In- Depth Post #4: Shell Dust and Toe Bones

After much time has elapsed, it is time for another In-Depth post!

This time, I met with the graduate student Alessandria at SFU. Thanks to the generosity of Ms. Mulder and Mr. Salisbury I was able to leave class a little earlier in order to meet at a time that is convenient at SFU.

During the meeting, we mainly analyzed bones and shells from a backfill pit. Which is pretty much a “mistake” pit, but since the mistake has already been made and contents were already dug out, artefacts were excavated nevertheless. Alessandria (my third mentor so far!) taught me how to set up a new catalogue sheet in Excel based on a previous template.

As you may see, the catalogue is organized based on bag number, excavation site, and perhaps most importantly, the classifications of the animal bone. In order to achieve this, archaeologists will have to be able to identify the type of animal just based on fragmented examinations of animal bones, which I thought was… incredible. This branch of archaeology is referred to as zooarchaeology, which my mentor described as the study of animal artefacts at human sites. It is important to emphasis on the word “human”, since archaeology is overall the study of past societies. If the study was purely based on fossiled animals and plants, that would be called palaeontology. So be careful with your word choice! I will be watching…

After setting that up, she taught me how to identify shells found in the area. In fact, because she does a lot of zooarchaeology, her knowledge of biology is rather exceptional. With her marine biology book, she showed me some common bi-valves in the area: butter clam, horse clam, cockle, and mussel.

During our examination of shells found at the site, we encountered one with a funny hole in it like this:

Image Credit to

Perhaps some of you have bumped into this observation at the beach too. Upon first examination, it may seem logical to infer that a human pierced the shell for accessories, right? At least that’s what I thought. Well, it turns out that the perfectly round, pierced hole is not a human’s creation. It’s the masterpiece of a moon snail!

Image Credit to

This tiny, soft, and insignificant snail has a mouth powerful enough to drill a perfectly round hole through the brittle shell of clams in order to slurp up the meat inside for food. Isn’t nature so wonderful?

That was just a neat fact I thought I’d share with all of you. For some of my fellow TALONS, I hope this sort of thing rings a bell about a field trip we did last year during spring break: Bamfield! Yes, I did mention this to Alessandria, and apparently, she’s been there too! She said she loved her experience at Bamfield and I was really glad that we share this connection!

Anyways, after she taught me some basic identifications we went ahead to sift the contents in a catch-screen. It’s actually really helpful in separating the tiny shards of shell and bone that were still relevant to the collection. However, after screening that we still had to pick out the shells and bones apart from rocks, which required great skills dealing with tweezers. I can tell you with confidence that my mentor’s chopstick skills must be excellent from her practice at picking fish bones smaller than the size of my pinkie nail.

For the shells that were still intact, I just wore a glove and sorted them out based on the distinctive traits. Then I weighed the collection, labelled some bags, and they are now officially in a catalogue! I did the same things with the salmon bones, but unfortunately didn’t get to finish the whole collection before the meeting ended. Alas, maybe next time!

I won’t go on to say everything I’ve learned, because there’s just so much that I can talk about. I could talk about the dead wasp I found amongst the bones; I could talk about the bear toe bone in the collection; I could talk about archaeology consulting… There’s just simply too much.  For certain reasons, I will not be posting the pictures of the bone artifacts I organized on this public site. If you are curious, feel free to ask me and I’ll show it to you privately.

1. What has been my most difficult mentoring challenge so far?  Why?

The most difficult challenge is to balance my busy schedule, my mentor’s busy schedule, and my parent’s busy schedule together to a time that works for all of us. I do not want to make leaving class for in-depth meetings a norm either because I don’t want to fall behind on school work. I guess I’m still at the stage where I’m trying to fit In-Depth into part of my normal schedule, but that would mean a commitment from my mom and my mentor as well.

2. What is working well? Why?

At every single meeting I’ve had so far, I just learn so much every time. There is no shortage of things to know in my subject this year. Every meeting is an exciting chance for me to learn something that I am grateful for. It’s only a subject at university for a good reason. The recurring theme here is that there’s so many topics you can explore in archaeology because there’s so many disciplines involved with it. In other words, archaeology can tell us a little about EVERYTHING that humans have done, ranging from their material culture to their impact on the ecosystem.

3. What could be working better?  How can you make sure this happens?

Right now because there are so many things that I can explore, it’s a little difficult for my mentor to know the direction I want to go with this project. We could just go off all kinds of tangents on a little bit of everything, which has worked well thus far, but I’m also curious to dig a little deeper about one subject and ask more questions. This can happen simply by me preparing specific questions ahead of the meeting to point to a cohesive theme for the project. Of course, I’m happy to learn anything archaeology-related, but talking about topics I’m passionate about is not only more interesting for me but also makes a better and more genuine conversation.

Well, I’m running out of archaeology puns to conclude my posts. Let’s end with a thoughtful question for the audience. I actually asked this question to Alessandria, but I like to leave my readers in suspense and answer it in the next In-Depth Post. So I’ll only pose the question here:

How long does someone have to dead before it’s considered archaeology and not grave robbing?


  1. Thanks for taking us on a tour of your learning. Your posts teach us a lot, too! I look forward to your answer to the question you are leaving with us this week.

    • Thank you Ms. Mulder for your constant support of our learning! It is indeed my pleasure to share my learning (and unanswered ominous archaeology questions) with you.

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