The National Historic Landmarks and External Contracts division of the Southeast Archeological Center partnered with Human Remains Detection (HRD) dog handler Suzi Goodhope, and Florida State University Professor Geoffrey Thomas along with several of his students to help expand SEAC’s zooarcheological comparative collection.
Make no bones about it, comparative collections are one of the most important tools in zooarcheology. These assemblages are made up of the shells and complete skeletons of animals about which much is known; for example, when, where, and how the animals lived and died. By comparing these modern specimens with archeological specimens, zooarcheologists can go beyond simply identifying what species are present in an archeological faunal assemblage to answering questions about whether a particular specimen is from a male or female, what kind of environment the animal lived in, how old it was when it died, and much more.
About six years ago, after old age and illness had taken their toll, two of Suzi Goodhope’s horses, Pascal and Patriot were euthanized and buried in separate graves on either side of a pasture fence. Goodhope’s “cadaver dogs” specialize in locating historic human remains and part of their training and conditioning involves distinguishing between the scents of dead human beings and non-human animals. The buried horses, as well as burials of two deer and a sheep were used as part of the dogs’ training. Goodhope offered to donate the skeletons to SEAC for our zooarcheological comparative collection provided that she didn’t have to excavate them herself, of course.
Did you know that Suzi and her HRD dog Shiraz have worked closely with SEAC on several occasions including the recent project at the Thomasville Civil War Prison Camp?
Excavating articulated skeletons is a rare opportunity even for professional archeologists. Dr. Geoff Thomas saw Goodhope’s offer as an occasion for students, with shovels, trowels, brooms, and brushes, to excavate the horse skeletons using methods employed by archeologists and forensic anthropologists.
Between May 9 and June 17, 2016, Thomas and FSU anthropology professor Dr. Tanya Peres had led 16 students in a field school at Mound Field (8WA8), a 1400 year-old prehistoric archeological site in the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. SEAC provided technical support, logistics, and volunteer recruitment.
Despite identifying and excavating numerous prehistoric features at Mound Field, no human remains were encountered. Goodhope even brought Shiraz, a Belgian Malinois and her most experienced dog, to the site but she was unable to locate any evidence of human remains.
Did you known that Mound Field is the second site in the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge to host an FSU field school? Learn about the other site – Byrd Hammock – here!
FSU undergraduate anthropology students Emilee McGann, Alexa Pannavaria, Jessica Knight, Bridgett Borders, Ashley Brady, and Mason Pope had participated in the Mound Field field school. They volunteered to help excavate Goodhope’s horses for some hands-on experience with faunal remains.
The work began on June 20th when SEAC archeologists met Goodhope at her property near Havana, Florida. She pointed out the horse graves, visible on the surface as shallow depressions, and a ground penetrating radar, or GPR, was used to pinpoint their locations. A backhoe was hired to remove the fill from each grave down to a level just above the horses’ remains.
SEAC archeologists Dr. Mike Russo, Jeffrey Shanks, Andrew McFeaters, Tim Roberts, and Thadra Stanton were onsite to help Dr. Thomas guide his students through the process of exposing, photographing, mapping, and excavating the skeletons destined for the SEAC zooarcheological comparative collection.
Patriot’s remains were encountered at the water table making for a very mucky excavation and preventing the students’ ability to excavate his complete articulated skeleton in situ.
Most of the students’ time on site was spent removing fill above Pascal’s grave with shovels. When the outline of the grave became clear, they laid in a 2m x 2m unit and exposed the skeleton with trowels excavating in arbitrary 10 cm levels.
Pascal’s remains were encountered just above the water table allowing the students to expose most of the skeleton. The vagaries of preservation often get the better of best laid plans. Along with the bones, quite a bit of hide, hair, and adipose were still present along with the lingering smell of putrification. The students remarked that the smell, and the sounds of troweling the saturated soil were the most off-putting parts of the experience.
After the majority of the skeleton was exposed, students practiced drawing a plan map of the feature. Each element was removed and arranged anatomically to be sure that the entire skeleton had been recovered. The bones were placed in black plastic garbage bags and brought back to the lab.
On the loading bay at SEAC, archeologists placed the bones in a 3 percent solution of hydrogen peroxide overnight to disinfect the specimens and remove any remaining tissue. Then each bone was scrubbed and rinsed in fresh water and left out to dry. The two skeletons were assigned distinct catalog numbers. Each bone will be labelled with the catalog number. Each skeleton will be placed in a container labelled with the catalog number, and the scientific binomial and common name.
Goodhope has generously allowed SEAC zooarcheologist Brian Worthington to move his maceration operation to her property. Stay tuned for more on this rather grizzly method of preparing animal skeletons for zooarcheological comparative collections….
Check out this excellent video on the FSU field school at Mound Field!