Zooarchaeology (also known as Archaeozoology or Palaeozoology) is the study of animals in past human societies and
ecosystems. A varied branch of environmental archaeology, zooarchaeology ranges from the study of microscopic
organisms in archaeological deposits, to studying the actions and effects of large groups of wild or domesticated
Animals have been hunted, domesticated, bred, herded, feared and venerated by humans throughout history. Animal
protein and fats have played a major role in human (and other animal) diets. Cattle, sheep, dogs, goats, horses,
chickens, cats, deer and pigs are the most common domesticated species. Their wild counterparts, together with
other species present in past ecosystems (including marine ones) were hunted, harvested and exploited, sometimes on
an industrial scale. Animals such as wolves, bears and wild boar were hunted to extinction in Britain in historical
times. In turn, animals such as dogs, foxes and rats have played a role in eating, moving and burying human-derived
refuse, a process known to archaeologists as 'taphonomy'. Studying taphonomy can provide useful information on what
happens to human rubbish, and this is an area very well suited to experimental archaeology. Occasionally smaller
animals have been exploited, such as honey bees and silk worms. More typically however, such animals are indirectly
affected by human activity. Forest clearance, farming, industrial development and similar activities all affect the
environment and in turn the animals within it. Different types of snail or beetle (for instance) live in these
different environments, so snail shells or beetle jaws (both of which are plentiful and survive well in the soil)
can tell us about this earlier land use.
Zooarchaeological remains are retrieved during excavation either by conventional digging by hand and dry-sieving of
soil, or through the flotation process where small fragments of bone, teeth and occasionally softer tissue such as
horn, hair, skin or cartilage are separated from the soil by passing water through a soil sample. They are then
identified, sorted and analysed. In some cases radiocarbon dates are carried out on bone or tooth samples.
Zooarchaeologists tend to divide themselves into vertebrate and invertebrate specialists. This refers to the
subject of their specialism, not themselves! Vertebrate zooarchaeologists deal with large animals such as mammals,
reptiles, birds and fish. Invertebrate zooarchaeologists mostly deal with much smaller organisms. Snails, parasites,
single-celled creatures, insects, beetles and even spiders all have their specialist experts amongst
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- J. Evans and T. O'Connor, Environmental Archaeology, Principles and Method, Sutton, Stroud, 2001.
- D.F. Dinacauze, Environmental Archaeology, Principles and Practice, Cambridge University Press, 2000.