The Archaeozoological Collection is mainly researching pre- and protohistory of domestic animals and stock-farming. It deals among others with the history of domestication and of wildlife during the last 10 millenia. Therefore it is an institution involving several disciplines, such as zoology, the science of domestic animals, palaeontology and, above all, pre- and protohistory. The bulk of investigations is carried out on behalf of archaeological institutions. Essential conclusions of archaeological research rely on natural sciences, archaeozoological results being among them.
Archaeological zoology, shortly archaeozoology or osteo-archaeology, primarily obtains its results by scrutinizing animal bones unearthed by archaeologists. In most cases bone refuse, abundant in many pre- or protohistoric settlements, usually split up into pieces, is the only material to work with. Exceptionally more or less complete skeletons of animals can be found. Also prehistoric burial sites regularly yield not only human but also animal bones from food offerings. Now and then even entire skeletons are recovered, when animals had been interred along with the deceased.
In any case analyzing the finds first requires determination of the bone fragments. As far as possible investigations bear upon species, sex, age of individuals, size, shape, pathologic symptoms and traces from carving. It is also important to distinguish wild and domestic forms of a species. All that allows conclusions to be drawn on the history of faunas, domesticates and economics.
The three parts of the scientific collection are important instruments to accomplish the research tasks of the Archaeozoological Collection:
Because determination of bone fragments cannot be achieved by identification keys as used for recent animals, the osteological reference collection is the most important tool for everyday work. A great many finds have to be classed by directly matching them with those objects. To this purpose nearly all mammals known to be of archaeological interest in Central Europe are represented, anatomically classed, in rows of single bones - a clear arrangement, which facilitates practical work. Additionally there are also some of the more common bird species at disposal. As far as possible each species is documented by specimens of different size and age, males and females, feral and domestic forms and so on. For bone finds out of the scope of this collection others are consulted. As the reference collection is permanently in use by own staff, loans are possible only in exceptional cases.
Skull collections of old domestic native breeds are internationally rare. Few indeed are the similar aggregations to excel that of Adametz: some 1,300 skulls of large domestic mammals gathered by Prof. Leopold Adametz, who held the professorship of animal husbandry at the College of Agriculture in Vienna . He not only tried to get exemplary records for the morphology of each breed, but also enabled an overview of variations within a given breed by establishing craniological series. The collection served mainly as basis for studies on comparative morphology about the phylogeny of livestock breeds. Adametz was far ahead of his time, when he attributed important genetic potential to ancient breeds, often adapted through centuries to local ecological conditions - a potential increasingly underestimated by modern animal breeding, interested in sole profits. It was only with many difficulties that Adametz's collection, regarded as worthless meanwhile, could be saved from annihilation in 1976 and handed over to the Natural History Museum, where it serves as highly important reference material for the Archaeozoological Collection. Only nowadays, after the extinction of numerous old breeds, Adametz's ideas are esteemed as highly up-to-date.
In so far as the animal bones had not to be handed back to other institutions, all the animal bone samples treated as yet by the Archaeozoological Collection are sorted and stored in an accessible way. For this purpose the collection uses a system of standardised cardboard boxes with insertable partitions. This allows even huge finds with thousands of bone fragments to be kept in basic systematic and anatomical order. These are preserved in the storage cellar of the museum. Because they are easy of access, it is possible to directly compare different samples. So questions arising later on, for instance about the distribution in space and time of certain forms and characters, may be dealt with independently from their previous identification and treatment.
By now the collection houses material from about 500, mainly Austrian localities and consists of over 800,000 items, most of them already identified. The great mass derives from recent excavations. Only a minor part was taken over from the holdings of the Prehistoric Department of the museum, dating from older excavations. Two sets originating from Austria , but treated in Munich , were handed over to the collection by the Institute of Palaeoanatomy in Munich . The amount of items of each sample varies greatly, from just one to several thousand pieces. Chronologically they cover a time span from the palaeolithic period to the 20th century. The bulk of the material is neolithic and Roman respectively, but most of the Austrian cultures and time levels are documented.