Animal Timekeeping: From March Hares to Donkey’s Years

Posted on January 8, 2020


This is part of my series of videos on archaeological presentations at conferences – usually ones I have filmed. Today is an interesting session from the TAG conference

Session Info:

Animal time infiltrates many areas of modern life, from being awoken by a dawn chorus of birds, to mourning the shorter lifespans of many of our most loved animals (e.g. we often hear phrases such as ‘he was 84 in dog years’). It is therefore important that concepts of animal time keeping are recognised in the past, and the many forms that these can take. Themes may include (but are not limited to) the farming year, animal biographies, hunting time, feasting and the calendar, pet lives, micro-time analyses (e.g. incremental analyses), migrations, and seasonality. The session will explore the time-related aspects of human-animal interactions and the role animals have in dictating the temporal rhythms of life. It will also discuss the different scales at which human-animal relations are permeated by issues of time.

Organisers: Julia Best (Bournemouth University/Cardiff University), Richard Madgwick (Cardiff University) and Jacqui Mulville (Cardiff University)

Sign of the Times – 1500 Years of Cultural Change Reflected in the Human-Animal Relationship

The use of animals as providers of food and raw materials is ubiquitous, and the most common interpretation of zooarchaeological analysis, but animals have roles in human society that do not show up so easily in the archaeological record. This presentation will consider how a long-time perspective from the post-Roman period to present-day can illuminate how attitudes towards animals have changed as social and cultural worldviews have altered. From their use in ritual, science, entertainment, and as status symbols, how we treat animals reflects our own cultural outlook and attitudes towards each other. By considering zooarchaeological data alongside historical, artistic and ethnographic sources, the close relationships between society, animals and people, and how that has changed over time can be better understood.

Matty Holmes (UCL)

Winging Away Time: The seasonality of birds in Scottish and North Atlantic islands

Birds are some of the most mobile animals known to man, with certain species travelling great distances during migration and others covering large areas to feed. Their mobility can mark the passage of time and the change of seasons, altering a landscape with their presence and absence. Human interaction with these mobile creatures in the past can tell about how populations perceived and experienced the yearly passage of time, and made use of the changing environments and faunal resources around them. This paper explores the role of birds in time marking and seasonal experience in the Scottish and North Atlantic islands through zooarchaeological and historical data. In these settings, large colonies of gregariously breeding seabirds would have provided past populations of these locations with a concentrated resource base in summer that could be targeted intensely or sporadically for meat, eggs, oil, and fat. The arrival of wintering birds would have both heralded a different change of season, and provided a new set of resources for exploitation at what could have been a challenging time. On a smaller timescale, birds can also be important parts of different points of the day; from dawn chorus to screeches of the night. By exploring the temporality of birds, we can more fully understand life in these island environments from their first settlement up to the present day.

Julia Best (Bournemouth University/Cardiff University)

Time for a Feast? Considering approaches to the temporality of feasting in later prehistoric Britain

The last decade has seen a proliferation of archaeological studies on feasting. However, criteria for identifying feasting archaeologically, and even defining what constitutes a feast, remains contentious. Anthropological research has demonstrated that periodicity is a common feature of feasting, but with some notable exceptions, this aspect has been neglected in archaeology. New archaeological research has tended to focus more on reconstructing production, preparation, consumption, and deposition in detail. This is partially due to the complexity of identifying the traces of discrete events in many archaeological records. Consequently, discussions of timing and regularity are more common when textual or epigraphic sources can be drawn on. This paper considers the evidence for, and the approaches to studying, the periodicity of feasting in later prehistoric Britain. Exceptionally rich midden deposits provide convincing evidence for conspicuous communal consumption on a grand scale during this phase. Reconstructing the timing and regularity of these feasts and how this varied geographically and chronologically is key to understanding their social role. The application of traditional zooarchaeological methods relating to dental eruption and attrition are assessed along with approaches to bone taphonomic data, isotope analysis, and cementum banding analysis.

Richard Madgwick (Cardiff University)

Timing is Everything: The structure of Neolithic-Bronze Age calendars in the British Isles, a theoretical framework

This paper will present a framework elucidating the fundamentals of Neolithic-Bronze Age calendar structures in Britain and Ireland. It is based upon a combination of the structures evident in historic calendars and the ‘natural’ cyclical processes which would have informed the ‘rhythms’ of prehistoric life. While the evidence does appear to suggest that changes in calendar structure are likely to have occurred during the later Bronze Age, within the theoretical model presented it will be advanced that the Neolithic-Bronze Age calendars of the British Isles had an overarching ‘lunisolar structure’, and that two calendars are likely to have been utilized in parallel: one with an economic focus, the other with a more overt ceremonial (‘ritual’ or religious) function. In combination with the framework provided, the detailed chronological and regional patterns presented serve as a robust foundation for future analysis of Neolithic-Bronze Age calendar structures. It will also be argued that more nuanced understandings of such calendar structures are possible through integration of archaeological data-sets connected with symbolic systems. This will, for example, be demonstrated for the Neolithic with reference to calendrically significant Irish passage tomb orientations.

Thor McVeigh (NUI Galway)

Exploring Seasonal Behavioural Variability with Modelled Enamel d18O and d13C Values

Understanding how animal keeping and hunting relates to larger aspects of community life is key for exploring how people negotiated seasonal challenges and coordinated different tasks collectively. In temperate climates, the combination of seasonal cycles of precipitation and the incremental growth and mineralization of bovid tooth enamel allows analysts to track patterns in enamel d18O (and other isotopic values) across a tooth’s growth axis to associate seasonal trends with biological milestones like tooth eruption. Researchers have developed linear models to relate these seasonal changes to biological milestones while controlling for sampling and individual variability; however, good accuracy has typically required large sample sizes per tooth. A Bayesian framework for fitting linear models of seasonal changes in d18O and d13C values provides useful estimates even with small sample sizes per tooth, allowing researchers to explore behavioural flexibility in the face of diverse economic and ecological opportunities. A greater sense of the variability in animal behaviour provides insight into variability in the larger landscape, as well as human strategies and choices. Simulations of model results can be used explore persistent differences in animal behaviour that may relate to differences in ecological niche or human strategic variability.

Jesse Wolfhagen (Stony Brook University)

From Myth to Taskscape: Animals in time and space in the ancient Nile Valley

Textual and archaeological materials from Pharaonic Egypt provide plentiful evidence of how this culture interacted with and understood animals. While elite Egyptian culture also developed sophisticated concepts of cosmic time, this paper will focus more on the how temporality was experienced at an everyday level, through day and night, the seasons, and the human life span. The predominantly north-south axis of the Nile valley produced strong associations of its eastern and western sides with sunrise and sunset, the animals associated with these locations, and times of day. Likewise, the annual flooding of the river was strongly connected with aquatic life. Agriculture involved working with domesticated animals that were also moved around in the dry season. Religious beliefs about life and death focused especially on carrion eaters. Animals could be venerated or killed and eaten sacrificially on calendrically fixed occasions. It will be argued that cultural meanings given to animals came about from humans experiencing time together with them in specific spatial contexts. This claim will be explored in relation to Heidegger’s Dasein, his later concepts of building and dwelling, and their application to contemporary archaeological theory.

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