Feature 4: A Zooarchaeological Analysis of the Domestic Chicken Burial Excavated at Kingsley Plantation

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Feature 4: A Zooarchaeological Analysis of the Domestic Chicken Burial Excavated at Kingsley Plantation
Christensen, Kelley M.
deFrance, Susan ( Mentor )
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Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
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Feature 4: A Zooarchaeological Analysis of the Domestic Chicken
Burial Excavated at Kingsley Plantation

Kelly M. Christensen


In the summer of 2006, an archaeological field school directed by Dr. James M. Davidson was held at

Kingsley Plantation, a historic sea island plantation site located on Fort George Island along the northeast coast

of Florida. During the course of excavations, we discovered a nearly complete, articulated, and well-

preserved domestic chicken (Gallus gallus) skeleton buried under the floor of Cabin W-15. The objective of this

report is to supply a descriptive osteological analysis of the chicken interment, with the intent of

complementing ongoing research into the significance of this unique feature in the context of the slave culture

of Kingsley Plantation. The lack of human modifications, the pristine condition of the specimen when it

was unearthed, and the inclusion of a chicken egg and ferrous object buried underneath the skeleton suggest that

the chicken interred was not used as a subsistence animal. Instead, it was probably buried whole as part of a

ritual that had its roots in the African cultural traditions of the slaves who inhabited the cabin site in the early

19th century.


Site History

Kingsley Plantation is a historic plantation site located on Fort George Island along the northeast coast of Florida,

part of the modern Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve National Park in Duval County. While the

property passed through many hands during the 19th century, it is named for Zephaniah Kingsley, who

initially leased the land from John Houston McIntosh in 1814 (Stowell 2000:4) and then bought and resided on

the property from approximately 1817 to 1839 (Stowell 2000:40-42). The plantation's main crops were Sea

Island cotton and other provisions, all tended to by slave laborers who resided in a semi-circle of 32 tabby

cabins constructed just south of the main house on the property (Figure 1). These slaves were organized using

the "task management" system that assigned slaves a number of tasks each day, after which they were allowed

to plan their own time, some of which might have been spent in food subsistence activities; Kingsley notes in one

of his writings in 1829 "after allowance, their time was usually employed in hoeing their corn, and getting a supply

of fish for the week." (Stowell 2000:69)

Such a labor arrangement was not uncommon among southeastern cotton plantations. What makes the plantation

of special interest compared to similar sites in the Southeast is Kingsley's many unconventional thoughts on

slavery. Kingsley was pro-slavery and a one-time slave trader, yet he also believed in the humane treatment of

slave laborers. He maintained a "hands-off" approach to managing his slaves by not interfering in personal and

family matters, and encouraging leisure activities, which might have involved some continuance of African

traditions (Davidson 2006: 10-11; Stowell 2000:69; Walker 1988:50-51).

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__ . -.._.. ._ . - ....... ... ....... .-;-...-..'.

---Kingsley Plantation. In the summer of 1968, he excavated the ruins of Cabins W-1 and E-1, situated nearest'.

of "Africanisms," or evidence of the transmission of African cultural traditions, within the artifact assemblage, ,
- 1 ' , . *^ .'' -' _.- .. . ' ,

as Kingsley was known to be a permissive slave owner (Fairbanks 1974:90, Fairbanks 1984:2). However,
1853-'--nt-rance" to St. Johns Rir M

and provided a baseline for more substantive work that would be done at the site in the 1980s.
Karen o Walker revisited Kingsley Plantation in 1988 as the subject of her master's thesis for the Department

of Anthropology at the University of Florida. She based her research on the fieldwork performed by John Bostwick

in 1981 on Cabins W-3 and W-6, as well as Fairbanks's previous work. Walker sought to reconstruct

the environmental and socio-historical context of Kingsley Plantation so as to critically evaluate whether the

high quality of life that historical sources reported of the slave labor population was historically accurate

(Walker 1988:2-5). In addition to her thesis, which covered the multivariate aspects of Kingsley Plantation, she

also published a report in the Essays in Memory of Charles H. Fairbanks, specifically dealing with comparing

the subsistence patterns of slaves on Southeastern coastal plantations with that of Kingsley Plantation (Walker 1985).

