Article

Contextual taphonomy for zooarchaeology: Theory, practice and select Levantine case studies

Article

Contextual taphonomy for zooarchaeology: Theory, practice and select Levantine case studies

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Abstract

Contextual taphonomy is an archaeological approach that integrates taphonomic variables with stratigraphy and context, often at the intra-site level. A majority of zooarchaeological research explores vertebrate taphonomy broadly by entire temporal levels of sites, thus aggregating multiple contexts by time period. Yet, an increasing number of high-resolution studies go beyond this level to explore taphonomy per context or by other meaningful intra-site divisions. This approach marshals the rich information offered by the well-established discipline of taphonomy to build depositional histories of site features that contain bones, thereby revealing their formation and use. Here, we aim to better formalize the definition of contextual taphonomy for zooarchaeology and demonstrate its great applicability through select case studies in Israel. In this summary of the approach for the Special Issue on “Contextual Taphonomy in Zooarchaeological Practice”, we lay out the main requirements for multi-scalar contextual analysis and caution against potential pitfalls. Ultimately, archaeofaunal taphonomic studies at the context level are pertinent for myriad research questions, including those of refuse maintenance, camp organization and feasting.

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... The primary goal is to assess the use of space across the settlement to define differences in residential versus civic dining with regards to provisioning, diet, and carcass processing. Using a contextual taphonomy approach (e.g., Meier et al., 2017;Meier and Yeshurun, 2020;Yeshurun et al., 2014) an analysis of vertebrate taphonomy integrated with contextual informationreveals several patterns pertaining to animal processing, consumption, and discard at Azoria. While the animals consumed across settlement contexts are similar, the scale of consumption and the methods of carcass preparation are different within the large Communal Dining Building located near the top of the slope. ...
... "In this perspective, behavior is not emergent directly from the properties of the record but it has to be inferred from its formation" (Rezek et al., 2020). The casestudy from Azoria demonstrates that it is possible to begin studying the relationship between archaeological formation processes of the faunal record and associated behavior through taking a contextual taphonomy approach (Meier and Yeshurun, 2020). ...
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This book honors the memory of Brian Hesse, a scholar of Near Eastern archaeology, a writer of alliterative and punned publication titles, and an accomplished amateur photographer. Hesse specialized in zooarchaeology, but he influenced a wider range of excavators and ancient historians with his broad interpretive reach. He spent much of his career analyzing faunal materials from different countries in the Middle East-including Iran, Yemen, and Israel, and his publications covered themes particular to animal bone studies, such as domestication, ancient market economics, as well as broader themes such as determining ethnicity in archaeology. The essays in this volume reflect the breadth of his interests. Most chapters share an Old World geographic setting, focusing either on Europe or the Middle East. The topics are diverse, with the majority discussing animal bones, as was Hesse's specialization, but some take a nonfaunal perspective related to the problems with which Hesse grappled. The volume is also broad in temporal scope, ranging from Neolithic Iran to early Medieval England, and it addresses theoretical matters as well as methodological innovations including taphonomy and the history of computers in zooarchaeology. Several of the essays are direct revisits to, inspirations from, or extensions of Hesse's own research. All the contributions reflect his intense interest in social questions about antiquity; the theme of social archaeology informed much of Brian Hesse's thinking, and it is why his work made such an impact on those working outside his own disciplinary research.
