Sunday, 26 February 2012

York Archaeology awarded the Queen's Anniversary Prize

I am very proud to be associated with not one but two departments which have been awarded this prestigious prize for academic excellence, the University of Reading in 2009, and now the University of York in 2012. More on the story can be seen on the York newspage. Well done everyone!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Mass Spec Maintainance and Visual Media

Today was spent mostly taking apart complicated bits of kit and putting them back together again. We had a training course in GC/MS maintainance, including such delightful topics as cleaning the ion source (quite pretty and shiny I think),

and troubleshooting for low sensitivity. It's really interesting getting to learn more about how this sort of equipment is put together. Reading the theory of how it all works isn't the same as seeing all the bits for yourself, and working out how it all goes together. Something that looks incredibly complex to begin with gradually becomes less scary and more familiar. I took photos of various stages of the cleaning process to remind myself what to do in future. This particular image reminded me of the USS Enterprise. Don't you think? See the door in the background, and the entrance to the Jefferies tube in the floor. No?

Following the maintainance course I went to this weeks' Heritage Research seminar over in King's Manor, by our new CHM lecturer Sara Perry. I was delighted to hear Sara got the post, as she is also involved in the Çatalhöyük project, as part of the visualisation team. I am very interested in Sara's research and the use of visual representation in archaeology; it is a very powerful tool, and as she pointed out, such information is not always subject to the same rigorous peer review as text. The way that images are used to (mis)represent (whether intentionally or not) scientific data is something that should be taken more seriously as it can have a real impact on people's understanding. 

As scientists we struggle to find ways to present our data in a way that is accessible to non-specialists. This is especially true with micromorphology - traditional descriptions using obtuse terminology are not the easiest to digest, even for those of us familiar with the subject, and it can be difficult to link back such descriptions to what we can see in the field. I've lost count of the number of times I've been told how mysterious or baffling micromorphology seems, which is very frustrating, as I honestly believe that 'microarchaeology' is an essential approach to address many research questions, and there is no reason why it should be seen as complicated. It has become increasingly common to use visual means of presenting such information, which to me at least makes it easier to see what micromorphology actually is, and how we arrive at our interpretation.

The slides on the left (a, e, i and m) relate to the rectangles that are starred on the right. Figures from:

Shillito, L-M., Matthews, W. Bull, I.D. and Almond, M.J. (2011) The microstratigraphy of middens: capturing daily routine in rubbish at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey Antiquity  85 (329): 1024 - 1038

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Salisbury, Skulls and Steampunk

To continue the alliterative theme of the blog, this sums up nicely in 3 words my sampling visit to the Salisbury and Wiltshire Museum yesterday. The museum houses the collection of pottery from the 1967 excavations at Durrington Walls by Wainwright, which we will be using for comparison with the pottery being analysed from the Stonehenge Riverside Project. I was pleasantly suprised to see how pretty the city is - a little bit like York with random medieval buildings and bits of medieval wall dotted around the centre, and also an impressive cathedral. Maybe not quite as pretty as York Minster, but not too bad :) The cathedral is right next the the museum, though alas I didn't get a chance to look around as I had a rather large box of pottery to carry around by that point.

The museum itself was rather exciting. The collections of archive material are located in a very chilly old store room complete with strangely labelled Victorian draws containing Antiquarian curiosities. It was all very Lovecraftian....the scientist sat huddled amongst the boxes of ancient bones and curious stone objects in the vaults of the Miskatonic University, relics of some long forgotten culture, shivering in the chill mist. Her fingers became increasingly numb and she sorted through the fragments of ceramic artefacts, decorated with strange grooved motifs that seemed to hold such a mesmerising power over so many of her colleagues. It felt almost as if she was being watched...

Then I noticed  the miscellaneous draw of dog skulls.

Cabinets of curiosities
Boxes of ancient bones and curious stone objects

Somehow I managed to come back with almost twice the number of pottery sherds that I thought I was supposed to collect. I guess you can never have too many pottery samples? Maybe. Hopefully this will at least mean that we get a reasonable hit rate for identifiable residues. I am slightly concerned that a lot of them appeared to have been 'conserved' at some point with a coating of varnish, and glued together with UHU. I'll be anticipating some interesting peaks on the GC.


Friday, 10 February 2012

King's Manor in the Snow

I actually like staff meetings, even admin related ones, as it means I get to spend time at the Kings Manor. The main part of the Department of Archaeology at York is located in the town centre at the old Tudor manor house, whereas the laboratories for the BioArCh group where I spend the majority of my time, are located on campus next to the Department of Biology. The place where I have lived for the past year and a half is about a 5 minute walk from the Kings Manor. The photos below show the route I took to work the other day through the Museum Gardens, complete with flock of pigeons, Narnia-esque lamp post, and abbey ruins. When I stopped to take a picture of the pigeons all huddled in the tree, they somehow knew I was focusing on them and all descended from the tree and landed at my feet in a flurry of coos. I felt a bit guilty that I didn’t have any crumbs for them! I think living in the town centre I take for granted just what a pretty place York is – the snow makes everything look especially picturesque. 

Pigeon tree

Museum Gardens

King's Manor

This week I’ve been finishing off the last bits of lab work for Feeding Stonehenge, and getting everything in order for my visit to the University of Washington in just under 5 weeks’ time. Then off to Salisbury Museum (another King's House!) next week to collect the very last lot of samples for the project, with a quick visit to London and Reading to do some microscopy for the Ecology of Crusading project. And I don’t think I’ll be able to resist taking just a quick peek at the new Çatalhöyük and Boncuklu slides...let’s just hope the snow doesn’t cause havoc with the trains and ruin all my carefully timed plans.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Seminar at the Lithuanian Embassy

Just on the train back from London to York this morning (hurray Grand Central free wifi!), after attending a seminar yesterday evening for the Ecology of Crusading project, at the Lithuanian embassy. This is the second embassy seminar I've been able to attend, the first being around this time last year at the Estonian embassy. It is always really interesting to attend these events as you get to meet such a wide range of people, many of whom have interesting stories to tell. As someone who loves to travel, I like meeting people from around the world, and people from the UK who have lived abroad in unusual places. Yesterday we met some people who had worked in the diplomatic service and had lived and worked all over the Baltic and Caucasus regions.

The Ecology of Crusading project is in its second year now, and although I am not officially working on it until later this year, I haven't been able to resist taking a quick peek at some of the samples - I'm presenting some of the initial results at the SAA (Society for American Archaeology) conference in April so I'll give an update around then. Although it is quite different geographically and temporally to much of my previous research, some of the questions we are investigating are similar, particularly with regards to the human interaction with and use of the environment. From a methodological point of view, this project is providing some great comparative material for looking at midden formation processes, and the survival of organic residues in different environments.

The project is directed by PI Dr Aleks Pluskowski (below, on the left) and there is a whole team of postdocs working on various archaeological and historical materials. I am developing and coordinating the geoarchaeological work, which involves a lot of on-site micromorphology and geochemical analysis, as well as off-site geochemical analysis of lake cores and peat cores, in conjunction with Dr Alex Brown, the project palaeobotanist. Hopefully I will also doing some more ceramic residue work, to compare the evidence for changes in diet between the indigenous Iron Age and incoming Medieval populations. There are already some possible changes according to the preliminary zooarchaeological data, so it will be interesting to see if a similar pattern can be seen in the way pottery is being used.