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International Journal of Osteoarchaeology

Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)

Published online in Wiley Online Library
(wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/oa.1212


Taphonomy and Interpretation:

An Analytical Framework for
Social Zooarchaeology
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, UK.

ABSTRACT Taphonomy is central to many attempts to address social questions from archaeological animal remains,
especially where those questions relate to practices of consumption and deposition. Without a clear analytical
framework for this purpose, however, results can verge on the anecdotal. Following a review of the structure of
taphonomy, this paper presents just such a framework designed to isolate archaeologically relevant patterns
of behaviour through a comprehensive, quantitative analysis of numerous taphonomic variables. The typical
formation processes shaping zooarchaeological assemblages are grouped into five broad stages and
considered in reverse chronological order, allowing the analyst to work backwards towards the ‘death
assemblage’ while identifying evidence of cultural practices. Particular attention is paid to differences between
taxa, context types, phases, etc., that cannot be explained in mechanistic terms. This process is illustrated
with selected data from a wider study of the Vinča (late Neolithic) site of Gomolava, Serbia, tracing the
identification of one particular set of depositional practices. Copyright ß 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Key words: taphonomy; social zooarchaeology; Neolithic; Gomolava; Vinča

Introduction disposal that may be of wider archaeological interest.

This is illustrated with selected results from the
The interpretive role assigned to taphonomy differs Neolithic site of Gomolava, Serbia, tracing the
widely within zooarchaeology, and forms an important identification of one particular phenomenon.
methodological difference between researchers with
varying research agendas and theoretical orientations.
By its very nature quantitative, taphonomic reconstruc-
tion in archaeology grew out of, and is often associated Taphonomy
with, the more avowedly scientific branches of the
discipline. However, a focus on consumption and In current usage, ‘taphonomy’ refers to the study of all
deposition in recent more socially oriented perspectives processes intervening between a live community of
has brought taphonomy to the fore in a rather different animals and the records in an analyst’s database. The
context. Taphonomic concerns have never been more discipline is concerned with understanding these
central than in the latest formulations of ‘social processes, primarily through actualistic studies, and
zooarchaeology’. using this understanding to assess their impact on
This paper sets out a new framework for taphonomic archaeological or palaeontological assemblages. Flow
analysis, one which is designed to combine the charts illustrating the ‘taphonomic history’ of a generic
systematic rigour of traditional taphonomic study with assemblage are a common heuristic device here,
an emphasis on isolating patterns of treatment and consisting of series of populations from ‘life-assem-
blage’ to published data. Each population is a sample of
the previous one; where sampling is non-random we
* Correspondence to: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research,
University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, UK. CB2 3ER.
have taphonomic bias. Accordingly, the sequence is
e-mail: dco21@cam.ac.uk often seen as a progressive loss of information content

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Received 28 January 2010
Revised 30 July 2010
Accepted 6 August 2010
D. C. Orton

(e.g. Clark & Kietzke, 1967, 117; see also Hesse & Social zooarchaeology
Wapnish, 1985, 19).
Bias is a relative term, dependent on the questions Much work on the ‘archaeology of food’ is fundamen-
being asked (Lyman, 1994, 32). Indeed, many tally taphonomic (e.g. Miracle & Milner, 2002;
taphonomic inputs represent the addition of information Serjeantson, 2006). The most overtly taphonomic
to the assemblage, providing evidence regarding the formulation of ‘social zooarchaeology’, however, is set
processes which have taken place. This not only helps out by Marciniak (2001, 2005b), who advocates that
us to understand the likely biases in the observed data inferences about human–animal relations be made via
but also may be of interest in its own right. Taphonomy the reconstruction of contexts of consumption and
therefore has two aspects: differential practices of treatment and disposal.
Marciniak’s (2005a) study of animals in the Polish
(1) Reconstructive: Controlling for bias and ‘working Neolithic is a landmark for social zooarchaeology, but
back’ from the observed assemblage. has scope for methodological refinement. His six-step
(2) Descriptive: Detecting and describing events and
methodology is outlined below:
processes that are of interest in and of themselves.
(1) Qualitative taphonomy (surface modification,
The balance between these depends on one’s research butchery and breakage)
interests, as does the point in the sequence towards (2) Correlation of NISP with density
which one’s reconstructive efforts aspire (Figure 1). (3) Correlation of NISP with MGUI (Binford, 1978)
Palaeontologists are usually concerned ultimately (4) Correlation of NISP with MI (Binford, 1978)
with the life assemblage—and possibly also with causes (5) Interpretation of body part profiles by context
of mortality—so the reconstructive aspect predomi- (6) Interpretation of taxonomic composition by context
nates. Archaeologists, in theory, are interested in all the The first stage is aimed at elucidating patterns of
human-mediated processes, but again differences in human processing, consumption and disposal, while
research agenda apply. Destructive processing might be steps 2–4 fall firmly within the realm of quantitative,
a hindrance to analysts with an interest in procurement reconstructive taphonomy, aimed at identifying the
strategies, but for those pursuing questions of consump- primary determinants of observed element profiles.
tion it is the very object of study. Close parallels can be Stage 5—only applied where preservation bias is
drawn here with wider archaeological debates regarding judged to be minor—returns to the more interpretive
formation processes, especially within the processual side of taphonomy, while stage 6 is a standard element
movement (e.g. Collins, 1975; Schiffer, 1976, 1983; of zooarchaeological analysis.
Binford, 1981a). In archaeology as a whole we are not The structure of this approach effectively divides
interested in any one sampling population but in a whole analysis into qualitative (descriptive) and quantitative
section of taphonomic history. Archaeological taphon- (reconstructive) portions. The qualitative section—
omy is thus unavoidably a simultaneous process of stage 1—risks becoming anecdotal, while the quan-
reconstruction and interpretation, aspects that cannot be titative part is essentially a matter of working back to a
separated sequentially. desired point (stages 2–4) before commencing
interpretation (stage 5). The potential for under-
standing the interaction between the various anthro-
pogenic and non-anthropogenic factors in assemblage
formation is thus limited.

