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Working With Fish Bones June 1, 2007
by Courtney Scott

Courtney Scott excavates at the site of Indian Town Trail in Barbuda. (Courtesy Brooklyn College)

As an anthropology undergraduate at Brooklyn College, I am taking part in hands-on research, working side-by-side with graduate students and professors Sophia Perdikaris from Brooklyn College and Thomas H. McGovern from Hunter College. This amazing experience is giving me a glimpse into the world of scientific research--archaeology and zooarchaeology--and allowing me to explore career choices I never knew existed. Like the analysis of archaeological fish remains. Yes, fish bones.


Preparing fish for the project's comparative collection (Courtesy Brooklyn College)

Born in Guyana and raised in New York, I have had some extraordinary opportunities through Brooklyn College's program in anthropology and archaeology and funding through the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates. For two summers it has taken me far from home to the edge of the Icelandic inland desert and the Viking site of Hrisheimar. There, under the tutelage of Perdikaris and McGovern, I've done field archaeology and been exposed to new environments, a new culture, and an amazingly diverse landscape.

Archaeology and zooarchaeology in particular, teaches one about patience and accuracy. The process from digging to analysis has many intermediate steps: identification of the faunal remains, notes on taphonomy (cutmarks, burning, signs of gnawing are critical for later studies), cataloguing, measuring, and entering the observations in a database. The work is methodical, and every step is a puzzle piece that finds its place so that we can gain a better view in the economy and lifeways of the early settlers of Iceland.

The work in Iceland led me to change my major from accounting to archaeology and gave me a fire in the belly and excitement about studying and researching that I had never experienced before. I was hooked on archaeological faunal material, and fish were it, but the choice of a regional focus was still open. When I heard that there was a new project, this time in the Caribbean, my interest was piqued: Could this be it?


Processing faunal material in the Brooklyn College zooarchaeology lab (Courtesy Brooklyn College)

In January 2007, I joined the Brooklyn College team in this new research location, Barbuda in the West Indies. They were there by invitation from Dr. Reg Murphy and the Barbuda Council to help in two archaeological rescue projects. I was excited to join along as a junior site supervisor and with a hope in my heart that this might be what I was looking for in terms of future graduate work and a master's thesis.


The Sea View site is endangered by wind and water erosion. (Courtesy Brooklyn College)

This time the team had a new challenge. An area that had seen very little scientific research and in need of not only archaeological, but also environmental work. The project ran as a field school and in three weeks we had worked on two sites, Indian Town Trail and Sea View. At Sea View, the task we were faced with was conducting rescue archaeology at the site. On the sandy slopes of a hill facing the ocean, it was in danger of being destroyed by wind and water erosion. Rising tides wash and peal back the hillside, exposing many of the artifacts. Pressed by time, the team jumped into overdrive, excavating and recovering the beautiful decorated white-on-red pottery along with a fully articulated dog skeleton. At Indian Town Trail, although the site was not as threatened as Sea View, we faced other challenges, such as carefully digging through the compact dirt and in certain areas working around large shells in the pit. At Indian Town, the site was covered with shells and pottery, and we recovered from the surface beads and other artifacts made from shells and pieces of lithics. Although these two sites were in close proximity to one another, it is believed that they were occupied at different times, based on the significant difference found in the pottery and artifacts, which point to different time periods.


These fish vertebra show the range in size of the bones found. (Courtesy Brooklyn College)

Processing the hundreds of pounds of faunal material from the two sites--mostly fish bones, a small amount of mammal bones, crab shells, and a variety of seashells--is slowly on its way. While sorting the faunal material in Barbuda, I saw some bones that can identified from their unique characteristics, such as the dentary bone (part of the lower jaw) of the parrot, surgeon, and doctor fish. But we need to first expand our comparative collection by getting a wider selection of regional fish from different environmental niches: coastal, deep water and fish found among the coral reefs.

A faunal report is only as good as the comparative collection that is available to the researcher. You have to have skeletons, scales, and otoliths (ear stones) of identified modern fish to use to identify the archaeological remains. In our first visit, 26 fish were measured, weighed, de-fleshed, boiled, brushed, dried, and bagged. This is the beginning of this work rather than the end. Specimen preparation is labor intensive and particularly "stinky" in the tropics. It isn't for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. I am going back in August to collect more fish, hoping to find all the "missing links," matches for all the bones that are still confusing me back at the lab!

From the cooking pot, to the library, to the lab, and the field, a junior researcher's life is busy and on the go. In Barbuda, I feel I have found my niche and I am looking forward to keep on going back with the Brooklyn College team to work not only on fish but on survey and excavation. It is great to have found a career to be passionate about and that makes me happy every day to go to work. Doing hands on research, being part of a lab and exploring and experiencing new horizons has transformed my life and it opened up horizons that I never before knew existed. Fish bones rule!!

Courtney Scott, an intern at ARCHAEOLOGY, is a senior at Brooklyn College perusing a degree in anthropology and archaeology. He is currently participating in excavations and plans on attending graduate school in archaeology.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America