Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Beauty in all things

I just read an interesting blog post by Professor Stephanie Moser at the University of Southampton, commenting on the recent Guardian art blog by Jonathan Jones, where he suggest that archaeologists should emphasise the 'thrilling' and 'beautiful' attributes of the subject to popularise their research. Professor Moser's discusses the important issue of balancing scientific rigour with providing cultural enlightenment. I wholeheartedly agree that we should promote our research beyond academia, but as Moser also concludes, I am not sure about focusing on the intrinsic beauty of objects to do so. Objects certainly can be beautiful, and I appreciate them as much as anyone, but without context that's all they are, beautiful, but pointless. It is the analysis and interpretation of objects (conducted with scientific rigour) that gives them meaning. Even if that is just to marvel at the technological skill that went into creating the object - even the most simple of stone tools are a marvel if you understand their place in the grand scheme of things, and the limited resources available to the individuals who created them. Surely that is just as enlightening as art?

I disagree with Jones' comment that art is the passport to archaeology. The art world can be equally as mystifying to the public if it isn't presented in the right way! I think the real challenge is to be able to show people the hidden beauty and the bigger picture that can be revealed in all sorts of material culture and ecofacts, right down to the lowly coprolite. I've always found the every day, utilitarian objects to be just as fascinating as the fancy stuff. I guess my own specialism may influence my opinion here. As a geoarchaeologist, I have a particular challenge convincing people of the beauty of soils and sediments, and even the invisible chemical residues. But it is there - micromorphology reveals a hidden world of beauty under the microscope! I've tried to promote this idea in the article I wrote for Current World Archaeology a while ago, and the panel I wrote on coprolite chemistry for the Investigate Coppergate exhibiton at the Jorvik Viking Centre, hopefully with success! I was also going to say something about how beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that saying always reminds me of this guy:

Behold! (From Wizards of the Coast)

Monday, 11 March 2013

Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons

My postdoc work on the pottery residues for the Feeding Stonehenge project was featured on the Channel 4 documentary last night Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons. The organic residues PI, Dr Oliver Craig did a great job of explaining the methods we have been using, with a few hints at our results - full details won't be available until we publish the research towards the end of the year (and complete our statistical analysis to confirm our interpretations!). The work is also featured as one of this week's main news stories on the University of York website here and the Department of Archaeology news page here.
As Ol explains, this is one of the largest studies of pottery residues from a single site (over 300 individual pots were analysed), and by designing a sampling strategy with GIS and other specialists, we have been able to investigate spatial differences in pottery use across the site, between different households, and between domestic and ceremonial areas. Additionally we have been able to make direct comparisons between pottery residue results and those from other materials such as the lithics and animal bones. Many pottery residue studies tend to focus only on the broad picture, choosing perhaps 30 samples for a single site, so there is a limited scope for looking at these more nuanced differences between contexts. As with any scientific study, the sampling strategy is incredibly important, and should be based on the questions that you are hoping to address.

I have previously blogged about the research over the past year or so, some general information on processing the pottery samples here, and the article I wrote for the Day of Archaeology on the analytical methods that we use here. For anyone who missed it, it's available online for the next 29 days on the Channel 4 website here.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

War of the Lipids

Different ways of representing lipid structures
Chemistry has always been one of my favourite subjects, I like how logical mechanisms are, and the structures have a certain beauty - once you know what the symbols mean. I was asked to contribute some lectures on lipid analysis for the Honours Scientific Methods in Bioarchaeology course this semester. Having taught this subject previously I thought this wouldn't be a problem, and dug out my 2 hour session on lipid chemistry and nomenclature (Octadeca-cis-6-cis-9-cis-12-trienoic acid anyone?).  It's a shame I can't just start with the archaeology - Feeding Stonehenge! The Earliest Humans in North America! Mummification! There is such an exciting range of applications of the technique. It isn't until the latter part of the session however that I usually get into the archaeological aspects, as I think it's important to understand the background chemistry in order to understand how you can apply it to archaeological samples, and to understand debates over how the chemical evidence is interpreted.

Martian tripods in disguise
Which has been fine in the past, as the classes I have taught have been specifically for archaeological science students with backgrounds in biology, chemistry etc. However it turns out that the students on this course come largely from non-science backgrounds, and are relatively new even to concepts such as isotopes. I had a bit of a panic at this point, the thought of being faced with that nightmare situation where you can see faces glazing over and switching off while trying in vain to explain that lipid analysis in archaeology is actually really useful, and not that hard, honest. Which I think is true, but perhaps my approach to teaching it needs to be adapated for students who have probably not done A Level/Higher chemistry. I don't want to put everyone off at the first slide. I admit it, you might indeed look at this slide (above) and wonder what on earth all those spherical blobs are, and yikes do I really have to remember all of those letters and names? So how best to help students remember the basic structure? Then it came to me - don't they look just a little bit like the tripods from War of the Worlds? So now my lecture refers to fatty acid legs (saturated fats = straight legs, unsaturated fats = bent legs), and glycerol heads. More complex lipids such as sterols have leg upgrades. I'm hoping this will work really well and I'll have lightbulb moments instead of glazed faces...or it could all go horrible wrong and I'll end up with exam answers discussing how tiny Martian invasion machines are responsible for the origins of dairying.

