David Constantine gave the FBDMA autumn lecture on Friday 4th November 2016 in the Parish Centre, Berwick-upon-Tweed. He spoke on “Bone and Antler in History and Archaeology”, examining what can be learned about the past from the study of animal archaeological remains, and he brought with him a large assortment of artefacts and archaeological examples to illustrate his talk. A summary of his talk appears below.
David is seen below at work as a bone craftsman.
On Friday 4th November 2016, the FBDMA welcomed David Constantine to the Parish Centre in Berwick for the Annual Autumn Lecture. David is a researcher and practitioner in Medieval Archaeology, specialising in the early Medieval, Viking and Saxon periods.
He explained that bones can tell so much about the past including environmental changes, so that the timescale of the ruin of a building can be estimated via the ‘floor’ of small mammal bones, deposited in the pellets of the particular species of owl which roosted and died there, the roof timbers rotted and finally collapsed. The midden of a Roman Fort contained bones of mainly pork and beef, the remains from the kitchens; but the drains from the latrines contained small lamb bones and chicken wing-bones, snacks eaten while ‘taking a comfort break’! Animal bones can show healed trauma after accidents, or when a domestic animal has been treated, also damage caused by disease such as arthritis which apart from the initial trauma, can cause secondary problems due to additional stress on unaffected joints. Sheep were kept mainly for wool and milk and would be retained until they died a natural death. Bones were a valuable commodity, bone-workers and tanneries were often found close to butchers’ establishments, the long bones of the forelegs and the hoofs being especially useful. During the Saxon period there were no ‘standards’ and all shapes and sizes of tool can be found. Nearer the coast where whale bone was plentiful, it is so oily it would burn like wood, and some items which have no apparent use must have been symbolic or simply for adornment.
Animal bone cannot exceed its natural size but fish can continue to grow bone, depending on the food supply, so that age can be estimated by the number of ‘rings’ as in the growth of a tree. Large fish bones from the Mesolithic in Western Scotland suggested that quite long sea voyages were undertaken to obtain the bigger fish.
Finds of reindeer antler, claws of bears and wolves are occasionally found in contexts outside their normal range which are probably from skins imported from Scandinavia.
Antler was even more valuable, being three or four times stronger than bone. The majority of combs of various types found on Orkney were made of antler, and earlier Pictish combs were made from Viking antler. Combs were found at Bamburgh, but there was no evidence of a workshop, suggesting that there was trade from the Baltic region. For full strength (surpassed only by metal) antlers must be shed not cut, suggesting trade with hunters and keepers. Many antler tools have been discovered on prehistoric sites such as Stonehenge. Cow and sheep horn is comparatively small and degrades quickly, but when heated becomes very plastic and after soaking can be flattened, making it useful for small window panes and lanterns, sometimes referred to as ‘lanthorns’.
This was a most interesting and informative talk and the examples of bones and associated artifacts were keenly examined with a number of questions.