Stockholm 2013 – conference review

Between 31st May and 2nd June 2013 over 40 delegates from across the globe met in a sunny Stockholm for the fifth meeting of the ICAZ Animal paleopathology working group. The title of the conference was ‘Patterns of skeletal pathology in wild and domestic animals in the past and present’ and as can be expected this broad theme attracted a diverse mix of zooarchaeologists, archaeologists and veterinary pathologists. Hosted by Ylva Telldahl the conference took place on the beautiful campus of Stockholm University, positioned on the eastern shore of lake Brunnsviken. The conference opened on Friday after a magnificent lunch (happily a constant for the conference) with an opening address by Richard Thomas. After a quick history of the ICAZ Animal Palaeopathology Working Group and its development, Richard discussed what would be a running theme throughout the conference: the need for better clinical focus and to understand the mechanics of pathology, so we can in turn understand the human causes. To do this we need to also understand pathology that is not caused by human action.


Fig 1. Example of the great lunch provided

After the opening address the rest of the afternoon was themed on cranial and dental pathology. This started with a paper presented by Thierry Argant on the spatio-temporal patterns of third molar absence and reduced hypoconulids in domestic cattle. Working with colleagues, Thierry collected a large dataset covering Neolithic to post-medieval sites from across Europe. Analysis suggests that third molar absence and reduced hypoconulids are most common in the Iron Age and Medieval periods, possibly due to small breeding groups. There were also differences noted between types of sites, for example rural Roman sites in southern France had 25% third molar absence compared to 5% in towns. Thierry also highlighted that presence and absence reporting was not consistent in the zooarchaeological community, which is a real problem for these kinds of studies. The next paper presented by Kristiina Mannermaa discussed dental attrition and pathology on the horses from an Iron Age burial site at Levänluhta in Ostrobothnia, Finland. Although known for its Iron Age human burials, a number of complete horse burials are also present. However, this project dated the horses to the medieval period. The dental attrition suggested that the horses were eating soft fodder, mostly leaves, rather then grasses. Ola Magnell presented the final paper of the day, on paleopathological changes identified on the canines of pigs and cattle lower limb bones from Iron Age Uppåkra, Sweden. This spectacular site included a 3rd-10th century AD ceremonial house which had been rebuilt at least seven times. Outside the house was a bone layer, which included deposits of weapons and disarticulated human remains. The majority of the animal remains were cattle, with pathological changes associated with traction. Pig remains were also present and the canines had evidence of constriction near the cemento-enamel junction and remodeled roots. It was suggested this could be be evidence of castration, perhaps to produce tastier meat (reduce boar-taint) and reduce aggression. However, it appears castration was relativity late in the animals’ development, this combined with the iconographic evidence of boar from the site led Ola to suggest the inhabitants might have wanted their pigs to look like boars.

The late afternoon consisted of practical session in the department’s excellent zooarchaeological laboratories. The delegates had great fun examining some of the pathological specimens on display, a particular highlight for me included a polar bear cub with rickets.

polar bear

Fig 2. Polar bear cub with rickets

The conference restarted on Saturday, which also happened to be the day of the Stockholm marathon. The morning at the conference was slightly less energetic allowing the delegates an opportunity to view the many excellent poster presentations. These ranged from domestic turkeys, Dexter cattle of known life history to pathology on ring seals from Chuckotka, Russia. After a quick pose for the conference delegates picture the rest of the morning and early afternoon papers were themed around post-cranial pathologies.

The papers started with Richard Thomas presenting on his research utilising a modern, feral herd of cattle from Chillingham, United Kingdom, to examine pathology that occurs in an unmanaged population. The results suggested head to head fighting produced fractures on the cervical vertebra and there was evidence of side impact fractures on the ribs. The pathological index of the Chillingham herd had similar values to prehistoric and Anglo-Saxon assemblages from Britain. Richard did not observe a single example of osteoarthritis, only one cow had stage 3 lesions and no stage 4’s were present. Data from unmanaged herds can therefore be used to exclude age-affected bones, such as the third phalanx from the pathological index. The research also showed that proximal lipping on most foot elements and osteoarthritis were not correlated with age. The next paper by the conference’s excellent host, Ylva Telldahl, continued the cattle theme. Ylva presented on the cattle remains from Eketop ring fort, southern Öland, Sweden. A large number of metacarpals and metatarsals from the site had been x-rayed to examine the correlation between age, sex and the density of the bones. No high-density values were noted with distal broadening of the metapodials. This led to an interesting discussion regarding how taphonomy could affect density values in the archaeological record. The final paper of the morning was by Pam Cross who presented an overview of horse pathology. A human osteologist by training, Pam reminded the audience that human osteology had a wealth of literature on pathology, and emphasised that there confusion remains in both the zooarchaeological and human remains literature between developmental changes and pathology.

