Cow & Pig & Sheep, Oh My

Dessa Lightfoot arranges animal bones for photography.

By Esther White / Director of Archaeology

This week we had more exciting updates from the specialists analyzing components of the midden assemblage.  We were visited by William and Mary Ph.D. student Dessa Lightfoot.  Dessa is studying zooarchaeology and is working with Joanne Bowen, Colonial Williamsburg’s Curator of Zooarchaeology.  Dessa’s passion is understanding how the thousands of animal bones recovered archaeologically can inform not just about diet but specifically about cuisine – how food was prepared and presented on the tables of 18th-century colonial Virginians.  Dessa is analyzing the midden’s domestic animal bones (cow, pig and sheep) along with lots of other archaeological sites to answer these questions.  Dessa spent two days with us and presented some of her findings thus far and we photographed many examples of these bones to use on the future website.

These three bones articulate, showing how the butcher chose to break the long bones rather than at the joint.

Dessa told us that the domestic faunal remains (animal bones) from the South Grove Midden are cool for several reasons.  They have a high degree of articulation – which means that many of them “go together” or mend.  The articulation allows Dessa to see how these animals were butchered and in many ways to get a good idea of which cuts of meat – shoulders, joints, heads – were presented on the Washingtons dining table.

Dessa also showed us all kinds of marks on the bones that she’s analyzing to better understand butchery practices in the 18thcentury and how these differ from other cut marks, like those made at a table when carving a piece of meat.  She’s also found some marks which are a mystery, and she’s interpreting those as marks left by people who were learning how to butcher an animal.

This is one of the marks Dessa's interpreting as evidence for learning how to butcher an animal.


Finally, she presented some of her data that are helping her understand which animals were eaten and what this might mean.  This research is ongoing, but she has seen a slight decrease in beef between the 1750s and 1760s and an increase in both pork and mutton during the same period.  This seems to be slightly different than what she’s seeing from other Virginia sites during this period.  We know that George Washington was very interested in increasing his sheep and pig and it is possible that this is a reflection of his larger animal husbandry practices.

This pig skull is another example of the excellent preservation and mending of the South Grove Midden.

It was great to spend some time talking with Dessa about her research and how it translates into a better understanding of what was presented on George and Martha Washington’s dining table and how this reflects the larger patterns on the plantation.  We got some excellent photographs and we’re really looking forward to incorporating the faunal report into the South Grove Midden website.

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