‘Multivariate taphonomy’
An alternative analytical structure is proposed by Bar-Oz
& Munro (2004) under the title of ‘multivariate
taphonomy’, referring not to statistical data-reduction
techniques but to an integrated approach in which
numerous taphonomic variables are brought to bear.
Quantitative taphonomy inevitably suffers from appar-
ent equifinality, and Bar-Oz and Munro argue that this is
Figure 1. Targets of taphonomic research. best dealt with by applying a wide range of analyses in a

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
Taphonomy and Interpretation

structured fashion. They propose a three-part method-

(1) Descriptive phase: Overall frequencies of various
taphonomic variables are summarised and tabulated
in a quantitative version of Marciniak’s stage 1.
(2) Analytical phase: Possible factors shaping the assem-
blage are worked through in broadly reverse-
chronological order: in situ attrition, density-
mediated attrition, fragmentation, human transport
and disposal. This is aimed at identifying influential
agents of attrition—as with Marciniak’s stages 2–
4—but also draws on the information on breakage
and bone modification from phase 1.
(3) Comparative phase: The impact of particular tapho- Figure 2. Structure of taphonomic analysis.
nomic agents is confirmed by comparing assemblage
sub-groups (taxa, elements, age groups, context
Of course, once patterns have been identified their
types, etc.) that are expected to be affected differ-
interpretation in terms of human social action will
never be straightforward, belonging in the realm of
This is methodologically more rigorous and ana- archaeology as a humanity rather than of taphonomy as
lytically deeper than Marciniak’s scheme, but is a science. It will always be subjective to a considerable
primarily reconstructive and not geared towards the degree, dependent both upon the data and upon
questions of distribution, consumption and deposition, archaeologists’ readings of the stratigraphy and of the
which are of most interest to many archaeologists. wider archaeological context, not to mention the
schools of social theory to which they subscribe. The
view is taken here that this is no bad thing; nonetheless,
A new framework the aim of the proposed analytical structure is to be as
rigorous, comprehensive and objective as possible in
The analytical structure advocated here incorporates identifying patterns in post-mortem treatment and
elements of both these schemes. Five stages are defined disposal of animals that may be worthy of further
working broadly backwards through possible tapho- archaeological consideration.
nomic processes, and the descriptive, analytical and The stages within this analytical framework are
comparative phases are included informally within discussed in some detail below, then illustrated with a
each, where appropriate. Each analysis informs case study from the Neolithic site of Gomolava, Serbia.
subsequent stages, but in many cases also provides Full details of both methodology and results are
direct information on human activities, and there is also available elsewhere (Orton, 2008, 64–77, 229–291). It
a degree of feedback since stages inevitably overlap in should be stressed that this framework is intended as a
reality. Whereas Bar-Oz’s and Munro’s comparative heuristic guide rather than a rigid, prescriptive,
phase is intended as a check on the impact of particular formula; the details of specific analyses performed at
agents, the purpose of comparison between assemblage each stage will depend partly on context, research
sub-groups in the present context is primarily to detect agenda and data quality.
differential treatment by humans. The structure is The methodology is designed partly to be applicable
summarised in Figure 2 and Table 1. to assemblages with limited documentation, low
The aim of this structure is to glean as much stratigraphic resolution and poor recovery standards,
information as possible on the human activities resulting a category into which Gomolava falls. In such cases a
in assemblage formation, and particularly on differences very first step—‘Stage 0’—involves assessment of
in treatment between species and/or between deposi- possible excavation, curation and recovery biases,
tional contexts, sites, phases and so on. At the same time, working both from site documentation/metadata and
by working backwards—more-or-less—through for- from empirical tests such as fragment size distributions,
mation processes it becomes possible to distinguish comparisons with units known to have been sieved, and
culturally interesting patterns from biases introduced so on. In ideal conditions, meanwhile—for example
either by non-human agents or by subsequent human when working with material from ongoing excavations
activities. or from particularly well-curated and comprehensively

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
D. C. Orton

Table 1. Components of taphonomic analysis, with potential certain parts of the skeleton are consistently better
cultural information preserved in archaeological assemblages and structural
Stage Analysis Potential cultural
density is currently the best predictor of survival (see
information Lyman, 1994, 234–258). In theory, an assemblage in
which skeletal part frequency strongly correlates with
1 Evidence for density- density is likely to owe its composition primarily to
mediated attrition
Correlation between density-mediated destruction, rendering inferences
element abundance regarding human selection unreliable.
and density This approach suffers from equifinality. An element
Completeness of
carpals and tarsals profile matching that expected from density-mediated
2 Evidence for peri-
destruction of complete carcasses does not necessarily
depositional damage indicate that complete carcasses were ever present on
Frequency/severity Refuse disposal site, nor even that differential preservation was the
of gnawing practices primary factor in determining the observed profile.
of weathering Human selection and density-mediated destruction
Comparison with will both have been important in the formation of most
fragment size zooarchaeological assemblages, and element profiles
3 Breakage and reflect this in that they rarely conform closely to ideal
fragmentation models. This is compounded by a weak but significant
Qualitative Food preparation negative correlation between density and utility for
assessment (specific practices)
Size distributions Food preparation some species (Lyman, 1985).
(’pot-sizing’) Density-mediated attrition can in theory be well
Percentage completeness understood from actualistic studies, but human selec-
Identification rate Intensity of human use
Index of breakage tion is a different matter due to sheer complexity and to
freshness the unpredictability of cultural preferences. Accord-
4 Visible human modification ingly, the approach advocated here avoids utility
Frequency of burning Food preparation, indices and commences with a critical application of
refuse disposal the traditional correlation of abundance against
Location of burning Food preparation vs.
refuse disposal density. Element profiles are treated with caution
Butchery marks Food distribution and where appreciably correlated with bone density, but
preparation not necessarily rejected out of hand.
5 Assessment of element Correlation between abundance and density raises
representation numerous technical issues, concerned with choosing
Correlation with FUI Transport, primary vs.
secondary butchery the best (a) measure of density, (b) measure of
deposits abundance, (c) level of anatomical aggregation and (d)
Assessment of MAU Transport, selective statistical treatment.
profiles deposition
Comparison of anatomical/ Differential access, Published bone density measurements are reviewed
taxonomic profiles sharing/distribution, elsewhere (e.g. Lam & Pearson, 2005). Sample size is
between features selective deposition important here but the use of shape-adjusted data is
crucial (Lam et al., 2003, 1706), with Quantitative
documented museum collections—the structured Computed Tomography (QCT) being the most
quantitative approach advocated here should be accurate technique. For pigs, Pugsley’s (2002) QCT
applied alongside more qualitative assessment of study of 11 individuals is thus preferable to Ioannidou’s
context-level assemblages as coherent wholes. (2003) entirely un-adjusted data from six skeletons.
Likewise, Symmons’ (2002) well-stratified sample of 95
sheep currently provides the best data for bovids: apart
Stage 1: density-mediated attrition from sheer sample size, Symmons’ use of two
perpendicular radiographs at each scan site allows
This is the only stage that is purely reconstructive. readings to be adjusted for the thickness of scanned
Comparison of element frequencies with bone density bone (Symmons, 2004). Although absolute values will
and measures of utility has been used widely since its vary considerably within the bovid family, the relative
introduction by Binford (1978), and the phenomenon density of skeletal parts is likely to be fairly consistent
of density-mediated destruction of bone is well known: between species. These data are probably also the best

