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Written by: Elizabeth Moore
Tuesday September 9, 2014


The skeleton reference collection in the VMNH archaeology department contains over 200 partial or complete skeletons of a variety of animals found in Virginia. Much of this skeleton collection was prepared here at the museum using road kill, donations from hunters, and donations from people who have outdoor cats that hunt and bring their prey home. This collection is used to aid in the identification of animal bones and bone fragments found in archaeological deposits. VMNH Curator of Archaeology, Dr. Elizabeth Moore, does most of her research using animal remains from archaeological sites and a reference collection is critical to accurate identifications.

Because archaeological sites cover the range of time that includes the first inhabitants of the state to the 20th century, we must be prepared to identify any native or introduced animals, including domesticated animals raised for meat. Several projects in the archaeology lab are from historic sites dating to the late 1700s and contain a lot of cow and pig bones. We did not have a pig skeleton in the reference collection, a problem when trying to differentiate pig from other animal bones. Skeletons can be purchased from companies who prep them for museum use but a prepared and cleaned pig skeleton could easily cost over $1000. Our solution? Hold a pig roast.  For a fraction of the cost of a prepared skeleton, we were able to purchase a whole pig from Prillaman’s Meat Market  in Martinsville (thank you Prillaman’s). The pig was roasted (thank you Sarah Myler and Jeff Benesch for hosting the event), the VMNH staff and families made a pretty big dent in the pile of pork, and the skeleton was brought to the museum for processing.

Once at the museum, the skeleton was placed in the museum’s dermestid colony.

Dermestids work on the pig skull.

Dermestids eat the flesh from the bones. The bones were then removed from the beetle colony and placed in hydrogen peroxide to remove any remaining grease and whiten the bones. What you can see in the video is what it looks like when you pour hydrogen peroxide over cleaned bones. We use hydrogen peroxide from a pharmacy; it’s the same strength you can find in a first aid kit. It bubbles and cleans greasy residue from the bone surface. When the bones are clean, we wash them with water and they get placed in the skeleton collection.

Tags: Archaeology, Dr. Elizabeth Moore, Identification, Research and Collections