Thursday, 19 December 2013

Is Archaeology a Science?

Who'd have thought I'd find myself as co-convener for a third year Theoretical Archaeology module? Such is the situation I find myself in towards the end of my first year at the University of Edinburgh. I used to be one of those people who thought theory was all a bit confusing with no relevance to 'real' archaeology. This is an attitude I have found especially of researchers in archaeology who have a background in the sciences. What is the point of theory? Or I'm a scientist, I don't need theory! As an undergraduate I had a compulsory Philosophy of Science module, but I'm not sure how common this is for most science degrees. I think sometimes we don't realise that even as scientists with 'hard data', we have to interpret our data - and in archaeology especially, these data are always flawed in some way, and our interpretations steeped in our own experiences. It's a myth that scientific results can only have one interpretation. The way we use averages, choose our sample sets etc all impact the end results and skew them slightly in favour of one interpretation or another. Working on the Catalhoyuk project as a PhD student I couldn't really avoid theory, and the more I actually sat down and made the effort to make sense of it, the more it did make sense. It's one of those things that once it clicks, and you 'get it', you wonder how you ever did without it.
I am currently writing a power-point which includes a bit about deductive versus inductive reasoning. As I revise the topic I am reminded of a quote which is nicely relevant to my teaching next semester for two reasons, firstly it highlights the problem of inductive reasoning and ethnographic analogy which is sometimes invoked in archaeological interpretation, and secondly it is by David Hume, who happens to be from Edinburgh! Ok I confess, reading philosophical texts can be mighty confusing. I guess it will be a test of my teaching skills whether I can digest this into an easy to understand format for students!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Cracking archaeology Christmas present!

What a fab Christmas present idea for that special archaeologist in your life, a Catalhoyuk themed 2014 calendar! Stunning photography by the site photographer Jason Quinlan. Alas I doubt he decided to include any photos of coprolites. Still worth a look though, despite this obvious omission, there are many photos of lovely lesser features such as intricate wall paintings, Neolithic burials and exceptionally well preserved mud-brick architecture etc ;)

To Order: 

Friday, 13 December 2013

Middens and microfauna

There was a nice surprise in the post for me this morning - a copy of a new book by Professor Terry O'Connor, Animals as Neighbours: the Past and Present of Commensal Species. I contributed an image for one of the figures, of midden deposits built up around Neolithic buildings at Catalhoyuk, Turkey. As O'Connor notes, Catalhoyuk is one of the earliest human settlements to have been colonized by house mice! Not surprising, considering the sheer volume of domestic waste deposits that accumulated in such close proximity to where people were living, and the density of human occupation. This also goes to show how useful it is to integrate different lines of evidence in archaeological research - my own work on middens at Catalhoyuk has shown they contain abundant human and animal dung, which also has interesting implications for understanding human health. Dr Emma Jenkins, who works on the microfauna at Catalhoyuk, has also identified large quantities of digested microfaunal material in burials, and suggests scats containing these may have been deliberately placed there for ritualistic purposes! Despite working there for almost a decade, I still find Catalhoyuk a fascinating place. How different these people were in many ways, but the lives of mice have not changed so much!

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Earliest Neolithic of Iran

The long awaited CZAP volume is out at the end of this month, published by Oxbow. This is the first project monograph from the Central Zagros Archaeological Project (CZAP), and includes 2 (and a half) chapters co-authored by myself, on the biomolecular analysis of coprolites (oh that old chestnut!) and phytolith analysis. Dr Wendy Matthews coordinated the micromorphology analysis and directed sampling, and in the monograph she provides an excellent integration of micromorphology, phytolith and geochemical analysis to address questions about resource use and animal management at this early pre pottery Neolithic site.

