Last week Terra Rosa staff gathered with soft drinks and bowls of nachos, around the long meeting table on the ground floor of the office for a lecture. The table was adorned with books titled, for example, Human Osteology and Animal remains from archaeological sites as well as files including one dedicated entirely to kangaroo osteology. We were gathered to listen and learn from Terra Rosa CRM’s very own Dr Coral Montero Lopez who gained her PhD on Mayan Zooarcheology in 2013 from La Trobe University.
Titled ‘Human or not human, that is the question?’ the focus of Coral’s talk was on osteologic material identification, the primary objective of which, was to re-fresh our consultants knowledge on how to differentiate between human and non-human animal remains during a preliminary archaeological investigation. The ability to identify and differentiate between human and non-human animal bones is essential for consultants working in the field given the cultural and emotional sensitivities surrounding human remains. This is particularly important to consider in the context of Indigenous Australian culture where processes have been put in place to protect burial sites from disturbance.
Articulating the primary questions archaeologists should ask and actions they should undertake in the field on discovery of bone material, Coral drew her audience into the material afterlife of human and non-human animal remains through their bones. Bones, she explained, may be found in clusters, isolation or as whole skeletons. In turn skeletons themselves may rest in isolation or they may be posited with other skeletons, both human and animal. Furthermore, reading marks found on bones, demonstrates that they have a story to tell, which may help in their identification.
Beyond consideration of bone surfaces, Coral explained that attention also needs to be given to the form of the cranium, the teeth and the bones that form the post-cranium as well as the macro, and on occasion the micro-structure, of the osteologic material, in order to start the identification process. Here, Coral told her audience, it is helpful to think of animals (both human and non-human) in life; to consider what their movements are and the limbs from which locomotion would have been generated. In addition she highlighted the ability of our heritage consultants own bodies to be used as tools in the identification process. That is, their arms and legs can be helpful in providing a sense of scale.
It is important to note that across these examples of information disseminated by Coral to Terra Rosa CRM staff last week; emphasis was explicitly placed on the preliminary assessment of bones as a solely visual process: bones and the burial site, in which they are found, must not be touched. Firstly, this is so that consultants maintain the appropriate ethical response to human remains, and second, this is an approach that assists in the process of bone identification. That is, osteologic material has to be examined in the context in which it is found in order for a thorough process of identification to be carried out. To assist our consultants in this visual task, Coral provided a handout to direct their gaze towards the bone characteristics she discussed in the lecture, to act as a guide in the assessment of bones when they are in the field.