29 Jul 2022
by Clare Rainsford

Dem Animal Bones

Being a freelance, self-employed specialist has its upsides and downsides. One of the former is that I can work the hours that suit me. Another is the commute. Around mid-morning, cup of tea in hand, I amble up the stairs into my home office, the back bedroom of my Victorian terraced house. I have a desk inherited from my grandparents, a wipe-clean Argos picnic table for all the messy work, and far too many boxes of animal bone.

It’s the end of the month, so when I check my emails I find a couple of requests from project managers to check I’ve been paid, and another request for a quote. I’ve been sent the weight of the hand-collected assemblage, an estimate of the number of fragments of bone, and the weight of the animal bone recovered from environmental samples. One of my jobs today will be to sit down with a pen and paper and work out how that translates into time and money; the number of days it will take me to do the assessment, and therefore how much I have to charge the company. Being a freelancer means you have to do everything in your business - admin, touting for work, publicity, communication with clients, receiving parcels, repackaging and sending parcels back. I’m not sure whether it’s an upside or a downside. Depends on the day.

If I can, I try to get any admin done in the morning. Then I take the dog for a walk; then I have a long afternoon for getting on with my actual work. I’m a professional zooarchaeologist of about ten years’ standing, and I describe my job, somewhat flippantly, as “turning boxes of animal bone from archaeological digs into reports”. After my undergrad, I did a masters degree in zooarchaeology, then went and worked for a commercial unit as their zooarchaeologist for two-and-a-half years. I was incredibly lucky to get that job straight out of my masters course, especially as the unit worked closely with the lecturer who ran the masters course I was on and were happy for the job to serve as an apprenticeship for me. After that, I went and got my PhD through the University of Bradford, and then used the very wide range of contacts I’d built up over the years to start my own business. I take work from a diverse portfolio of clients, from commercial units to university projects to community digs. I’ve looked at bone assemblages from the prehistoric period up to the modern age - sometimes on the same site - and from the Orkney islands all the way down to south-west England. One of the upsides of my current job is definitely the variety. I’m usually the first zooarchaeologist to have looked at these assemblages; mostly they’ve only been excavated within the past two or three years. There could be almost anything within the box, and I’m the person who gets to find out what’s there.

And then I record what’s there on a spreadsheet, and then I use the data from that spreadsheet to write up a report to tell the company / the dig director / any future researcher what I think was there, what it tells me about the site economy and ecology, and how important the assemblage might be in the broader research landscape. This afternoon, my job is to start writing up a very poorly-preserved assemblage from northern England which is, sadly, so badly-preserved it's not going to tell me much about animals at the site. The preservation has made even recording it awkward - the usual method is to count all fragments of bone and record the number, but what do you do when maybe three horse teeth have disintegrated into 30 fragments? There certainly weren't 30 elements of horse in that context, except with the fragmentation as it is there technically was, however misleading that sounds. I wouldn’t usually calculate minimum number of individuals at assessment stage, and anyway the fragments are so small it might actually be impossible. I think I might have to do something clever using the number of contexts these teeth occur within as an MNI proxy. Far from ideal, but even after ten years I’m still being thrown challenges to work out.

After a long afternoon at the computer, by about 7pm it’s time to walk the dog again. He races round on the fields pestering rabbits while I switch off from work and mentally close off the office. Unfortunately my tumble dryer and spare towels live in that room too, so I’ll still be in and out all weekend - this is one of the downsides of working from home. I review what I’ve done and whether I’m on target for any deadlines I have, and whether I need to get in touch with anyone on Monday. And then I go home, and cook dinner, feed the dog, water the tomato plants, and settle down for the evening.

Clare Rainsford

Freelance Zooarchaeologist

I am a self-employed zooarchaeology specialist based in York. I completed my PhD in 2017, and have a special interest in Roman and Anglo-Saxon beliefs about animals.

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Clare Rainsford