Zooarchaeologist Joanne Bowen decodes 400-year-old leftovers.



Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter, sitting in this week for Lloyd Dobyns. Our guest today is Joanne Bowen, who is curator of zooarchaeology at Colonial Williamsburg, a subject which I think we have never talked about before on the podcast. Can you start by telling us, what is zooarchaeology?

Joanne Bowen: It’s the study of archaeological animal remains. They are bones that have been thrown away by people after they have eaten the meat. We study garbage. We study the refuse of past meals. Everyone, whether they were wealthy or poor or African American or English, threw their bones away. This allows us a very, very broad view of the different groups of people living in the Chesapeake society.

Harmony: So the bones are an unbiased record that gives you a look equally across several social levels.

Joanne: They have some biases in that there are some sites that preserve better than others. But we do our very, very best to choose sites and assemblages, or groups of bones, from contexts where the preservation is excellent.

Harmony: How do you know who is eating what? How do you determine which bones were left by a slave group, which bones were left by an elite group – how do you deduce and make those kind of inferences?

Joanne: It’s an archaeological analysis that the bones that are associated with a slave quarter, and the bones that are thrown outside the kitchen of the main house. In other words, we look at the archaeological context to try, and where it is located to try and determine who would have thrown the bones away.

Mt. Vernon is a really good example, because they gave us the bones that were buried, that were deposited in the cellar of the slave quarter, so that was a clear association. They also gave us the bones that were thrown outside the kitchen. So we identified and analyzed both of them. Then we started to look at the differences in terms of what group ate more pork, or what ate more beef, or what ate more fish.

So those are all the bits and pieces that go together into forming a knowledge of what people ate.

Harmony: Talk to me about wild animals versus domesticated animals, and how you see that balance changing as you look at a span of time.

Joanne: It’s interesting, when you look at sites that date from 1607 on through the 19th century, you begin to understand, in the early period, just how important wildlife was. Almost half of their diet was wildlife – a full range of birds and animals that we wouldn’t consider edible. Harmony: Like what? Joanne: Great blue herons, for example, along with the Canada goose and a wide variety of the wild ducks.

We find the double-crested cormorant. We found the dolphin. So in the early period we find that, we find the exotic animals, we also find a lot of venison, or deer that they traded with the Indians or they hunted themselves. They find turtles, like the snapping turtle, for example. We find lots of small mammals that we still think of as food: the possum, the raccoon, the squirrel.

Then, when we go into the 1620s, which is just 10-15 years later, after the very early settlement, we see that the wildlife has diminished, and the consumption of domesticates has increased phenomenally. That tells us that the domesticates that were introduced in the new world just flourished, and within 10-15 years were able to support the colonists themselves.

Harmony: As a scientist, you’re looking at these remains that you find, and you’re drawing conclusions, logical conclusions, for example, less wildlife and more domesticated animals tells you that domesticated animals are thriving. That’s the logical conclusion that you’re drawing. When you make inferences like that, how do you sort of corroborate those with other evidence to let you know that that conclusion is probably sound?

Joanne: We corroborate our evidence by looking at documentary evidence. So we go back to a lot of the early letters that were written at Jamestown. We use probate inventories, we use account books, we use diaries, we use the whole source.

So that we find that by, I believe by 1619, they were writing that they could support themselves with their own animals. What I found surprising in looking at the archaeological bone in the 17th century, 18th century, and 19th century, I found parts of the animals that we don’t eat today.

Harmony: For example?

Joanne: We find pieces of the skull, or the mandible, or the jawbone. We find teeth, we find feet remains.

Harmony: How do you know they were eaten and not just discarded?

Joanne: We know they were eaten because they are chopped up in a manner that is completely consistent with all the other bones. They’re mixed in with the broken plates and the cups, and the wine bottles -- everything that is evocative of household refuse. We also know by looking at the cookbooks that they are recipes for head meat in the early period, and they go well into the 19th century.

Harmony: What would that recipe sound like?

Joanne: Oh, it could be to bake a calf’s head. It could be cut in half, or it could be cooked whole and baked whole. There’s one interesting recipe where it’s breaded and baked with the ears and the teeth and the entire head, and it’s served on a platter where people would cut it up at the table and consume the cheek meat, which is the tenderest, best tasting part of the animal.

They would eat the brains and the other part. It’s such a different perception about what was a good cut of meat.

Harmony: Let’s talk a little bit about methods of butchery, and how you see that in the artifacts that you find.

Joanne: One of the interesting things we learned about butchery was that in looking at all the bones, they’re all chopped up in a way that we don’t think about. Today, our bones, if we find bones in the grocery store and we bring them home, are sawn, so they’re very straight and on a level plane.

But when you look at these colonial bones, they’re clearly done with a cleaver, or an axe. Where the weight of the tool created the force, and it would literally pop apart the bone. You can do it in one clean hit if your aim is pretty good.

Harmony: How do you see that in the bones that you’re finding?

Joanne: We see it in the bones by looking very carefully at the break points right here and we see what we call hinge fractures. We see the actual strike point where the cleaver came down. We also see hairline fractures that come down. So, we literally look at every bone that we analyze to figure out how it has been broken.

Harmony: As you’re fixing supper in the evenings, does what you study all day kind of inform the way that you prepare food and discard, and the conclusions that people 400 years from now might make?

Joanne: Today, we remove the bone from our food. Back then, it was part and parcel to what you ate. I was in a restaurant in Italy and served wild boar stew, and all the bones were in it. And I said, “Oh, I understand!”

Part of, you know, we remove the bone now for many reasons, but it has a texture and a sharpness that we don’t like. So when I make soups and stews, I leave the bones in.

What I have studied in the archaeological record and the historical record has influenced what I choose to eat, and how I prepare it.

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