The Joys of Processing

Following the suggestion of one of my readers (who has her own great blog at, today’s post is going to be about processing comparative skeletal specimens. I won’t go into the different ways one can obtain dead animals, or any of the state, federal, or international laws governing the acquisition of certain species (but please do look into those before collecting anything!). Today it’s all about decomposition. There are numerous methods one can use to clean a skeleton (and by “clean” I mean get rid of all the smelly, nasty, soft stuff). Which one you use will depend on a number of things including local climate, available space, and time constraints.

The first thing you have to do, regardless of what method you use, is eviscerate, skin, and deflesh the specimen to the best of your ability. Believe me, you want to get as much meat off of the bones as possible! This will cut down on the total processing time and nasty smells. Scalpels work wonderfully for this, but I’ve also used kitchen knives, multitools, and scissors (and pliers for porcupine quills). You can be done some place fancy like a large processing sink in a science lab, or on top of a garbage bag taped to a table or laid out on the ground. I personally use the garbage bag more often than the lab sink. Once you’ve defleshed the specimen as much as possible, you now have a choice:

garbage bag Photo courtesy of Travis Shinabarger (archaeologist and processor-extraordinaire)


Cold Water Maceration

Cold water maceration is simple – you place the specimen in a tub of cold or room-temperature water, put a lid or screen over it, and walk away. You can do things like wrap pantyhose around the extremities to keep podials, metapodials and phalanges together (which makes it easy to determine whether they came from the left or right side once you’re all done). You can also add a little borax-based detergent booster (I prefer Biz), which will help speed things along. Overall, though, you’re looking at a few months to a year (depending on species) of processing time. Usually people change out the water every week or so, and at the end you obviously want to rinse the (now disarticulated) elements off very well. This method works wonderfully for things with really delicate bones (e.g., birds, fish, skulls), and you’ll avoid any potential shrinking or warping. But beware the fish – the only time I’ve come close to vomiting during processing was after the cold maceration of a burbot.

macerationPhoto courtesy of Travis Shinabarger

Hot Water Maceration (“Boiling”)

This is probably one of the most common processing methods. You place the specimen in a large pot or glass beaker full of water, and heat it until it is almost boiling (do NOT bring it to a full boil!). You maintain the simmer for as many hours as possible at a time, until the specimen is disarticulated and clean. At home I use a big pot (originally intended for crab) and my kitchen stove. At school, I use large beakers on hot plates under a fume hood. Again, depending on species, this can take a long time (for some reason, birds seem to take the longest time for me), but this is by far one of the fastest methods. Adding a small amount of detergent such as Biz, and a smidge of bleach, will help. Be aware, though, that the heat may slightly warp or shrink the bones. And if you accidentally let it come to a full boil (as I have), it will cause the cortex to flake and peel once it’s dry. I have a flaky black bear in my collection, and handling it always creates a horrible mess.

Dermestid Colony

The use of “bug boxes” filled with flesh-eating beetles (Dermestes sp.) seems to be most common in museums. Although the beetles only eat dead flesh (so you don’ t have to worry about being attacked a la The Mummy), I personally hate them. Not only do the beetles themselves smell disgusting and produce a ridiculous amount of waste and dandruff (including larval hairs) that some people develop allergies to, they don’t completely clean the bone. The beetles like to eat flesh, not tendons, which means that there are often little nubbins of tendon left at the insertion points around the joints. (This explains why the Zoology Department interns at The Field Museum are called “Pickers”… when I was there they spent a large portion of their time picking whatever the dermestids didn’t eat off of the bones). Now, for biologists this might not be such a bad thing, but for zooarchaeologists one of the major things we look at on a skeletal element are the articular facets! I’ve looked at many osteological specimens at many museums, and found that most of them were worthless to me. Very irritating. Also, you have to buy these suckers from specialized dealers – anywhere from 300 to 1,000 adult beetles at a time. And remember, in order to maintain a colony you have to keep feeding them carcasses, otherwise they’ll starve to death. Depending on the size of your operation, this can be problematic.


Manure (herbivore only!!!) is a wonderful way to process animal specimens. It is the preferred method of the Alaska Consortium of Zooarchaeologists (headquartered in Anchorage, Alaska). We usually get horse manure from one of the local barns, but we’ve also picked up camel manure from the zoo. Any herbivore should work well, and people are usually very willing (if surprised) to give away poo. It works similarly to cold water maceration in that you dump the carcass in a tub of some kind (preferably wrapped in window screen to make it easier to find all of the elements once the specimen is done processing), cover it with manure, throw a lid on it, and walk away. Unlike maceration you don’t have to change out the water or tend to it, but you do have to do more work once the manure has worked its magic. Cleaning poo off of the bones takes time, and no one likes working with feces (even though at this point, if everything has gone well, it just smells like dirt). It usually takes a few months for the little microbes and things in the poo to get the specimen clean (again, depending on size and species… It took my porcupine 6 months). Another thing to keep in mind is climate – manure works well in cooler temperatures (I’m assuming you’ll be keeping the tub outside somewhere). It’s okay to overwinter it outside, although you’ll probably need to add some fresh manure come spring. In California, it seems like manure doesn’t work as well – It gets too hot, and the tiny critters we want end up dead while the flies breed like mad.