Walker concluded that while early histories of life on Kingsley Plantation should be considered with caution,

slaves appeared to have lived in a private, family setting in which they were allowed to own their property and

hunt and farm small plots in their free time (Walker 1988). Zephaniah Kingsley's unique attitude towards his

slaves certainly influenced their quality of life; yet underlying economic and environmental factors at

Kingsley Plantation must also have played their part in shaping the conditions under which slaves labored

(Walker 1988: 164).

Research Goals and Objectives

This report utilizes material from the most excavations to take place at Kingsley Plantation thus far. In 2006,

Dr. James M. Davidson conducted an archaeological field school that examined multiple locations on the

Timucuan National Park property, most importantly Cabins W-12, W-13, and W-15 along the western arc of the

slave cabins. The goal of this ongoing research is to further explore the social dynamics between slave and master

on the plantation through analysis of material goods, subsistence evidence, and historical records- "Africanisms,"

as Fairbanks sought, were not expected to be an important part of this new investigation (Davidson 2006:7).

The main focus of this report is the single test unit that was excavated in Cabin W-15 (Figure 2). Cabins W-12 and

W-13 were torn down some time after their abandonment in the 1840s and subsequently buried over time

(Davidson 2006: 42). In order to understand the subsurface architecture of the tabby cabin buildings, we

excavated a 1 x 1 m test unit into the floor of Cabin W-15, which still has extant ruins (Davidson 2006: 26). Not

only did Unit 34 provide insight into the nature of the floor of the slave cabins, but it also yielded Feature 4.

This feature was composed of an articulated, intact domestic chicken (Gallus gallus) skeleton, with a broken egg

and ferrous object directly below it, interred underneath the historic floor surface of the cabin.

The objective of this report is to use zooarchaeological methods of faunal analysis to give insight into the nature

of this unique archaeological feature. A descriptive analysis of the Gallus gallus specimen will be presented

that includes observations on preservation, completeness, sex and age, and taphonomic markers of the

specimen. These data are then utilized as a complement to the preliminary cultural research Dr. James M

Davidson has done on African religiosity (Davidson 2006) to determine whether the Gallus gallus interred

underneath Cabin W-15 was a subsistence animal raised and eaten by the slaves at Kingsley Plantation or whether

it was purposefully buried as part of an African sacrifice ritual.

Figure 2. Overview of 2006 West Cabin Excavations (Davidson 2006: 15) with Unit 34 highlighted.



The focus of the faunal analysis was limited to the intact domestic chicken (Gallus gallus) skeleton and

associated egg, designated Feature 4, buried within Unit 34. As stated above, Unit 34 was a 1 x 1 m test

unit excavated in Cabin W-15. Feature 4 was located in the southern half of Unit 34 at approximately 24-36 cm

below surface, with one element, the right carpometacarpus of the chicken, being found 10-20 cm below the surface.

Figure 3. Feature 4 in situ (Davidson 2006: 28)

In situ, the body of the chicken (Figure 3) was constricted and roughly aligned with the eastern wall of the

cabin, approximately on a north/south axis, and does not appear to have been disturbed by the tabby footing of

the cabin (Davidson 2006: 29-30). The neck vertebrae were still fully articulated from synsacrum to

cranium, extending north from the body then curling back south in a loop; all major elements, including

femora, humeri, and radii/ulnae were also in proper articulation and alignment (Davidson 2006: 30). The chicken

egg uncovered with the skeleton was located directly underneath the rib cage of the bird, sitting almost flush with

the top of the keel of the sternum, partially inside the chest cavity (see Figure 5).

The preservation of the bone throughout the site was excellent. The chicken skeleton was situated within a layer

of sterile sand that was well drained and leeched of most of its organic matter (Davidson 2006: 29). The lime

and crushed oyster shell in the soil, a byproduct of the cabin's tabby construction, aided in the preservation

process as well (Davidson 2006: 30).

Associated material artifacts with the faunal specimen include the irregularly shaped ferrous object that was

buried underneath the Gallus gallus skeleton and the egg. Its exact nature is unknown, but it may be the

byproduct of the blacksmithing process, known to have taken place at the plantation (Davidson 2006: 30). There

was also an amber-colored glass bead, which may or may not be associated with the burial (Davidson 2006:

29). These artifacts are considered in conjunction with the faunal specimen.

