Monday, 29 December 2014

From the microscale to landscape

A nice bit of good news for the end of the year - I was recently appointed as assistant editor and social media editor for Landscape Research, the academic journal of the Landscape Research Group, which is published by Routledge. This means that in addition to normal editorial duties (assessing manuscripts, assigning reviewers, encouraging a quality and speedy publication process), I am also responsible for developing the social media profile of the journal. In particular, I hope to build the audience in the archaeological community, and encourage collaborative, interdisciplinary approaches to researching and understanding landscapes.

I blogged recently about how I jump in between disciplinary pigeon-holes, and the study of landscape is an area that falls into many categories. The individual elements of a landscape are from the past and present, the natural and the cultural, the tangible and the intangible. In order to understand the landscape as a whole, we need to investigate the individual components. This may involve archaeologists, historians, environmental scientists, geographers, all working on different aspects, and then the landscape specialist, who can bring it all back together to understand the landscape as a whole.

In my research I think frequently about ideas of scale, and also the integration of scientific methods and understanding the human part of the human past. It may seem strange that someone like myself, who has done so much work on archaeology at the microscale - the individual, invisible traces of human activities in the past - would be interested in the landscape scale, which is the opposite end of the scale spectrum. In reality, what I am really interested in is developing a framework for  connecting these different scales of analysis. It is all dependent on the questions that we want to ask - the scale of analysis needs to vary according to the question. This is something that is not always achieved very well in archaeology, and can have significant impacts on how we interpret and understand the past (but that is a post for another day).

Guelferbytanus A, a palimpsest manuscript (from Wikipedia)
An idea that links the microscale with the landscape is that of the palimpsest. The word palimpsest is traditionally used to describe historical texts, where multiple layers of text are superimposed - so what we see on a single page is actually multiple episodes of writing. It has been argued that much of archaeology is a palimpsest, where the signals of multiple events become superimposed within a layer of soil or sediment. When we look under the microscope the reality of this concept becomes very obvious - what looks to be a single layer in the field may actually contain multiple different layers or events under the microscope. There is no real single context. Many archaeological traces are a combination of different activities and taphonomic processes. Sometimes we can disentangle these if we look very closely under the microscope, sometimes we can't (though we may be able to narrow down the possibilities). Likewise, a landscape is very much a palimpsest. There are layers of time and meaning in the landscape, all present together as a current 'package' of information that can be understood and read in different ways.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Micrograph of the Month: Krotovinas at Çatalhöyük

Did you know that there is a word for an animal burrow that becomes backfilled with soil/sediment? That word is krotovina! At Catalhoyuk, burrowing by small mammals is probably one of the most destructive forms of bioturbation on site. Ground squirrels, or suslik as they are known in Turkey, have a great time digging their way through the nice soft archaeological sediments, mixing up the deposits as they go. When marking out locations for micromorphology sampling we try and avoid these burrows, as we want to look at intact stratigraphy. Every once in a while however, what looks to be undisturbed deposits turns out to have a hidden burrow when the slide is made. It makes the sample almost useless it terms of analysis, but in this case has given a nice example of bioturbated deposits for my teaching reference collection of slides! I have included pictures of the midden section that these micrographs come from, as it is much easier to understand what a krotovina is at the macroscale. The photo on the left highlights the multiple krotovinas in this section, which are distinctly rounded and tunnel-like. It is always important to refer back to field sections when analysing micromorphology slides, as it helps understand the spatial extent of the deposits that are being studied.

In the micrographs below you can see there that there is a lot of white 'space' - these are void areas, that is, area of space within the deposits. These are the result of the mixing that occurs when the suslik digs through the layers, loosening the deposits and kicking them backwards. The mixing can also be seen in the way all the different materials are randomly orientated. The different layers within the slide become homogenised, as if they have been shaken up and redeposited. This can also be seen clearly when we look at the thin section slide above - I have highlighted the V shaped 'burrow' that cuts through the different layers of ash.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The landscape of Stonehenge?