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
Taphonomy and Interpretation

choice for cervids, since Lyman’s (1984) study of 13 and tarsals (Marean, 1991). If an assemblage shows a
Odocoileus specimens assumes rectangular cross sections strong correlation between abundance and density yet
and deer have a similar pattern of density to bovids has a high frequency of intact carpals, this might imply
(Kreutzer, 1992). A variety of datasets is available for that a substantial amount of damage was caused by
other taxa (see Orton, 2008, 68). peri-depositional processes such as weathering, leading
Turning to quantification, Marshall & Pilgram (1991) onto the second stage of the analysis.
demonstrate inconsistent results using NISP versus
minimum number of elements (MNE). Since the
underlying principle is to compare observed element Stage 2: peri-depositional damage
frequencies to an ideal complete profile, MNE-derived
measures are theoretically more appropriate than Weathering and gnawing provide direct information
NISP. Marciniak (2005a, 115) uses NISP for reasons regarding formation processes and, by extension,
of availability, and others suggest that it is an depositional practices: both sub-aerial weathering and
acceptable proxy for MNE (e.g Grayson & Frey, pig/carnivore access imply that remains were exposed for
2004). Ringrose (1993) advocates using multiple some time before final burial. In addition, the frequency
measures to explore the data more thoroughly, a and severity of marks can assist in the interpretation of
prescription which is followed here. element frequencies by indicating major agents of
Body part representation should be compared with destruction, feeding back into Stage 1. Comparing the
abundance for all body parts, including long bone shafts extent and severity of weathering and gnawing between
(Pickering et al., 2003). Since density differs within each assemblage subgroups may help one to understand
bone, MNEs should ideally be calculated separately for differential processes of attrition; it may also reveal
portions of major elements using diagnostic zones that variation in depositional practices between—for
correspond to specific density scan sites. The Dobney & example—species, body parts, or phases at a site.
Reilly (1988) zoning system is used here. Formal hypothesis tests can be employed here to
Non-parametric correlation coefficients will typi- evaluate the significance of observed trends, but this
cally be more appropriate than Pearson’s r here but it requires some justification. Inferential statistics in zoo-
may be worth calculating both, and it is unwise to rely archaeology suffer from sample inflation; the signifi-
on either without assessing the relationship graphically cance accorded to any test statistic is dependent as much
(Ringrose, 1993, 147). Median rather than mean on the degree of fragmentation in an assemblage as it is
density values should be used where possible, to reduce on either the strength of association or the ‘original’
the effect of outliers (Symmons, 2002, 224), and number of specimens contributing to the sample
variation in density should also be represented (Grayson, 1984, 22–23). When analysing weathering
(Symmons, 2005, 89). Significance tests are inap- or gnawing, however, the datum of interest is not
propriate as n would represent the number of scan sites necessarily the number of elements affected, but rather the
used rather than the size of either the reference or number of specimens in whatever state of fragmentation obtained
archaeological samples. Instead, plots should be at the commencement of the process. The validity of formal
produced and inspected wherever appreciable corre- hypothesis testing for comparing rates of weathering and
lations are evident. Sample sizes permitting, one would other taphonomic variables between assemblage sub-
ideally assess correlation for individual phases, context groups thus depends on the amount of fragmentation
types, and even specific deposits, since taphonomic which occurred subsequent to the commencement of the
processes are unlikely to be uniform across each site. process in question. Strictly speaking, any further frag-
Even where overall correlation is weak, density- mentation entails sample inflation and thus invalidates
mediated attrition may be evident through comparison significance values. If one accepts that apparent sample
between skeletal portions that are unlikely to be size is always an overestimate of the true value, however,
separated by butchery but which have appreciably and errs on the side of caution accordingly, formal
different densities, such as the glenoid process versus significance testing remains a very useful tool, especially
the collum scapulae, or the articular surface of the ulna if one assesses computed p values rather than relying on
versus the olecranon process. In such cases, other— arbitrary cut-offs. Very highly significant results would
possibly cultural—selective processes have presum- require an improbable degree of sample inflation in order
ably masked the impact of attrition. Additional control to be invalidated, while patterns which prove statistically
for density-mediated effects can be obtained by insignificant even on the basis of the apparent sample size
assessing fragmentation—presumably post-deposi- would certainly not be significant were the true
tional—amongst small dense bones such as carpals frequencies known.

