Identifying Animal Species in the Angel Mounds Collections via Teeth

by Maclaren Guthrie

Color, close up image of the front of an animal skull
Fig. 1 Raccoon cranium (Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology, 2019)

Hi everyone, it’s Maclaren Guthrie back with another blog post! This time I’m excited I get the opportunity to talk about something that’s really of interest to me lately – identifying animal teeth.

Though this rehousing angel mounds project is all about the physical rehousing and conservation of the angel collection, we do see a lot of really interesting artifacts in our daily routines. This first segment of the project is focused on the packing crates of moldy bones due to our method of need-oriented rehousing. While our main task is to locate mold and deal with it and the task of putting these artifacts into new bags and boxes, a lot of us can’t help but try and figure out what type of animal’s bones we may be looking at.

For me, I’ve been particularly interested in the identification of animals by their teeth. We find quite a few teeth on a day to day basis, which is really cool and helps to show what species were hunted, eaten, or present in the lives of the Mississippian people at Angel Mounds. Teeth are a great way to identify this information because teeth are less likely to decay because of their density.

Multiple mandibles (jaw bones) in a line vertically
Fig. 2 Various animal mandibles (Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology, 2019)

Prior to this project, I was not the most experienced in identifying animal teeth with the exception of cows and pigs due to their common presence on historic archaeological sites. Lucky for this project we have Amanda Burtt, a zooarchaeologist, on staff to help us with our identification questions – which we have lots of.

So far, the most common animals we have been rediscovering in the collections are raccoons, deer, and fish which is unsurprising for the most part. We have definitely found some other cool species in the collections through identifying teeth, such as bear, river otter, opossum, dog, beaver, bobcat, and various rodentia. We’ve also found multiple bird beaks.

Image of the front of a bobcat jaw bone, has pointed front tooth
Fig. 3 Partial bobcat mandible (Glenn A. Black Laboratory of ARchaeology, 2019)

Identifying animals, specifically by just looking at teeth or possibly a mandible, can include a few different strategies which can really depend on experience in working with faunal remains. For me personally, as I don’t have much experience in this area as of now, I go through a little flowchart in my head to help me narrow down what animal the teeth could belong to. First, the size – this is a helpful observation that should start me off in the right direction whether I am looking at just a tooth or a mandible with or without the teeth still attached. Next, I look at the shape of the tooth. If it has a mostly flat crown I know it could be a molar, if it’s long and pointed it could be a canine, etc. Knowing what kind of tooth you’re looking at is important because the shape of that specific tooth gives you an idea of what type of animal that would have a tooth that looks like that – i.e. a wolf would have larger canine teeth than a raccoon, or a carnivorous animal like a dog would not have flat-topped molars like herbivores like deer or omnivores like humans. Having multiple teeth together, perhaps still in a mandible, is even easier since you can tell whether or not the individual was homodont (one type of teeth) or heterodont (multiple types of teeth) which would also allow us to tell what the animal could have eaten and therefore give us hints to what species the animal may have been. Fortunately for us, Amanda Burtt also brought a handy comparative collection that can help with this process for teeth and other animal bone identification.

Gloved hand holding a partial jaw bone, teeth are much flatter than bobcat
Fig. 4 Partial beaver mandible (Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology, 2019)

Teeth are also helpful in ageing an animal. For example, we can tell whether or not an individual is a juvenile or adult based on if the teeth are deciduous “milk” teeth or permanent dentition since most mammals are diphyodont and have two sets of teeth throughout their life. Another way teeth can be aged is due to wear – it seems only logical that the more worn a tooth is the older the individual would have had to been to have used it enough to wear it down. There can be other factors that effect this, though, as different diets wear teeth differently. An example of this in the Angel Mounds rehousing project is various raccoon molars, usually still attached to the mandible, have been noted to have very worn down molars. This could mean they were older or they could have been eating a harsher diet that was harder on their teeth.

Raccoon jawbone on table, teeth are short but pointed
Fig. 5 Raccoon mandible with worn molars (Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology, 2019)

A lot of information can be gained by studying animal teeth that can then help us better understand the people of Angel Mounds and beyond. Knowing the species, and sometimes age and diet of said animals, gives us more of an insight into the daily lives of the animals and the people they most likely came into contact with. Teeth are a great resource to use since they are often found in the archaeological record.

