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.

Projects, Projects, Projects

March 6, 2017

by Maclaren Guthrie

It’s safe to say that the GBL has kept me busy since my last blog post, I’ve worked on quite a few new things after finishing with the newspaper clippings. I have done a lot of research recently about historical burial grounds and how to enter them into state site files, as well as the legal land record. This is so Liz Watts Malouchos, the GBL’s research scientist, and I can add a previously unrecorded historic cemetery to the state records.

In addition to that research, a lot of my time has been spent identifying point types using the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology’s extensive type collections. The points I am identifying are a part of my grandmother’s large collection of finds from all over Indiana. Fortunately for me, she wrote down where the points were found which makes it a lot easier for me to identify them. I am also using Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of the Midcontinental and Eastern United States by Noel D. Justice, the previous Curator of Collections at the GBL, to help me identify the points.

My favorite point in my grandmother’s collection.

My grandmother’s collection also includes some pottery that I am trying to learn more about. Specifically, a miniature vessel found near the Wabash River which Liz dated to the Mississippian period (1100 AD – 1400 AD), as well as some southwestern black on white and corrugated pottery from Hovenweep National Monument in Utah that was collected in the 1960’s.

Miniature Vessel, 1100 AD – 1400 AD

Old Newspaper Clippings

January 20, 2017

by Maclaren Guthrie

Newspaper clippings concerning Angel Mounds

As you may know, the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology is home to a large amount of information and different media stored in its archives. There are site records, maps, soil surveys, field notes, newspaper clippings, and more. For my project, I spent a few days looking through old Indiana State Site Files looking for old newspaper clippings about archaeology. In the archive, everything is sorted by county. So I had to go county by county recording how many newspaper clippings there were, what they were about, and any other notes I thought would be helpful later. My goal was to figure out if there is a difference in the public’s interest in and attitudes towards archaeology by comparing articles from the past to the present.

Since most of the articles in the archives are from the 1930’s, there are a fair amount of articles that mention the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and the work they did relating to archaeology. As part of the New Deal, WPA excavations were credited with uncovering some human remains, relics, and most notably for funding the Angel Mounds excavation in Evansville, Indiana. One clipping from February 1938 discussed that the Indiana WPA director John K. Jennings said that WPA crews could begin work at Angel Mounds in April. Another article shared that the WPA was going to finance the excavation at Angel Mounds with a $200,000 grant. Before looking at these articles, I hadn’t considered how good an investment archaeology was during the Great Depression. Archaeological excavations require lots of fieldwork and lab analysis, and all seemingly without developing a product. According to a newspaper article from December of 1938, the $200,000 WPA grant funded 50 to 100 otherwise unemployed men and women to work at Angel Mounds for 10 months.

There is also a large amount of newspaper clippings about members of the general public finding relics, features, or even remains. For example, in December 1938 a property owner found a burial while constructing a fence. There are many similar stories of residents finding and reporting sites and materials. There were also articles about people visiting sites, and in some cases getting injured while attempting to get a closer look at a discovery.

While reading all of the articles, I kept asking myself if archaeology is perceived the same way now as it was back then. The short answer is, I still don’t completely know. From these articles, it seems like people have always been interested to hear about someone digging up artifacts in their backyard, or just new discoveries in general. I did see that a lot of the articles were about finding or excavating remains or burial sites which doesn’t happen as often now, as laws and ethical codes governing the excavation of human remains have since been emplaced. These articles were collected over years, but I don’t see nearly as many articles about archaeology in the newspaper now as I saw represented in the archives. However, it is important to take into consideration the new methods of news and communication that weren’t available in the early 20th century, like online news, television, and social media. I may not have a solid answer to what I wanted to know yet, but looking through the archives has started me in the right direction.