Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.10

Umberto Albarella, Mauro Rizzetto, Hannah Russ, Kim Vickers, Sarah Viner-Daniels (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Zooarchaeology. Oxford handbooks in archaeology.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xxiii, 839.  ISBN 9780199686476.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Angela Trentacoste, University of Oxford (

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[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Animal remains have the potential to provide information on a wide range of research themes, from subsistence economies to sacrifice and symbolism. Textbooks and reference manuals on zooarchaeology, the study of animal remains from archaeological sites, are numerous and diverse, encompassing volumes that offer a general introduction, as well as others more focused on quantitative issues or social themes.1 The last two years have seen several significant additions to this body of literature, including An Introduction to Zooarchaeology and Zooarchaeology in Practice: Case Studies in Methodology and Interpretation in Archaeofaunal Analysis.2 The titles of these volumes are an accurate representation of their respective content: a critical review of concepts and approaches in the former, and a series of in-depth methodological discussions in the latter. The Oxford Handbook of Zooarchaeology, edited by Albarella et al., takes a different approach.

The preface states that the work aims to be a “showcase of ‘world zooarchaeology’”(vii). As a result it is structured geographically. This approach also separates it from other Oxford handbooks, which are typically arranged thematically. The volume contains 47 chapters, organized into an introduction and six regional sections (authors and titles are listed at the end of this review). The section on Europe is the largest with 14 contributions. Asia, Africa, and North America are each represented by 8 chapters. Four chapters are dedicated to South America; Oceania is covered by the same number. In the preface, Albarella explains that authors were allowed total freedom in terms of themes and structure, in order that different approaches and research traditions be represented. The result is an extremely diverse journey through zooarchaeology today. The chronological span of the volume stretches from the Pleistocene to the Early Modern period, and the timeframe and study area considered by individual chapters is extremely diverse. Some authors focus on a particular region and time period, like Medieval Ireland (McCormick and Murray) or Neolithic China (Liu and Ma). Others consider animal exploitation in a particular area over the longue durée, e.g. aquatic resources in Holocene West Africa (Linseele). The range of themes is also extremely mixed due to the various interests and research traditions of the authors, with contributions on topics as varied as human eco-dynamics (Allen), trade in the historic period (Lapham), animals in urban life (O’Connor), and domestication (Hongo). The majority of chapters focus on mammal remains, but each regional section also contains at least one significant contribution on fish or aquatic resources. Many of the papers combine evidence from different classes of animal remains.

Chapters relevant to classical studies provide well-referenced snapshots of particular themes; those fortunate enough to find a contribution that deals with their interests will gain much from it. De Grossi Mazzorin and Minniti’s overview of the Roman period in central Italy summarizes results from a large number of bone assemblages dated from the Iron Age to Late Antiquity, many studied by the authors. Central Italy was absent from a recently published overview of livestock husbandry in the Western Roman Empire3; this chapter fills the gap, presenting an extremely important body of Italian research to an English-speaking audience and bringing Italian data into the broader discussion of European trends. ‘Sheep, sacrifices, and symbols’ in later Bronze Age Greece are discussed by Halstead and Isaakidou, who refer to data from Knossos and over 30 other Bronze Age and Neolithic settlements, sanctuaries, and tombs. Comparison of faunal evidence with textual and iconographic sources demonstrates how different materials highlight the importance of different species, with implications for the symbolic and economic significance of animals in palatial societies. MacKinnon presents a diachronic examination of faunal data from Roman, Vandal/Byzantine, and Islamic North Africa, charting regional changes in animal exploitation. Lastly, Ikram offers a fascinating contribution on animals in ancient Egyptian religion, with a focus on votive animal mummies deposited between the seventh century BC and third century AD. The quantity of these mummies is truly staggering: estimates reach into the millions at some sites. Ikram not only recognizes the economic importance of this industry, from the transport of embalming materials to the rearing of the vast number of animals needed to meet demand, but also the social significance of these cults. In addition to more substantial contributions, several other chapters present briefer discussions of fauna relevant to classical periods: Çakırlar and Atici’s summary of animal exploitation in Western Turkey; Davis’s consideration of sheep improvement in Islamic Portugal; and Bartosiewicz’s overview of the zooarchaeology of the Carpathian Basin.

As a result of these diverse themes, the volume encompasses a broad range of methodological approaches. A methodological glossary with over 40 entries and additional bibliography is therefore a useful addition. It covers the main analytical methods employed by zooarchaeologists, including techniques used in assemblage analysis (quantification of species representation, mortality patterns, sex ratio, etc.) and laboratory-based approaches (stable isotope analysis, genetics). Coverage of the former is excellent, but some laboratory-based techniques receive less attention. Geometric morphometrics, which analyses the shape of animal remains based on landmarks, is mentioned in the glossary and introduction but not employed in any of the case studies. ZooMS (ZooArchaeology by Mass Spectrometry), an increasingly common technique which uses collagen to identify bone and skin, is not included. However, the absence of these approaches will have little consequence for readers interested in classical studies, because these techniques are not typically applied to Greek and Roman materials (even if such assemblages would benefit from them).