After an excellent lunch the papers started again with Torstein Sjøvold, presenting research comparing archaeological and feral horses. Torstein’s paper drew attention to fractures in ossified costal cartilage. Over 100 archaeological specimens in the Norwegian natural history museum had healed costal cartilage fractures and these may be associated with the use of a girth on the horses. ICAZ president László Bartosiewicz presented a paper on the archaeological evidence of the ‘puntilla’ in large livestock. After some vivid descriptions of the varied ways of killing animals including the use of a small knife, the puntilla in Spanish bull fighting, László highlighted cut marks on the left side of the axis as possible evidence of the use of a puntilla like knife. This would require docile domestic animals, or for the animal to be very tired. This could represent an over-looked method of slaughter and similar marks need to be systemically sought and recorded. Unfortunately, Anne Hufthammer was unable to make the conference so Fay Worley stepped in and presented a paper on the pathology of sheep used in the English Heritage Medieval Wool Project. This is a population of 356 sheep all of known age, sex and environment. The sample examined for pathology showed a high number of rib fractures (16% of individuals), which is likely to be due to butting behavior. There was a correlation between age and fracture frequency and those sheep raised on a low nutrition plan were more likely to have fractures present. The majority of fractures were on the 9th and 10th ribs, due to the exposure of that area. Like Thomas’s paper this highlighted the need to understand pathology caused without human intervention, it also shows that trauma does not indicate human abuse.

After a quick tea and coffee break the papers continued with Erika Gál’s research on the pathology recorded from a number of early Bronze Age sites in south-west Hungary. Dental anomalies were noted from a number of species including cattle, pig and dog. Wild mammal pathologies were also present including a wild boar with a fractured fourth metacarpal. This was followed by Diane Warren presenting research on 328 dog burials, most single burials from sites in North America. Vertebral osteophytes were noted and could be associated with dogs being used to carry packs. Tooth fractures increased in later periods, possibly due to a diet change with more bone in the dog’s diet, perhaps due to a change in their status. This was followed by my own paper which presented research into the paleopathological records from Roman London. The research involved the synthesis of faunal datasets from 112 excavations and resulted in the collection of 770 pathological records of which 590 were usable. The paper highlighted the many problems with synthesizing pathological data, especially the way information is recorded. Most of the pathology was present on domestic animals with roe deer and ravens bucking the trend. Dental anomalies, mainly tooth absence, were the commonest pathology amongst domestic taxa, with the exception of chickens and dogs where trauma was common. The final paper by Annelise Binois concerned the identification of epizootic disease. Previously Annelise trained and worked as a vet and she brought a number of interesting points to the audiences’ attention; in particular, the case history approach and the importance of profiling disease by age, sex, breed, geography and season. These methods were applied to a deposit of sheep from the Paris region, consisting of a pit with 18 complete carcasses dating to the early 18th century. The taphonomic information showed this deposit occurred in a single event and the metrics suggested it was a single population of the same breed, possibly the same flock. After skillfully steering the audience though the different possibilities and diseases, it was suggested that anthrax was the likeliest causes.


Fig 3. The delegates being lead around Birka by a Viking

The day was rounded off by the conference dinner in a Viking restaurant. After an excellent meal of reindeer heart, wild boar and elk, a Viking drinking horn competition between Torstein and László, along with much merriment, rounded off the evening. Sunday was a time for the many discussions to continue informally as we were led on an excellent excursion to the Viking city of Birka. This was a highly enjoyable conference and special praise must go to Ylva Telldahl, for organising such an enjoyable event. The conference was best summed up by László at the conference dinner when discussing the importance of the working groups to ICAZ. These smaller scale informal conferences allow ideas to be discussed, contacts made and community bonds strengthened within a friendly and supportive environment.

James Morris
University of Central Lancashire.

One thought on “Stockholm 2013 – conference review

  1. Pingback: Conference review – Stockholm 2013 | Animal Palaeopathology Working Group (APWG)

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