Skeleton keys

by Chris Stimpson, visiting researcher from Queen’s University Belfast

Visitors to the museum will be familiar with the striking parade of mammal skeletons in the court, where they can get a close look at a polar bear’s jaws and peer up through the rib cages of Indian and African elephants, amongst many other things. But these mounted specimens are just a small sample of the animal skeletons that are looked after by the museum.

The main collection of skeletons is carefully stored in behind-the-scenes spaces such as the museum’s Tradescant Room. For researchers who work on animal bones found in archaeological sites, collections like these are not just important – they are essential.

Comparison of an archaeological pig astragalus (ankle bone, left) with an articulated reference specimen from the museum collection (opposite leg, OUMNH.ZC.19948) of an Indonesian wild boar (Sus scrofa). Radiocarbon dating of charcoal indicates the archaeological specimen is over 17,000 years old.

Differences in size, shape, proportion, and the number and arrangement of bones and teeth are a great aid to identification. Teeth in particular often have features that help identify the animal they came from. Bones also have articulations and facets which can be helpful, though identification can be more challenging than with teeth.

Comparison of an archaeological premolar (top), with the upper right tooth row of a goat-like animal called a serow (Capricornis sumatraensis) from the museum’s collection (OUMNH.ZC.21654). Radiocarbon dating of charcoal from the site indicates the archaeological specimen is over 5,000 years old.

These challenges are part of the work I am doing on the SUNDASIA Project which is undertaking archaeological and palaeoecological investigations in the Tràng An World Heritage Area, in Ninh Binh Province, Northern Vietnam. Working with Vietnamese colleagues, we are investigating climatic and landscape changes that have affected – and may affect – the limestone karst forest over thousands of years. In particular, we’re looking at the responses of human, animal and plant communities to these changes.

The limestone karst landscape of the Trang An World Heritage Area

During our cave excavations we have recovered bones from a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians. Radiocarbon dates from charcoal in the cave deposits suggest this material ranges from 30,000 to 5,000 years old. This is great, but what can these bones tell us of animal life and human hunters at different times in the past? What has changed and why? And what could it mean for the future of Tràng An?

Excavations underway in Hang
Moi, a cave site in Trang An

Before we can begin to answer juicy research questions like these, we need to identify the bones. This is where collections like those held in the museum really come into play. Only with access to skeletons of known animals – where there is knowledge of family, genus or species classification – can we compare the excavated material and identify what we have found.

And while old bones and skeletons may smack rather of death, with a little patience and a good comparative collection like that in the museum, it is remarkable what a few specimens can tell you of life in different times and places that we otherwise know little about. Museum collections are a key to the past, present, and perhaps even to the future.

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