by Kathryn Grossman
I have been in Jordan for two months now, and Tom Parker’s presence is everywhere—in my work, in conversations with colleagues, on the stiff breeze at Petra. Despite twenty years in Near Eastern archaeology, this is my first time working in Jordan; I had just imagined he would be here when I arrived. I am an assistant professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University, where Tom worked until his unexpected death last year, and my specialty is zooarchaeology (the analysis of animal bones recovered from archaeological sites). A few years ago, Tom asked me to analyze the animal bones from the Petra North Ridge Project, which he and Megan Perry co-directed from 2012 to 2016. Tom’s initial request led, as such things often do, to my widening involvement in Jordanian zooarchaeology. Last year, Tom asked me to publish the animal bones from his Roman Aqaba Project. Around the same time, Jack Green (who was ACOR’s associate director at the time) asked me to analyze the animal bones from the Temple of the Winged Lions Cultural Resource Management project. Because most of the animal bones from the Petra North Ridge, and all from the Temple of the Winged Lions project, are housed in Jordan, I applied for an ACOR fellowship to undertake those analyses. I was awarded an ACOR-CAORC Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2021, and I took up the fellowship this past summer.
What does a zooarchaeologist do? What does it mean to “analyze animal bones”? Well, it depends on the questions that we are trying to answer. I am not a zoologist; my research questions are cultural, rather than biological. I am interested in how people and animals interact and influence one another. When I study animal bones, I begin by determining what animals the bone fragments came from. Humans use horses in ways far different from how they use sheep, for example, so determining what animals the bones come from can tell us if they were animals typically used for food or as ritual sacrifices or as transportation. I also determine what body part the bone came from. If the assemblage is dominated by the small bones of the feet, for example, but lacks those from the spine and upper limbs, I might deduce that the animals were butchered at the site, but the meaty portions of the body were eaten elsewhere. I also study whether the bones came from young or old, male or female animals; that can tell us, for example, whether the people were slaughtering young males and keeping females into old age as breeding stock or for their milk.
The vast majority of animal bones from Middle Eastern sites represent sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, dogs, horses, donkeys, and camels. Wild species such as gazelle, rabbits, deer, and onagers (Asiatic wild asses; the subspecies that lived in Jordan is extinct) are rarer, but not unexpected. So zooarchaeologists typically need to learn the skeletal anatomy of only a handful of species that predominate in a particular region. When we come across something unexpected, there are many options for figuring out what kind of animal it came from. We can look up pictures of suspected species. We can take the bone to a natural history museum and try to find a match in their skeletal collections. We can post a picture on the Zooarchaeology Listserv—a web resource where zooarchaeologists (there are, shockingly, thousands of us) share pictures and ask for help with identification. I did just that this summer. I put an image of a strange-looking bone on the listserv, and within hours several helpful colleagues had identified it as a particular kind of dwarf dog found at Roman-period sites (Fig. 1). They even sent photos. It was an exact match.
In my two months at ACOR, I’ve studied more than 70,000 bone fragments from the Petra North Ridge and Temple of the Winged Lions projects. Most of the animals are sheep and goat, but there have been some surprises. There is now pretty clear evidence of a workshop on Petra’s North Ridge where residents were butchering camels and using their lower limb bones to fashion pins, needles, rings, plaques, and more. We find not only the tools in the bone assemblage but also the detritus of the tool production process (Fig. 2). We have two different species of dog: the dwarf variety and a longer-limbed breed. There are also a lot of fish bones—especially parrotfish, with their distinctive beaks, which would have been transported in from the Red Sea. There are still more bones to study, but I was able to examine the majority of both assemblages while at ACOR.
But the best part about working at ACOR has been the people I’ve met. Early in my stay in Jordan, I met Lubna Omar, a zooarchaeologist who was in Amman for the month of July (Fig. 3). Lubna was looking for a new project, and I had a lot to do, so I asked her to collaborate with me on the Petra North Ridge bones. We worked together for several weeks and will publish the results jointly. The ACOR residents this summer also included a host of friends old and new, and conversations with them at lunch, on the patio, and out on the town helped alleviate the stress of recording 70,000 tiny bone fragments in a vast Excel spreadsheet. The staff were also unflaggingly kind and helpful and ensured that I had everything I needed to accomplish my research goals. I wish I could thank Tom Parker for introducing me to Jordan, ACOR, and this new network of friends and colleagues. Thanks to my time at ACOR this summer, I’m now even more prepared to answer the question that I know he would ask: No, Tom, there are still no dinosaur bones in the assemblage.
Kathryn Grossman is assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at North Carolina State University. She is an archaeologist and zooarchaeologist with expertise in the complex societies of the Near East and eastern Mediterranean. She earned her BA in archaeology from Tufts University and her MA and PhD in Near Eastern art and archaeology from the University of Chicago. Her current research focuses on resistance to state-making, the biographies of early cities, and human/non-human animal relationships in early complex societies. She directs the Makounta-Voules Archaeological Project in Cyprus and has been a senior staff member on archaeological projects in Syria, Cyprus, Egypt, and Iraq.