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Faunal Remains

The term faunal remains is nothing more than a fancy way of referring to the remains of animals. Faunal remains typically found on archaeological sites include bone of course, but also other things such as fish scales, teeth, and any other preserved parts of animals. By analyzing these remains, archaeologists can learn a great deal about many aspects of the lives of people and animals in the past, but their most well-known and successful uses are in the study of diet. Archaeologists who specialize in the study of faunal remains are known as zooarchaeologists. In most cases, archaeology laboratories and departments typically do not have a full-time zooarchaeologist on staff and thus have to send their faunal remains to be analyzed elsewhere. Mount Vernon is no exception to this rule and the faunal assemblage from the House for Families was analyzed by Dr. Joanne Bowen of Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of Archaeological Research, who performed the original identification and interpretation of the collection. The summary below is based heavily on her work.

The House for Families faunal assemblage is one of the most important collections of faunal remains found on an eighteenth-century site. The assemblage contains over 25,000 bone fragments excavated from a brick-lined storage cellar underneath the dwelling. Mount Vernon archaeologists were thrilled at the preservation offered by the cellar; the bones had been protected not only from scavengers and rodents but also from human trampling and even environmental forces. The great condition of the bones helped to reduce what are referred to by zooarchaeologists as “unidentifiable” bones. In zooarchaeological terms, “unidentifiable” bones are ones that cannot be identified to the taxanomic level of Order, which unfortunately makes them too vague to be of much help in most zooarchaeological studies. As you can imagine, having more “identifiable” bones is a good thing. In general, as the size of a collection increases it helps to reduce error and make calculations statistically more reliable.

The faunal collection from the House for Families was broken down into three phases based on stratigraphic analysis (studying the different layers of soil within the site) and the presence of diagnostic artifacts (artifacts that are associated with a particular date, such as some types of ceramics). Phase I was probably deposited between 1759 and 1769, Phase II between 1769 and 1779, and Phase III between 1779 and 1793. Being able to sort the site into several phases really helps in interpreting the site, especially because it allows archaeologists to see changes within the site that occurred over shorter periods of time than would be possible by looking at the whole site. Standard zooarchaeological quantification techniques were used with each of the three phases, most of which involve calculating either the minimum number of animals represented by an assemblage (for instance, you would have a minimum of three goats at a site if you found three goat skulls) or the amount of meat that each type of animal provided within a site, called biomass. To make matters more confusing, zooarchaeological values are meant to be relative to each other and not absolute. Measurements of the amount of meat provided by a species (biomass) probably does not account for all meat consumed at a site. That is why multiple measurements are used, helping to greatly reduce error.

Fifty-three taxa were present at the House for Families but it seems that the slaves living in the House for Families relied primarily on several domestic animals and wild fish. Domestic pork, beef, and mutton were provided to slaves through all three phases at the House for Families, but the relative importance of each within the diet changed over time. Fish consistently played a major role within the diet but interestingly enough the types of fish present changed drastically over time. Wild fowl, such as the numerous species of duck found at the site, and wild mammals like deer, squirrel, and rabbit also contributed to the overall diet as well as helped to maintain variety. It should be remembered that not ALL animal remains found in this assemblage (or any other assemblage for that matter) represent remains of meals. Some remains, such as those of rats for instance, might represent individuals who burrowed into a site at a later date or were deposited there for other non-food related reason.

Remember when I mentioned the three different phases that the cellar was divided into? By examining the faunal remains from each phase separately Dr. Bowen was able to see patterns at the site that would have been lost otherwise. As can be seen in the Biomass Index chart, the relative percentage of biomass provided by beef and mutton increased over time compared to pork.

Additionally, the percentage of the total biomass provided by beef, pork, and mutton increased over time, and by phase III they were providing sixty percent of meat in the diet of slaves in the House for Families. This was the first time the three domestic meats had represented even half of the biomass estimates of any phase at the site. Interestingly enough, other groups of people living in the Chesapeake also began to rely more heavily on domestic meats at the same time so it is not entirely surprising to see it carry over into the diet of slaves. The fish species represented and their dietary importance also changed radically over all three phases. The Fish Biomass Index illustrates the increased importance of herring in Phase III of the House for Families occupation.

Stephen Atkins, who was a student of Dr. Bowen’s while she worked on the collection from the House for Families, looked closely at the fisheries of Mount Vernon. What he found helped shed light on the reasons behind the shift in fish species throughout the three phases. There are multiple documents written by George Washington that refer to seines, the nets used to catch large numbers of fish, and other aspects of the fishing industry at Mount Vernon. Washington chose to do the bulk of his fishing during April and May at several spots along the Potomac when the herring and shad spawn. The catch brought in by the huge nets was salted to preserve as provisions for slaves as well as to sell if there was a surplus. According to documents, twenty salted herring were given to each slave every month. Interestingly enough, the archaeological evidence from the House for Families showing a huge increase in herring during Phase III seems to suggest that rationing of herring did not start in full force until sometime around 1779.

Equally important to species distribution are the specific cuts of meat that were present at the site and how these compare to those found in other populations (wealthy families, overseers, etc.). As an archaeologist you have to be careful not to project modern day beliefs or prejudices on the past and in terms of faunal remains this means keeping in mind that the relative values we assign different cuts of meat today are not necessarily the same as those in the past. For instance, most people think of pork tenderloin as being a higher quality cut of meat than a pig’s head, but in the past it was common to find pig’s heads on all tables, whether wealthy or poor! Interestingly enough, nearly every cut of meat from the domestic cow, pig, and sheep was present at the House for Families and it is apparent that slaves had access to not only low-quality pieces of meat but instead to all parts of the animal. While most of the bones found at the House for Families showed evidence of being chopped, the actual cooking method used for each meat would probably have been determined by how the meat was preserved. Salted meat, such as pork and herring, was usually boiled. This kept the meat from becoming tough and dry as salted meat is when exposed to dry heats such as roasting. Fresh rations, however, could have been roasted and still retained their moisture.

As it stands, the House for Families has provided archaeologists with a wealth of information, in particular a spectacular collection of faunal remains with which to delve into the diet of the enslaved people living at Mount Vernon. Domestic animals became the staple of the slaves’ diet in the House for Families during the 1780’s, around the time that these same species were beginning to be widely available to all people living in the Chesapeake region. At the same time, Washington seems to have begun supplying his slaves with more salted herring while continuing to sell surplus herring on the commercial market. During all three phases slaves were allowed to hunt and fish on their own time and the wide range of wild species present within the assemblage shows that they took advantage of this opportunity.