File:Stonehenge with farm carts, c. 1885.jpg
Stonehenge c. 1885. Wikipedia.
10th battalion CEF marching past Stonehenge1914–15 Wikipedia
It was announced earlier today that the A303 road which currently runs past Stonehenge will be re-routed through a tunnel, to remove it from view of the monument. This follows the closing of the A344 earlier last year. Although this is being done for the benefit of visitors who apparently complain about the road, I myself have mixed feelings about it. Which is odd, as I am the sort of person who generally prefers landscapes of trees and 'nature' to one of city skylines and roads. I guess the major thing that bothers me is the definition of a landscape as somehow belonging to Stonehenge. I am assuming we are trying to revert to what the landscape may have been like at the time Stonehenge was in use, by Neolithic people.
 A303 road in 1930 from Stonehenge: a history in photographs
Even if we could provide a truly accurate picture of what the landscape was like at this time, it has had thousands of years of history since then. It has become one part of a larger landscape that includes agriculture and, yes roads! Landscapes are by their very nature palimpsests, we can see the evidence of history, multiple periods superimposed, occurring within the same space, and this is part of what makes them fascinating. Landscape is dynamic, and it has many aspects - it comprises all visible features of an area from the geological and geographical, the mountains, rivers, vegetation, to the anthropogenic, the land use, buildings, electricity pylons, to the transitory and ephemeral, weather, light. Landscape is not just wilderness, it is cultural and constructed, a combination of the natural and physical, overlain by human history, reflecting and defining regional and national identity. Another perspective could be that we are removing Stonehenge from its landscape, detaching it from  the rest of its history and placing it within something artificial, designed to mimic our best guess at what it looked like during the Neolithic. 

It's curious to see how different people perceive the landscape, and what the 'ideal' should be. Helen Ghosh, Director General of the National Trust, is quoted as saying the A303 "the blight of the road that dominates the landscape of Stonehenge" and that the tunnel will create "space for nature and improve the site's tranquillity". The idea just feels very artificial to me, and it is not really going to be tranquil when you are sharing the space with hundreds of other tourists. It is amazing, imposing, inspiring, but the experience is managed, and educational. It is not tranquillity and ruin.

In some ways Stonehenge is similar to the Egyptian Pyramids at Giza - both are frequently portrayed in a very selective manner that places them in a 'natural' wilderness that appears to be free of human activity. Visitors are surprised, and perhaps disappointed, when they are shown the wider context, and find that both are actually part of a wider landscape that is distinctly urban. Even the landscape that we see today, complete with roads, is different to what it was when the land surrounding Stonehenge was given to the National Trust in 1927. Cottages and a World War 1 aerodrome were removed, and nearby there are two memorials to fatal flying accidents. To me, the photos above are a palimpsest of cultural heritage, I love that you can see so many different parts of history together. The road is arguably as much a piece of landscape history as the monument!

Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge: presentation versus reality (images all from Wikipedia)

We are concerned with all types and aspects of landscape, from wilderness and cultural landscapes to the built environment. - See more at:

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Stonehenge in a global context

English Heritage have just published a time line showing Stonehenge in a global context, and where it fits in with other major archaeological sites and monuments across the world, and also an interactive map showing what was going on in the rest of the world at the same time that Stonehenge was being built. These are the end products that came out of a report that I was commissioned to produce a couple of years ago on the world in 2500 BC, as part of the new Stonehenge visitor centre that launched earlier this year. The way archaeology is often taught, we tend think of sites in an isolated way, or simply in a regional landscape, rather than thinking of what the world as a whole was like, especially in early prehistory. Stonehenge is such an iconic monument in itself, that it is easy to forget that is was part of something bigger.

The English Heritage time line is a great way to visualise world archaeology, and to demonstrate which sites were contemporary with each other. It also highlights that the world was bit more complex than suggested by the traditional model of hunter-gatherers transitioning to settled farmers. Did you know for example that whilst Stonehenge was being constructed, people in central America were beginning to cultivate maize, whilst in north America most cultures are subsisting as nomadic hunter-gatherers, but were also engaged in monument building -  the mound of Watson Brake had already been built and abandoned by this time. In Japan the Jomon culture is flourishing, with people living in paved pit houses, but still subsisting mostly on a 'hunter-gatherer-fisher' basis. In the Indus Valley (a region that covers areas of modern day Afganistan, Pakistan and NW India), the Harappan civilisation is flourishing with full scale agriculture, and an early form of writing is being developed. The great city of Troy in Turkey is at its peak, and Gilgamesh (of Epic fame) is ruling in Mesopotamia.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