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The Levantine Middle Paleolithic period displays significant archaeological variability across a series of cave and open-air sites encompassing ca. 200,000 years. Faunal remains are an important source of knowledge regarding hunting and mobility patterns but have mostly been studied in the deep stratigraphic sequences of the Levantine caves. This research addresses questions of hunting, carcass transport, butchery patterns and use of space as they occurred at the Middle Paleolithic open-air site of Nesher Ramla in central Israel. The site is an eight-meter-thick sequence within a karst sinkhole, dating to MIS6/5. We conducted the first detailed taphonomic and zooarchaeological study at the site, focusing on a sample from Unit III, which is a thin layer with dense lithics and faunal remains, combustion features, manuports, and ochre. Our results reveal an anthropogenic accumulation that is dominated by aurochs, equid, and tortoise remains. The large ungulates’ (aurochs) skeletal-element representation is biased in favor of meat- and fat-rich body parts, coupled with abundant evidence of dismemberment, filleting and marrow extraction. These parts were imported to the sinkhole for processing and consumption. Tortoises are abundant. The lithic assemblages exhibit high frequency of retouched tools and low typological diversity and are characterized by high visibility of personal toolkit components. Coupled with use-wear analysis that suggests low spectrum of activities and massive occurrence of hammerstones, anvils and manuports, these characteristics indicate that the Unit III occupation represents an intensive camp centering on aurochs processing and butchering.
Article
Studies on spatial settlement patterns have shed important light on Neanderthal intra-site behavior. Spatial analysis of the human occupations through bone and lithic refitting has contributed to the reconstruction of their settlements, offering temporal interpretations and reconstructions of their activities. Often archaeological units are a consequence of an undetermined number of events, overlapped activities and/or accumulations produced by different taphonomical agents, involving in turn various post-depositional processes. Strict behavioral conclusions may only be valid at sites with a simple taphonomic history; however, biological and non-biological processes seem to alter the most of faunal sets after hominin activity involving even the destruction of some items. The result is a palimpsest that can lead to confusing and mixed events of different nature and independent activities. The deposit of the Abric Romaní site (Capellades, Spain), dated to MIS 3-5, was generated by a sequence of sterile travertine platforms of quick formation, among which silty and sandy units containing evidence of human occupations are located. These exceptional geological conditions allow us to isolate anthropogenic units along the sedimentary sequence. Spatial analysis and bone refits from Level M have shown a highly complex occupational organization. The aim of this paper is to contribute to the knowledge of Neanderthal occupations, suggesting that the inclusion of bone refits in the studies developed in the archaeological sites is a fundamental tool to reconstruct the social and spatial organization patterns.
Book
Ever since the discovery of fossil remains of extinct animals associated with flint implements, bones and other animal remains have been providing invaluable information to the archaeologist. In the last 20 years many archaeologists and zoologists have taken to studying such "archaeofaunal" remains, and the science of "zoo-archaeology" has come into being. What was the nature of the environment in which our ancestors lived? In which season were sites occupied? When did our earliest ancestors start to hunt big game, and how efficient were they as hunters? Were early humans responsible for the extinction of so many species of large mammals 10-20,000 years ago? When, where and why were certain animals first domesticated? When did milking and horse-riding begin? Did the Romans influence our eating habits? What were sanitary conditions like in medieval England? And could the terrible pestilence which afflicted the English in the seventh century AD have been plague? These are some of the questions dealt with in this book. The book also describes the nature and development of bones and teeth, and some of the methods used in zoo-archaeology.
Article
Excavations at the Late Classic Maya site of Cancuen (Petén Department, Guatemala) uncovered a small-scale hydraulic system including stone-lined canals and reservoirs within the architectural core of the site. The abundance of other nearby potable water sources along with the elaborate form of the system demonstrate that it served an ideological rather than practical function. Artifacts deposited in the reservoirs support this interpretation. Moreover, the reservoir located in front of the site's royal palace contained the remains of at least 30 individuals who may represent members of the royal court massacred during the site's collapse. This paper reports the animal remains found within the site's reservoirs to further explore the nature and extent of ritual and disposal activities within these aquatic contexts. Inter- and intrasite comparisons are used to contextualize the results within broader discussions of how we identify ritual activity in the zooarchaeological record, and the role of water in ancient Maya ideological and political systems.
