Our second blog post during the Festival of Archaeology comes from Fay Worley, Zooarchaeologist at Historic England. In this ‘five minutes with…’ posts she describes to us how she became interested in zooarchaeology and shares examples of her work in the field at Historic England.
I’ve been interested in animals, skeletons, historic places and field archaeology since I was a child. By the time I reached university I’d realised that I could combine these interests in zooarchaeology. I undertook a Bioarchaeology BSc and zooarchaeology focussed PhD at the University of Bradford, including a placement year spent in developer-funded and curatorial archaeology. I then worked as an animal bone specialist at Oxford Archaeology before moving to English Heritage, the predecessor to Historic England.
As a zooarchaeologist, I analyse and report on animal bone assemblages excavated from archaeological sites. For me, this involves examining the bone fragments, identifying them to animal species and skeleton part based on their shape, and looking for evidence of their life history, and what has happened to them since their death. These data are used to form interpretations about the animals, people and past activities at the archaeological site, and in combination with other assemblages, to inform broader studies of cultural behaviours.
Working as a zooarchaeologist at Historic England I also have an advisory role. This includes working with the Professional Zooarchaeology Group and Association for Environmental Archaeology, providing training, and helping to manage a large reference collection. It also allows me to be involved in external projects and research partnerships – I’m currently part of the University of Reading and Historic England team excavating at Marden and Wilsford henges in Wiltshire.
I love that my role is really varied and often provides challenges or exciting discoveries. The most challenging project recently, and one that I feel most proud of, was the production of guidelines for zooarchaeology with my colleague Poly Baker. It was an epic task, with contributions from many other zooarchaeologists, and the end result has been well received.
In terms of exciting discoveries, two completely different assemblages come to mind. The first is from the earliest fills of Wilsford henge ditch, excavated last year, and currently sitting on my lab benches. The assemblage is almost exclusively large cattle bones from at least four or five bulls and cows, which were butchered using flint tools around four and a half thousand years ago. Cuts of meat were removed and some bones were scorched and smashed open, before the remains were dumped in the ditch at the entrance to the henge. Along with the bones was a rather lovely red deer antler pick, which may have been used to dig the ditch.
The second is a Roman dog, which died as a young adult and was carefully buried in a stone and tile cist at the site of a villa in Northamptonshire. When I started examining the dog I realised that it is very small, comparable in height to the modern Chihuahua or Maltese breeds. Researching other archaeological dogs has shown that it is one of the smallest adult dogs ever found in Roman Britain. Its skeleton is also providing clues to its appearance and life style which I’m hoping to be able to investigate further with the University of Nottingham.