Skeletons in your grill: formation of a faunal collection

By Chris

Conducting archaeological investigations in New York State keeps getting more exciting. However, we don’t have the chance to do as much faunal analysis as we used to but I thought it would be useful to write about methods for collecting and desiccating faunal remains. There are half dozen faunal guidebooks out there which present a graphic database of the North American animals (wild and domestic) commonly found at archaeological sites. Not to say they aren’t a great quick reference but these guides are somewhat limited as they focus primarily on the larger bones and larger mammals. They also only show the bones from one or two angles at most. When you’re trying to get an identification from bone fragments, this really doesn’t help. You need the real thing and it’s not easy. Though there are sources for crania such as many time the rest of the skeleton, and the part you’re most likely to find in an archaeological context is up to you to beg, steal, or borrow
I was taught that you need a comparative collection with as many whole skeletons from all your potential species as possible. It’s also good to get a sample of select bones from both sexes and a variety of ages for each species. I started my collection slowly from farmer’s fields and middens. Of course I was taking only the “cool” skulls. Looking back I want to kick myself for all of those complete skeletons that only donated their crania. It wasn’t until I was contracted by a client to supervise an analysis that I really started a good comparative collection.
So I started with already “clean” specimens which usually meant damaged and missing elements too. I realized that I would have to bring my additions to the collection whole and clean them myself.
The source for most of my collection lead me to the title for this blog, roadkill. I was lucky that the State of Tennessee had just passed their famous “Roadkill Law” just as I was starting out, making it legal and proper for me to collect any game species I should find in the right-of-way. I always keep a few large 3-mil black plastic bags and a large trowel in the back of the field-truck and was then able to collect many of the medium-sized mammals and larger reptiles and birds.
The larger mammals (deer, coyote, bear, wild-boar) came from hunting family-members and from the road-kill freezer of the regional wildlife resource agency. The smaller animals came from lucky finds while in the field and from my general request for all things dead from friends and family. No one needed to wonder what to get me for Christmas.
The cleaning process was three-fold and consisted of :
-The removal and disposal of skin, hair and feathers and as much soft tissue as possible without damaging the bones. For this I recommend HAZ-Mat thick black rubber gloves, not dishwashing or surgical gloves which seem to let the flavors flow right-through .
-Exposure of the remains to the elements within a sealed metal mesh envelope. I realized that the envelope shouldn’t be hung up but should be tied to a tree and laid on the ground in partial sun which allows insects and worms to do their work.
-The envelope is ready to open only after most of the remains have been cleared of soft-tissues and have been partially bleached by the sun. The remains can now be stripped of the last of the soft tissue (brain especially) and transferred to a bucket full of fresh water and bicarbonate of soda (borax) or an outdoor crock-pot of fresh water set on a slow boil. The remains then soak or stew for a day or so and then are sieved though fine mesh and dried in direct sunlight for at least three days. After this I like to store them in Tupperware or other sealed containers with a cup of dry alum thrown in to take the last of the moisture away.
The finished project was bagged and labeled by body area (axial, upper appendages, lower appendages) for the specimen and added to the collection inventory.
I hope this information is useful and will hopefully help you avoid getting my Tennessee nick-name of Dr. Stinky.
Thanks for reading. For comments or questions email me at

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