World Toilet Day - attitudes to poop in the past

I found out that today is World Toilet Day! What better chance then to have a think about toilets and the disposal of human waste in the past. Regular readers will know (and the blog title perhaps suggests...) that coprolites, or fossilised faeces, are a regular feature of my work. A big part of World Toilet Day is about education and the problems of sanitation that many people face on a daily basis. The campaign highlights the fact that excrement is a bit of a taboo topic for many people, it's something we don't feel comfortable talking about. It's a 'hidden' activity. Has this always been the case in the past? The answer from the archaeological record is no - from prehistory to the famous public latrines of the Romans, there are many examples of a more open or communal approach to defecation.

The study of human waste in archaeology, particularly faecal waste, is however a neglected topic. Coprolites don't really fit neatly into any of the major existing specialisms such as zooarchaeology, archaeobotany or osteoarchaeology. In fact they represent a little bit of everything; lovely little packages of bone fragments, seeds and plant debris, perhaps even the remains of parasites.  There are plenty of studies of ancient faeces that treat these deposits in a very scientific sense, extracting DNA, microfossils and other inclusions to look at ancient migration, health and diet.

But the production of excrement in prehistoric society is not one that we hear much about. There are multiple reasons for this, one being the problem of identification. Unless we have well preserved actual little turds in our deposits (Figure 1), human faeces can be difficult to recognise in the field. If they have been squashed and compressed, they don't bear much resemblance to poop as we know it, and can be mistaken for other types of material. Second could be that, when faced with a lovely settlement site with buildings, pottery and other fascinating objects to study, the investigation of faeces is not on anyone's priority list (except mine!).

Figure 1: How do we recognise faeces in archaeology? Above shows compressed orange layers which are in fact layers of human excrement. Below shows a more recognisable example.

It is coprolites 'in context' that has not  been thought about too much. Where are people defecating? Is this a 'hidden' activity in the past the way it tends to be today? What were the social norms for dealing with this material? These are all ideas that I have been mulling over in my work at the early Neolithic settlement of Catalhoyuk in Turkey. At Catalhoyuk, there are huge midden deposits that are located directly adjacent to the buildings. My early work on coprolites here identified that a lot of the orangey deposits that are seen in middens are in fact human faecal waste, suggesting that this was an activity that was conducted out in the open, in a communal outdoor space.

Figure 2: midden deposits directly adjacent to buildings, and full of faeces!

Although it's largely a private matter it in western societies, 15% of the global population still practice open defecation (, which is a big problem when it comes to transmitting diseases. I wonder what link there is between the toilet habits of the Catalhoyuk inhabitants and the general health of the population? Did they have strategies in place for managing this waste? There have been suggestions that the large bonfires seen in middens were a means of dealing with waste (you can see an example in Figure 2, where the large grey layers on top of the cess layers are from a bonfire). Whilst I don't agree that this was the primary purpose of these fires (I suspect they are more likely related to activities such as pottery production), the sanitation control may have been a fortunate unintended outcome. What does this apparent attitude to defecation and waste tell us about Neolithic society?

Perhaps we can learn lessons  from these Neolithic people and their attitudes to defecation. Aside from the health issues, the problem of toilet access has knock on impacts in other parts of people's lives. The World Toilet Organisation for e.g. highlights that lack of access to a toilet is one of the reasons for the poor school attendance rates of girls. If we can get over our embarrassment talking about it, the easier it will be to tackle problems of toilet access and sanitation.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Micrograph of the Month: Bits of Bones

