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Animal, mineral or vegetable (or sorting the sheep from the goats)

Environmental archaeology and zooarchaeology are the two sub-disciplines that tell us most about the physical habitat in which past people lived.

Did they live in a forest? Open fields? Through a time of drought? Was it originally a wet climate, or under water? Cold or warm overall? What sort of animals were kept? Were they wild or domesticated? How old or young were they when slaughtered, and what were they used for? And what other wild animals lived in the area?

All these questions, and many more, can be answered by careful study of the soil coming out of particular archaeological contexts.

Alyson, Tiggy and Alice undertake a bit of flotation - a nice job on a hot day

'Enviro', as it's commonly called, is a highly specialised area where tiny finds can reveal enormous amounts. Soil samples are put through a flotation tank that allows the soil to drop away, and sieves retain the tiny particles of plant and animal matter that can answer some of these important questions.

Alice prepares to do some wet-sieving...

...and sorts out the results under her microscope afterwards

Seeds, pollens, the microscopic shells of molluscs and tiny mammal and bird bones all tell their own story about how the land was shaped and used at the time the sample was sealed away. What has been done to them - eg. are the seeds burned, crushed or partly germinated - can tell us even more.

On a larger scale, animal bones - the study of zooarchaeology, or archaeozoology - give valuable information on farming practices, diets and local wildlife. Sorting out the bones and identifying the animals they originate from permits the calculation of important statistics like the Minimum Number of Individuals, or MNI. This figure in turn permits us to estimate the size of the herd or the farm, an estimation that then may shed light on the size of the local human population.

Sarah and Rowena sort and analyse animal bones

From these myriad tiny details, like detectives solving a crime, we build up an image of the settlement, village or other human occupation that we are studying.

Though some questions will always remain. For example - sheep or goat? The animals may look completely different in life, but their post-cranial (below the neck) skeletons are identical. Who would have thought?

Ewan setting out a sheep (or goat?) skeleton for display

If you find the study of ancient plant and animals interesting, come and join us for our Environmental Archaeology course, running over six days starting 15 July. Or bring along your previous experience to see what it is we are doing and help us do more of it!

Alice, SHARP's lead environmental archaeologist, says:

'Half of SHARP's Environmental Archaeology course focuses on the archaeology of plants, half on the archaeology of animals. Participants learn the basics of identification for plant and animal remains along while being trained in field techniques for environmental archaeology. The course is geared towards anyone with an interest in archaeology. Prior knowledge and training is great, but we don't expect it at all. The course would be a good choice for someone who wants to try out practical archaeology, but maybe can't handle the physical requirements of BERT. We try to incorporate a mix of lecture and practical elements, including an afternoon field trip to the beach at Hunstanton to talk about coastal archaeology.'

Season 23 is coming up fast, and courses and volunteer places are filling up. Visit our website and book soon!


A post about SHARP's Enviro work wouldn't be complete without a shout-out to the now defunct Enviro Tree, which for many years overshadowed the former Enviro wagon until it fell over and was chopped up last season.

Here is a photo of it in its prime. You can read more about its history and demise (and its rebirth as art) here and here.

The Enviro Tree back in the day (Photo: Charlotte Burrill)


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