Considering the aims of the editors to showcase world zooarchaeology, it is worth reviewing the list of authors. ‘Notes on contributors’ reveals that the 71 contributors represent 25 countries. The vast majority of contributors are in North/Central American (41%) or European (39%) institutions, with far fewer researchers from South America (4%), Africa (4%), Asia (3%), or Oceania (8%). Of course, these data only represent current affiliations, and not country of origin. Thirty women and forty-one men contributed to the volume as authors or editors, a gender division of approximately 42% to 58%. Twenty-six of the forty-seven chapters (c. 55%) have at least one female author. The career stage of authors and editors ranges from PhD candidates and junior scholars to emeritus professors. This distribution is comparable to international conference participation,4 and the editors have successfully included a range of perspectives, even if work remains to be done on improving diversity.

A geographic approach risks producing a volume that feels disorganized, but in this case the reader is left with an appreciation for the global nature of the discipline and the huge range of questions, voices, approaches, and materials that it encompasses. All good surveys achieve a degree of regional and temporal representation, but few attain the range and depth presented in this volume. The existence of (the inevitable) gaps is acknowledged by the editors, who commissioned more papers than they received. More contributions on Asia and South America would better reflect the rich archaeology and active research groups working on these continents, but their omission does not detract from the overall quality of the volume, and at 839 pages the editors cannot be accused of taking a narrow view. An impressive number of tables and figures supports the contributions. Most of the illustrations are graphs, although there are also photos and some diagrams. Nearly every chapter includes a relevant and very useful map. Chapter bibliographies are fairly current, with works up to 2014–2015, some up to 2016. A large index enhances the utility of the volume as a handbook, although further editing would have improved its legibility. The text is well edited and easy to read.

There is ample food for thought in this book for zooarchaeological practitioners and non-specialists alike. Chapters on classical subjects provide effective overviews of the zooarchaeology of various areas of the ancient world, with introductions to current research themes and key references. They are essential reading for anyone working on the archaeology of these areas or issues related to animals or agriculture within them. Other contributions illustrate the immense potential that animal remains—whether bones, teeth, or shells—have to answer questions about human life in the past. From different points of view and in different voices, they demonstrate the application of methods that could greatly contribute to the study of the classical world. The locations may be different, but many themes are the same: e.g. colonisation and economy (Reitz, Heinrich), human-environment interaction (Allen), elite/non-elite resource access (Emery), land management (Stahl). For this reason I would also recommend the book, or—considering the price—at least relevant sections, to classical archaeologists as an introductory resource on how animal remains might contribute to their research. Its value to zooarchaeologists is apparent, and it deserves a place on the shelf anywhere zooarchaeological teaching is done. Those studying animal remains from the classical world also will find it useful as a sourcebook for techniques, research questions, and comparative data from further afield. Having so many perspectives in a single resource is a very convenient way to escape the risk of tunnel vision, which focusing on the work of only a small set of authors can foster.

Overall, the volume achieves the editors’ aims to represent global zooarchaeology, and it provides convincing evidence for why it is still important to invest in the skills and resources required for the study of large assemblages, even in an age of DNA analysis. The case studies included in the book present zooarchaeology as a vibrant, international field, with a cornucopia of approaches that challenge us to think critically and creatively about human–animal relationships in the past.

Authors and titles

1. Zooarchaeology in the 21st century: where we come from, where we are now, and where we are going, Umberto Albarella

2. Humans and mammals in the Upper Palaeolithic of Russia, Mietje Germonpré and Mikhail V. Sablin
3. The zooarchaeology of complexity and specialization during the Upper Palaeolithic in Western Europe: changing diversity and evenness, Katherine Boyle
4. Mesolithic hunting and fishing in the coastal and terrestrial environments of the eastern Baltic, Lembi Lōugas
5. Archaeozoological techniques and protocols for elaborating scenarios of early colonization and Neolithization of Cyprus, Jean-Denis Vigne
6. Zooarchaeological results from Neolithic and Bronze Age wetland and dryland sites in the Central Alpine Foreland: economic, ecologic, and taphonomic relevance, Jörg Schibler
7. Zooarchaeology in the Carpathian Basin and adjacent areas, László Bartosiewicz
8. Sheep, sacrifices, and symbols: animals in Later Bronze Age Greece, Paul Halstead and Valasia Isaakidou
9. Changes in lifestyle in ancient Rome (Italy) across the Iron Age/Roman transition: the evidence from animal remains, Jacopo De Grossi Mazzorin and Claudia Minniti
10. Zooarchaeology of the Scandinavian settlements in Iceland and Greenland: diverging pathways, Konrad Smiarowski, Ramona Harrison, Seth Brewington, Megan Hicks, Frank J. Feeley, Céline Dupont-Hébert, Brenda Prehal, George Hambrecht, James Woollett, and Thomas H. McGovern
11. Fishing, wildfowling, and marine mammal exploitation in northern Scotland from prehistory to Early Modern times, Dale Serjeantson
12. Zooarchaeological evidence for Moslem improvement of sheep (Ovis aries) in Portugal, Simon J.M. Davis
13. The zooarchaeology of Medieval Ireland, Finbar McCormick and Emily Murray
14. Animals in urban life in Medieval to Early Modern England, Terry O'Connor
15. From bovid to beaver: mammal exploitation in Medieval north-west Russia, Mark Maltby

