Bones, of the animal variety, are a common find on historic archaeological sites in Christchurch. The vast majority of the bones we come across are sheep and cattle, with the occasional pig and chicken showing up as well. From these bones we are able to deduce the quality of diet of early Christchurch residents, with the different cuts of meat corresponding to different bones. If we have a faunal assemblage with lots of cow pelvises and rib bones, we know the people who threw the bones away were eating pretty well- lots of cuts of steak and roast beef. If we have lots of lower limb bones, like the tibia and fibula, or the radius and ulna, we know that dinner most likely consisted of beef soup or stew. As cuts of steak cost more than the shin and hock cuts, we are able to infer the wealth or status of certain occupants, all based on what bones they threw out.
Of course, we don’t just find the leftover bones from last nights dinner. Rats, rabbits and cats can all choose archaeological sites as their final places of rest- even horses! Recently, we found a bone that we had never seen before. It looked like a sheep metatarsal, but was definitely different. A little bit longer, a little bit slimmer, a little bit more gracile. We did some research and found the answer: it’s the left metatarsal of a deer!
The mystery bone: A Left Deer Metatarsal!
For those of you who aren’t experts in deer biology, the metatarsal is the rear lower leg bone. Image: adapted from Parfitt and Lister 2012: 422.
Having found this deer bone, we realised we didn’t know all that much about deer. When did they come to New Zealand? Were they introduced for eating? For shooting? For a fun and friendly pet? (it wasn’t the latter). Deer were primarily introduced into New Zealand between 1861 and 1919, however, they began to be imported into Auckland as early as 1851 (Drew 2008; Lyttelton Times 11/10/1851). Red deer were the most successful species introduced, but fallow deer, wapiti, sambar, sika, rusa, white-tailed deer and the fabled Fiordland moose were all brought to our shores (Drew 2008). The people behind the introduction of deer were the acclimatisation societies. We’ve talked about acclimatisation societies before on the blog. Essentially the Victorians thought New Zealand was a bit of a useless country when it came to wildlife (no large mammals, game, or fish) and decided to change it by introducing a heap of species.
There is perhaps no country in the world the natural zoology of which supplies so little to the subsistence or enjoyment of its inhabitants, as New Zealand. Of game there is almost none; quail, formerly plentiful, have nearly disappeared; pigeons and kakas are to be found only in the woods; ducks, eels and wild pigs complete the list. And if there are so few useful animals, those which add to the grace and enjoyment of life are scarcer still; of singing birds there are but the tui tui and the bell bird; neither of them ever heard, except in the neighbourhood of the forests…If, however, we turn from land to water, the inducements to engage in this enterprise are greater still. Our great snow rivers are absolutely without fish…At present, such rivers as the Waimakariri, the Rakaia or the Rangitata are worse than useless, obstructing travelling without assisting navigation.
The Canterbury Acclimatisation Society was found in 1864 and by 1866 they had made an enclosure in Hagley Park for deer to be kept in once they arrived off the boat. I just want to take a moment here and emphasise how difficult it must have been just getting the deer to New Zealand. They had to live on a boat, for at least 10 weeks, being kept calm so they didn’t injure themselves or anyone else. They also needed food for that length of time, and presumably at least a little bit of exercise. In addition to all of those struggles, the ship might be wrecked along the way (Press 04/01/1868).
The Canterbury Acclimatisation Society doesn’t seem to have had the best luck in obtaining deer, with lots of missed opportunities and failed attempts to secure them. When they did succeed in importing deer, it appears to have been in relatively small numbers- only one or two at a time. The deer were stored in the enclosure in Hagley Park before being released to farms in rural areas such as Culverden and Little River (Star 29/01/1874; Press 07/12/1881; Press 25/06/1884). The capturing of the deer from their enclosure didn’t always go smoothly. In 1874 the capturing of eight deer from the enclosure resulted in four being killed, one captured but unlikely to live, one escaping, one remaining in the enclosure, and one captured and healthy (Press 25/06/1874). Reading through the reports of the acclimatisation society it seems that deer in Canterbury were rare and there weren’t large ‘wild’ herds of deer like there were in other parts of the country.
