We here at Trowbridge Museum thought it would be a brilliant idea to give people a bit of an insight in to what goes on behind the scenes of running a museum. We all have this picture in our head of what we think happens but want to show you what things are really like when you work in a museum. So it is with great pleasure that I introduce you to our latest series of blog posts: A day in the life!
For our first post we have selected Kathy, one of our new museum assistants. This past week we had a visit from a post-doctorate researcher at Exeter University, Dr Kate Kanne, who is working on the Warhorse Project, (for more information, follow this link and check out the brilliant work they have been doing https://medievalwarhorse.exeter.ac.uk/). Dr Kanne had heard about the horse bones found at the Trowbridge Castle dig site, from just outside the Home Mills building in the 1980’s, and was very interested to examine the bones and take samples for testing. The day of the visit was a busy but very interesting day for Kathy!
‘I started off my day quite early, it is a two hour drive from Exeter University so Dr Kanne would be arriving early to maximise her time. There were around 50 boxes of assorted animal bones to sort through to find the ones she needed. We needed a big space to work in and the Research Library lent itself perfectly for this task.
The first step was making sure the library itself was set up so we cleared the chairs from the conference table and put down some Tyvek to protect the table. Tyvek is flashspun high-density polyethylene fibre synthetic material which allows water vapour, but not water liquid to pass through. It is pH neutral, waterproof and chemical resistant so is great to protect both the table surface and the objects that are being examined. We also laid out some foam blocks to make a softer surface to lay out the bones being examined.
Once the library was set up the next job was to bring down the boxes of bones from the archaeology store room – there was some 50+ boxes so Hannah, the other museum assistant, and I decided we would bring them down in batches throughout the day so we actually would have room to walk in the library! With the boxes down there was time to grab a quick cup of tea before Dr Kanne arrived and we could get going with our bone hunt.
The search could now begin! Dr Kanne is an expert in her field, as she is a lecturer when not digging in boxes for horse bones. She was very happy to teach me lots about the the project; horse osteology and the historical context of many of the digs she has examined bones from. We are very lucky to have a book in our library published by Wessex Archaeology all about the dig which includes details of the various finds from both the 1977 and the 1980’s digs. It was such a fascinating book, I went searching high and low on the internet to get my hands on a copy! We used the book to aid us in our search for some very specific bones – the metapodial, the astragalus, the calcaneus and the teeth.
For those of you, like myself, who would like to know more about horse anatomy, here is a quick lesson: Metapodial is the umbrella term for the bones in the hands (metacarpals) and feet (metatarsals) in humans or the equivalent in animals. For quadrupeds like horses with no real anatomical difference to define a hand or a foot, metapodial is the term used. The astragulus (or tarsus bone in humans) and the calcaneus are two of the bones which form the ankle, in horses the true ankle is actually what we would think of as there knee if we were to look at a horse. Anatomy lesson over with so lets get back to the hunt!
Hannah, our other museum assistant, studied Biological Anthropology at university and actually took modules in osteology and zooarcheaology so was familiar enough with the bones to aid Dr Kanne in her hunt. We found lots of teeth perfect for isotope analysis and DNA tests to help determine where the horses originated from. Lots of ‘baby’ teeth were found which suggests that it is likely horses were bred on site as well as horses being brought in as adults. We also found an abundance of astragulus bones which will undergo geomorphometric analysis to help determine the size of the horse. We found no calcanei and only one metapodial which was a disappointment but still gave Dr Kanne lots to work with. We found a few very interesting bones though, including a truly mammoth phalanx (the equivalent of the small bones of the finger). The picture below shows a normal sized phalanx at the bottom and this large phalanx on the top!
Dr Kanne was kind enough to do a little maths for us before she left and she aged one of the teeth for us and revealed that the horse it belonged to was likely around the aged of 9-10 at the the time of its death. The bones are being sent for analysis as soon as possible and we will be getting results in the coming months. We really look forward to being able to share these results with you as soon as we can! We helped pack away the last of the boxes and sent Dr Kanne off with a box of teeth and toes for research and now the less glamourous part of my job begins – cleaning! Hannah and I returned the boxes of bones to the store room, playing box Tetris as we went. I am always baffled by how boxes fit when you got them down but when you put them back you always seem to end up with two boxes left and nowhere for them to fit! Once the boxes were away neatly, the library table stripped of it dirty Tyvek and the floor swept we were able to lock up the library and close up the museum for the day. It was a long day but it was a brilliant one!