Article
Chinese Bronze Age zooarchaeological data sets have almost exclusively been derived from large, urban centers, and often from elite contexts. The Anyang period (ca. 1250‐1050 BCE) village site of Guandimiao fills an important lacuna as a small, non‐elite, rural site. The large urban sites of the Chinese Bronze Age are thought to have been more centers of animal consumption than of stock rearing and so Guandimiao presents the first glimpse of a possible production site. In addition, the near total excavation of the original village affords a rarely fine‐grained understanding of context allowing us to distinguish broadly between domestic, ritual‐related and mortuary assemblages. These assemblages show differences in relative quantities of taxa, in body part distribution, bone modification and taphonomy, giving additional insight into animal‐related human behavior at the site. In addition, a variety of lines of evidence demonstrate a large dog‐related taphonomic bias, a subject that is generally ignored in Chinese zooarchaeology. Finally, the survivorship curves for pig and cattle generally show gradual attrition with a significant proportion of older animals, in contrast with contemporaneous Shang urban sites. This fact, plus the fact that the sex analysis performed on the pig mandibles demonstrated that they were nearly all female, supports the hypothesis that Guandimiao was a site of livestock raising and origin point for urban provisioning.
Article
Stratigraphic Unit 13 of Oscurusciuto Rockshelter (Ginosa, Taranto, Southern Italy) is a short Mousterian palimpsest representing the first stable occupation of the site soon after the deposition of a thick layer of tephra (Mt. Epomeo Green Tuff - Ischia datable around 55 kya BP). Different activities were identified by integrating the study of lithic finds, faunal remains, and the microarchaeology of combustion features. Additionally, geo-statistical analysis of these data has been carried out using a specifically designed geodatabase within a GIS platform. Our results produced an articulated picture of this Neanderthal site as a tripartite location made of spatially segregated and integrated activity areas. A hearths’ alignment (parallel to the rockshelter wall) divides the settled area into an inner and outer part. The inner part, between the hearths and the shelter wall, displays an abrupt rarefaction of the anthropic finds and was interpreted as a possible sleeping/resting area. In the outer part, several multipurpose activity areas have been identified, mostly associated with the combustion features. The Northern sector of the settlement appears devoted particularly to lithic production (to a lesser degree, activities related with lithic tools use and faunal processing took place). In the Southern sector the main activities carried out represent more intensive production and use of lithic tools and the butchering and consumption of animal resources. Additionally, in this sector evidence of space maintenance behaviour (cleaning up of working areas and refuse dumping) has been attested.
Book
This volume is a comprehensive, critical introduction to vertebrate zooarchaeology, the field that explores the history of human relations with animals from the Pliocene to the Industrial Revolution.? The book is organized into five sections, each with an introduction, that leads the reader systematically through this swiftly expanding field. Section One presents a general introduction to zooarchaeology, key definitions, and an historical survey of the emergence of zooarchaeology in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and introduces the conceptual approach taken in the book. This volume is designed to allow readers to integrate data from the book along with that acquired elsewhere within a coherent analytical framework. Most of its chapters take the form of critical "review articles," providing a portal into both the classic and current literature and contextualizing these with original commentary. Summaries of findings are enhanced by profuse illustrations by the author and others. © Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018. All rights reserved.
Article
Recent excavations at the Middle Pleistocene open-air site of Marathousa 1 have unearthed in one of the two investigated areas (Area A) a partial skeleton of a single individual of Palaeoloxodon antiquus and other faunal remains in spatial and stratigraphic association with lithic artefacts. In Area B, a much higher number of lithic artefacts was collected, spatially and stratigraphically associated also with faunal remains. The two areas are stratigraphically correlated, the main fossiliferous layers representing an en mass depositional process in a lake margin context. Evidence of butchering (cut-marks) has been identified on bones of the elephant skeleton, as well on elephant and other mammal bones from Area B. However, due to the secondary deposition of the main find-bearing units, it is of primary importance to evaluate the degree and reliability of the spatial association of the lithic artefacts with the faunal remains. Indeed, spatial association does not necessarily imply causation, since natural syn-and post-depositional processes may equally produce spatial association. Assessing the degree and extent of post-depositional reworking processes is crucial to fully comprehend the archaeological record, and therefore to reliably interpret past human behaviours. The present study uses a comprehensive set of spatial statistics in order to disentangle the depositional processes behind the distribution of the archaeological and palaeontological record at Marathousa 1. Preliminary results of our analyses suggest that a high-energy erosional process, attributed to a hyperconcentrated flow deposited at the margin of a swamp, reworked an autochthonous, exposed or slightly buried, scatter of lithic artefacts and faunal remains. Minor reworking and substantial spatial association of the lithic and faunal assemblages support the current interpretation of Marathousa 1 as a butchering site.