For the past few weeks I have been revisiting some old slides from the TP excavation area at Catalhoyuk. I collected these samples  in 2004, and they were some of the first that I worked on for my PhD. At the time I found them a bit disappointing, as there is a lot of bioturbation and erosion  going on in this part of the site, which means that trying to reconstruct activities using microstratigraphic analysis is difficult. The TP area is located very close to the surface of the mound, so despite the fact that these are the youngest deposits, the preservation is nowhere near as good as the earlier, deeply buried deposits. In the end I focused more on the South and 4040 areas, with the TP samples being used as a brief comparison of how different the taphonomic processes are in different parts of the site. Which brings me on to this month's photos! I was contacted by Kamilla 
Pawłowska who is conducting zooarchaeological analysis in the TP area, and is investigating the taphonomy of the animal bones. We are now working together to see how the data from micromorphology can help understand the taphonomic processes inferred from animal bones. So I am doing a more detailed analysis of these slides, focusing specifically on bone inclusions. Here we can see 3 different bone fragments. At the top is a long 'splinter' of bone about 100mm long and 1mm wide. The surface is very 'cracked', and the ends are rounded and fragmenting. In the middle is a small bone fragment that has been weathered to a sub-rounded shape, less than 1mm at its widest point. These fragments are tiny, and would not be seen during routine recovery of bone. The deposits are full of these tiny, highly weathered fragments. The lowermost image shows a slightly larger fragment of bone, that has less 'cracking' on the surface, but is degrading in other ways. The circular features are called haversian canals, tiny little tubes found within bone. In this example they are highly weathered, and we can see at the end of the bone how it is fragmenting in situ, producing all those tiny fragments that are found throughout the sediment. These examples are just some of the many different taphonomic processes that are impacting the bones in these middens, and highlight how micromorphology can be used to shed light on other lines of evidence in archaeology.

Monday, 13 October 2014

5 Trowel Blazers who have influenced my career

I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking over the past year about women in archaeology. I've become increasingly aware of the concept of privilege and the impacts it has on the structure of academia, and since joining Twitter it is something I reflect on regularly. Twitter really is one of the best sources of information and interaction on this topic, letting you connect directly with so many people and understand different viewpoints. It is through Twitter that I became aware of the Trowel Blazers website, dedicated to promoting the contributions of women in geoscience, palaeontology and archaeology. I did a post for them recently on Florence Bascom, and hope to contribute more in future. It got me thinking about my own career and the people who have influenced it, many of who happen to be women. So here is a list of inspiring Trowel Blazing women who have influenced my career from starting university to the present day, in roughly chronological order of influence!

Dr Barbara Kennedy

Dr Kennedy, who was a karst geomorphologist, is pretty much the reason that I got a place at Oxford. As a 17 year old from a family where no one had gone to university before, I was not very well prepared for the interview process. She saw past my nervousness and managed to make my interview a not-quite-as-terrifying experience as it could have been. I still remember the map that I was asked to look at and comment on, showing geomorphological features in a karst landscape. Better than the human geography part of the interview where I was asked to identify South Africa, and thought that the answer was so obvious that I must somehow have got it wrong and said something ridiculous instead. I initially applied to Jesus College, where she was helping with interviews, but was offered a place at Barbara's college, St Hugh's instead. There she led me through 3 years of weekly essays and tutorials with her no-nonsense but effective approach to teaching. She sadly passed away this year after 26 years' at St Hugh's College, but part of her obituary makes me smile. The comment from a student in 1979 shows her distinctive style of tutorial teaching - setting a deceptively simple question that made you think.

Professor Kathy Willis

One of my first undergraduate tutorials was with Dr Willis. I was still quite shy at the time but I remember being impressed by how she went against the stereotypes I'd grown up with, showing that it is perfectly possible for women to have a family and be a successful academic. At the time I was still heavily influenced by scare stories about how you couldn't have it all, and that it was 'unusual' for women (especially with families) to be in senior academic positions. Since I was an undergrad Kathy has been promoted to Professor, runs the Oxford Biodiversity Institute, is currently science director of Kew Gardens, and also is presenting a fantastic radio show Roots to Riches. Although my research diverged from biogeography, I still keep an eye out on her research on long term environmental records and biodiversity and the work of her Long Term Ecology lab at Oxford. These long term records form the backbone of environmental reconstruction that archaeologists (should) rely on to understand human impacts and responses. Many archaeological pollen studies focus on higher resolution or shorter time scales, which are important for detecting human impacts, but which need to be interpreted against a backdrop of longer term ecological changes in response to climate change.

