria and Vienna in the Early Medieval Period’ Doctoral dissertation, University of Vienna.

Kroll, H. (2013) ‘Ihrer Hühner waren drei und ein stolzer Hahn dabei: Überlegungen zur Beigabe von Hühnern im awarischen Gräberfeld an der Wiener Csokorgasse.’ in von Carnap-Bornheim, C., Dörfler, W., Kirleis, W., Müller, J. and Müller, U. (eds.) Festschrift für Helmut Johannes Kroll. Offa 69/70.

Rethinking Mycenaean Economy

Stable isotope analysis in zooarchaeology is an exciting–and growing–research area, with the potential to inform and expand on  a multitude of questions about humanity in the past, present, and future.

Part of the mission of the working group and the purpose of our blog is to share ongoing research in this area with a wider audience. To that end, we’re launching a series of posts on current projects combining zooarchaeology and stable isotope analysis in innovative ways around the world and in all time periods. If you would like to contribute a post on your research, you can email suzanne_birch [at] brown.edu. Comments and questions on posts are welcomed and encouraged!

Our first post is by Gypsy Price, who is currently a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Florida. Her research uses stable isotope analysis to reveal differences in faunal economies in early complex societies, specifically Late Bronze Age (LBA) Mycenae, Greece. Thanks Gypsy!

Faunal Economy at Petsas House

View of Mycenae, with a plan of the citadel and location of Petsas House indicated by the red circle.
View of Mycenae, with a plan of the citadel and location of Petsas House indicated by the red circle.

Five years ago I got involved with the Petsas House Project, a domestic/industrial structure located downslope from the citadel of Mycenae dating to the Late Helladic III A2 (circa 1300 BC). Around the same time I had become increasingly captivated by Galaty and Parkinson’s “Rethinking Mycenaean Palaces” series which critically examined the extent, degree, and manner of economic authority engendered by Mycenaean palaces. Bottom line, the majority of our knowledge about Mycenaean economy is based on Linear B tablets, which are geographically, temporally, and topically restricted: they have only been recovered from a handful of palatial sites, and record only transactions of interest to palatial administration occurring in the months prior to their deposition. As a result, economic models have been constructed from the top down, resulting in a myopic sense of the movement of resources within the larger society and an artificial inflation of the influence of the palace.

Through isotopic survey, we can discern feeding groups that may be indicative of disparities in provisioning or foddering strategies, and patterns of importation of animals. It was here where I realized that the extremely well-preserved and extensive faunal assemblage at Petsas House could offer a unique, micro-scalar perspective on management and distribution of faunal resources in an extra-palatial industrial/domestic context with a palatial settlement. Furthermore, there was an available contemporaneous faunal assemblage which had been previously excavated from the Cult Center, an ideological complex located within the walls of the hilltop citadel.

Gypsy Price with Petsas House materials
Gypsy Price with Petsas House materials.

Thus, with the invaluable support of Dr. Kim Shelton (UC Berkeley) and my committee chair, Dr. John Krigbaum (University of Florida), my PhD research was born. My sample set includes four main species known to have been purposefully managed during the LBA: goat, sheep, cow, and pig/wild boar. I am using carbon (δ13C), nitrogen (δ15N), and oxygen (δ18O) ratios from bone collagen and bone apatite fractions to identify discrete inter- and intra-taxonomic feeding groups. Strontium (87Sr/86Sr) and oxygen (δ18O) isotope ratios from bone and serially sampled teeth are being used to identify season movement patterns and to look for evidence of extra-local individuals which may be indicative of importation. I am currently in the process of interpreting the structured variation in these data to elucidate some of the nuances of LBA Mycenaean faunal economy, allowing us to develop a “ground-truthed” model of management and distribution between disparate sectors of a single LBA Mycenaean palatial settlement for the first time.