16. The emergence of livestock husbandry in Early Neolithic Anatolia, Joris Peters, Nadja Pöllath, and Benjamin S. Arbuckle
17. Patterns of animal exploitation in western Turkey: from Palaeolithic molluscs to Byzantine elephants, Canan Çakırlar and Levent Atici
18. South Asian contributions to animal domestication and pastoralism: bones, genes, and archaeology, Ajita K. Patel and Richard H. Meadow
19. The zooarchaeology of Neolithic China, Li Liu and Xiaolin Ma
20. Subsistence economy, animal domestication, and herd management in prehistoric central Asia (Neolithic - Iron Age), Norbert Benecke
21. Introduction of domestic animals to the Japanese archipelago, Hitomi Hongo
22. Farming, social change, and state formation in south-east Asia, Charles F.W. Higham
23. The zooarchaeology of early historic periods in the southern Levant, Justin E. Lev-Tov and Sarah Whitcher Kansa

24. Middle and Later Stone Age hunters and their prey in southern Africa, Ina Plug
25. Pastoralism in sub-Saharan Africa: emergence and ramifications, Diane Gifford-Gonzalez
26. Cattle, a major component of the Kerma culture (Sudan), Louis Chaix
27. The zooarchaeology of Iron Age farmers from southern Africa, Shaw Badenhorst
28. The exploitation of aquatic resources in Holocene West Africa, Veerle Linseele
29. Animals in ancient Egyptian religion: belief, identity, power, and economy, Salima Ikram
30. Animals, acculturation, and colonization in ancient and Islamic North Africa, Michael MacKinnon
31. Historical zooarchaeology of colonialism, mercantilism, and indigenous dispossession: the Dutch East India Company's meat industry at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, Adam R. Heinrich

32. Zooarchaeology of the pre-Contact Northwest coast of North America, Gregory G. Monks
33. Fauna and the emergence of intensive agricultural economies in the United States south-west, Rebecca M. Dean
34. 13,000 years of communal bison hunting in western North America, John D. Speth
35. Advances in hunter-gatherer research in Mexico: archaeozoological contributions, Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales and Eduardo Corona-M.
36. The exploitation of aquatic environments by the Olmec and Epi-Olmec, Tanya M. Peres
37. Tracking the trade in animal pelts in early historic eastern North America, Heather A. Lapham
38. Animal use at early colonies on the south-eastern coast of the United States, Elizabeth J. Reitz
39. Zooarchaeology of the Maya, Kitty F. Emery

40. Zooarchaeological approaches to Pre-Columbian archaeology in the neotropics of north-western South America, Peter W. Stahl
41. Zooarchaeology of Brazilian shell mounds, Daniela Klokler
42. Camelid hunting and herding in Inca times: a view from the South of the empire, Guillermo L. Mengoni Goñalons
43. Forests, steppes, and coastlines: zooarchaeology and the prehistoric exploitation of Patagonian habitats, Luis A. Borrero

44. Pleistocene adaptations in tropical rainforest environments in Island Melanesia, Matthew Leavesley
45. Behavioural inferences from Late Pleistocene aboriginal Australia: seasonality, butchery, and nutrition in south-west Tasmania, Richard Cosgrove and Jillian Garvey
46. Regional and chronological variations in energy harvests from prehistoric fauna in New Zealand, Ian Smith
47. Spatial variability and human eco-dynamics in central-east Polynesian fisheries, Melinda S. Allen
A Glossary of Zooarchaeological Methods, Mauro Rizzetto and Umberto Albarella
Notes on Contributors


1.   E.J. Reitz and E.S. Wing, Zooarchaeology (Cambridge University Press, 2012); R.L. Lyman, Quantitative Palaeozoology (Cambridge University Press, 2008); N. Sykes, Beastly Questions: Animal Answers to Archaeological Issues (Bloomsbury, 2014).
2.   D. Gifford-Gonzalez, An Introduction to Zooarchaeology (Springer, 2018); C.M. Giovas and M.J. LeFebvre, Zooarchaeology in Practice: Case Studies in Methodology and Interpretation in Archaeofaunal Analysis (Springer, 2018).
3.   S. Valenzuela-Lamas and U. Albarella (eds), Animal Husbandry in the Western Roman Empire: A Zooarchaeological Perspective. European Journal of Archaeology 20:3 (2017).
4.   See ICAZ Newsletter 15:2, p. 1 (2014) and 11:2, p. 1 (2010). Available online [18 July 2018]:

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