Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt
Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte

Archaeozoology

Upper and lower jawbone of a bronze-age mare
Ill. 1: Upper and lower jawbone of a bronze-age mare of over 20 years of age. The first molar is turned inwards, so that it can hardly be seen in this side view. This allowed uncontrolled growth in the second molar beside it, and led to irregular wear from chewing in the lower molars.
Fragment of cattle ribs
Ill. 2: Mansfeld in the Harz mountains, Martin Luther's family home. Fragment of cattle ribs: soup-meat cut up into equal-sized portions. © LDA Sachsen-Anhalt (Photo: Juraj Lipták).
Chaffinch beaks
Ill. 3: Mansfeld in the Harz mountains, Martin Luther's family home. Chaffinch beaks. © LDA Sachsen-Anhalt (Photo: Juraj Lipták).
Perch scales
Ill. 4: Mansfeld in the Harz mountains, Martin Luther's family home. Perch scales. © LDA Sachsen-Anhalt (Photo: Juraj Lipták).
Part of an opulent grave-ensemble made of stone kists and two cattle burials
Ill. 5: Westerhausen near Quedlinburg. Grave pit with five cows from the Globular Amphora Culture (Kugelamphorenkultur) - part of an opulent grave-ensemble made of stone kists and two cattle burials.

Animal bones and teeth are among the most common finds in archaeological excavations. To identify them and assess their cultural significance is the responsibility of the section for Archaeozoology. Often the Archaeozoology section is called on during excavations that are already underway, when it is necessary to evaluate finds, including animal bones, in situ after they have been uncovered. However, the greater part of the work takes place in the laboratory, because many bone fragments can only be identified by comparison with the corresponding part of a modern animal skeleton.

The zoological analysis of the finds includes identifying their anatomical position and the species to which they belong. In addition, other data are recorded, for example information about the age and sex of the animals, their size and health, anomalies such as dental problems (ill. 1), changes caused by disease, as well as any signs that the bones were worked, cut or hit. In the case of paired bone-types, the side of the body from which they come is noted. The level of preservation and fragmentation of the find largely determines which of these questions can be answered. A secure date and attention to the find-context are crucial for interpreting the cultural role of this kind of object.

Animal remains from pits in settlements are mostly very fragmentary (ill. 2), so that the effort needed to identify them may be very great. For the most part they can be regarded as leftovers from butchery or cooking, and they permit conclusions about the eating habits of the people of the past and about the distribution of animals in the wild in their time. Remains of small birds (ill. 3) and fishes (ill. 4) can easily be overlooked in an excavation, if they survive at all.

Animal bones are often found intact, either as complete (ill. 5) or partial skeletons. They may have been deposited in grave pits dug specially for them, or they may be found as grave goods in a human burial. This kind of find context gives an insight into past burial rituals and, beyond this, into our forefathers' mental and religious world.

The word archaeozoology itself suggests the interdisciplinary character of this field's methods, questions and results. The object of study is the history of domestic and wild animals in their relation to human history. Research methods from the natural sciences and the humanities are closely interwoven here. The finds of animal remains are an expression of human activities, as it was ultimately humans who determined what would end up in the ground, and so be preserved, and what would not. The association of animal and human is even more apparent when one recalls that the majority of all these finds come from domesticated animals. Whereas wild animals could reproduce without limitations and were subject to natural selection, domesticated animals' very existence and development are due to the active influence of humans. This illustrates the fact that animal bones from archaeological find contexts are source materials for both biology and history.