This is a new technique for me – I first heard about it from Michael Etnier ( After the manure method wasn’t working out so well for our Anthropology Department here in California, a bunch of us got together (funded by the UCD Zooarchaeology Lab) and built a large, above-ground sandbox in my back yard. Following the same principle as before (wrap it in window screen, cover it, walk away), we finished processing two sea lions and a goat that had been languishing in hot, fly-infested manure, and are just about ready to pull out a harbor seal and a cow head. The sterile sand facilitates autolysis, which basically means that the enzymes in the carcass devour the tissue. It’s been working very well so far, although my poor husband did have to water the sandbox for me over the field season, as the specimens were beginning to bake instead of melt. Apparently you don’t have to do that in the Pacific Northwest. If you go for the sandbox method, just keep your local weather conditions in mind.

sandboxMy sandbox – the cover keeps the feral cats from using it as a litter box.

A fantastic resource for specimen processing is Lee Post’s Bone Builder’s Notebook ( Based out of Homer, Alaska, Lee is a self-described “bone builder”, well-known for his incredibly useful hand-drawn osteology books and innumerable projects articulating skeletal specimens for schools and museums. He just revised the book this year, so it’s as up to date as you could hope for. Another good resource is the blog of Jana Miller (, who writes about skeletal processing from a naturalist and artist’s perspective.


2013 ACZ Workshop

Hello everyone!  Apologies that I haven’t posted anything recently – my New Year’s resolution was to post at least twice a month… but that hasn’t happened (like most New Year’s resolutions).  Regardless, I want all of you to know about the great workshop that the Alaska Consortium of Zooarchaeologists will be holding on March 13th during the Alaska Anthropological Association (aaa) Annual Meeting in Anchorage:

Archaeological Data Management and Research using tDAR and Neotoma/ Discussion of Faunal Collection and Curation

The workshop will be divided into two sessions.  During the first session, Leigh Anne Ellison (Center for Digital Antiquity) and Michael Etnier (Dept. of Anthropology, University of Washington) will discuss the growing use of digital archaeological data.  They will lead discussions on what digital archaeological data are, how they are generated, digital preservation/curation techniques, and related federal laws and regulations.  Ellison will talk about the importance of the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR, and how to use it, while Etnier will discuss the Neotoma Paleoecology Internet Database and Community for Tracking Archaeofauna Assemblages from Alaska.  The second session will provide examples and an open forum for discussion of best practices in faunal collection, research design, and curation. 

To register for the workshop, please sign up through the ACZ website at  Costs are $40 for professionals and $15 for students (until March 8th, after which price increases by $5).

Hope to see you there!

Upcoming ACZ Workshop

To those of you who plan on attending the 39th Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association (held in Seattle this year), and those of you who are in the Seattle area: consider registering for the Alaska Consortium of Zooarchaeologists’s (ACZ) workshop on February 29th!

We’ll be touring the faunal collections at the Burke Museum and the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML).  Although our focus will be on marine mammal comparative specimens at both venues, it would also be a good day to arrange a peek at the other vertebrate specimens at the Burke (they have one of the largest bird skeletal collections in the country).

If you are interested, you MUST register before February 15th!!!!

(go to

Dena’ina Ethnoornithology: I want more!

So here is another fantastic book that I just can’t get enough of: Bird Traditions of the Lime Village Area Dena’ina: Upper Stony River Ethno-Ornithology. It’s written by Priscilla Russell and George West, with comments by James Kari, for the Alaska Native Knowledge Network. You may have read Priscilla Russell’s “Tanaina Plantlore” (which is a great ethnobotany), George West’s “A Birder’s Guide to Alaska,” or James Kari’s “Topical Dena’ina Dictionary” or “Shem Pete’s Alaska.”

Bird Traditions of the Lime Village Area Dena’ina can be divided up into two parts: background information and bird classification.

The first half, background information, is composed of priceless research on traditional Lime Village Dena’ina bird-harvesting strategies (including information on the seasonal cycle, teaching methodology (who teaches whom and how), sharing (who shares the catch with whom under what circumstances), and the construction of traditional hunting equipment (such as snares, arrows, and blinds)). Additionally, there is an entire chapter on the traditional foods and products made from the birds.