Dr Majorie Sweeting

I never had the chance to meet Dr Sweeting myself, but she had an important indirect role to play in shaping the direction of my career. My interests always gravitated towards long term environmental change, but when I was deciding on a dissertation topic I didn't know where to start. One thing was for certain, I was not going to do something local; I wanted to travel. Fortunately, my college had a travel award for undergraduate dissertation fieldwork, left as an endowment from Sweeting. My method for choosing my topic was therefore related to where in the world I could possibly get money to travel to. At the time I thought this would be my one and only chance to travel abroad and that I'd never get the chance to do it again. What is the farthest away place I can go? The answer was Fiji, and I was lucky that the University of the South Pacific happened to have an excavation project that summer that I was able to join. I started from an environmental perspective, looking at changes in shellfish size in a Lapita midden, but it introduced me to the world of geoarchaeology. Sweeting is a true Trowelblazer - she was one of a very small number of women who held a university and college post at Oxford in the 50s and 60s, and led the first British geomorphology research project in China, focused on karst landscapes. She is equally as fascinating for her interdisciplinary approach, combining physical geography and geology.

Dr Wendy Matthews

As one of my PhD supervisors, Wendy has had a huge influence on my career. Her ideas about the specific context of materials at the microscale, and the use of micromorphology in helping understand taphonomy of plant remains, are central to much of my own research. Her 1996 paper in World Archaeology remains one of the major contributions to the discipline of archaeological micromorphology of complex settlement sites, and is frequently cited. When I started working with Wendy during my MSc, I was still focused on the environment and interested in middens as environmental archives, having enjoyed working on this for my undergraduate dissertation. Wendy introduced me to the Catalhoyuk middens, and how these archives are a complex record not just of past environments, but of human activity. Understanding one requires understanding the other, and this interplay between humans and environment has been the theme of my work ever since.

Shahina Farid 

I still remember my first ever field season at Catalhoyuk, back in 2004. As part of the micromorphology team, I was in an unusual situation, whereby we used to only visit for a few weeks at a time, compared to other specialists such as zooarchaeology and osteoarchaeology, who would spend the entire field season on site. Micromorphology requires a lot of lab processing to produce slides for analysis, so the emphasis used to be on sampling and getting back to the lab to process them asap. Now we have more of a routine whereby we bring ready made slides from the previous year, which can then be analysed in the on-site lab, in addition to collecting any new samples. Back when I was an MSc student it was quite intimidating turning up on such a big project with such a history, and so many people working on different projects, everyone seemingly knowing exactly what is going on. Shahina was the field director at Catalhoyuk until 2013, and throughout my PhD answered my questions, provided essential information on stratigraphy and context, and made me feel welcome when I visited the site. For more on her many contributions to archaeology, check out her recent bio on Trowelblazers here!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The interdisciplinary continuum in studies of Humanity and the Earth

Sometimes I find it hard to put myself into a subject area box. I was a Geography undergraduate, a Geoarchaeology MSc student, and did a PhD jointly in Chemistry and Archaeology. What does that make me? I used to say I was a geoarchaeologist, applying the methods of geoscience to archaeological questions. But I realised that was too narrow, as even the methods I draw upon vary depending on the question being asked, and indeed a multi-proxy approach is something which I try  to promote. My main research interests are the relationships between humans and the environment, how this has changed over time, and how it varies in different geographic settings. Very much a theme of environmental archaeology, but also geography.

Geography has been called the subject that bridges the human and physical sciences, encompassing the Earth and all of its natural and human components, and the dynamic relationship between the two. Physical geography seeks to describe and explain the spheres of the Earth - the lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, atmosphere. It is closely linked with other geosciences such as geology, which inform specific aspects of these 'spheres'. Human geography is concerned with the people, and investigates the processes that shape human society - social, political, cultural, economic. The two are distinct, yet inextricably linked, and in theory the two parts of the discipline are complimentary and inform each other. Being at the interface of the two, an environmental geographer, is arguably the most exciting, but also the most challenging, not quite fitting in to a neat little box.

