Roz Gillis is the coordinator of the Development of Complex Societies research group, Stable isotope working group for ICAZ and member of the ICArEHB board of Direction. Want to know what she does? Then stick around and read what she shared with the Archaeologist’s Notebook.
Archaeology is rubbish! No, it is really…archaeology is the study of past human cultures, and the majority of what we study is rubbish from daily activities, such as food preparation. Food is central to societies…we all know how important pastel de nata or cozido are to the Portuguese. By studying the remains of animals and plants, we can reconstruct what people ate creating a window on food sources, seasonality of these source, as well as societal organisation, beliefs and culture.
My research focuses on uncovering animal management practices of the first farmers. Cattle, sheep, and goats were domesticated nearly 11,000 years ago in the regions now known as Iran and Turkey. From here, they were brought to Europe by the first farmers and spread via two routes: Mediterranean seaboard and via mainland southern Europe sometimes called the Danubian route.
How do I uncover past animal management practices? Via the analysis of animal teeth. Teeth are amazing, they can provide enormous amount of information about when an animal was born, died, what it ate as well (stable isotopic analysis) as herd population history via ancient DNA and analysis of their shape and size (geomorphometric). Another good thing is they can survive for thousands of years buried in the soil. The methods I use are a mix of observation and measurement of the tooth, to determine age at death, and stable isotopic analysis. Stable isotope of carbon (12C/13C; 15N/14N; 18O/16O) can be used to generate information about when an animal was born and what they ate. We can access information directly information about a single year within an animal’s life using sequential analysis of enamel, the hard inorganic part of the tooth, and dentine, the soft organic interior of the tooth. By analysing multiple teeth throughout different periods of a site, we can build up a picture of the length of the birth season and therefore availability of milk, as well as what type of pasture they ate and the environment around them.
What were these animals used for? Analysis of the age at death and fats found trapped in walls of pottery tells us that these animals were used for meat and milk. Dairy husbandry would have been important to these early farmers as it is a seasonal product produced throughout the lifetime of the animal. It can be transformed in a multitude of storable products that can be used after the animal’s milk is finished. We can imagine in the initial stages of the migration of farmers into Europe that dairy products would have sustained them during their voyages. These domesticated animals were a cornerstone of past subsistence strategies and the daily routine of caring for these animals helped shaped the organization and structure of past societies, the effect of which are still felt today.
Author: Roz Gillis