Only elements related to this individual specimen were present at the 24-36 cm level; no other faunal remains

are directly associated with it. While other faunal material was present in the levels above Feature 4 within the

unit, they are not analyzed here. The other specimens from Unit 34 are typical of the rest of the faunal

assemblage from the excavated cabins on site, and are most likely not associated with this feature.

Excavation Methods

The faunal material analyzed from Feature 4 was excavated using trowels, paintbrushes, and other delicate tools

to minimize damage to the faunal material as it was removed. All fill from the unit was screened using 1/4" mesh.

Unit 34 was excavated in a mix of arbitrary and cultural levels. It was first excavated from 1-20 cm below

surface using arbitrary 10 cm levels, with Level 1 consisting of the entire 1 x 1 m unit from 0-10 cm and Level

2 being bisected into North and South halves, each measuring 1 m x 50 cm, from 10-20 cm below surface.

Once Feature 4 was first uncovered around 24 cm below surface, the southern half of the unit was excavated as

a single cultural level to 36 cm below surface to remove the entirety of the chicken skeleton and associated artifacts.

Soil samples were taken from each level of the unit, including around and inside Feature 4. They will be analyzed at

a later date, and may yield more elements from the chicken burial.

Analysis Methods

After removal from the site, the skeleton was prepped for analysis by dry-brushing all the elements to remove

excess dirt clinging to them. Those elements such as the cranium and the egg that were still embedded in a

soil matrix were carefully removed from it using small picks and paintbrushes. The identity of the Gallus

gallus specimen and its constituent parts were verified utilizing modern skeletal specimens from the

comparative teaching collection available from the Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville. As

required, supplementary references for identification of specific elements of the chicken anatomy were gleaned

from Anatomy of the Chicken and Domestic Birds by Tankred Koch (1973).

In addition to the basic identifications, the Gallus gallus was examined for indicators of sex, age, and

taphonomic markers that might indicate whether the specimen was used as a subsistence item or as part of a

cultural ritual. Osteometric measurements were also taken for all the major elements of the specimen

using electronic calipers. These measurements were derived from A Guide to the Measurement of Animal Bones

From Archaeological Sites written by von den Driesch (1976:103-129). Comparative Osteology of the Chicken

and American Grouse by Hargrave (1972) was also consulted for a measurement standard for the furcula, which

was not defined by the von den Driesch publication.


The Skeleton

Figure 4 shows the overall completeness of the skeleton while Table 1 summarizes the weight, portion, and

the taphonomic signatures of all the elements. All of the major elements of the chicken were recovered during

the excavation. The only elements missing were some of the digits of the wings and the feet, as well as fragments

of ribs and other delicate bones that may have been disintegrated or been crushed in the ground over time. No

bones associated with common meat cuts of the chicken, such as the breast, buffalo wing, or drumstick,

were missing.

All long bones, except the left tibiotarsus which was broken during recovery, were whole. This is the same for

many of the vertebrae and phalanges. None of the elements of the specimen displayed any pathology.

The synsacrum, skull, and egg were held together in situ by the soils around then, so when cleaned in the lab

they fragmented into several pieces. They probably fell apart because of a combination the weight of the

soil overburden pushing down while it was buried (Lyman 1994: 425) and drying of the bone in open air once it

was removed.

Figure 4. Diagram of Gallus gallus Elements Present

Table 1.
Summary of Gallus gallus Element Data

Element Portion Total
Weight (g)

Cranium Y - 5.3

Quadrate (Left)

Quadrate (Right)

Lacrimal (Left)

Lacrimal (Right)



Atlas (C-1)




% - Whole

Y2 - %

% - Whole



Root etching; most processes
splintered off during cleaning


Root etching


Root etching; broken into 2 pieces

Nasal process only; root etching

Root etching; broken into three pieces

Root etching

Axis (C-2)

Cervical Vertebrae
(3 - 15)

Thoracic Vertebrae
(Fused and Unfused)

Caudal Vertebrae (2)


Vertebral Ribs (9)

Sternal Ribs (5)


Coracoid (Left)

Coracoid (Right)

Scapula (Left)

Scapula (Right)


Humerus (Left)

