Big, Tiny, Broken: Top 3 Animal Remains at the Archaeological Archive

By adam corsini on 13 Aug 2014

A lumbar vertebra from a whale found during excavations at Vintry (VRY89)From excavations at the Fleet Valley (VAL88)From excavations at Lower Warbank, Keston (LWB67)

We’re all just a bunch of animals sharing this space called Earth. And we have been for a very long time now. Vertebrates, invertebrates, molluscs and sponges, being created, living and dying in a continuous circle of life. We’ve got them all at the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive, from the very small to the shelf consuming. Here are three of our favourite examples of archaeological animal remains.

1) Big

A lumbar vertebra from a whale found during excavations at Vintry (VRY89)

Undoubtedly the largest bones in the archaeological collections are whale. Whale bones tend to crop up in relation to the whaling industries of the 18th Century. This lumbar vertebra above was discovered during excavations at Vintry in 1988 along with several other whale bone fragments. Although this particular example may not be the largest in our store, we like it as in many respects it’s quite similar to our own vertebrae (run your fingers down your spine and feel those bumps), only a pretty big version, spanning almost 400mm from one end to the other.

2) Tiny

From excavations at the Fleet Valley (VAL88)

From big to small. Really small. As in a couple of millimeters long. What we have here is a type of crustacean known as an ostracod. In an archaeological context these tiny creatures can provide evidence for freshwater being present in the past. Which is handy in this case as this was discovered during excavations at the Fleet valley in 1988. Despite their size, they consist of a head and a upper body, with their two pairs of antennae used to aid movement. Perhaps their most interesting claim to fame is that male ostacods are often referred to as the ‘sexiest of all animals’, accounting for their genitalia which is one third of their body size. And not content with one penis, male ostracods have two!

3) Broken

From excavations at Lower Warbank, Keston (LWB67)


Among the most interesting of animal bones recovered from archaeological sites are those that show signs of pathology. Our final object has a quite remarkable story attached. The artefact above is a Roman dog rib, but as you can see the centre of the rib has a large lump. At some point the dog must have broken its rib, but over time the bone has healed itself and fused back together. This rib was found as part of a complete skeleton of a 380mm long mature dog, but despite its rib recovery, the poor thing seems to have been sacrificed as it was discovered in a large ritual animal burial pit in Keston.

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2 thoughts on “Big, Tiny, Broken: Top 3 Animal Remains at the Archaeological Archive

  1. martyn says:

    I found a vertebrae on a beach it looks like it’s from a whale I’m just wondering if it is and if someone could help me to find out which particular species it is from thanks

  2. Adam says:

    Hi Martyn,
    I would recommend contacting the National History Museum. Take a look at their Nature Plus webpage where you can send them a picture of the bone and they’ll try to identify it.

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