Anthropology too is the study of humans, both in the past and the present, drawing on physical and social sciences. In the UK it focuses on socio-cultural aspects, the customs, structures, relations, religions, but also the economic and political organisation to name a few. In the US it is divided into 4 parts (or sub-fields), cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology and archaeology. This 4 field approach encourages integrated approaches to the study of humans, from their biology to their cultures, with archaeology being the study of humans in the past. I like that the 4 field approach leans towards the interdisciplinary. I would take this further and say that we also need to look beyond the confines of these traditionally defined sub-disciplines, drawing on whichever subject areas can inform the research questions.

Archaeology in the UK is largely seen as a separate discipline to Anthropology. I think if we focus on the methods of archaeology, there is a case to be made for it being 'separate', and indeed this is the area where I had the most to learn when I shifted from being a geographer to being an environmental archaeologist. Approaching the archaeological record requires a different sort of approach to modern material culture and living humans. Its methods of data acquisition give nods to geoscience (stratigraphy, taphonomy and formation processes) and physical sciences (preservation, characterisation), yet are highly distinctive. The process of interpretation on the other hand requires an understanding (or appreciation!) of the complexity of human behaviour that draws on anthropology, and an awareness of our own theoretical biases which are rooted in philosophy.

So, how do we understand human-environment relationships in the past? What are these relationships? How have they changed over time? How do they vary in different environmental settings? We need the methods of geography, the methods of archaeology, informed by anthropology if we are to understand the complex human-environment dynamic. I examine anthropogenic sediments, and integrate analysis of microfossils with microstratigraphy and geochemistry (geoscience). I link this micro data back to excavation, macrofossils and artefacts (archaeology).  I try to make sense of what these linked data tell us about the people that produced these deposits, what activities they were engaged in, what and environments they inhabited and utilised. Sediments as material culture, and sediments as environmental archives.

So, what am I? An enviro-geo-archaeologist-geographer who dabbles in chemistry and philosophy? And you, reader, are you more easily defined?

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Micrograph of the Month: The Other Paisley Poop

Paisley Caves became well known a few years ago for it's famous coprolites, or fossil faeces, which were found to contain human DNA, dated between 14,170 and 14,340 cal. BP. Although there have been questions over the identification of these as human (and work is still ongoing), this ancient DNA analysis currently provides some of the earliest evidence for human occupation of North America. The research at Paisley has been key in demonstrating the utility of coprolites as an archaeological ecofact that can contribute to the wider picture of the human past, rather than simply a 'novelty' area of study or one which is purely ecological. But human poop isn't the only kind we find at Paisley Caves, in fact it isn't even the most common, by far! In this month's micrographs we have pictures of the poop that occurs most frequently at the site, bat poop. This stuff is fascinating, and is a huge contributor to the sediment profile of the caves. In the upper left at the lowest magnification you can see how thick layers of sediment in the cave are composed almost entirely of bat droppings. The pellets vary in size around 3-4cm. The black arrow points to a tiny bone fragment, and the blue arrow points to the distinctive compound eye of an insect that has been eaten. In the lower left image is an example of what the bat dropping deposits look like from lower down in the sequence. Due to compression and decomposition, the individual pellets have started to fuse together to the point where it is difficult to see individual pellets at the macroscale. On the upper right we have a close up at x100 and x200 of an individual pellet, where you can see the insect eye more clearly.

Monday, 22 September 2014

What do dinosaurs and archaeology have in common?

What do dinosaurs and archaeology have in common? Nothing, surely! the archaeologist may say with a knowing smile. There is a bit of a running joke amongst archaeologists that one of the first questions people ask is do you dig up dinosaurs? And the response being well no, you're thinking of palaeontology. Both disciplines are associated with trowel usage, and summers of field work digging stuff up. There may even be some overlap in terms of questions asked - the nature of long term environmental and ecological change, especially the further back in time we go to the earliest origins of hominids. In general however, archaeology is focused on the study of material remains of human societies (largely anatomically modern humans), whilst palaeontology focuses on all other life forms prior to the beginning of the Holocene. And not just dinosaurs.