Humerus (Right)

Radius (Left)

Radius (Right)

Ulna (Left)

Ulna (Right)

Carpometacarpus (Left)

Carpometacarpus (Right)

Femur (Left)

Femur (Right)

Patella (Right)

Fibula (Left)

Fibula (Right)

Tibiotarsus (Left)

Tibiotarsus (Right)

Tarsometatarsus (Left)

Tarsometatarsus (Right)

Tarsus Phalanges (11)

Msc Bone Fragments


2 - Whole

Root etching

Root etching

% - Whole 2.3


4 - 2








Y4 - Y2








% - Whole










N/A 2.5

Root etching; modern breaks

Root etching

Root etching; broken into 14 pieces
during recovery

Root etching

Root etching

Root etching; broken into three pieces

Root etching

Root etching

Root etching

Root etching

Root etching; broken into two pieces

Root etching

Root etching; modern scratches


Root etching

Root etching

Root etching

Root etching; modern break(?)

Root etching; modern break(?) and
scratches; broken into three pieces

Root etching

Root etching; oxidation stain


Root etching

Root etching; broken into two pieces

Root etching; broken into two pieces
during recovery

Root etching; modern scratches

Root etching; modern scratches

Root etching; modern scratches

Root etching; oxdation stain, modern

Root etching; modern breaks

Totals (minus fragments)

Total NISP 75

Total MNI 1

Total Weight 69 g

Sex and Age

The specimen was determined to be a female based on two sex-specific traits that female avians are known

to possess. One of these was the absence of a spur on either tarsometatarsus of the leg, which most male

chickens possess. The other was the presence of medullary bone in the shaft of the left tibiotarsus (broken

during recovery on site.) The presence of medullary bone not only indicates that the specimen was female, but

was also ovulating at its time of death; medullary is stored in the long bones of a hen's body for the creation of

eggs during ovulation, and disappears when the hen is no longer producing eggs.

All of the elements in the skeleton were fully fused, indicating that the specimen was mature when it died. Birds

are difficult to age with more accuracy than this because of the early ossification of their bones and

indeterminate growth thereafter. For reference, the average age at which the bones of a modern Gallus gallus

are completely ossified is around 5-8 months of age (Reitz and Wing 1999:75). They can lay eggs for

approximately two years after they are sexually mature.

Taphonomic Signatures

According to Bickart (1984) bird carcasses not protected or rapidly buried fall quick prey to disturbance

by scavengers. The preserved, fully articulated state of the skeleton suggests that the specimen was buried not

long after it was killed. Almost all of the elements recovered displayed a light degree of root etching and

discoloration caused by the roots growing in the soils around them (see Table 1). This is a natural process and

is consistent with the condition of the rest of the faunal material recovered at the site.

None, however, display any evidence of butchery by humans such as cuts, hacks, burning, or gnawing, and

are otherwise very clean in appearance. Some elements possess accidental breaks, scratches, and cuts that

occurred while Feature 4 was being excavated (such as the synsacrum which, while intact in situ, broke apart

into several pieces when removed from its supportive matrix). These marks are clearly of modern origin, were

noted as such during analysis, and have no bearing on the conclusions drawn from the feature. The exceptions to

this are the right and left carpometacarpuses of the chicken. While they appear to have fresh breaks, they

were already broken when recovered. How and when these breaks occurred is indeterminable.

Osteometric Measurements

The osteometric data recorded from the elements of the specimen are available in Appendix 1. The goal of

recording these measurements was to determine how the size of the specimen compared to others of its sex and

age, with the possibility of ascertaining the breed of the specimen based on ratios unique to certain domestic

breeds common to North America.

Unfortunately, no such database of knowledge appears to exist. While the A Guide to the Measurement of

Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites by von den Driesch supplies a standard by which to measure the

various elements of avians, it does not provide any data to evaluate the measurements derived. The closest to a

list of comparative measurements to be found was a brief tabulation of figures (not of the same definition as von

den Driesch's) that Hargrave (1972: 25) supplies in his book Comparative Osteology of the Chicken and

American Grouse. These are sparse and unhelpful, as the male and female measurements taken are from

two different breeds, and from only one individual each. Research was also done on chicken fancier's associations

and clubs such as the American Poultry Association.These organizations set breed standards for raising

competition chickens, ducks, and other fowl. However, this was also unfruitful, as the breed standards are very

vague and unsuitable to a zooarchaeological analysis.

