Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Phytoliths from Catalhoyuk TP Area
The reeds decay, the wheat decays, and all
The silica preserves within the ground.
Remains of binding, and mats that lie beneath
Many a summer’s children dead and gone
A type of immortality -
Organics wither slowly in time’s arms
Here in the quiet depths of the earth
A white impression yet shows what once has been
A hidden record of the past
Deposited, now soon to be revealed.

Behold! This opal shadow, once a plant;
A fascinating glimpse into past choices
For fuel and crafts and fodder we can see
Phytoliths from Catalhoyuk South Area
A diverse array of use other than food!
I asked thee “show me your secrets”
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a glance
Through concave lens of ‘scope
Opal shapes, reveal the truth
Of all that was, in ashes.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

7th World Archaeological Congress - sessions accepted

I'm pleased to announce that we have had two session accepted for the 7th World Archaeological Congress. The first is a poster exhibition of micromorphology images in collaboration with, which I talked about last month, Hidden Worlds - Revealing the Microscopic Archaeological Record. The second is a symposium, Integrated analytical approaches to investigating ancient diets, and we are now accepting paper contributions, for more details check out the call for papers here.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Adventures in the Vale

BioArCh PhD candidate Harry Robson excavates Flixton
Back out in the field, at long last, on a day trip with fellow micromorphologist, Helen Williams (PhD candidate at the University of York). This is a bit of a change for me; normally heading off on field work involves long journeys in hot foreign places, but today I had to go no further than an hour down the road to Flixton, Scarborough. Not such a long journey and fortunately the weather was great. I’m not going to say hot as the last place I went to that was ‘hot’ was 40°+ ( in the 100°s), and I think if it ever got to that temperature in the UK it would literally be breaking the record.  And an added bonus to local fieldwork - a nice cup of Yorkshire tea afterwards with Helen's parents!

As I mentioned a few months ago, I will be joining the Star Carr project next year as a part-time microarchaeology specialist, which will involve advising on micromorphology, geochemistry and phytoliths amongst other things. Flixton Island is one of a number of early Mesolithic sites in the Vale of Pickering, located a few hundred metres from Star Carr, and  is one of the sites being investigated as part of the POSTGLACIAL project (directed by Professor Nicky Milner and Dr Barry Taylor). During the Mesolithic much of the area was covered by Lake Flixton, which formed during a warm period at the end of the last Ice Age, before the Younger Dryas. Star Carr was located on the shores of the lake, which became gradually infilled with sediments and formation of a peat layer. By the end of the Mesolithic the lake had become a wetland of reed swamp, fen and wet woodland. Peat provides great preservation conditions for organic remains, and it is hoped that we will be able to recover a detailed record of the environment and human activity in the area. Speaking of fantastic preservation, the excavations have already uncovered animal footprints in the buried mud deposits of the old lake shore!

Dig directors Nicky and Barry check out the footprints
In terms of microarchaeology the site presents a challenge. One of the key questions is how did the hunter-gather population react and adapt to the changing climate and environment during this period, and can we see changes in these adaptive responses over time? The shallow nature of the stratigraphy and relatively ephemeral nature of the occupation deposits (compared to intensely occupied later prehistoric sites) means that unravelling short periods of activity is problematic.

Soil over peat over silts, gravels and sands

Bioturbation is evident in the sections, though we are hoping that the micromorphology will help understand how much this has impacted the archaeology (fingers crossed, not too much). First impressions in the field make me think such deposits may represent a cumulative palimpsest of sporadic activity, and we may need to compare between sites of earlier and later Mesolithic date, rather than within a single site, to investigate changes in human adaptation over time. But we were only there for a few hours, so let’s see how the picture changes when we get going with the analysis!

Friday, 7 September 2012

Medieval manure, from Riga to Reading

Many boxes of medieval stratigraphy

I was back at the University of Reading a few days ago to have a look through all the samples that have been collected for the Ecology of Crusading project.  Four cardboard boxes and a tray of miscellaneous samples later, I finally got them all unpacked and ready for the drying oven. It appears at least half the samples have the note ‘manure layer’ attached, so nothing new there. In fact, that'll be the third time this year I've recieved parcels of such material. I should start telling people I am interested in highland single malt whisky as well as coprolite analysis, maybe I’d start getting that in the post regularly too. Anyway.

Block of medieval manure
 The majority of these samples were collected from excavations of medieval deposits in the centre of Riga (Latvia). I am told that these are the first micromorphology samples ever collected from a commercial excavation in Latvia, by students who took part in the Cēsis excavations back in May. I’m glad to see the enthusiasm for micromorphology spreading, and will hopefully be heading to Latvia sometime next year to give a presentation and/or practical session so everyone who collected the samples can have a look at them under the microscope. The blocks were taken through a series of rebuilt clay floors in a number of buildings, and as well as manure they contain layers of waterlogged wood and organic deposits. We will hopefully be able to tell whether the manure relates to primary deposition such as animal penning, of if it is midden material (re)deposited during a period of abandonment. Other samples include a suspected ‘floor’ from the horse trench at Cēsis castle, with a fine layer of charred plant residues which are hopefully related to the original use of the room before the building collapsed.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Dig, Students, Dig!

Excavating at Kamiltepe, Azerbaijan, 2010
The laser falls on painted walls
 To reconstruct their ancient glory:
The corer shakes atop the lakes,
Soon will the pollen tell its story.
Dig, students, dig, set the clods of dirt flying,
Dig, students; listen, echoes, sighing, sighing, sighing.

Hark, over here! What crisp and clear,
Stratigraphy, so keep on going!
O sweet, some char, core with flake scar
And cattle horn! Keep this trench growing.
Dig, students, dig, bring to light what’s underlying,
Dig, one more context, hear the ancient past replying.
Excavating at Sheik e-Abad, Iran, 2008

O see, revealed, a surface sealed,
Layers of time uncovered hither:
The memories roll from soul to soul,
As echoes from material whisper.
Dig, archaeologists, set the total station scanning,
And answer, echoes of the past, sighing, sighing, sighing.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Microarchaeology at Qal'at al-Marqab

It's about time I say a bit about Qal'at al-Marqab, also known as Margat Castle, Syria. It is the castle for which this blog is named, and looking back over my posts it seems I talk much more about the coprolites than the castles. I visited the site as part of a preliminary assessment into the potential of microarchaeology to investigate activities and use of space at medieval castle sites, back in 2009. I had an amazing time in Syria, working with a joint Syrian-Hungarian team led by Dr Balázs Major from the Pázmány Péter Catholic University. I've been working on the pilot samples on and off since then, but today is the first time I've had a real chance to go through the data in detail. As ever, microscopic analysis is providing fascinating insights into the archaeology that would otherwise be missed. One of my favourite samples is the floor section to the right. Probably one of the most difficult samples I've ever collected, I ended up having to hack the thing out with a screwdriver. Look at those beautiful basalt pebbles! We are carrying out a series of geochemical tests to look at the compositon of the mortars, to see if this varies over time. If so it could be a useful way of testing the identification of different building phases.

Watching the political troubles unfold in Syria has been very sad; it will be a long time before I am likely to be able return to Margat, not only to continue with the archaeology but to meet up again with the local people who worked with us. One of the best things about working in foreign places is the chance to meet new people. I remember it was quite fun trying to explain what micromorphology is with my limited Arabic skills. I still have my carved shell bearing the name Qal'at al-Marqab, and the CD of Syrian pop music they gave me as a leaving present. More on Syria: Cultural Heritage in Conflict at Current World Archaeology magazine.