Thursday, 19 January 2012

Today my desk is covered in....

Sometimes I have a moment where I realise just how odd my day to day work probably appears to non-archaeologists. And probably even amongst archaeologists some of the things I end up with on my desk are quite odd. I seem to have aquired a sort of reputation as a coprolite person, and have aquired quite the collection of material from all over the place. I didn't set out intending to be a coprolite person, it just happened as I couldn't really ignore them. During my PhD, which initially focused on formation processes of middens at Catalhoyuk, I came to realise that the middens contained quite a large quantity of coprolites, and if I wanted to understand what people were dumping (lol) into middens, I had to investigate what people were doing with this particular type of waste. For those of you not in the know, coprolite is a catch all term for ancient faecal material (though technically there are different terms depending on whether it is an actual fossilised bit of poo versus amorphous organic material or animal dung etc).

So as well as looking at ancient rubbish heaps, I also study ancient faeces. How odd you might think. But also, very useful! Coprolites are direct indicators of what people (or animals) were eating at a specific moment in time, and can give information on all sorts of useful things such as health, diet, lifestyle, animal foddering, perceptions of clean/dirty in the past. We can look at a whole range of material preserved within coprolites - seeds, bones, plant fragments. We can also use biomolecular methods - the same idea as extracting food residues from pottery - to extract information on species and diet.

So today my desk is covered in this stuff, as I was sorting out samples for Dr Piers Mitchell (Cambridge), who came to give a seminar as part of the new Palaeo lunchtime seminar series at York. Piers is a medical doctor who also has research interests in human health in the past amongst other things, and will be using a range of methods to see if there is evidence of parasites in any of my samples. Exciting stuff!

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