By Taryn Feldmann, Graduate Certificate in Archaeology student
In February, this year, eight Archaeology students, including myself, had a chance to apply our knowledge at the field school ARCH8806 – Historical Archaeology Field School at Willow Court (Australia’s oldest asylum, 1826-2000) in New Norfolk, Tasmania.
Among us we had different tasks to complete, such as setting up a trench, photographing trenches and artefacts, recording notes about the site and artefacts, excavating and, yes, cleaning bones.
For about two days, I had the task of cleaning bones with a fellow student. There were trays of animal bones covered in dirt and I was really excited to begin with, as I’d never done it before, but that feeling soon wore off as more kept coming.
There is a technique, for instance you can either use a brush and dental tool (dental scaler) or water and a toothbrush. The scaler is used to remove the soil from any cavities, which can be a daunting job, as it’s important not to scratch the surface of the bone.
In our case, though, we had to use water and a toothbrush, as the soil was sticking to the surface. When using this method, we had to ensure that the water was clean and not hot.
When removing soil from bones, briefly rinse the bone, but don’t soak it. The toothbrush makes it easier to remove stubborn soil, such as clay, but it must be used gently.
The next step is drying. Bone can be air dried but the process should be slow. We turned the bones regularly for even drying and once they were dry, bagged them ready for analysis.
It can become tedious work, especially when bones are plentiful, but archaeologists need to do it as part of the cataloguing process.
Beisaw, A.M. 2013 Identifying and Interpreting Animal Bones: a Manual. Texas: A&M University Press.