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The term “sheep/goat” is used commonly by zooarchaeologists to refer to an archaeological specimen that cannot be identified as either coming from sheep or goat. Its use stems from the fact that the bones of sheep and goats can be very difficult to distinguish. This is particularly the case for archaeological specimens, which can be highly fragmented.

Specimens that zooarchaeologists identify as “sheep/goat” commonly occur in faunal assemblages comprised of domestic sheep (Ovis aries) and goats (Capra hircus). However, the difficulty in distinguishing sheep from goat pertains also to their wild progenitors, Ovis orientalis and Capra aegagrus. The similarities occur also with other species in the two genera.

The use of the term by zooarchaeologists does not imply ancient attempts at hybridization. It is merely a grouping of terms to facilitate zooarchaeological analysis and recording.  

Background: Sheep and goats have different dietary needs and social behavior, and they produce different products, necessitating different management strategies by humans. In spite of these differences, their bones and teeth are very similar morphologically. Distinguishing between the two taxa has been a long-recognized problem (see Cornevin and Lesbre, 1891) and many studies have attempted to define morphological landmarks and metrical approaches for making reliable identifications of sheep or goat specimens (see, for example Boessneck et al., 1964; Boessneck, 1970; Buitenhuis, 1995; Clutton-Brock et al., 1990; Helmer and Rocheteau, 1994; Hildebrand, 1955; Hole et al., 1969; Kratochvil, 1969; Payne, 1969; Prummel and Frisch, 1986; Schramm, 1967). Zeder and Lapham (2010) provide an excellent critique of many of the commonly-accepted historical distinction criteria, based on a rigorous test of these criteria on a large sample of known specimens of sheep and goats and present what they determine are the most reliable characteristics to distinguish between the two taxa. Beyond morphological and metrical distinctions, other approaches to reliably separating sheep from goats are being developed, such as collagen sampling, which though time-consuming, makes a 100% reliable species determination even with small bone fragments (Buckley et al 2010). Even so, most zooarchaeological assemblages still contain a large number of specimens identified as “sheep/goat.” A dedicated EOL page for “sheep/goat” facilitates integration and reuse of datasets that include specimens labeled with this term.

Research applications: The ubiquitous use of the term “sheep/goat” in zooarchaeology justifies the existence of a dedicated EOL page that describes this group that cannot be described using taxonomic nomenclature. Rather, the term is created to accommodate two taxa whose archaeological remains cannot be distinguished easily and, thus, must be described using a singular term that encapsulates both. As an example, the use of the EOL identifier for “sheep/goat” has helped link over 55,000 specimens in the large-scale data integration project undertaken by members of the Anatolia Zooarchaeology Working Group. Without this term, the research facilitated by EOL terms would have been impossible, as sheep/goat bones make up the majority of the specimens identified in all sites participating in the project. 

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© Sarah Kansa

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