6th Experimental Archaeology Conference Poster Abstract – Eva Fairnell

From the 6th Experimental Archaeology Conference, York, 2012.

The application of skinning experiments to the interpretation of bone assemblages

A PDF copy of this poster, copyright of the author, is available.

Eva Fairnell

Department of Archaeology, University of York

The pelts of fur-bearing animals have sartorial significance when used to create garments. The different colours and features of fur-bearing species can be used to create patterns and particular effects. For example, the backs and bellies of squirrels can be used to create a distinctive pattern, and tails of stoat can be used as embellishments.

It is often presumed that skinning an animal for its pelt can leave traces of evidence of the process, for example as cut marks on particular bones and particular assemblages of skeletal elements representing the parts of the carcass retained or not with the pelt. However, skinning an animal, particularly when it has only very recently been killed, can leave no evidence at all, and the desired end product could mean an animal is skinned in a more specific way than the generic case and open techniques.

The skinning of stoats, hares and squirrels has been carried out with a view to informing the interpretation of archaeological assemblages containing fur-bearing species. Prior experience as a taxidermist was also applied. Some experiments were carried out to compare the use of different blades, and the skinning of different species. All recent skinning was also done while being mindful of the ways in which the fur could be used as part of a garment. The experience of skinning these small fur-bearing animals provides great insight into the subtle variability that can exist in the methods, tools and techniques involved, and the likelihood of diagnostic cut marks and bone assemblages existing.

The results of the experimental skinning, and the overview provided by experience of skinning, were applied to the taphonomic signatures revealed by a meta-analysis of assemblages of fur-bearing species. The latter analysis indicated that the most frequent depositions appeared to be of complete carcasses with no cut marks. The former experiments revealed, for example, how easy it is to pull the pelt free of the paws of small fur-bearers such stoat and squirrel, with no use of a blade. A skinned carcass can easily bear no trace of the skinning process. Conversely, an assemblage of, for example, just the paws of squirrels suggests a very specific process. Rather than representing skinning waste, i.e. deposition of the unwanted parts of a carcass, deposits of just squirrel or mustelid paws appear far more likely to represent the remains of an actual garment, on which the paws were a desired sartorial embellishment. There would be no need for paws to be left intact with the pelts at the time of skinning if they were not required for the end product, because to do so would be more time consuming than just pulling the pelt free.

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