Ewan Chipping a PhD student at The University of York visited Wessex Archaeology as part of his research. Ewan is researching aurochs and cattle in the UK looking at skull shape changes over time in relation to evolution and ecology. He visited Wessex to meet with Senior Zooarchaeologist Lorrain Higbee, so that he could gain access to our animal bone collection which includes an aurochs horn and cranium.
The research topic came about due to Ewan’s interest in cattle, he noticed how the animal have a clear connection to the human past and views the animal as ‘integral and entwinned in the human story’. Though he is not from a farming background he does originate from Norfolk, where he grew up in an agricultural landscape.
Availability of aurochs skulls for study has been surprisingly good; Ewan has had double the number he initially thought he would have access to. He estimates by the end of his research he will have recorded between 30−40 skulls. Another positive for Ewan has been the variation in skulls both spatially and temporally, which will allow him greater analysis. One problem he has faced though is that many of the skulls are unstratified which makes absolute dating harder, however often they can still be dated to broad periods such as the Holocene or Pleistocene.
Ewan is using non-destructive recording methods called geometric morphometrics and finite element analysis, both require surface scans/3D models of the skulls to run the analysis. To create the 3D models he is using several methods including photogrammetry and surface scanning. The recording methods measure absolute shape changes and stress/strain in bones when moving. It is hoped this research will establish a new line of zooarchaeological inquiry able to assess complex variation in animals through the scientific methods he is using that are often elusive. Ewan gained knowledge of these recording methods through his lecturer Dr Phil Cox, and is based within the Hull York Medical School at York so has had exposure to other disciplines which are already using this technology.

Ewan’s PHD is a great example of the ever-changing research methods in archaeology and the importance of maintaining reference collections and archival material for future study, as a new method is often just around the corner.
Ewan Chipping’s PhD is likely to be completed within the next couple of years, so keep an eye out for his research.
To discover more about aurochsen take a look at our information page.