Old bones and new experiments

16 October 2018

Interview with

Steve Rhodes, University of Toronto

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What secrets do the various animal bones on a neolithc dig site impart? Georgia Mills spoke to GRAPE Project zoo-archaeologist Steve Rhodes...

Steve - I study animal bones and essentially human subsistence based on that.

Georgia - Awesome. We’re in the lab now; it’s lots of boxes of various things and there’s a lot of bones. So what kind of things have people been finding?

Steve - Well predominantly, in terms of food animals there are a lot of caprines mostly, sheep, a few goats, a lot of pigs, a lot of cows. And then we also have wild versions as well as domesticated. So we have domesticated sheep and goat but it looks like we have some wild  -  found a very large horn core of what looks like a wild goat. And we also seem to have wild aurochs which are wild oxen, the progenitors of domestic cattle; very much larger, and even possibly bison, which were native here many years ago.

Some of the other interesting things we have are very large catfish. The Wels Catfish is the common name, and they can get up to 2 or 3 metres long. And we have these bead objects here that were made from them that we’re kind of curious about whether they were decorative beads, or possibly ear spools, or it’s even been suggested they might have been spindle whorls for making fibres from wool or flax.

Georgia - Oh right. So it’s kind of like a little bone doughnut kind of thing. This is from a catfish?

Steve - Yeah. That’s our best guess right now is catfish. It looks the most like that.

Georgia - Right. So these guys were having a lot of animals to eat, and animals like the catfish, which maybe have been used in some kind of art or decoration, and then what else were they using animals for?

Steve - A huge amount of their technology, like their tool kit was made from animal bone, and it’s more so than in other areas that I’ve worked like in the lavant where they have flint, and they make a lot of tools out of flint. But here in Eastern Georgia there’s almost no flint and it’s all obsidian, which is great for making some things, but it’s not great for others because it’s so fragile so making a lot of tools out of it is problematic; for example, we don’t see any obsidian arrowheads. And what I was thinking was that maybe it’s because when they hit the animal they shatter inside it and fill your potential meal with lots of shards of tiny little glass, so the people probably figured that out really quickly. And what they do have are bone arrowheads which are quite uncommon in other places but seem to be typical here.

They also seem to have been doing a lot of hide processing, so we have a huge number of awls like piercing tools that were made. They seem to have had a real consistent technique. So they have this really standardised hide production industry. It looks like a cross through this whole culture that’s quite interesting.

Georgia - What would hides have been used for?

Steve - Predominantly clothing I would assume, at this point, because it doesn’t seem like they were doing any weaving because we don’t have really much evidence of that, and this would be a little early for that. They were probably using it for containers a lot for carrying water and things like that or just general transportation of goods.

Steve - Could a hide survive that long? Could we ever uncover one?

Steve - Theoretically, in this environment it’s not likely. They have been found in places like bog deposits in Northern Europe like Denmark, Ireland, places like that. Or mummified in places like Egypt or high altitude sites in South America and places like that. But that’s a very different environment than what we have so it’s highly unlikely we ever find that here.

Georgia - Not content to merely look at these bones, at the GRAPE project they really wanted to get inside the minds of the Neolithic…

Steve - And when you tear the skin back…

So tear at it?

Steve - Yeah. Then you’ll have to go around the outside and just cut the top.

Georgia - There’s a table covered in tiny sheep legs. There’s a lot of students covered in blood.

Steve - I wouldn’t say covered in blood.

Georgia - What on earth is going on?!

Steve - We are replicating some of the bone tools that we’re finding at the sites at Gadachrili and Shulavaris that we’re excavating. It’s part of the learning process; we’re trying to learn how Neolithic people made their tools.

Georgia - Right. And so you're using an obsidian blade to do what exactly?

Steve - The sheep legs came with the skin on so first we have to remove the skin and the viscera and then we have to disarticulate the metapodials from the phalanges from the toes. We’re not using the toes, were just using this part here. And then, after we’ve done this we’re going to start breaking the bones because we have to break these bone in half in order to replicate the tools here. So after we’ve got all the viscera off, we’re going to be scoring them with a stone tool to guide the fracture when we break it, and then breaking them open with stones with like a hammer and anvil type technique, and then finishing shaping them with other obsidian blades.

Georgia - Right. Gory work then?

Steve - I guess in one sense. But you know if you’re a Neolithic person this would be nothing to you because you’re used to living in the natural world. There were no butchers shops, no restaurants, you did everything yourself.

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