Planning an Exhibit

November 27, 2018

Planning an exhibit takes a lot of time and energy on the part of all involved. During the process of putting up our new exhibit, “Animal~Spirit~Human,” we created a to-do list to make sure we checked all the boxes and put up an exhibit we were proud of.

Here’s a condensed version of that list:

1. Generate Theme

Our exhibit followed this semester’s Themester theme of animal-human relationships. “Animal~Spirit~Human” follows that theme by investigating the role of animals in sustaining and inspiring past and present Native people of the Eastern Woodlands. Once we had our theme in mind, we were able to create a uniform aesthetic to make sure all of the cases matched. This entailed picking fonts and a color scheme, and determining what size each of the different labels should be, to make sure all exhibit goers could easily read them.

2. Select Artifacts/Prepare Condition Reports

With that theme in mind, we were able to get an idea of what artifacts to include. Each case plays a different role in telling the story of animal-human relationships. The cases on the north wall of the gallery hall serve as an introduction to the exhibit. The east wall examines a worldview in terms of different spheres, such as air and water. The south wall compares pre- and post-European contact animal populations. And the west wall is dedicated to examining animal-human relations at Angel Mounds.

An example of an artifact photo, this one of an owl effigy pot (18-170-0).

This means each wall’s theme determines the contents of its cases, allowing us to get an idea of what artifacts would best explain and exemplify the theme. Once we selected the artifacts, we photographed them and wrote condition reports. These detail the current condition of the artifacts by noting breakage, cracks, and repairs. They allow us to keep track of where the artifact is and why it was removed from the collections. When we take the exhibit down, we’ll do another round of condition reports to see if anything changed.

3. Prepare Exhibit Cases

Repainting the exhibit cases took GBL staff several days of after-hours work.

Putting in a new exhibit required us to take out the old, Containing Knowledge: Ceramics at the GBL.” After doing the follow-up photos and condition reports, we returned the artifacts to our collections. Once we removed the old display blocks and the cases were empty, we spent several days cleaning and repainting them. This brightened the exhibit space and made the gallery look more inviting. Many artifacts are unable to stand on their own, so it was necessary to create mounts for them. We carved mounts out of foam and other materials on which to display them. The foam mounts were covered with a layer of fabric in between the material and the artifact, for both the safety of the artifact and to provide a contrasting background.

4. Research Collections and Write Text

Now it was time to write the text and select relevant images. Each case has four categories of labels: the Title (A), the Subheader (B), the Body Text (C), and the Artifact ID Labels (D). Defining the terminology of labels early on can prevent confusion later in the process, and make it easier to visualize the layout of the case before anything actually goes up. To write descriptions of the artifacts and their relevance to the theme, we utilize the collections and the resources in our library and archives.

5. Print Text/Images and Cut to Size

It took several hours to print each label, in addition to the time dedicated to trim and place them.

The next step was to print the text and images. This is a very time-consuming process, due to the size and amount of the various labels. We used the large printer over at our neighbor, the Mathers Museum, to print on Print-N-Stick paper, which has an adhesive backing that allows us to adjust the placement of the labels if necessary without damaging the paint in the cases.

6. Install Artifacts

During this step, timing is important since we can’t leave artifacts in unlocked cases. In most cases, the text was the first to go in. Then blocks or risers which elevated or raised the artifacts to needed heights were selected based on the artifact selection and case design. Artifacts and mounts, as well as barriers between artifacts and painted surfaces, were then added. Once the artifacts were in place, the case stays locked; so if text needed adjusting it was much easier to do that while the case was open and easily accessible.

7. Finishing Touches

Now it was time for last-minute touch-ups to labels and placement of any other artifacts. These included repairs to the overhead lights in the cases, and the erection of the folding wall in the middle of the hall, which displays shields from four tribes and descriptions of their histories, provided by the tribes themselves.

8. Sharing the Exhibit

Marketing the exhibit was an ongoing process throughout development and installation, but the main push came upon our opening in early October.

9. Events

An image from Cheryl Claassen’s talk.

Finally, to celebrate the opening of our exhibit, we threw events: on Thursday, Nov. 1, we had a talk by Dr. Cheryl Claassen, “On Deer, Shell Beads, and the Milky Way.” The following day, Friday, Nov. 2, we had a Themester panel, featuring Amanda Burtt, Dr. Claassen, Justin Downs, and Gary Morseau.

We learned a lot in the process of putting up this exhibit, and look forward to applying these new insights in the future. In the meantime, we hope you’ll come down to see the exhibit and celebrate Themester by attending some of the other great events on campus this semester!