Due to the lack of deer in Canterbury, fresh venison was extremely rare between the 1860s and 1880s. When fresh venison was available it appears to have been because a deer had been accidentally killed (like the accidental death of the four deer in 1874), and the mantra of ‘waste not want not’ applied. “the first four when found to be hopelessly gone were bled for venison. To put it mildly, it is to be regretted that so good an afternoon’s sport should have been had at such a sacrifice” (Press 25/06/1874).
Whenever these accidents happened, they were almost always followed by a butcher advertising fresh venison in the newspaper the next day.
The Lane Brothers appear to have been the prime butchery for obtaining venison, advertising it for sale in 1871 and 1876. In both years the meat came from deer belonging to the acclimatisation society.
Towards the late 1880s venison became more common, both in the form of canned ‘hashed’ venison (Press 28/12/1887) and fresh. With the successful introduction of deer to other parts of the country, along with improved refrigeration, there was a greater supply of fresh venison (Press 02/04/1888; Lyttelton Times 30/11/1888). It was not until the twentieth century that Canterbury’s deer population reached a high enough level to allow for hunting, with the first licenses for deer stalking in the Rakaia Gorge issued in 1907 (Press 16/04/1907).
So, what does all this mean for our deer bone? Well, our bone was found in the central city, within a layer of cultural material which we think dates to either the late 1860s or early 1870s. Based on those dates, it’s possible that our bone was from one of those early deer owned by the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society which was killed in an accident and then sold as venison. What’s even more interesting is that it’s a metatarsal, the part of the leg that was not eaten.
The haunch was the most common venison cut referred to in newspapers of the time (Press 19/05/1864). This meat cut consisted of the back leg, and presumably involved the pelvis, femur, and maybe the top end of the tibia. The tibia and fibula were likely served as a shank meat cut, but the meat surrounding the metatarsal was not eaten as there was not enough to be worthwhile. The bone may have been chopped up as a base for stocks or soups, but this is not the case with our bone as we found it whole and without butchery marks.
This may simply mean that when the carcass was butchered the lower legs were chopped off above the metatarsal and discarded. However, we thought that given the rarity of deer in New Zealand at the time, and how expensive the meat must have been, that this was a bit strange. Also, as far as we are aware, there wasn’t a butchers located near where the bone was found, and no other deer bone was found in the layer, making it seem unlikely that the bone’s disposal was just the butcher throwing away the unedible bones and meat parts.
So we did some research on uses of deer’s legs and feet and found that they were used for making bags. Called deer hock bags, these were made from the skin surrounding the metacarpal and metatarsal bones and took about four skins to make one bag. The skinning would leave the bone complete, like ours, and could explain why the metatarsal wasn’t associated with a butcher’s deposit. Alternatively, the fat and tissue surrounding the bone could be melted down for the making of glue. However, I’m assuming this would have some effect on the bone and so I don’t think this was the case.
Whatever the reason behind its discard, whether it be by butcher, tanner or glue maker, our deer bone has an interesting history to tell. Was our bone from a deer that was transported half way around the world only to die in an accident and have its meat served at the dining table of some wealthy individual and its skin turned into a bag? Possibly, and that’s archaeology for you folks.
Drew, K. 2008. “Deer and Deer Farming- Introduction and Impact of Deer.” Te Ara- the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved October 4, 2018 (https://teara.govt.nz/en/deer-and-deer-farming/page-1).
Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Parfitt, S. and Lister, A. 2012. ‘The Ungulates from the Peştera cu Oase’ in Erik Trinkaus, Silviu Constantin, Joco Zilhco (Eds.) Life and Death at the Pestera cu Oase: A Setting for Modern Human Emergence in Europe. OUP: USA.
Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz