Friday, March 8, 2013

'Wingnut' the archaeology cat

[** If you like this post, please make a donation to the IR&DD project using the button at the end. If you think it is interesting or useful, please re-share via Facebook, Google+, Twitter etc. **]

'Wingnut' in relaxed pose
I recently encountered the story of Migaloo, the black Labrador who has been trained to sniff out human bones several centuries old. Australian dog trainer Gary Jackson, owner of Multinational K9, has pulled off this remarkable feat and discovered a number of aboriginal graves in South Australia, and hopes to assist in the recovery of bodies from WWII battlefields in Europe. Inevitably, Migaloo is now being billed as ‘the world’s first archaeology dog’. I’m sure he is, and I’m very happy for him. However, it will come as no surprise to pet owners that cats got there first … and by quite a while!

When I was younger I did not particularly like cats – I had nothing against them, but I was definitely not ‘a cat person’. That was right up until I was introduced to Wingnut. My wife brought him home one day from a local animal shelter and he immediately set about being furry and cute - and instantly won my heart. In short order, this was followed by him first ridding our student accommodation of its rodent population, and then seeking out every mouse on the entire terrace. We, of course, knew that he was talented – he could form himself into all the various poses of an heraldic lion (rampant, passant, sejant, couchant, etc.) … well, until you took your hand away and he legged it. There was also talk of him starring in a fully-costumed, one-cat production of Les Misérables. Unfortunately, this plan was curtailed by my inability to sew, sing, or operate a video camera without being clawed. Ah! What might have been!

One day I was sorting some finds and, purely as a joke, I held up a piece of struck flint in one hand and a sherd of 19th century pottery in the other. I looked at the cat and asked: “Wingnut, which of these is older?” … he immediately went to the flint and rubbed his head against it – this cat knew his archaeology! Over the coming months the experiment was repeated multiple times with different artefacts and different questions – “which of these is younger” that type of thing. He never once got the answer wrong! This continued for quite some time, becoming something of a party trick and impressing all those who came in contact with it.

I think it was in late 2002, when I was monitoring topsoil stripping at a site in Toome Co. Antrim, I had a few bags of Late Mesolithic flint in the house when an acquaintance called. I showed him the flint to see if he could confirm my dating of the pieces. Somewhere along the way the conversation turned to the fact that, while his opinion was all very nice, it wasn’t necessary as I’d already had confirmation from the cat. I explained that I’d held up a piece of flint to Wingnut and asked: “Wingnut, is this Neolithic?”. He looked at the piece, but came no closer. When I asked: “Wingnut, is this Mesolithic?” he looked again. This time, however, he came up close, sniffed it and then signalled his assent by rubbing his head against it. My visitor was less than impressed and muttered darkly about bias in the sample, the cat taking slight facial cues from me to ‘choose’ the correct answer etc. “Nonsense”, says I … “try it yourself and see”. Once again we went through the tests of ‘which is older’, ‘which is younger’, ‘is this Bronze Age/Neolithic’ etc. Every time he got it completely correct. My visitor, angry and perplexed at his apparent inability to disprove my thesis, and the cat’s obvious talent, suggested a different question: could the cat tell the difference between a genuine artefact and a natural piece of flint. Picking up two pieces of flint, he held them up for feline inspection and asked: “Wingnut, which of these is a real artefact?”. I’d never tried this test, so I was on tenterhooks wondering which way this would go. In what feelt like a glacial expanse of time, the cat looked up, had a bit of a stretch, and sniffed both pieces of flint. My heart was hammering in my chest as he took a second look at both … and then stroked his head against the wrong one! … In that moment, my guest was elated and I devastated … but it is only for a moment as he immediately went to rub his head off the second piece of flint. He’d chosen both pieces, but this was little consolation to me and detracted in no way from the heinous glee of our cynical visitor – the cat was wrong and the 100% track record was shattered. Except … as he placed the two pieces of flint back on the arm of my couch, I notice something … I asked: “Er … that ‘natural’ piece you have there … is that not a bulb of percussion at that end … right beside the striking platform” … Yes, the cat had spotted what we had both missed – both pieces were genuine artefacts. 100% reputation restored!

Fantastic, marvelous Cat: 1
Self-proclaimed flint 'expert' (now with rage issues): 0.

Wingnut passed away in 2007 after a long illness. Typically, he survived for over two years after he’d been given six months to live by the vet, having been diagnosed with both kidney failure and FIV. I wish Migaloo no ill-will, and do not contest the title of ‘archaeology dog’. However, like the acknowledgement that Clément Ader achieved powered flight before the Wright brothers, I think it appropriate that this uniquely-talented feline be given the place he deserves in the annals of our discipline: 'Wingnut'  - the archaeology cat!

[** If you like this post, please consider making a small donation. Each donation helps keep the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates project going! **]

No comments:

Post a Comment