Them bones, them bones …

Written by Elizabeth M. Scott, Natural History and Archaeology Preparator at the Indiana State Museum

Professionals such as archaeologists often encounter bones during excavations. But how do they know what animals they belong to? One way to find out is to use a reference source called a comparative bone collection.

This kind of collection contains numerous skeleton specimens that identify the range of animals present within a particular ecological or geographical area. It may focus on current or ancient animal populations. Multiple specimens of each animal are contained in the collection to represent the diversity within each species, such as the differences between males and females and old and young. The collection also identifies additional evidence such as normal and abnormal growth and development, disease, injury, change over time and modification, for example by people, animals, or the environment. The identification of unknown bones can be assisted by comparing them to known specimens in a comparative bone collection.

Among its many collections, the Indiana State Museum has a large collection of teeth, bones and skeletons representing both modern and ancient animals from Indiana’s natural history. So how are animal skeletons prepared for the museum’s collection? Processing depends on the type of material, its condition, and its intended use. It can be a very smelly and dirty job. Case in point … let me introduce you to “Ford,” the newest member of the comparative bone collection.

Bison carcass in field prior to recovery.

At Wolf Park in Battleground, Indiana, an old bull of the bison herd known as “Ford” died. He was brought to the museum as a half mummified half rotting carcass that had been preyed on by scavengers. Over the course of several months the specimen was processed by various methods including: the separation of parts and the removal of flesh with various tools, the cleaning of bones by bugs outside, the cooking of the bones to cause further flesh and connective tissue failure and to force grease, fat, and blood out of the bones, the bathing of the bones in several baths of enzyme and degreasing detergents, the drying of the bones, and finally the staining of the bone to enhance surface feature characteristics.

Fully processed bison skeleton in biological position.

Ford now has a second life as an excellent scientific reference specimen: a complete large and older adult male bison skeleton containing evidence of previous injury with healing, pathology and potential predation marks.

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Figures from the past

Written by Michele Greenan, natural history collections manager at the Indiana State Museum

Have you ever wondered how archaeologists come up with ‘educated’ guesses as to how people in the past looked or behaved? For the archaeologist, art can sometimes be the vehicle that delivers that element of humanity. A few weeks ago, archaeologists at the Indiana State Museum began the long, arduous process of cataloging some of the beautiful artwork created by the people of Southern Indiana some 1,700 years ago.


Figure 1: Figurine Faces

There are many occasions during the day when non-archaeology staff comes traipsing through the lab spaces. Archaeologists are always cataloging something in the labs, so there is a continual flow of things to look at. When these figurines were laid out, the reaction was one of sheer amazement. People would start to walk by then catch a glimpse out of the corner of their eye and stop dead in their tracks. In a low voice, you’d hear something like “…Oh my God!”


Figurine 2: Figurine Bodies

As we pick each figurine up and get a good look at it, we can’t help but think – just for a second – that we are somehow looking into the faces of the people who made these figurines 1,700 years ago. As we catalog these beautifully crafted objects (there are over 400 in the collection), we can see evidence of how they wore jewelry and what their hair and clothing styles were like. Other figurines may indicate religious practice or perhaps social standing. We may never know the intended meanings of these figurines, but they certainly provide a unique glimpse into their culture.


Figure 3: Figurine Fragments

Nowadays, our lab looks a bit more like a CSI episode. We have over a hundred fragments of figurines left to catalog, most of which are parts of feet, torsos or limbs. The amount of information we can obtain from these fragments (we will try and fit them together) as well as the faces and bodies are immeasurable. Staff from the Indiana State Museum discovers something new about them almost every day.

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