An Experimental Approach to Understanding Burnt Fish Bone Assemblages within Archaeological Hearth Contexts

  • Martina Steffen University of Victoria; Royal BC Museum
  • Quentin Mackie University of Victoria


The Richardson Island site, an early Holocene site located in Haida Gwaii, has produced an extensive lithic assemblage. The faunal assemblage from this highly stratified, raised beach site is derived from the contents of several hearth features and consists predominately of burnt fish bone. Compared to a roughly contemporaneous faunal assemblage from the nearby site of Kilgii Gwaay, the Richardson Island site has produced a paucity of large individuals for several common fish taxa – in particular, Sebastes sp. This paper describes an experimental approach to understanding the nature of the Richardson Island fish assemblage. Experimental burning of fish bones in a controlled laboratory setting and in simulated hearths was conducted to determine how the size, survivorship, and identifiability of fish elements would be affected by exposure to high temperatures and fire. The controlled burning of rockfish elements resulted in an average reduction in size of nine percent as well as the eventual disintegration of all otoliths. The experimental hearths illustrate the taphonomic complexity involved in the formation of burnt fish bone assemblages and in the quantification and interpretation of fish remains from hearth contexts.

Author Biographies

Martina Steffen, University of Victoria; Royal BC Museum
Department of Anthropology
Quentin Mackie, University of Victoria
Department of Anthropology
Feature Article/Compte-rendu