If you got a fragment, yo I’ll sort it

Apologies to Vanilla Ice.

There are around 206 bones in the adult human body. However, one of the joys* of working with prehistoric human remains is that taphonomy, mortuary practices and several thousand years worth of soil pressure all unite to produce a high degree of fragmentation of osteological material. As a result, when identifying and cataloguing archaeological human remains you’re likely to come across a vast number of fragments, some of which can’t be identified to a more specific level than “cranial vault fragment” or “large long bone fragment”. When you’re dealing with bags and bags of broken bones, it helps to have a strategy for quantifying and describing such fragments rapidly, so you can spend more time focusing on fun things like dentition, carpals, or your much anticipated daily trip to the little store across the street for a can of Coke Zero (that will remain ice cold for approximately 30 seconds, because this is Spain). Below, I outline my strategy for dealing with unidentifiable or ‘barely identifiable’ fragments, and include some practical tools that you can use when collecting data!

*Re: My use of the word “joy”


Fragment Size Sorting Circles: Don’t leave home without them.

In my research, I use a variation of the “zonation” method for recording fragments, a  personal hybrid of Knüsel & Outram’s 2004 method and Stodder & Osterholtz’s 2010 refinement thereof. Importantly, Knüsel and Outram underscore that when using their method: “All fragments, including those fragments that cannot be assigned to either element or taxon, are assigned to a fragment size category. The size categories are based on maximum dimension and are as follows: 0-20mm, 21-30mm, 31-40mm, 41-50mm, 51-60mm, 61-70mm, 71-80mm, 81-90mm, 91-100mm and 100+mm. In order to facilitate rapid recording, circles can be drawn on paper with a compass such that individual fragments can be placed within them to determine the category in which they belong. Counting can be done manually, or for large groups, with finger-operated mechanical counters” (Knüsel & Outram 2004: 87).

Here, I use a literary device known as

Here, I use a literary device known as “foreshadowing” to give you a hint as to how I feel about drawing compasses.

I have no idea what “finger-operated mechanical counters” are (some kind of Spanish Inquisition style torture device, by the sound of it), but before starting dissertation data collection I latched on to the idea of fragment sorting circles. “I’ll buy a compass!” I thought to myself excitedly. “This will be great fun! It will be like middle school art class or geometry all over again!”, conveniently forgetting my underwhelming performance in both of those subjects. A frustrating half an hour later, my redoubtable labmate Caroline grew tired of watching my increasingly theatrical and profanity-laced struggles with the cheap plastic drawing compass, and suggested I simply make the circles in Microsoft Word. Once she taught me how to set the size of an object in Office, I quickly made up a two-page sheet of sorting circles (Sidebar: I am apparently incapable of doing anything on my own. I’m concerned that soon my friends will get to the stage where they throw their hands in the air in exasperation, put me in a round room, and tell me to go find a corner). After printing out the circles, I had them laminated so that they could be reused all summer long without needing to be reprinted. Lamination also allows you to use the size sorting circles as sort of fragment funnel – you can just slide the bones into their bag when you’re done cataloguing them.

Once you have your size-sorting circles, the method is as follows. Identify your bone fragments to your requisite (or feasible)  level of specification – in my case this normally results in “long bone fragments”, “epiphyseal fragments”, “cranial fragments” and “general fragments”. Then:

Step 1: Sort the fragments into size categories;

Step 2: Count all fragments in a given size category;

Step 3: Weigh all fragments for each size category.

I only enter one row of data per category of fragment, and I’ve found that a column set-up like the one outlined below makes it easy to organize the counts for all ten different size categories as well as the weights of the affiliated bones, without making my spreadsheet too ridiculous. And BOOM. Your fragments have become data.

So that’s how I’ve been handling inventorying and cataloguing unidentifiable fragments during my first season of dissertation data collection. I’d be really interested to hear what strategies other bioarchaeologists use to deal with this issue. Thoughts anyone? I’ve also attached a Word and pdf version of my fragment size sorting circles, in case anyone else wants to use them for data collection. Happy sorting!

Fragment Size Sorting Circles.docx

Fragment Size Sorting Circles.pdf

Addendum: Thanks to Anna Waterman and Anna Osterholtz for their initial advice on the use of the zonation method.


ResearchBlogging.orgKnüsel, Christopher J., & Outram, Alan K. (2004). Fragmentation: The Zonation Method Applied to Fragmented Human Remains from Archaeological Contexts Environmental Archaeology, 9, 85-97 DOI: 10.1179/146141004790734513

A.L.W Stodder and A.J. Osterholtz. 2010. “Analysis of the Processed Human Remains from the Sacred Ridge Site: Methods and Data Collection Protocol.”  In E. Perry, A.Stodder, C. Bollong (eds.) Animas-La Plata Project. Vo. XV-Bioarchaeology. SWCA Anthropological Research Paper Number 10, pp. 243-278.

Original image of drawing compass found here: 1

This entry was posted in Equipment, Fragmentary Remains and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to If you got a fragment, yo I’ll sort it

  1. Pingback: Pack your bags: equipment you’ll need for bioarch data collection | Bone Broke

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