I-95 Meat Cuts

Meat Cuts

In the historic period, animals (specifically cows, pigs, and sheep) were butchered in relatively standard and prescribed ways, producing comparatively uniform cuts of meat. Zooarchaeologists are the specialists who study animal remains recovered from archaeological excavations. They use information gathered from historical records and butchers’ diagrams to calculate the minimum number of meat cuts (MNMC) in an archaeological assemblage.

In this method of calculation, body parts are assumed to represent cuts of meat, and each bone or bone fragment is assigned to a particular cut, allowing the analyst to assess the total number of cuts—as well as those which appear to have been more popular in certain households. 1 In order to better understand and interpret the bones in a historic assemblage, zooarchaeologists need to be able to define the units of meat that would have been entering the household. In urban settings in particular, where consumers bought their meat primarily from butchers in the marketplace, they would have been purchasing defined cuts; for example, leg of lamb or beef shin. The identification of these cuts from the bones represented in a given assemblage has the potential to reveal a great deal of information about the purchasing habits and culinary choices of the individuals in a particular household or neighborhood.

Butchery diagrams from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cookbooks were used to define a standard set of beef, veal, pork, and mutton/lamb cuts from these periods (Figure 1). Although regional differences in butchery styles were acknowledged in some books, the diagrams were surprisingly consistent across the publications. In general, the cuts represented in these diagrams reflect wholesale or primal—rather than retail—meat cuts. Retail cuts are the family-sized or single servings cut from larger wholesale pieces. Consumers living in urban settings during the nineteenth century either purchased meat in wholesale cuts and took these large portions home, cooking them in this form or processing them further themselves, or requested that the butcher further divide the cut into the retail meat cuts we are more familiar with today (such as steaks, chops, ribs, and roasts). The dish for which the meat was to be prepared and the skills and tools possessed by the housewife and/or her staff were the most important factors in determining the level of butchering asked of the butcher in the market.

Major wholesale cuts of meat taken from the butchery diagrams are identified in Table 1. Mutton and lamb are listed in the same column because sheep were generally cut up in a similar fashion, no matter their age, and cookbooks typically contained diagrams of either lamb or mutton, not both.


NumberMeat Cut
3Edge Bone
5Mouse Buttock
7Thick Flank
8Veiny Piece
9Thin Flank
10Fore Rib
11Middle Rib
12Chuck Rib
14Shoulder or Leg of Mutton Piece
16Neck or Sticking Piece


NumberMeat Cut
1Loin, Best End
3Loin, Chump End
4Hind Knuckle
5Neck, Best End
6Breast, Best End
7Blade Bone or Oyster Part
8Fore Knuckle
9Breast, Brisket End
10Neck, Scrag End


NumberMeat Cut
2Hind Loin
3Fore Loin
4Spare Rib
6Belly or Spring


NumberMeat Cut
3Loin, Best End
4Loin, Chump End
5Neck, Best End
7Neck, Scrag End

Having identified the most common cuts represented in late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cookery books, the butchery diagrams were laid over images of articulated cattle, pig, and sheep skeletons (Figure 2). The lines dividing up the various cuts on these diagrams were then used to predict which bones would be expected to appear in which cuts of meat (Tables 3, 4, 5, and 6).

Figure 2. Overlay of beef butchery diagram (Hale 1839) on top of articulated beef skeleton (Derue 2004).

Beef Bones

Cut # on DiagramWholesale CutBones Included in Cut
1SirloinLumbar vertebrae (6); thoracic vertebrae (1); rib (1)
2RumpIlium; sacrum; caudal vertebrae (18 to 20)
3EdgeIschium; acetabulum; prox femur
5Mouse Buttock
6LegTarsals (4); astragalus; calcaneus; metatarsals (2); phalanges (6)
7Thick FlankMidshaft and distal tibia
8Veiny PieceDistal femur; patella; prox tibia
9Thin Flank
10Fore RibThoracic vertebrae (4); prox ribs (4)
11Middle RibThoracic vertebrae (4); prox ribs (4)
12Chuck RibThoracic vertebrae (4); prox ribs (4); prox scapula
13BrisketDistal ribs (8); costal cartilage
14Shoulder or Leg of Mutton PieceDistal ribs (4); costal cartilage; sternum
15ClodDistal scapula; humerus; prox radius; prox ulna
16Neck or Sticking PieceScapula shaft; cervical vertebrae (7); axis
17ShinDistal radius; distal ulna; carpals (6); metacarpals; phalanges (6)
18Cheek (Head)Atlas; skull
Table 2. Expected bones in the beef wholesale cuts based on butchery diagrams.