It is unclear whether breed, or even sex, can be determined through the measurement of the elements of the

chicken or any other domestic fowl. Despite this, the measurements derived from the specimen in Feature 4

are included within the report for the sake of thoroughness and the hope that in the future they can be compared

to other chicken specimens and provide more information about this aspect of the feature.

The Egg

The total weight of the eggshell fragments from Feature 4 was 3.9 g. No fetal chicken bones were found when

the egg was cleaned in the lab, thus it is impossible to determine whether the egg was fertilized or not when it

was buried. It was also not possible to determine for certain whether the egg was inside the Gallus gallus at the

time of burial or not. While the egg unearthed under the chicken skeleton in Feature 4 appeared almost flush with

the sternum in situ (Figure 5), this does not necessarily indicate that the egg was within the chicken when it

was buried. The chicken was female and laying down at its time of death. However, it is also a distinct possibility

that the egg was originally buried outside and below the hen, and over time depositional forces on the site such

as water or burrowing animals pushed the egg up into the chest cavity of the chicken. Over half of the

chicken's sternal keel is missing, leaving plenty of room for the egg to move up and in without being

severely damaged. Thus it is impossible to be definite about the original placement of the egg.

Figure 5. The egg and the sternum of the chicken, being processed in the lab.


The relatively pristine condition of the chicken skeleton makes it difficult to draw any complex conclusions from

the remains. That being said, the data acquired from the faunal analysis of Feature 4 points to a non-

subsistence explanation for the interment of the specimen. First, if the chicken had been used as a food item,

some taphonomic signatures from the butchery processes would be present in addition to those caused by the

roots and soil in the ground. Also, if it had been eaten and then discarded (even whole), there is no reason for it

to be buried in sterile sand below the occupation level when other vertebrate faunal material is present in the 0-

20 cm range below surface, above and within the historic level of the cabin floor. Lastly, the presence of the

chicken egg, ferrous object, and amber-colored glass bead in such specific association with the specimen make

it very improbable that they were accidental as opposed to intentional inclusions within Feature 4.

In his preliminary report of the 2006 excavations, Dr. James M. Davidson discusses some of the cultural

explanations for the presence of the feature, focusing on traditional African sacrifice ceremonies that may have

been recreated by the slaves on the plantation (Davidson 2006: 32-34). The sacrifice of chickens and other fowl

on important occasions marking births, deaths, and household dedications was performed as part of African

and creolized religious ceremonies (Davidson 2006: 33). Records left by Zephaniah Kingsley concerning slaves

he lost after his Laurel Grove Plantation was raided in 1812 reveal that most of his slaves were African in origin,

and even name specific tribal groups such as the Ibo, Calabari, Rio Pongo, and others. These records are an

excellent direction for further research.


There is no zooarchaeological evidence that suggests that the domestic chicken interred underneath the floor of

Cabin W-15 was a subsistence animal. Its condition in situ was pristine, with all major elements still in articulation.

It lacks butchery marks that would indicate partial dismemberment and consumption of any part of the

specimen. The sex and presence of medullary bone in the specimen leave open the possibility that the chicken

egg interred beneath it was inside the bird at death, but this cannot be confirmed from the data obtained.

Further research along the lines of that done by Davidson needs to be done to ascertain a definitive

cultural explanation for its burial.


1. Bickart, K.L. 1984 A Field Experiment in Avian Taphonomy. Journal of Vertebrate Palentology 4: 525-535.

2. Davidson, James M. 2006 Preliminary Report of Investigations of the 2006 University of Florida Archaeological

Field School at Kingsley Plantation Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve National Park, Duval County,

Florida. Report submitted to the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service,

Southeast Archaeological Center.

3. Driesch, Angela von den 1981 A Guide to the Measurement of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites: as

developed by the Institut fOr Palaeoanatomie, Domestikationsforschung und Geschichte der Tiermedizin of

the University of Munich. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

4. Fairbanks, Charles 1974 The Kingsley Slave Cabins in Duval County, Florida, 1968. Conference on Historic

Sites Archaeology Papers 7: 62-93.