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
D. C. Orton

Methods for scoring weathering and gnawing vary. types of breakage, especially on long bone shafts.
Even where standard schemata are followed—for Outram (2001, 2002) combines ‘fracture edge texture’,
example Behrensmeyer’s (1978) five-stage scale for ‘fracture outline’ and ‘fracture angle’ into a Fracture
weathering—direct comparability between analysts is Freshness Index (FFI) for this purpose. The case study
probably illusory. More complex recording systems below uses a simpler index, omitting fracture angle for
separating type, degree and extent of damage (e.g. ease of recording. Differences in breakage freshness
Phoca-Cosmetatou, 2005) may be appropriate in some between assemblage subgroups may reveal meaningful
research contexts but are very time-consuming. Here, variation in processing, but should also be considered
both weathering and gnawing are recorded on simple carefully alongside fragment length and completeness,
four-point scales of increasing severity. with possible body-size effects in mind.

Stage 3: breakage and fragmentation Stage 4: visible human modification

The aim of comparing breakage and fragmentation Leaving aside artefacts produced on bone, ‘visible human
data is to highlight differences between taxa and/or modification’ refers to butchery marks and burning.
depositional contexts in terms of pre-depositional Burning may sometimes be a direct result of food
damage, specifically that which might be related to preparation, but the majority of recorded cases are
differential processing and different contexts of probably too severe to reflect ordinary cooking practices
consumption. Insofar as subsequent processes can be (Kent, 1993, 348) and may tell us more about
controlled for, extent of fragmentation serves as a depositional processes.
measure of carcass processing intensity (Halstead, Ideally, both location and colour of burning should
2007, 30). A major difficulty here lies in distinguishing be recorded, with detailed comments where appro-
fragmentation by humans from peri-/post-depositional priate. Colour varies with temperature, duration and
damage, although this can be approached through type of heating, as well as condition prior to heating
assessment of breakage ’freshness’ (see below). The and depositional environment afterwards (Shipman
analyses at this point will often feed back into the first et al., 1984; Nicholson, 1993; Pearce & Luff, 1994;
two stages accordingly, and the separation between Bennett, 1999). No universal scheme can thus be drawn
them is to some extent artificial. However, the order in up, and categories may have to be refined through
which each stage is tackled means that by the time one observation of the material itself. In practice, colour
starts to assess human carcass processing one already categories are likely to be grouped into, for example,
has a good idea of the impact of subsequent processes ‘light’ and ‘severe’ in the final analysis.
on the assemblage, reducing the risk of over- Analysis of burning data may simply compare
interpreting fragmentation patterns. frequencies between assemblage sub-groups, but it is
Measures of fragmentation include: also useful to look at ratios of burning on long bone ends
Percentage identification rate: A crude measure of versus shafts, since this may reflect food preparation
fragmentation at the unit level. practices. More frequent burning on articular surfaces
Fragment maximum dimension: This is useful for testing might indicate roasting (Russell, 1999), while concentra-
the impact of taphonomic processes on fragmentation, tion of burnt patches on shaft fragments points
and for detecting possible ‘pot-sizing’. towards the use of fire to facilitate cracking for marrow.
Percentage completeness: Both of the above are valid for In the latter case, distinctive patterns of post-burning
comparison between sites or context types, but percen- breakage are often evident (Marciniak, 2005a, 131;
tage completeness also allows comparisons amongst taxa Serjeantson, 2006) and should be noted during
and between elements. It can be calculated for long bones recording.
using the formula described by Morlan (1994): Burning potentially contributes to fragmentation, so
PP=NISP it may be worth assessing its impact in this respect.
PD Simply correlating burning with fragment size is
where PP represents ‘Portions Preserved’ and PD is ‘Portions problematic since larger specimens are inherently more
Defined’. The portions used here are Dobney’s & Reilly’s likely to include noticeable evidence of heating. It is
(1988) diagnostic zones, which only give an approximate more useful to look for relationships between burning
percentage but allow rapid recording. rate and average fragment size at a context level.
To assess the relative importance of pre- and post- Cut- and chop-marks, impact scars and chop
depositional agents of fragmentation, one can look at surfaces should be recorded with a detailed description,

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
Taphonomy and Interpretation

