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How it's done: Stages 7-9

Stage 7: Stable isotopes

Darren and Brian are excited about getting the bone and teeth samples. Did we mention, Darren has five border collie dogs in his home pack - we aren't jealous at all....!

Both Darren and Brian are our pack geochemists working with stable isotopes -  chemical signatures locked in animal bones, hair and skin, which allow us to understand what that animal has been eating. If you were to grind a human up in a huge blender you would find that they are made of tiny atoms of many different elements, each of these atoms came from the food they eat or water they drink. We use these istopes (atomic profiles) to learn about where different animals got their atoms, and that is what we will be doing with the dogs and wolves.


Brian and Darren will work closely to measure isotopes of several different elements, which will tell us whether the atoms in dog and wolf bones are similar to other Irish and British animals or whether they might have come from somewhere else. We will also explore what these dogs and wolves were eating while they prowled the urban centres and the countryside.

Ratio of N and C stable isotopes and different animals showing different values according to their diets on a graph
A misty landscape with a few trees in fog with a herd of horses and a flock of birds flying in the sky
A scientist drilling into a piece of bone carefully. A close up photograph of the action. Bone powder dust is seen coming off the bone from the drilling. A gloved scientist's hand is holding the bone sample
a stylised model of the DNA helix

Stage 8: Ancient genomics

Genomics is the study of the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes - the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a living thing.


Pontus and his excellent researchers all work in a highly sterile room to prevent cross-contamination with other animal samples - even themselves! They wear protective full head-to-toe body suits, shoe and head (hair) covers, gloves, and face masks. This is to ensure their own DNA doesn’t contaminate the samples. State-of-the-art machines are in his lab. 

Pontus and his team carefully drill into the tooth or ear bone (petrosal) and remove a tiny sample which they put into specific solutions to extract the preserved ancient DNA.

The ancient DNA is then "sequenced” via robotic automation (we said it was state-of-the-art). Sequencing determines the order of the four chemical building blocks - called "bases" - that make up the DNA molecule. A sequence tells scientists the kind of genetic information that is carried in a particular DNA segment. The team generate 2-5 million sequences initially and we can determine if the dog was male or female at this stage. 

Further highly detailed analyses are completed over a three-year period - population level results, are any dogs related to each other, are there wolf-dog hybrids present, and other results will be available. It will be worth the long wait for this deep dive into the dogs' ancient DNA sequences!

Stage 9: Archaeological research

Alan, Paul, Steven, Muireann, Dave, Shane, John and Ruth will be researching published material on the various archaeological sites, including the site Director's reports (Alan, Paul, Steven, Muireann, Dave, Shane and John). These provide the necessary background to aid our interpretation of the sites' and the bones' results and gain understanding into how the sites functioned and how these animals and humans went about their days in prehistory.

Mary, Rena, Rebecca, David and Ruth will also delve further into researching the human-dog-horse relationships in urban centres and outside in the hinterlands of these sites in both Ireland and Britain. They will bring a further understanding and important insightful behaviours and treatments of dogs and horses by humans during Viking and Medieval times.

a large curved stack of books from the floor to the ceiling
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