5. Fairbanks, Charles 1984 The Plantation Archaeology of the Southeast Coast. Historical Archaeology 18(1): 1-14.

6. Hargrave, Lyndon L. 1972 Comparative Osteology of the Chicken and American Grouse. Prescott College

Press, Prescott.

7. Koch, Tankred 1973 Anatomy of the Chicken and Domestic Birds, trans. By Bernard H. Skold and Louis DeVries.

Iowa State University Press, Ames.

8. Lyman, R. Lee 1994 Vertebrate Taphonomy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

9. Reitz, Elizabeth J., and Elizabeth S. Wing. 1999 Zooarchaeology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

10. Stowell, Daniel W. (editor) 2000 Balancing Evils Judiciously: The Proslavery Writings of Zephaniah

Kingsley. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

11. US Coast Survey 1853 "Entrance to St. Johns River." Map. Collections of the Library of Congress,

Geography and Map Collection, Washington, DC.

12. Walker, Karen Jo 1985 Kingsley Plantation and Subsistence patterns of the Southeastern Coastal Slave. In

Indians, Colonists, and Slaves: Essays in Memory of Charles H. Fairbanks, edited by Kenneth W. Johnson,

Jonathan M. Leader, and Robert C. Wilson, Publication No. 4, Gainesville.

13. Walker, Karen Jo 1988 Kingsley and His Slaves: Anthropological Interpretation and Evaluation. M.A.

Thesis. Anthropology, University of Florida, Gainesville.


Appendix 1. Osteometric Measurements of the Chicken Measurements

(as defined by von den Driesch 1981)



GB Greatest Breadth

GH Greatest Height

GBP Greatest Breadth across Process postfrontales

LP Length from Protuberantia occiptalis externa to
most arboreal point of Process profrontales

SBO Smallest Breadth between Orbits


(mm) (mm)

29.9 29.9

22.2 22.2

29.9 29.9

42.5 42.5

13.3 13.3

(mm) (mm)

Mandible GL Greatest Length 58.0

LaF Length from most arboreal point of articular 52.0
surface on one side to the Apex

LS Length of Symphysis 9.1

Measurement (mm) Right

Coracoid Bb Greatest basal breadth 14.1

Bf Breadth of basal articular surface 9.7

GL Greatest Length 56.6

Lm Medial Length 54.3

Measurement (mm) Right

Scapula Dic Greatest cranial diagonal 12.4

Measurement (mm) Right

Humerus Bd Greatest breadth of distal end 15.4

Bp Greatest breadth of proximal end 19.7

GL Greatest Length 71.7

SC Smallest breadth of corpus 7.5

Measurement (mm) Right

Radius Bd Greatest breadth of distal end 7.1

GL Greatest Length 66.0

SC Smallest breadth of corpus 3.1

Measurement (mm) Right





















Greatest breadth of proximal end

Greatest diagonal of distal end

Greatest diagonal of proximal end

Greatest Length

Smallest breadth of corpus

Measurement (mm)

Carpometacarpus Bp


Breadth of proximal end

Greatest Diagonal of Distal End

Synsacrum DiA Diameter of one acetabulum (Left) 7.8

Measurement (mm) Right

Femur Bd Breadth of distal end 15.6

Bp Breadth of proximal end 16.0

Dd Greatest depth of distal end 12.9

Dp Greatest depth of proximal end 10.9

GL Greatest Length N/A

Lm Medial length 78.3

SC Smallest breadth of corpus 7.4

Measurement (mm) Right

Tibiotarsus Bd Breadth of distal end 11.9

Dd Greatest depth of distal end 12.1

Dip Greatest diagonal of proximal end 21.3

GL Greatest Length 119.3

La Axial length 113.9

SC Smallest breadth of corpus 7.2

Measurement (mm) Right

Tarsometatarsus Bd Breadth of distal end 13.9

Bp Breadth of proximal end 13.5

GL Greatest length 81.4

SC Smallest breadth of corpus 7.1

(as defined by Hargrave 1972)

Measurement (mm)


Maximum length

Maximum width























9.7 9.7

9.8 9.9

13.3 13.6

71.8 71.6

4.7 4.5

Right Left

12.0 12.2

7.6 N/A




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