Roe Deer Stone Tool Butchery

***WARNING: this post contains images/videos of a roe deer carcass in various stages of butchery***


As part of the Experimental Archaeology masters course at the University of Exeter students have the opportunity to skin and butcher the carcass of a Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) using stone tools, and this year I asked to come along to watch. A large part of my PhD thesis involves mapping and analysing butchery marks on animal bones from the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik culture, but I had never seen in real life what it was like to butcher a carcass. I thought that it would be highly beneficial for me to better understand the circumstances in which certain butchery marks occur and to gain actualistic experience of how much human effort went into different butchery techniques. While getting up-close and personal with long dead and flesh-free animal bones is right up my street I wasn’t sure how I would react to a carcass, being something of a fainter in my youth!

The Briefing

Part of the stone toolkit

We arrived at half past nine in the experimental lab. Professor Bruce Bradley, one of the department’s (and indeed, the World’s) leading experimental archaeologists, briefed us on the carcass and methods we would be using that day. The carcass, not killed specifically for the experiment but purchased on the open market, had been hanging for several days after the viscera, head and feet had been removed. We would be using a ‘standard stone toolkit’ rather than one specific to a certain culture, which had been knapped by Professor Bradley. It should be noted that while Professor Bradley is an old hand at butchering carcasses, all the experimental students (and myself!) were certainly not professional butchers. This would likely result in more heavy-handed butchery and more noticeable butchery marks on the bones.

Hanging and Skinning

Hanging the carcass

The deer carcass was suspended from a beam in the outdoor experimental space. Rope was fed through the Achilles tendon on each hind limb, hanging the carcass upside down so it could be easily worked on. While we originally thought that the deer was female from its lack of antlers we soon discovered that it was decidedly male through skinning it. Beginning at the end of the hindlimb the skin was peeled back, using lithic blades to separate the skin from the membrane covering the muscles (meat!) underneath. All students were given the opportunity to have a go, including me! I was really surprised how easy it was to remove the skin with only minimal sweeping motions with the stone tools. We worked down the legs and carcass towards the midsection and forelimbs. Eventually, with four people working on the carcass at once, the skin was removed as one piece and put to one side. The deer now looked a lot more like ‘meat’ rather than an animal. The process of hanging and skinning the animal probably took just over 2 hours in total.

Skinning the carcass
The hide of the animal has been successfully removed

Disarticulation and Portioning

After a short break we returned to the deer carcass to disarticulate the major carcass portions. The forelimbs were first removed by cutting carefully underneath the scapula. They were removed as one entity including scapula, humerus, radius and ulna (and would have involved carpals and metacarpals had they not been already removed). This process did not involve cutting any bones.

The loin, tenderloin and flank were then removed from the midsection, which did involve a scrape along the ventral surface of the lateral spines of the lumbar vertebrae. These meat portions did not need further butchery. The thorax (including the ribs and the vertebral column) was then disarticulated from the hindquarter, including the sacrum, pelvis, and hind leg bones. All these carcass portions were then taken inside and placed on the (disinfected) table in the experimental lab. The disarticulation took just over 20 minutes.

Removing the loin, tenderloin and flank and separating the thorax from the hind quarters.

Further Disarticulation and Muscle Stripping

For the fore and hindlimb Professor Bradley demonstrated the butchery on one leg and then supervised a student on the other side. The forelimb was subject to some heavy butchery around the elbow joint in an attempt to remove the lower leg (radius and ulna) from the humerus, which proved much more difficult than I had imagined and resulted in audible scraping of the bones. When disarticulated the meat from the humerus was cut off in a sheath, leaving the bone largely defleshed. The hindlimb was removed from the pelvis and similarly affected by some heavy butchery in removing the tibia from the femur (and patella) due to the strength of the ligaments. Once the majority of the connective tissue was removed the leg was ‘cracked’ to dislocate the knee joint. The Achilles tendon was removed and ended up attached to the meat removed from the femur. This meat was removed from the femur as a whole, leaving the femur, like the humerus, largely meat free.

On the thorax, the sinews running along the length of the vertebral column were removed and dried. The ribs were ‘popped’ off the vertebral column on one side, but due to the small size of the animal it was much more difficult to pop off the other side. In the end the ribs were somewhat cracked on the other side in an attempt to remove them. The neck (cervical vertebrae) was removed largely by twisting and pulling this part of the vertebral column. Portioning of this carcass element was largely accomplished without the use of stone tools.

Sinews, forehindlimb
Sinews from the vertebral column (left) and butchery of the forelimb (top right) and hindlimb (bottom right).


Drying out the femurs and humeri

I would like to thank the experimental archaeology students and Professor Bradley for letting a humble, slightly squeamish zooarchaeologist be involved in their butchery lesson. On a personal level I was pleasantly surprised at my lack of any light headedness, save some shuddering as elements were ‘cracked’ apart, which was shared by the seasoned experimental students! As a result of my presence I was given the disarticulated bones to entirely deflesh so I could look at the butchery marks. It is hoped that eventually we will have a whole roe deer carcass with a record of exactly how it was butchered to contribute to the zooarchaeological reference collection at the University of Exeter.


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