allowing qualitative as well as quantitative analysis. The aim is to identify the existence (or absence) of patterns
interpretation of butchery evidence is an extremely in element profiles that cannot be explained simply in
complex field in its own right, and this is not the place terms of processes identified in the previous stages of
for a full discussion, particularly of its more qualitative analysis. For example, intensive processing of certain
aspects. Likewise, the identification of cut-marks and meaty elements—identified during stages 3 and
other butchery traces is discussed at length elsewhere possibly 4—might account for a general paucity of
(e.g. Guilday et al., 1962, 63–64; Binford, 1981b). For these bones in a sample.
purposes of quantitative analysis, it is typically more The simultaneous use of both NISP and MAU profiles
useful to quantify cut-marks as ‘fragment-count’ than is important here: discrepancies between the two can
‘cutmark-count’ data as defined by Abe et al., (2002)— help to distinguish the effects of fragmentation from
that is, to look at the numbers of fragments showing genuine under- or over-representation. Graphs using the
evidence of butchery rather than tallying the number of two quantification methods should be read in different
individual marks—although there is a strong argument ways. NISP values are not corrected for symmetry or for
for ‘cutmark-count’ data in highly fragmented assem- the number of elements in each region, and would in any
blages. Sample size permitting, data can be given as the case be biased by differential fragmentation between
percentage of fragments from each element or portion elements. NISP-based profiles are thus uninformative
having evidence of butchery. Presenting these data taken alone, only becoming useful for comparisons
graphically on skeletal templates allows for rapid between taxa and between contexts.
comparison of butchery patterns between taxa, phases, In principle, MAU-based profiles show which body
or contexts; potentially interesting patterns may then parts are missing as much as which are present: given
be studied in more detail with the aid of qualitative complete carcasses and perfect preservation and
data, a process which is beyond the scope of this paper. recovery all bars would be equal. Where body parts
are underrepresented at a site level, the ‘missing’ bones
must be accounted for by one of the following:
Stage 5: assessment of element
(1) Incomplete recovery due to excavation technique.
representation (2) Differential destruction (density-mediated and/or
linked to processing techniques).
Interpretation of element representation is often based
(3) Incomplete recovery due to limited excavation area
partly upon comparison of body part frequency with
and structured spatial distribution of remains.
utility indices. This technique is most commonly
(4) Selectivity in elements brought on-site.
employed in studies of hunter-gatherer groups, either
(5) Removal of bones from the site by humans and/or
to distinguish kill or primary butchery sites from camps or
to elucidate changes in selection and transportation
strategies, but is in principle equally relevant for hunted By this stage in the taphonomic analysis one should
animals in any context, or indeed for domestic animals already have a good understanding of differential des-
which may have been slaughtered off-site. In principle, truction and recovery, allowing inferences to be made
the technique may also be applied to contexts or context about the more archaeologically interesting processes.
types within a settlement, with the distribution of high At a context level, under-representation of elements
and low utility parts potentially reflecting patterns of might also reflect structuring in the distribution of
structured deposition and/or differential access to remains, whether between context types or areas of the
resources. However, the likely complexity of such issues, site. This could be the result of functional zoning,
coupled with cultural variability in the value of body refuse disposal practices, differential access to
parts, renders formal correlation between utility and resources, or structured patterns of food distribution/
abundance of limited use in all but the simplest scenarios. sharing, although in reality these factors overlap
More usefully, an informal impression of variation in somewhat and are difficult to separate either empiri-
body-part representation is gained by comparing bar cally or theoretically. Differences between context
charts between phases, taxa and context types. At this types are perhaps more likely to be functional or related
stage, elements can usefully be aggregated to the level to structured refuse disposal practices, while variability
of Stiner’s (1991) nine anatomical regions. amongst similar contexts in different areas of a site, or
It is difficult to make abstract prescriptions about the associated with different dwellings, might potentially
analysis of body part profiles, since its scope depends be explained in terms of differential food distribution.
heavily on sample sizes, available documentation and Sharing/distribution of food is a major determinant
the nature of the archaeology. However, the general of faunal assemblage composition (Kent, 1993), but is

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
D. C. Orton

notoriously difficult to identify even where even where Gomolava Iab also features some large pits, often re-
deposits can convincingly be attributed to separate cut into earlier fill, but is characterised by post-and-
domestic groups. Sharing between such groups will trench structures and a large amount of apparently
tend to smooth differences in species availability but redeposited burnt rubble. The majority of animal
may or may not create structured variation in element remains derive from the ‘cultural layer’. This is a
representation: in Marshall’s (1993, 234–235) Okiek general build up of cultural material, typical of Balkan
case study a combination of differential hunting success Neolithic and Copper Age sites, that seems to have
and structured carcass distribution resulted in some formed very rapidly and presumably reflects a rather
variation in species composition but much more in idiosyncratic approach to waste disposal (Chapman,
body part profiles. However, sharing which is less 2000b).
structured, broadly symmetrical, or simply averaged Gomolava Ib has no large pits, although a few smaller
over a considerable length of time may serve rather to examples may have been used for storage, and is
obscure any differences in the initial availability of dominated by largely in situ remains of burnt houses.
carcasses (e.g. Kent, 1993, 349–350). While typically smaller than those from the previous
phase, these are very substantially built. Very few
bones were found within the houses, so the cultural
Application layer again provides most of the faunal material.
Taphonomic study was restricted to the most
There is little amongst the above specific methodologi- recently excavated part of the site, Blok VII
cal prescriptions that has not been said before; the aim (Figure 3), since the animal remains from earlier
here is to demonstrate that conducting these more-or- campaigns do not have consistent contextual data. A
less standard taphonomic analyses thoroughly and traditional archaeozoological report has previously
within a coherent framework can help to reveal patterns been published on a portion of the material from the
of cultural activity which might otherwise go unnoticed. 1973 campaign in Blok I (Clason, 1979). Even Blok VII
This is illustrated here with results from the Vinča period at Gomolava is far from an ideal test-bed—the
(later Neolithic) site of Gomolava, Serbia. These have resolution of documentation is low and recovery poor,
been selected from a much larger body of taphonomic with little or no sieving—but it hopefully demonstrates
data in order to trace the identification of one interesting that thorough taphonomic study can produce useful
pattern of behaviour—the following is an illustrative insights even in problematic conditions.
rather than exhaustive account of all the taphonomic Blok VII is a 40 m  20 m area of the tell, excavated
analysis applied to the Gomolava dataset. between 1980 and 1985 but never fully published
Gomolava is a large tell on the river Sava in Serbia. (although see Brukner, 1988; Orton, 2008, 150–176).
The Vinča phase, Gomolava I, is dated to around The archaeology follows the same pattern as the rest of
4900–4600 cal. BC and split into three sub-phases by the site, although the density of pits and houses appears
the excavators (Brukner, 1980): unusually high.
Gomolava Ia is dominated by large pits, the primary Table 2 summarises the comparative aspect of the
function of which is unclear (see Orton, 2008, 163– taphonomic study, while illustrative results from each
171) but from which the bulk of the faunal material stage are outlined below. A total of 4751 specimens was
derives. recorded, with 3240 identified to species. Table 3

Figure 3. Location of Gomolava Blok VII.