Veal Bones

Cut # on DiagramWholesale CutBones Included in Cut
1Loin, Best EndLumbar vertebrae (6)
2FilletFemur; patella; prox tibia
3Loin, Chump EndIlium; acetabulum; ischium; sacrum; caudal vertebrae (18 to 20)
4Hind KnuckleDistal tibia
5Neck, Best EndThoracic vertebrae (6 or 7); prox ribs (6 or 7)
6Breast, Best EndDistal ribs (6 or 7); costal cartilage
7Blade Bone or Oyster PartDistal ribs (6 or 7); distal scapula; humerus; prox ulna; prox radius
8Fore KnuckleDistal ulna; distal radius
9Breast, Brisket EndSternum; costal cartilage
10Neck, Scrag EndCervical vertebrae (3 or 4); thoracic vertebrae (6 or 7); prox scapula; prox ribs (6 or 7)
11HeadSkull; atlas; axis; cervical vertebrae (3 or 4)
12FeetCarpals (6); metacarpal; phalanges (6) OR tarsals (4); calcaneus; astragalus; metatarsal; phalanges (6)
Table 3. Expected bones in the veal wholesale cuts based on butchery diagrams.

Pork Bones

Cut # on DiagramWholesale CutBones Included in Cut
1LegLumbar vertabrae (2 to 4); sacrum; caudal vertebrae (20 to 23); innominate bone; femur; patella; tibia; fibula
2Hind LoinThoracic vertebrae (2 to 4); lumbar vertebrae (5 to 7); ribs (4 to 6)
3Fore LoinThoracic vertebrae (4 to 6); ribs (4 to 6)
4Spare RibCervical vertebrae (7); thoracic vertebrae (4 to 6); prox scapula; prox ribs (4 to 6)
5HandDistal scapula; distal ribs (4 to 6); caudal cartilage; sternum; humerus; ulna; radius
6Belly or Spring-
7FeetCarpals (8); metacarpals (4); phalanges (12) OR tarsals (5); calcaneus; astragalus; metatarsals (4); phalanges (12)
8HeadCervical vertebrae (7); atlas; axis; skull
Table 4. Expected bones in the pork wholesale cuts based on butchery diagrams.

Mutton and Lamb Bones

Cut # on DiagramWholesale CutBones Included in Cut
1LegInnominate; caudal vertebrae (16 to 18); sacrum; femur; patella; tibia; tarsals (4); calcaneus; astragalus; metatarsal; phalanges (6)
2ShoulderCervical vertebrae (3 or 4); thoracic vertebrae (4 or 5); scapula; humerus; ribs (4 or 5); sternum
3Loin, Best EndLumbar vertebrae (2); thoracic vertebrae (3); ribs (3)
4Loin, Chump EndLumbar vertebrae (4 or 5)
5Neck, Best EndThoracic vertebrae (7 or 8); ribs (7 or 8); costal cartilage
6BreastRadius; ulna; carpals (6); metacarpal; phalanges (6)
7Neck, Scrag EndCervical vertebrae (3 or 4); axis
8HeadSkull, atlas
Table 5. Expected bones in the mutton/lamb wholesale cuts based on butchery diagrams.

Note that in Tables 2, 3, 4, and 5, the numbers in parentheses in the “Bones Included in Cut” column designate the number of those specific bones that would have been expected to appear in that cut.

The minimum number of meat cuts (MNMC) is calculated based on the number of bone elements designated to each of the wholesale cuts discussed here. Once bones are assigned to a particular cut, then the most common element is used to determine the minimum number of meat cuts necessary to account for the bones attributed to that particular cut.

In discussing the results of the MNMC calculations, the analyst must keep in mind that MNMC data only provides information about wholesale cuts of meat. Since in most cases these larger cuts would have been further subdivided by either butchers or home cooks, it is important to understand the various retail meat cuts that are present within the larger wholesale cuts and to keep these in mind when making interpretations about the ways in which these meats would have been prepared and consumed in the past. Historic-period cookbooks can provide some information about this topic (see the Learn More section on historical recipes).

A problem of archaeological invisibility arises with the wholesale meat cuts that either have no bones in them (such as pork belly or beef buttock) or those that have only vertebrae, rib fragments, or costal cartilage. The problem with the cuts that include these bones is that these elements are not generally identifiable to species (with the exception of the atlas and axis vertebrae). This problem is not as important when it comes to analyzing cattle bones and beef or veal meat cuts, because the unidentified large mammal bones are interpreted as cattle bones for these assemblages. However, the unidentified medium mammal bones could not be attributed to only one species and therefore cannot be considered in calculations of MNMC. This means that certain pork and mutton cuts that have bones in them will still be invisible archaeologically, including the pork hind and fore loin and the mutton or lamb loin, best and chump ends; neck, best end; and neck, scrag end cuts.

Another issue with MNMC calculations arises with larger faunal assemblages. Because the bones in these cuts are butchered into varying sizes and shapes, unless a very exact and detailed record is kept of the location and orientation of each bone fragment, determining the MNMC can be difficult—particularly when there are multiple fragments of the same bone element, as in the case of scapula shaft fragments.


  1. Claudia Milne and Pam Crabtree, “Revealing Meals: Ethnicity, Economic Status, and Diet at Five Points, 1800–1860,” in An Interpretive Approach to Understanding Working-Class Life, ed. Rebecca Yamin, vol. II of Tales of Five Points: Working-Class Life in Nineteenth Century New York (West Chester, PA: John Milner Associates, 2000), 130–196