The second half, bird classification, lists all of the bird species in the Upper Stony River area in traditional taxonomic order (at the end of which there is a separate section for “probable” species). Each species listing includes a black & white drawing of the bird (courtesy of West), it’s name (this includes its English name, scientific name, Dena’ina name and translation of the Dena’ina name), and a short description. The description for non-harvested species is usually short (about half a page), and includes seasonal plumage identification and habitat information. The description for harvested species, on the other hand, can run up to two pages, with information on hunting methodology, preparation for food, and its other uses, in addtion to its plumage and habitat. [page 108, pictured to the left, actually continues onto page 109 with information about feathered-skin garments and feet-amulets]

One of my favorite chapters in the book is “Beliefs About Birds.” Although only two pages long, it provides wonderful information about how the Dena’ina “feel” about harvesting birds. One paragraph of especial use to the zooarchaeologist concerns the correct disposal of bird remains:

“People involved in the death or use of the bird are responsible for correctly disposing of the bird’s remains. For example, the bones of waterbirds should be returned to water and the bones of land birds left on land under a tree or in another secluded area. The bones should never be left on a trail. Taking correct care of the bones shows respect for the bird and aids in its quick return to life. If the bones are disposed of carelessly, the bird has a slow, difficult time coming back to life. Not only does this cause needless suffering for the bird, it means fewer birds and less food for people.” -p.42

For a zooarchaeologist working with faunal remains from a Dena’ina or related site, knowing that the oral history states that waterbirds were not usually deposited in a midden with land fauna may significantly affect excavation design or interpretations of the faunal analysis. I personally have never worked with faunal remains from a Dena’ina site, but I would very much like to know whether other archaeologists have found a pattern reflective of this oral tradition.

This book is the only Arctic ethnoornithology I have been able to find… it represents a really exciting subdiscipline of ethnozoology. I personally believe that ethnozoologies are of great benefit to zooarchaeologists. We may be able to glean information about species use, subsistence biodiversity and site seasonality from our bone assemblages, but we can’t determine what the cosmological significance of those represented species were to the people who harvested them. That is where ethnozoologies and oral histories come into play.

I hope that more ethnoornithologies and the like will continue to be produced, and traditional ecological knowledge and cosmologies will be preserved and published. I love the science of zooarchaeology (we’re not nearly as subjective as those lithics people! who agrees on what a Chindadn point is, anyways?), but I also think that, as a discipline, we should try to focus on more than just species identification and descriptive statistics.

Three of the last five Society of Ethnobiology conferences have had an ethnoornithology session… I hope this trend continues! (see their website at

Also, for those interested I just found a new group page titled the “Ethnoornithology Research & Study Group”

Nutrition information for Alaskan subsistence animals

I want you all to know about a wonderful book published in 2008 by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium:  The “Traditional Food Guide for Alaska Native Cancer Survivors.” 

For zooarchaeologists, our main interest in the book comes from the excellent research into the amount of calories, protein, iron, fat, vitamins (and more!) attributed to various subsistence animals.  Each page is devoted to one animal species, and features it’s Native names, a blurb on location and hunting strategy, preparation, and nutrition information. 

Mammal species listed are: Beaver, Caribou, Hare, Moose, Musk Ox, Muskrat, Porcupine, Squirrel, Sea Lion, Seal, Walrus, Whale

Bird species listed are: Black Brant, Canada Goose, Crane, Duck, Ptarmigan

Fish/Mollusc species listed are: Abalone, Arctic Grayling, Black Cod, Blackfish, Clams, Cockles, Cod, Crab, Eulachon/Smelt, Flounder, Gumboots, Halibut, Herring, Lingcod, Octopus, Pike, Chum (Dog) Salmon, King (Chinook) Salmon, Pink (Humpback) Salmon, Red (Sockeye) Salmon, Silver (Coho) Salmon, Sea Cucumber, Shrimp, Sticklebacks, Trout, Whitefish

For you paleobotanists out there, the plant species listed are: Beach Asparagus, Blueberry, Cloudberry, Low Bush Cranberry, Crowberry, Eskimo Potato, Fiddlehead Fern, Fireweed, Goosetongue, Mouse Food (Roots), Salmonberry, Seaweed, Sea Lovage, Sourdock, Tundra Tea, Wild Celery, Wild Rhubarb, Chocolate Lilly (Wild Rice), Williow leaves, Stinkweed

Towards the end of the book is a nice description of the specific parts of a moose/caribou, and how they are traditionally prepared and eaten by the Koyukon Athabascans.

Additionally (and perhaps my favorite part) are the recipes at the back of the book:  these include such delcious items as “Caribou Stew,” “Beaver Pot Roast,” “Herring Egg Salad,” and everyone’s favorite, “Akutaq.” 

You can purchase this book directly from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s website.  If you’re local to Anchorage, you can also usually find a copy at Titlewave or the Museum bookstore.