By Domonique deBeaubien, THPO Collections Manager
“What is that?” It’s one of the most common questions we ask ourselves when working with archaeological artifacts. Most of the artifacts that come into the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) Archaeological Lab are highly fragmented pieces of animal bone that were left behind by human activity at archaeological sites. We call these tiny pieces of animal bone faunal remains.
People often wonder why we spend so much time studying what is essentially, trash. But you can learn a great deal about an archaeological site by understanding the remnants of what was left behind. A trained analyst (or bioarchaeologist) can look at a pile of broken up pieces of animal bone and construct an elaborate picture about the people who created it. For example: what were people eating? How far did people travel to get their food? What animals were the most valuable for nutrition and tool making?
In order to answer those questions we first need to understand what we’re looking at, and that’s why we have the THPO Comparative Collection! This is essentially a reference collection made up of many different animal skeletons that help us identify the fragmented faunal remains that come into the lab. Since the fauna of Florida is extraordinarily diverse, we have a wide collection of creatures ranging from alligators to armadillos and stingrays to snakes; we endeavor to have an example of most of the major animal species that live in our domain.
You may currently be wondering where these skeletons come from. I’ll be the first person to admit that you don’t go into bioarchaeology if you’re squeamish. There is a pretty high level of ick factor when acquiring comparative specimens, and it requires a serious level of dedication from our Collections staff. Most of our specimens come from road kill, where they are collected and then buried in a discreet corner of the museum parking lot. Most people endearingly refer to this location of our campus as the Pet Cemetery. Burying the animal allows the organic matter to decompose naturally, while leaving the skeletal remains behind. Other researchers use different methods like dermestid beetles to clean their specimens, but this process works the best for our environment. It is also significantly friendlier to the eye (and nose) since everything is placed underground. After a number of months (sometimes years!), each specimen is carefully excavated and all of the bones are cleaned and organized anatomically. We’re extra careful to gather all of the smaller bones, as these are often what survive the best archaeologically.
Whenever a new specimen is brought into the lab, our goal is to ensure it becomes a valuable asset to our collection, so every individual bone is identified by skeletal element, labeled, and stored accordingly. That way, when students or interns come into the lab who aren’t familiar with comparative anatomy, they have a vast resource right at their fingertips.
Let’s take a quick look at the comparative collection in action. This photo is a classic example of what comes into the lab: tiny little pieces of mystery faunal bone! Our job is to take those tiny fragments, and identify what they are by comparing them with intact bones from our comparative collection. Can you tell what kind of animal bone these might be?
If you guessed alligator, that is correct! The archaeological fragments pictured above belong to an alligator scute. A scute is a piece of bony armored plating that runs down an alligator’s back. Alligators have hundreds of them, and they fit together to form a protective layer of osseous body armor. As you can see, they are approximately the same size, and share the same markings as the alligator scute from our Comparative Collection. Even though we just had a few tiny pieces, our amazing lab staff was able to accurately identify what animal species the fragments came from!
For us, each fragment of bone tells a different story; whether it’s a family meal shared hundreds of years ago, or how far hunters journeyed for their catch. Each story is unique, and thanks to our comparative collection, we can help bring that story to life.