Latest news from Till Valley Archaeological Society

On Wednesday, January 4, TillVAS welcomed David Constantine, who gave his talk on Zoological Material in Anglo Saxon Society.

Tuesday, 17th January 2017, 12:00 pm

David is a researcher and practitioner in archaeology, specialising in the early Medieval, Viking and Saxon periods.

He explained that bones can give a wealth of information, not only as a source of food, but of the lives of the creatures, their use after death and environmental changes.

The timescale of the ruin of a building can be estimated via the ‘floor’ of small mammal bones deposited in the pellets of the owl which roosted there, until the roof timbers rotted and collapsed.

The midden of a Roman fort contained bones of mainly beef from the kitchens, but the drains from the latrines contained small lamb bones and chicken wing bones.

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Animal bones can show healed trauma after accidents or when a domestic animal has been treated following injury, also damage caused by disease, such as arthritis, which can cause secondary problems due to additional stress on unaffected joints.

Sheep were kept mainly for wool and milk and would be retained until they died, as were horses and cattle, the lack of butchers’ marks a clue.

In Medieval times bones were a valuable commodity. Bone workers and tanneries were often found close to butchers’ establishments, the strong, long bones of the forelegs and the hoofs being especially useful.

During the Saxon period there were no ‘standards’ and all shapes and sizes of tool can be found. Pins, used for fastening clothing, can range from 2ins to 4ins, the longer ones often curved, following the natural shape of the bone. Clay moulds have been found for mass production of pins, probably in silver.

Nearer the coast where whale bone was plentiful, it would be burned instead of wood.

Some items, which have no apparent use, would have been symbolic or simply for adornment, such as pendants, crosses and belt buckles.

Among the exhibits, one whalebone, oblong shaped and decorated, was most likely to be for decoration. David emphasised that there is no evidence to indicate that this was a Viking ‘ironing board, as has often been suggested.

Animal bone cannot exceed its normal size, but fish can continue to grow bone, depending on the food supply, so that age can be estimated by the number of ‘rings’ as in the growth of a tree.

Large fish bones from the Mesolithic in Western Scotland suggested that quite long sea voyages in ‘cockleshell’ boats were undertaken to obtain big fish. Salmon fish bones have been found at York and modern techniques can now tell the quality of the river water, the time of year the fish was caught, whether it was moving up or downstream, and as these were from big fish, did they use different sizes of nets to leave the younger fish to breed?

Finds of reindeer antler, bones and claws of bears, wolves, and even lynx, are occasionally found in contexts outside their accepted date range, suggesting that these animals existed in this country much longer than previously thought.

From the Viking period, a drain was found containing a great quantity of cat bones, suggesting cat farms purely for the fur.

Found at Chillingham, there is a set of antlers from the giant elk, evidence of considerable climate change.

Many tools can be made of both antler and bone, and are especially associated with weaving. Antler was more valuable, being three or four times stronger than bone, but fallow and roe are unsuitable, the best being from red deer.

The majority of combs of various types found on Orkney were made of antler, and earlier Pictish combs were made from Viking antler. Combs were found at Bamburgh, but as there was no evidence of a workshop, they were possibly traded from the Baltic region. St Cuthbert’s Comb is made from elephant ivory.

For full strength, only surpassed by metal, antlers must be shed, not cut, suggesting trade with hunters and gamekeepers. Many antler tools have been discovered on prehistoric sites, such as Stonehenge, giving an indication of the strength of the antler.

Cow and sheep horn is comparatively small and degrades quickly, but when heated becomes very plastic and after soaking can be flattened, making it useful for small window panes and lanterns, sometimes referred to as ‘lanthorns’.

This was a most interesting and informative talk, and the examples of bones and associated artefacts were keenly examined with many questions.

At the next TillVAS meeting, on Wednesday, February 1, Dr David Petts will speak on Excavations at Binchester Roman Fort. Members free, visitors £4.