Chapter
Many towns in Northern Europe have over a millennium of continuous occupation, often with high densities of structures and people. At these and other urban sites, including some on the American East Coast, many meters of archaeological deposits accumulate, organic degradation being ameliorated by an often damp temperate climate. Urban archaeology thus often yields copious quantities of animal bone debris, a valuable proxy record of husbandry, trade, consumption and disposal. However, continuous occupation means that people dug into the archaeological deposits of their predecessors’ deposits for construction, disposal, and hygiene purposes. Redeposition is widely recognized as an issue in urban zooarchaeology, and pre-depositional translocation of bones may be at least as significant, if less often acknowledged. In order to evaluate the samples of bones recovered from an urban site, we need to model and assess the origins of excavated assemblages and the principal taphonomic factors acting at different times and places, from the death of the animal and dismantling of the carcass, through in-ground diagenesis, to excavation sampling and curation. The Hungate site in York, UK, is used as an example of the contextual taphonomic analysis of urban assemblages, with further examples drawn from other sites in York and other historic towns across northern Europe.
Article
Numerous sites showing human occupation during the Pleistocene were discovered at the Hula Valley — in the northern segment of the Jordan Valley, Israel. At the Middle Paleolithic site of Nahal Mahanayeem Outlet (NMO; OSL dated to ca. 65,000 B.P.), two testudine species were recovered, a freshwater turtle — the Western Caspian Turtle (Mauremys cf. rivulata), and a tortoise — the Mediterranean Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca). The faunal and lithic assemblages were deposited during repeated short-term occupation events. The site was fast covered by mud deposited by rising water in the nearby paleo-Hula Lake, resulting in excellent preservation that provides a rare opportunity to reconstruct the process of procurement, use and eventual disposal of the testudines step-by-step. Evidence of consumption of the Mediterranean Spur-thighed and its carapace exists from the late Lower Paleolithic onward, however, no systematic exploitation of the Western Caspian Turtle has been reported to date from any Pleistocene archaeological sites in the Levant. This is the first and earliest evidence of butchering of the freshwater turtle, M. cf. rivulata, at a Levantine Paleolithic site. Based on detailed taxonomic identification and taphonomic analysis, we suggest that both species were exploited in a similar way at NMO. Their limbs were torn apart, and then the bridge connecting the carapace and plastron was broken. Stone tools were used to separate visceral tissues from the peripheral bones in order to detach the meat. However, due to the different shell thickness, the survival rate of the bridge area varies slightly between the two species. Finally we would like to draw attention to the presence of pits mimicking man-made percussion notches on the shells of extant specimen of both species, advocating caution when identifying percussion signs in the fossil record.
Article
The early sixth millennium settlement at Sha'ar Hagolan, in the central Jordan valley, shows evidences for early village planning, including courtyard houses, streets, and a water well, and also a large number of portable symbolic items, notably clay figurines of a corpulent female are dominant. The largest courtyard building in the settlement was previously suggested to have served ritual purposes, based on the pottery assemblage, figurines, and burials found in it. In this paper we report the results of a zooarchaeological analysis of the assemblage from that courtyard building, which support this suggestion, and may indicate that the rituals conducted in the building were seasonal celebrations. Archaeological and anthropological parallels are suggested.