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
Taphonomy and Interpretation

Table 2. Summary of taphonomic evidence from Gomolava

Stage Pattern Interpretation

2 Larger species generally Larger fragment sizes,

more weathered and gnawed scavenger preferences, etc.
Pigs slightly more weathered and Physical properties
much more gnawed than expected of pig bones?
Weathering more common in Burial more rapid in pits
cultural layer than pits or houses
No difference in gnawing between Some secondary
pits and cultural layer; higher in houses deposition in pits?
Pigs (especially wild) far more weathered Different mode of deposition
in cultural layer than in pits—much smaller for pigs in pits
differences for other taxa
Gnawing decreases between phases Fewer dogs/pigs on
in cultural layer; varies in pits site in later phases?

3 Fragmentation increases with size category Intensive processing of all categories?

Or post-depositional?
FI steady between small and large taxa Human role in increased fragmentation:
would expect lower values for large
species if primarily post-depositional
Most cattle/pig-sized elements Intensive processing
reduced to < 25%
Modal long-bone end-and-shaft lengths No sign of ’pot-sizing’
differ between elements and species
Post-burning breakage on Expedient practice of eating freshly
(mostly) cattle metapodials, extracted, warmed marrow?
almost always found in cultural layer
FI lower in cultural layer Artefact of weathering

4a Superficial burning moderately common;

severe burning very rare
Burning more common in SOME Mostly in situ burning; maybe
pits than in cultural layer also different processing
Burning rarest in houses, but severe burning Most ’house’ material NOT contents
probably most common (small sample) at point of destruction by fire
Burning more common on smaller animals, Surface density? Probably
and on wild taxa within each size category not differential processing
Wild pigs MUCH (>x4) more Common in situ burning following
frequently burnt in pits deposition, or different processing
Aurochsen very rarely burnt in pits
(fairly small sample)
Generally higher end: shaft burning ratio in pits Roasting more common in pit deposits?
Higher end: shaft burning ratio Pigs more commonly roasted?
for pigs than other species
Pigs actually have LOWER ratio when In situ burning obscures
deposited in pits compared to on surface pre-depositional pattern?
Burning rare on crania

4b Cut marks increase with body size category As expected if all sizes processed intensively
Roe deer more cut-marked than caprines; Possible butchery differences along
wild pig more than domestic pig wild/domestic lines, but doesn’t apply
to cattle versus red deer
Lack of cut-marks on large mammal feet Not processed
Cut-marks more frequent in pits than Probably artefact of weathering
cultural layer, except for aurochs
More butchery marks on ribs Different processing pathways
and vertebrae in pits (temporal rather than contextual trend?)
Cut-marks very frequent in houses -
but mostly due to one particular building

5 No correlation between abundance No clear-cut differential transport,

and FUI (Metcalfe and Jones 1988) or high vs. low utility deposits
MAU profiles fairly ’flat’ for cattle, Complete representation on-site
allowing for differential destruction/recovery

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
D. C. Orton

Table 2. (Continued)

Stage Pattern Interpretation

Heads and necks underrepresented Field butchery and differential transport

for red deer and probably aurochsen
Pig heads overrepresented ?
Cattle heads rare in houses Depends on nature
of house contexts.
Avoidance of deposition?
Post-cranial axial:appendicular Changing butchery practices
ratio increases over time
Cranial elements more common in
pits for red deer
(and probably roe deer, caprines)
Opposite true for pig Selective deposition
Dogs represented by Disturbed dog burials/head
remarkably intact placements/other
specimens—mostly special deposits
cranial, also tibiae

provides raw NISPs for the main species, elements, and cases are rare. Gnawing marks were observed on nearly
feature types at the site. This is intended only as a guide 20% of fragments but, again, are typically superficial.
to sample sizes in the taphonomic study; full data are No relationship is observed between median fragment
available elsewhere (Orton, 2008, 176–203). length and weathering/gnawing rates at the unit level,
indicating that the impact of these processes on
fragmentation was limited.
Stage 1 Weathering is significantly (x2: p < 0.0001) more
common in the cultural layer than in pits, an unsurprising
Appreciable correlations are observed between density phenomenon given presumed differences in the rapidity
and corrected NISP at Gomolava, especially for cattle of burial. Amongst taxa, pigs stand out as particularly
(Figure 4). It is notable that while the more porous subject to both weathering and gnawing, against an
elements are typically rare, denser elements are not overall trend of increasing frequency alongside body
necessarily common—the graphs form ‘wedges’ rather size. In the case of weathering this masks a second-order
than lines. The implication is that density-mediated effect: both wild and domestic pigs are actually very
attrition is an important factor in assemblage formation unweathered in pits but highly weathered in the cultural
but that other forms of selection also apply. Much weaker layer, with around 17 and 43% of specimens affected
correlations are observed when abundance is quantified respectively. Pigs were presumably buried much more
by MAU, possibly indicating that this measure is more rapidly when deposited in pits than on the surface. Since
robust with regard to differential preservation. Which- there is much less difference between context types for
ever measure is used, little difference in the impact of other taxa, it appears that pigs were treated unusually in
density-mediated processes is observed between context depositional terms.
types. Lower correlations for pigs may indicate that their
remains were less subject to density-mediated attrition
or, more likely, that the impact of other agents and Stage 3
processes was more marked for this species. Density
actually matches abundance very well within each Fragmentation of bones is caused by a variety of pre-
element, if one allows for the difficulty of identifying and post-depositional processes. In situ attrition,
shaft fragments to element and species (Figure 5). Poor weathering and gnawing have already been mentioned,
recovery precludes reliable assessment of in situ attrition but much breakage is likely to have been caused by
from fragmentation of carpals and tarsals. direct human action, from initial butchery to proces-
sing for marrow or grease (Outram, 2002, 51).
Unsurprisingly, long-bone completeness is inversely
Stage 2 correlated with body size (Table 4). A Kruskal–Wallis
test for differing means between body size groups was
Over 25% of specimens at Gomolava have clear highly significant ( p < 0.0001). If peri- or post-
evidence of sub-aerial weathering, although severe depositional processes alone were responsible for this,