Friday, 8 March 2013

International Women's Day and other gender related musings

Kenyon excavating at Jericho. Photo from Archaeology International  
It's International Women's Day! So I thought it would be appropriate to have a quick muse about one of archaeology's most inspiring female figures (in my opinion at least!). I first became aware of Kathleen Kenyon as the lady after whom my first year undergrad accomodation was named - the delightful Kenyon Building, a 1960s concrete tower block of doom in the middle of the otherwise attractive grounds of St Hugh's College. She is perhaps most well known for her excavations of early Jericho in the 1950s, and she also played a key role in the formation of the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, was the first female president of the Oxford University Archaeological Society, was honorary director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, became Principle of St. Hugh's College and in 1973 was named Dame of the Order of the British Empire. An impressive resume especially in a time when archaeology and academia were dominated by men.

Which brings me onto the second subject of today's musings, women in archaeology, or women in academia generally. I hope things have improved since Kenyon's time, but I worry they may not have improved as much as I'd thought. Until recently (I'm ashamed to say) I had never been one for thinking too much about equality and women's issues. I was fortunate enough to grow up in an environment and attend a school that was pretty good, and as an undergraduate I never felt I was discriminated against (at least not in my academic life). St Hughs is probably one of the more socially diverse of the Oxford colleges, but I was very still very aware that many of my peers came from families that were much better off than my own which gave them certain advantages. But in terms of grades (my main concern!), my gender and background did not matter.

As I have moved up the academic ranks, equality issues are more and more apparant to me as I become aware of the potential impact on my career, and as they have started to affect me personally. These musings have been inspired largely by a colleague of mine, Dr Sara Perry, who made a recent blog post about her negative experiences . Sara talks about her experiences of being harassed via digital media and social networking. Although I've never faced anything as extreme, I have definitely have been subjected to appearance related comments which have made me uncomfortable, and which I highly doubt I would face as a man. The most common being variations of "you look too young to be a Dr", "real life Lara Croft", to the really annoying "would your parents approve of you doing that" and being addressed by one person as "young lady". And more recently "you won't be able to do all this travelling when you have a family" (which I completely disagree with, but that's a topic for another day!). Although most of these are not intended to offend, it still gets tiresome. It makes me worry about how I dress, how I wear my hair, should I wear makeup or not? How will people judge me if I don't get it right? Will they take me seriously? Is it my fault? Would people make these sorts of comments if I was a man? Ok, so I know people make the Indiana Jones comment to male colleagues, but at least the key features of his character arn't tiny hotpants and large boobs.

It is also quite telling that I have never felt comfortable commenting or making my opinion known on these things, for fear of negative consequences. Thanks to discussions with Sara and her excellent blogging, I have come to realise I am not unique in having these experiences, which is unfortunate, but at least a relief that it is not something to face alone. It is for this reason that I volunteered to join the Athena Swan Assessment Panel for The School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Edinburgh. Athena Swan is a charter scheme to advance gender equality particularly in science, engineering and technology, but is being extended to the humanities and social sciences. As a panel member for SHCA I will be helping to benchmark the School and develop an action plan for improvement. I am also hoping to work with Sara to develop a support network for women working in all areas of archaeology and heritage, from academia to the commerical sector. More on all of this at a later date!

Friday, 1 March 2013

Micrograph of the Month: Water-laid lenses

This is an example of where having a background in geosciences can be very useful as an archaeological micromorphologist. Although a lot of the materials that I look at are anthropogenic, there are also many processes occuring that involve natural sediments. In these micrographs you can see some nice examples of water-laid sediment crusts. Water-laid crusts are quite distinctive, and form when an inwash of water carries particles which then settle under gravity according to their size. The coarsest material requires the most energy to stay in suspension, so settles first, and gradually finer and finer particles settle out of the water, creating the banding effect, with the very fine clay particles settling out last. It occurs on a much larger scale in certain river environments wherever there is a change in the energy of the river.

This is the same idea that I was talking about that is used to seperate out the clay fraction from sediments during phytolith processing - the coarser phytolith particles settle whilst the clays stay in suspension for much longer.

These two examples appear quite similar in thin section but are occuring in very different contexts. The uppermost image is a lense of sediment buried beneath layers of bat guano in Paisley Caves, Oregon USA. In this context the feature is relict - an episode of inwash into the cave that was subsequently buried. In the lowermost image we can see the same process, but this time occuring as a post-depositional feature within a midden at Catalhoyuk, Turkey. Here, the stratified midden deposits have been disturbed relatively recently by animal burrowing, and a period of inwash (probably from rain) has deposited the material within the animal burrow. Judging by the size of the disturbed burrow area, it's a very small rodent of some sort. In A. you can the coarser particles, including bits of microcharcoal etc, B. you can see the material becomes much finer. C. and D. show a seperate episode where loose, coarse particles have fallen into the burrow and landed on top of the water-laid crust.