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Characterization of structural changes in modern and archaeological burnt bone: Implications for differential preservation bias


Structural and thermodynamic factors which may influence burnt bone survivorship in archaeological contexts have not been fully described. A highly controlled experimental reference collection of fresh, modern bone burned in temperature increments 100-1200˚C is presented here to document the changes to bone tissue relevant to preservation using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction. Specific parameters investigated here include the rate of organic loss, amount of bone mineral recrystallization, and average growth in bone mineral crystallite size. An archaeological faunal assemblage ca. 30,000 years ago from Tolbor-17 (Mongolia) is additionally considered to confirm visibility of changes seen in the modern reference sample and to relate structural changes to commonly used zooarchaeological scales of burning intensity. The timing of our results indicates that the loss of organic components in both modern and archaeological bone burnt to temperatures up to 700˚C are not accompanied by growth changes in the average crystallite size of bone mineral bioapatite, leaving the small and reactive bioapatite crystals of charred and carbonized bone exposed to diagenetic agents in depositional contexts. For bones burnt to temperatures of 700˚C and above, two major increases in average crystallite size are noted which effectively decrease the available surface area of bone mineral crystals, decreasing reactivity and offering greater thermodynamic stability despite the mechanical fragility of calcined bone. We discuss the archaeological implications of these observations within the context of Tolbor-17 and the challenges of identifying anthropogenic fire.

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