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
Table 3. Raw NISPs for the main species, elements and feature types in the Neolithic levels at Gomolava


(cultural layer) (pits)

Bos Cervus Sus Capreolus Ovis/ Canis Cattle- Pig- Sheep- Dog- Bos Cervus Sus Capreolus Ovis/ Canis Cattle- Pig- Sheep- Dog-
elaphus capreolus Capra sized sized sized sized elaphus capreolus Capra sized sized sized sized

Horn 12 2 26 2
Antler 21 1 68 7
Skull 60 2 40 16 5 2 59 20 45 3 1 11 10 3 3
Taphonomy and Interpretation

Upper 37 4 32 1 4 4 1
Mandible 59 7 47 1 1 1 4 1 75 29 54 16 16 24 9 2 2
Lower 50 3 4 25 1 12 2 3
Atlas 15 5 5 9 5 4 2 1
Axis 10 6 1 1 1 8 5 1 1

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Sacrum 6 4 1 1 2 1 1
Scapula 67 29 13 1 12 4 1 42 24 27 1 7 1 25 1 1
Humerus 50 17 19 9 43 32 33 4 2 1 3
Radius 61 19 5 1 7 1 37 32 17 2 4 3 8
Ulna 21 11 15 1 1 29 23 25 5 1 2 2
Carpals 7 1 6 2
Metacarpal 27 17 4 33 32 10 12 3
Pelvis 77 23 8 1 7 37 26 35 2 1 8 2
Femur 36 20 14 10 2 36 30 22 3 1 8 1
Tibia 87 33 14 1 2 14 1 30 43 38 18 3 7 6
Fibula 1 1
Lateral 2 1
Astragalus 18 4 1 16 15 6 3
Calcaneus 14 8 6 12 19 8 2 3
Navicular- 14 2 3 4
Metatarsal 63 26 6 2 1 55 45 12 11 3
Phalanx I 46 20 1 24 9 4 1
Phalanx II 22 5 11 6 1 1
Phalanx III 5 1 12 1
Long bone 85 14 9 2 118 35 27 1
Rib 208 97 57 14 146 67 46 1
Sternum 1 1
Cervical 30 1 4 43 6 8 1
Thoracic 49 15 3 16 6 4
Lumbar 26 5 3 27 6 3
Caudal 1

Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)

D. C. Orton

Figure 4. Relative density versus corrected NISP at Gomolava for (a) cattle, (b) red deer, (c) domestic pig and (d) wild pig. Density data for
cattle and deer from Symmons (2002) show medians and interquartile ranges; pig data from Pugsley (2002) show means and one-sigma
confidence intervals. Correlation coefficients are Spearman’s r.

one would expect the Freshness Index (FI) to be lower barely differs between context types, the difference in FI
for larger species; conversely, if human processing were is unlikely to represent differential processing.
the only factor then FI should increase with body size.
In fact it is fairly constant (Kruskal–Wallis: p ¼ 0.4094),
implying that both played a part in increased Stage 4a: burning
fragmentation of large carcasses. These results suggest
that there was no gross difference in the manner of Calcined and/or carbonized bones are very rare at
processing larger and smaller animals, i.e. that both Gomolava, constituting less than 1%. Lighter traces of
were used fairly intensively. burning, noted on around 17.5% of specimens, are
The most notable difference between context types is notoriously hard to identify with certainty but are useful
that pig-sized specimens in the cultural layer have a at a statistical level. Light burning is unlikely a priori to be
much lower FI, although a small difference is also seen for a major destructive factor and its frequency is not
other sizes. This probably reflects the elevated weath- correlated with mean fragment length at the unit level.
ering rate amongst pigs noted above, both introducing Burning is significantly more common in pits than in
new breaks and rendering existing surfaces less ‘fresh’; the cultural layer, with 20% and 15% of specimens
given that average completeness for this size category affected respectively. There is some evidence from the

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
Taphonomy and Interpretation

Figure 5. Density and MAU by portion for pigs (wild and domestic) at Gomolava. See Pugsley (2002) for exact scan sites.

documentation—and from comparable sites (Russell, preferentially following their deposition. In either
1993, 428–461; Chapman, 2000a)—either for periodic case, the taxonomic differences indicate that we are not
in situ burning events or for large-scale dumps of burnt observing a purely functional ‘burning down’ of pit fill.
material. Sadly, stratigraphic resolution does not allow Pig specimens are most frequently burnt on articular
this to be tested using the faunal material. ends but other species most frequently on shafts. Overall
Burning appears systematically more common on (a) end: shaft burning ratios are higher on material deposited
smaller species and (b) wild animals (Table 5). This is in pits, but the reverse is true for pigs, perhaps due to
likely to be a mechanistic effect related to bone density in situ burning obscuring pre-depositional patterns.
rather than evidence for differential treatment.
However, second-order effects again emerge between Stage 4b: butchery marks
context types and taxa. Most notably, the difference
between context types is much more pronounced for Butchery marks are observed on just under 5% of
pigs than for other species, with wild pigs in particular specimens at Gomolava. Halstead (2007) argues that,
almost five times as likely to be burnt when deposited unless utilised less intensively, large species should have
in pits rather than on the surface. Either wild pig a higher frequency of cut marks than smaller, and this
remains were subject to unusually high burning prior to more-or-less holds for Gomolava (Table 6). The
deposition in pits, or in situ burning took place difference between wild and domestic pigs is probably
too large to account for purely in terms of size, however,
Table 4. Mean long-bone completeness and Freshness Index once again suggesting unusual patterns of processing.
scores at Gomolava by body size

