General Information, Lab Updates

“I shall kill no albatross”

Dispatches from the field with Ariel

This month I am conducting research at the Museum of the North for my dissertation. At the Museum, I am examining several bird assemblages that were excavated and analyzed during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. All of these assemblages are from Amchitka island, which is the southernmost of the Rat Islands group in the Aleutian Islands.

As these collections were previously analyzed, my work here focuses on checking to make sure that the prior taxonomic ids were correct and seeing if there were any cut marks, burning, or pathologies that may have been missed in the prior analysis.

So far, there have been some interesting results!

One of the most interesting bones I’ve looked at was this albatross humerus that was COVERED in cut marks. Normally when we see cut marks on bird bones from the Aleutians there are only a a few present. As you can see there are cut marks all up and down the shaft of the bone. Was somebody practicing their cutting techniques? Were they removing feathers from the wing? Was the knife not sharp enough?

Albatross humerus with cut marks

Also in the albatross assemblage, I found this skull that has been burned. Part of the burned area is missing (it was likely lost either while it was sitting in the ground for several thousand years or post-excavation).


Ultimately, what caused each individual cut mark or burned bone has been lost to time, but by analyzing these collections as a whole, I will be able to piece together how each species was being exploited.

This research was made possible by NSF Dissertation Research Improvement Grant #1853169 (P.I. Chevral/co-PI Taivalkoski).

General Information, Lab Updates, Pathologies

Smitten with the Smithsonian

Dispatches from the field with Dr. Funk and Ariel

Authored By: Shannon Clark ’18 Zooarchaeology Lab Social Media Intern

The success of this trip is attributed not only to the hard work of Dr. Funk and Ariel but to all of the students who have worked in the lab and made it possible to do this extensive bone analysis. The background lab work they accomplished in the 8 months prior to the trip provided a strong basis of fundamental knowledge and research.

The trip to the Smithsonian was incredibly successful for the NSF project as well as for mentoring; because of this experience, Ariel is poised to do her dissertation research. From this experience she has gained ‘how to’ knowledge and capabilities, contacts within the museum, knowledge of the available reference skeletons, and navigational bearings through the dense maze of rooms, libraries, and hallways.

During the four short weeks we were graciously hosted by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Birds Division, ZooArch Lab researchers analyzed over 5,000 bones. “We had aggressive goals for the analysis,” said Dr. Funk, “and because the collections of the Birds Division are so well suited to Aleutian avifauna research we were able to analyze specimens from all of the bird families we brought with us.”

Taking full advantage of their opportunity, our researchers were able to attend to some additional projects during their stay. Ariel was able to give attention to her bird bone pathology study and both researchers think they may have identified an extinct cormorant in the prehistoric bird bone collection!

During this research Ariel and Dr. Funk have identified many species that are rare today but were evidently abundant during the occupation of the Margaret Bay site (UNL-048) at about 4700 years ago. Our researchers rented an apartment on Capitol Hill, and they walked to work every day past the Capitol, the Senate offices, and down the Mall. Working on research about environmental change and actually seeing shifts in avifauna species over time in a place where environmental decisions are being legislated renews our researchers’ motivation for this project and reminds us that what we are doing is critically important.




Lab Updates

Avifamily Analysis Begins!

Author: Ariel Taivalkoski, MA, Zooarchaeology Lab Manager

*This avifauna analysis project is supported by the NSF Polar Programs award “Archaeological and Paleoenvironmental Perspectives of Climate Change in the Aleutian Islands” (PLR-1522972: C. West PI, C. Funk UB subaward PI)*

Our reference skeletons have arrived from the Smithsonian Institution. We spent the past couple of weeks rearranging the lab in preparation for our family level analysis, developing the family analysis procedure, and finishing pulling all the elements we will be analyzing from the archaeological assemblage.

Reference skeletons waiting to be deployed

We have two archaeological sites that are being analyzed. There were ~55,000 bird bones found at these two sites. Since it would takes us YEARS to analyze this many bones to the lowest taxonomic level, even with the great team we have, we selected the most diagnostic elements to analyze. We determined that the humerus (arm bone), coracoid (what would be a human collar bone), tarsometatarsus (what would be a human ankle bone) and the skull would be the elements easiest to take to the species level. This narrowed our elements that need to be identified to a total of 14,660.

Archaeological bones waiting to be identified to family

Now the real fun begins. We will be using the reference skeletons from the Smithsonian to identify the archaeological bones to the family level, if possible. After the family level analysis is complete, Dr. Funk and I will be traveling to the Smithsonian with the archaeological specimens. We will use the extensive Smithsonian collections to identify the bones to the species level. Since the bones will already be identified to family, the species level analysis will be easier and quicker.

An example of our archaeological bones identified to the family level