I also did the chapter on molluscs - though I am in no way an expert on this, I was the most qualified person on the 2008 excavation team (having worked on a shell midden as an undergrad!), and as we unexpectedly ended up with an incredibly large volume of molluscs from the excavation, a brief preliminary report was needed (hence half a chapter - would make a great project for someone in the future!). I was part of the 2008 team, and headed out to the field literally the day after submitting my PhD. To this day it qualifies as one of the best excavations I've ever worked on (despite spending 2 months sleeping on the floor of a school classroom!). Iran is a wonderful country with a fascinating history and rich archaeological heritage, I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to take part in the project and spend time there. Sheikh-e Abad is a fantastic site, I met some wonderful people, and we made some really exciting discoveries! But you'll have to read the book to find out more about that!

Zagros archaeology - it's all about looking cool in the shades

Sunrise in the Zagros

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Micrograph of the Month - Waterlogged Wood

Here are two examples of waterlogged wood, in deposits from Medieval Riga, currently being analysed as part of the Ecology of Crusading project. It's been almost a year since I started on these slides, which were prepared in December last year - there are so many of them it is taking me quite a while to get through. It's a fascinating set of samples, such a mix of materials with some interesting post-depostional processes going on. In the upper image you can see a fragment of wood preserved entirely through waterlogging, within a mixed deposit containing charred material. This little fragment of wood has been stained orange, which is typical of waterlogging and mineralisation. In the lower image you can see a fragment of wood which has been preserved through a mix of partial burning (as seen by the black colour in the lower part of the wood), whilst the non-charred part has been preserved through waterlogging. Waterlogged deposits are relatively rare - most plant material in the archaeological record is preserved by charring. It will be interesting to see what other types of materials have been preserved in these conditions, as we work through the slides. Hopefully it will provide insights into the use of plant resources as well as the activities that were occurring in this part of the medieval city.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Blogging Archaeology - the Good the Bad and the Ugly

It's December! That means I need to be thinking about a new micrograph of the month for your viewing pleasure, but for now here is my response to the second round of questions for the Blogging Archaeology blog carnival. Click here for more info and my response to the first round in November. Very interesting to see the range of responses to the last lot. I recognised a few of the blogs taking part, as well discovering some new ones to add to my reading list.

The Good- what has been good about blogging? 

I love writing and putting together images, and my blog is a great way to keep up with that in a way that is less time consuming and stressful than writing articles and lectures. Aside from the pleasure of simply writing, it's also great fun looking at my viewer statistics. It is quite satisfying to see where my audience comes from. Sometimes I can guess who it is, for example when my relatives in Oregon have been reading, and I also get a lot of views from Edinburgh, York and Reading, the three places where I have worked, which I assume is from friends and colleagues who find my blog posts when I link to them on Facebook. And then there are the totally random views - Malaysia, South Korea, the Dominican Republic! Keywords people have searched for are also great fun - one of the funniest being Who is the Queen of Coprolites? Let's just hope they weren't actually searching for me with that one.

The Bad (and the Ugly!)

I've been lucky, no bad experiences so far. For the future I hope that I will get more interaction on my blog. I have started doing 'critique' posts where I share my thoughts on recently published articles, with the aim of getting a discussion going. Despite getting between 40 - 100 views per post (according to Blogger stats), I've only ever had 1 or 2 comments, from people I know. Most of the time I don't get any response. Maybe I am not interesting enough, or maybe I am not reaching the right audience? It's a little frustrating, but it doesn't bother me too much. For now I am blogging for my own pleasure, and hopefully over time I will get some good discussions going!

I wonder if one reason for the lack of interaction is that many people are unsure about posting opinions publicly? Unlike anonymous peer review, you are putting your name to your comments, and that can be quite daunting. I was in two minds at first whether to start my critique posts (e.g "Phytoliths don't cut the mustard?"). But if I am willing to critique papers during peer review, I should be willing to support my views publicly, right? Constructive criticism is a very necessary part of academic pursuit. I do worry that anything 'negative' I say could receive a bad reaction, but I would hope most people are willing to have an objective discussion. I think having a blog-based dialogue between opposing views could actually be more effective than blind peer review?