Sheep- Pig- Cattle- Table 5. Burning rate by species at Gomolava

sized sized sized
Body Species % n End: shaft
Mean Pits 0.31 0.28 0.22 size burnt indexa
n 54 91 360 Large Bos taurus 14.3 1380 0.71
Cultural 0.26 0.23 Bos primigenius 16.0 81
layer Cervus elaphus 22.3 782 0.81
n (4) 44 353 Medium Sus (domestic) 14.9 154 1.07
Freshness Pits 1.22 1.26 1.24 Sus (wild) 18.9 301 1.07
index Small Canis familiaris 20.3 59
n 152 169 740 Ovis/Capra 24.1 58
Cultural 1.18 0.85 1.18 Capreolus 34.3 102
layer capreolus
n 28 93 776
% end fragments burnt/% shaft fragments burnt

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
D. C. Orton

Table 6. Frequency of cut-marks by species at Gomolava

Cultural layer Pits

% cut n % cut n

Bos taurus 4.77 733 5.78 571

Cervus 4.90 286 5.35 467
Sus (all) 3.40 206 6.11 360
Sus (wild) 5.00 80 7.83 217
Sus (domestic) 1.25 80 4.17 72
Capreolus (6) 3.23 93
Cattle-sized 4.04 1632 6.11 1571
Pig-sized 2.53 356 5.95 487
Sheep-sized 1.83 109 2.39 251
Total 3.66 2103 5.83 2369

Comparing context types, cut-marks are consistently

more frequent in pits than in the cultural layer. The
obvious explanation that this reflects differences in
weathering—which has the potential to obscure
cuts—is supported by the fact that the difference is
most pronounced for pigs.
The sample of pig-sized specimens identified to
element is too small to allow anatomical distribution of
butchery marks to be compared between context types
or wild and domestic forms. Cattle-sized specimens,
however—primarily Bos taurus and Cervus elaphus—
show marked differences in location of butchery marks
between pits and the cultural layer (Figure 6). This does
Figure 6. Anatomical distribution of butchery marks on cattle-
not simply reflect different stages of processing, since sized specimens at Gomolava, by feature type. Skeletal template
element representation differs fairly little between from Orton (2010), after original by M. Coutureau.
context types (see below). At present it is unclear what
underlies this phenomenon, but it presumably indicates this only applies in the cultural layer. Pigs, meanwhile,
differential treatment prior to deposition in these appear to have a surfeit of cranial elements when
contexts. Unfortunately, samples are too small to deposited on the surface. Apart from cranial:postcranial
separate the effects of context type and of site phase. ratios there is very little sign of human selection.
Unfortunately, samples are too small to permit
comparison between individual pits or spatially across
Stage 5: anatomical representation the cultural layer, so questions of sharing and differential
access cannot be addressed.
Anatomical frequency was assessed using both NISP
and MAU. The former is only useful in comparative
terms. MAU profiles, by contrast, should in theory be Summary
‘flat’ unless either differential destruction or human
selection has applied. Grouping elements into regions The taphonomic evidence from Gomolava reveals clear
reduces the effects of differential destruction and differences between the main two context types on the
recovery. However, the former remains a problem for site. Data concerning weathering, burning, and the
‘Upper Hindlimb’—consisting solely of the femur with frequency and pattern of butchery marks all point to
its porous articular ends—while the latter still afflicts marked differences in depositional and pre-deposi-
‘Feet’, composed almost entirely of small elements. tional processes. Since many of these patterns cannot
MAU profiles for most common species at Gomolava be explained in mechanistic taphonomic terms they
are fairly complete apart from these two regions must be underlain by differential patterns of proces-
(Figure 7). Cranial elements are underrepresented for sing, consumption and/or deposition, presumably
red deer, presumably reflecting transport decisions, but occurring in differing social contexts. In particular,

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
Taphonomy and Interpretation

Figure 7. Element profiles for the most common species at Gomolava by corrected NISP (left) and MAU (right).

there seems to have been a special mode of deposition includes arguments for structured deposition in pits
involving pigs—and perhaps especially wild pigs—in on Balkan Neolithic sites (e.g. Chapman, 2000a).
pits. From the taphonomic data alone one cannot move Russell (1993) suggests that feasting remains at the
beyond this point: the analytical structure advocated Vinča site of Opovo were preferentially deposited in
here has simply enabled the identification of an pits, with red deer and wild pig particularly implicated
anomaly that requires a social explanation. in the inferred communal consumption events.
The term feasting is highly loaded, and taphonomic
analysis at Gomolava revealed no evidence for the
Interpretation wastage with which it is commonly associated. None-
theless, the unusual mode of deposition identified for
Further interpretation requires one to step back pigs in pits seems likely to represent a particular social
somewhat and view the taphonomic results in broader context prior to deposition, quite possibly involving
archaeological context. In the present case, this consumption on an unusual scale. Since pit-fill makes up

Copyright # 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Int. J. Osteoarchaeol. (2010)
D. C. Orton

the biasing effects of taphonomic processes on faunal

assemblages and (b) to isolate archaeologically
interesting patterns of differential processing and
deposition from more mechanistic effects. The
analytical procedure cannot reveal the precise forms
of consumption or deposition practices, but it can
identify where patterns exist that require interpretation
in terms of deliberate human action. Close attention to
taphonomic detail through structured analysis along
the lines of that presented here is vital if ‘social
zooarchaeology’ is to move beyond the superficial and

Figure 8. Distribution of pig measurement log ratio values in pits
versus the cultural layer at Gomolava. This research formed part of a PhD funded by the
University of Cambridge. An earlier draft benefited
the bulk of deposits from Gomolava Ia, ‘special’ practices considerably from suggestions by Kathy Twiss and her
presumably only account for a subset of this material. zooarchaeology discussion group at Stony Brook Uni-
Making the same case for the Opovo pits, Russell links versity, particularly Arzu Demirergi and Serkan Yeni.
‘feasting’ deposits to burnt layers, and this would fit with Comments from two anonymous reviewers also con-
the burning data for the Gomolava pigs. Taxonomic and tributed to the finished paper.
demographic data at Gomolava also support an inter-
pretation along these lines. Pig specimens in the pits are References
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