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July 2018

Posted by admin on July 26, 2018

July’s blog comes courtesy of Clare R, the project’s zooarchaeologist. She tells us about teaching students to identify animal bones at Teffont (hands up if you can remember how to tell animal teeth apart!?), the discovery of a not-so-Roman calf, and how analsysis of the zooarchaeology assemblage each year gradually makes Teffont yield some of its secrets…

Midsummer. It’s a sunny morning and the area around the barn is busy with people cleaning their teeth at the outside sinks, washing up the breakfast dishes, clattering tools into wheelbarrows ready for the long hike to site. As the morning rush clears, today it leaves a group of twelve diggers, sat around the uneven tables in the barn which have mysteriously sprouted several cardboard boxes. Outside, the swifts are wheeling, and I’ve got the whole morning, four skeletons from the reference collection, a box of unstratified bone from York, and a file of handouts, to teach them something about identifying animal bone.

Right then. Let’s begin.

Since 2010, I’ve been the zooarchaeologist for the Teffont Archaeological Project. Zooarchaeology is the study of human-animal relationships in the past (and not the study of ancient zoos, thanks), but my main practical skill is to be able to identify animal bone which comes from archaeological sites. In the context of Teffont, this means three things. Firstly, my experience of Teffont is rather different to everyone else’s because I hardly ever manage to get on site. Each season I come down for a few days, take a tour and get the site geography fixed in my head, and then spend one or two days teaching. Almost everyone who’s been to Teffont has also been through my compulsory half-day of basic zooarchaeology training, which means that, in theory, everyone who has been to Teffont should be able to distinguish cow teeth from sheep teeth from pig teeth from horse teeth. Feel free to test them on it for me. When I do go out digging, it’s usually the cue for the major thunderstorm of the season (sorry guys), or I go out to help the team with excavating any animal burials they find. A couple of years ago, I spent a day or so with one of the Teffont pods carefully excavating the very young, very complete skeleton of a calf that we found near the enclosure bank, just at the edges of the wood. We named him “Roman”, in the hopes that he might be, but conversation with one of the locals told us that the farmers have been burying their dead animals up in that copse for a few decades now. Never mind. For a recent calf skeleton, he’s beautifully well-recorded.          

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Above: Roman the calf, who turned out to be not-so-Roman after all

The second thing that being the zooarchaeologist means that Teffont for me isn’t over each year with the end-of-dig party. Right now – just as soon as I’ve written this, and sent a few emails, and cleaned the kitchen sink - I’m co-writing an article with our dig director David about the differences in how animals are used in ritual practices between Teffont and another site we worked on, the South Wiltshire shrine site, which we hope to see in print by next year. For me, Teffont gives up its secrets slowly, the picture building and changing with each years’ assemblage that I work on. Some of the most exciting and significant finds aren’t made on site but months afterwards, when I tip out a bag on the bench and look at it, and call David and say “You know that context from the Glebe? Well. There’s a lot of cremated sheep bone in it, and I know where I’ve seen that before…” Or even after that, when I put all the numbers into a spreadsheet, and turn them into a table, and see something I’d never noticed until now. The box of animal bone from the summer of 2017 is sitting in my dining room looking at me as I write this, waiting to divulge its secrets. It’s very small, so maybe it doesn’t have many. But we can hope.*   

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Above: Teffont Project zooarchaeologist Clare Rainsford

The third part of being the zooarchaeologist is that I’ve been involved in Teffont for a long time. In the spring of 2010, I was doing my MSc in Zooarchaeology at the University of York when I happened to get chatting over coffee to a fellow masters student, David Roberts. “I’m looking for some summer fieldwork,” said I. “You’re a zooarchaeologist, are you?” said he. “Well…” And that’s how I ended up doing this. Over the years I’ve been involved, in my real life I’ve been a full-time zooarchaeologist with a commercial archaeology company, then a PhD student, and finally (now) a freelance specialist. It’s often been hard for me to get time off from my various jobs to come down to Wiltshire over the summer, but I’ve always tried to do so. And I’ve always said that there are three reasons why I wanted to come back each year. Firstly, the archaeology. Secondly, Tom’s cooking (these are not in order of importance). And thirdly, I come back for the people I get to spend time with while I’m there. Thanks to Teffont, I know folks who are PhD students and Finds Liaison Officers and teachers and librarians and freelance osteologists. I know folks who live in California and Oxford and London. I run into them at conferences or in coffee shops, at Show of Hands gigs, in the supermarket or, unexpectedly, in my own university department. Just the other week, I was sitting with my grandmother in her room overlooking the Humber Bridge, and I said to her, “I know someone who works in a museum just the other side of that bridge.” “How do you know her?” my grandma asked. “Oh,” I said. “Teffont.”

Long may you reign.

*If you want to find out more about the animal bone from Teffont, check out my blog (fromthebonesoftheland.wordpress.com) and the Teffont blog, where I’ll be discussing it when the analysis is done later on this year.