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Animal Bones for Archaeologists - ARC00031M

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  • Department: Archaeology
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. David Orton
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25

Module summary

This module is for anyone who wants to understand and identify the animal bones that comprise one of the most common find types on all periods of archaeological sites across the world. A mix of lectures, practicals, and seminars cover the structure, chemistry, and growth of bone; the basic anatomy and identification of the most archaeologically-important groups of animals; and the processes which govern the survival of bone over time - always paying particular attention to the implications for archaeological analyses.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

This module aims:

  • To provide students with an overview of vertebrate anatomy, including the chemistry, structure, and growth of bone and teeth.
  • To train students to identify the most common vertebrates found on European archaeological sites – including the key globally distributed domestic species – and equip them to narrow down identification of rarer species and those found elsewhere in the world.
  • To explain the processes of deposition and decay of animal remains, and how these can be recognised and reconstructed (taphonomy and diagenesis).
  • To provide students with the tools to make informed decisions about sampling animal remains for a range of purposes.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students should:

  • Have a systematic understanding of knowledge of the principles and broad pattern of evolutionary anatomy in vertebrates, making informed identifications of a wide range of zooarchaeological specimens.
  • Have a comprehensive understanding of techniques applicable to recording fragmentary animal remains with the range of available reference resources.
  • Demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the principles of taphonomy and diagenesis (i.e. bone survival), recognising their effects in the field and laboratory.
  • Demonstrate a practical understanding of how established techniques of research are used in selecting suitable samples for biomolecular analyses, microscopic analyses, and scientific dating.

Module content

This module combines lectures, seminars, and practicals to introduce students to animal bones: their diversity and structure, their survival in archaeological contexts, and how to identify them. It is intended either as a basis for further study in zooarchaeology or as a comprehensive introduction for the benefit of bioarchaeologists, field archaeologists, human bones specialists, and others likely to encounter animal remains in their future work.

After considering what bone is and how it is formed, we dedicate much of the semester to the skeletal anatomy of the main vertebrate groups. Detailed consideration of mammals and their skeletons is followed by introductions to birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, in each case pairing seminars on key taxa with practical identification sessions. We then go on to consider how bone survives and is modified in archaeological sites (the field of taphonomy) and evidence for pathologies and disease in past animals – again combining theoretical content with hands-on sessions. Finally, we turn our attention to understanding growth structures and how we can make best use of different hard tissues in bioarchaeology, for example when selecting samples for radiocarbon dating or molecular analyses.

Indicative assessment

Task Length % of module mark
Essay : Report
N/A 70
Practical in-class test
N/A 30

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

In class test at end of Semester as it is best to take place immediately after students have had practical experience of faunal identifications rather than waiting until after the Christmas break.

Indicative reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
Closed/in-person Exam (Centrally scheduled)
Closed exam
N/A 30
Essay : Report
N/A 70

Module feedback

Formative: oral feedback from module leaders

Summative: written feedback within the University's turnaround policy

Indicative reading

Hillson, S. 1992. Mammal Bones and Teeth: An Introductory Guide to Methods of Identification. London: UCL Institute of Archaeology

Lyman, R.L. 1994. Vertebrate Taphonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chapters 1 and 2.

Serjeantson, D. 2009. Birds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University constantly explores ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary. In some instances it may be appropriate for the University to notify and consult with affected students about module changes in accordance with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.