Article
The goal of this paper is to investigate whether Multiple Correspondence Analysis (MCA), a multivariate statistical technique, is a useful dimensionality-reduction tool in zooarchaeological and taphonomic studies. For this purpose, the focus is to detect and discuss traces of waste management. Animal bones from waste-related contexts at the Bronze Age site Asine, Greece, are investigated. The data consists of bone fragments dating to the Middle Helladic (MH) from this site. Unidentified fragments were categorized in size-classes, where possible. Information on taxa, skeletal parts and the presence or absence of several taphonomic markers is included in the data set. The MCA reveals several correlations of zooarchaeological interest. For example, the association between indeterminate fragments and calcined bone point to issues concerning identification and preservation. Floors are characterized by weathered long bone fragments from medium-sized mammals. Additionally, the results of MCA indicate that the material might have suffered from density-mediated attrition, based on the abundance of axial fragments, which did not differ between different contexts or taxa. The results show that MCA can be used to detect zooarchaeological and taphonomic patterns. This multivariate technique is useful when investigating large data sets, as is often the case with large zooarchaeological assemblages.
Article
This paper presents a new method of assessing and displaying taphonomic history through detailed bone fracture analysis. Bone is a particularly useful indicator of taphonomic processes as it is sensitive to when it is broken based on degradation over time. Our proposed ‘fracture history profiles’ show the sequences of fracture and fragmentation that have affected assemblages of bone specimens from the death of the animal to recovery by archaeologists. The method provides an assessment of the carcass processing traditions of past people, relating specifically to bone marrow and bone grease extraction. In addition, by analysing post-deposition fracture and bone modifications caused by burning, gnawing and other taphonomic agents, it is possible to reconstruct a comprehensive taphonomic history for each archaeological context. This has implications for understanding effects on other artefacts that have no equivalent diagnostic features for determining timing of breakage, and also for establishing the nature of events such as secondary disturbance of deposits. This method will be demonstrated using a case study from the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik culture.
Article
Bones of recent mammals in the Amboseli Basin, southern Kenya, exhibit distinctive weathering characteristics that can be related to the time since death and to the local conditions of temperature, humidity and soil chemistry. A categorization of weathering characteristics into six stages, recognizable on descriptive criteria, provides a basis for investigation of weathering rates and processes. The time necessary to achieve each successive weathering stage has been calibrated using known-age carcasses. Most bones decompose beyond recognition in 10 to 15 yr. Bones of animals under 100 kg and juveniles appear to weather more rapidly than bones of large animals or adults. Small-scale rather than widespread environmental factors seem to have greatest influence on weathering characteristics and rates. Bone weathering is potentially valuable as evidence for the period of time represented in recent or fossil bone assemblages, including those on archeological sites, and may also be an important tool in censusing populations of animals in modern ecosystems.
Chapter
One of the problems that can be addressed through analysis of data from an archaeological deposit is the identification of the socioeconomic status of the site’s previous occupants. Since many historic sites lack information on the identity of the previous occupants, reliance must be placed upon the excavated remains themselves for clues of socioeconomic status. Consequently archaeologists have been delineating characteristics that will serve to identify the socioeconomic status of the former occupants from archaeological data. To define status markers from faunal remains, it is necessary to recognize that the contents of trash deposits have been subjected to a variety of biasing influences. However, in historical archaeology little attention has been paid to factors that influence faunal deposits other than socioeconomic status. In a discussion of socioeconomic status and faunal assemblages, variables that affect the deposition and survival of bones, as well as those that influence the human choices that produced those deposits, should be considered. These variables may be roughly divided into those that affect the survival of bones, those that affect the recovery and interpretation of faunal deposits, and those that affect choice of foodstuffs. When data available from plantations on the Atlantic coastal plain are studied with these variables in mind, it can be seen that more work needs to be done before the influence of socioeconomic status can be determined from vertebrate faunal remains.