There is another area where these two research areas overlap, and that is the way in which discoveries in these disciplines make it from the academic into the public sphere. In archaeology, it is always the earliest evidence of xyz that is likely to make the news. Neanderthals are also popular, as is anything on famous topics such as Stonehenge (we already knew that Stonehenge was 'far from being alone' in the landscape), Richard III, or anything gruesome (or some combination, such as Richard III and his 'brutal last moments' of being 'hacked to death'). Dinosaurs suffer from this too. I was reminded recently when the story of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus was all over the news and Twitter feeds. From the way it was presented, you'd have thought we'd never heard of this dinosaur before, or that we never knew there were swimming dinosaurs. Bother of which are not true. A critique on the way that the Spinosaurus study was reported, by Paul Barrett of the NHM, indicates that this is symptomatic, where only the large scary theropods make the news, even through the studies do not really advance our wider understanding of evolution and diversity. The big teeth and claws of palaeontology are the brutal deaths and earliest humans activities of archaeology.

Big teeth and gruesome death: Sue the T Rex and Richard III (pictures from Wikipedia)

It is not just just a case of what makes the news, but what makes it into the coveted pages of Nature and Science journals. In some ways the problem of archaeology is less than in palaeontology. As Paul Barrett says, "Who really cares if one giant theropod was 50 cm longer than another?". Whereas the earliest evidence of say, milk consumption, or occupation of the Americas, is of greater significance to our understanding of the human past. The problem is that the wider significance of these studies is often downplayed or ignored in favour of the headline grabbing potential. It also skews the perception of what archaeology is all about. It is not just about discovering the earliest dates that humans were capable of doing xyz. Archaeology has an important role to play in informing modern day issues, such as the response of societies to environmental degradation or climate change. Or the ways in which traditional farming practices can be used to inform more sustainable agriculture. Archaeology is about the past, but the lessons of the past are relevant for the present.

Are we underestimating the 'public' audience? Is the biggest, the scariest or the earliest really all they are interested in? One of the comments on the post by Barrett suggests that the non-specialist community just likes these sorts of things more, that "one cannot change people preferences towards dinosaurs, and towards the predators, the largest ones". Is this really the case? Or is it because this is all that we hear about?

Monday, 8 September 2014

Micrograph of the Month: Layers of reeds

A little bit late this month as I've recently moved office and only just had my microscope camera software installed on my new PC. Incidentally this is also the reason I haven't added scale bars to these images, as I haven't had the chance to calibrate the magnification for the software (you have to tell the computer what the magnifications are by taking measurements of known lengths on a micrometer). The image to the left is at x10 magnification, the one on the right is x20. Here we are looking at some ashy deposits from the Babylonian city of Tell Khaiber, Iraq (being excavated as part of the Ur region project). These are absolutely full of plant phytoliths and grass derived microcharcoal. The structure of these conjoined cell phytoliths is beautifully preserved. I have highlighted the multiple layers of plant tissue that are likely to be from reeds (a bundle of stems?). The stacked bulliform phytoliths are typical of reeds, and are often seen as individual cells. Here we can see how they fit in to the wider cell structure of the plant tissue. The overall deposit has loads of these in it, all randomlly orientated and mixed, suggesting that this has been swept up and redeposited rather than forming in situ (where you would expect some alignment to the orientation).
You can read the 2014 excavation report for the site here.

The Tell Khaiber pilot micromorphology study has been possible through a grant awarded by the University of Edinburgh Munro Research Grant.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Closing down - Ness of Brodgar final day

Not too much to report, aside from the fact I've had a productive and successful, albeit short, field trip this year. I managed to collect 20 large block samples during the week I've been here, which is more than enough to keep me occupied for the foreseeable future. The midden deposits I sampled in Trench T cover the early to late sequence, and hopefully we will be able to distinguish differences in activities and resource use between these phases. Will we see similar things going on here as we see in the main excavation area? Or will there be differences between these two parts of the site? Just some of the many questions we are hoping to answer! For now I will leave you with these fine images of the site being covered over until next year!

More tyres than archaeologists

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Ness of Innsmouth, Day 2

Dig house in the distance, Stones of Stenness to the right. Ominous rain clouds overhead.

Day 2 at the Ness. I had some things to sort out in Kirkwall this morning so took the local bus to site. It only takes about 30 minutes but it drops off on the main road, and then you have to walk all the way along the peninsula to get to the excavation. Lovely view, but increasingly rainy and windy the further you get towards site, almost as if it’s in its own little otherworldly wet dimension. Glad I invested in an all-weather notebook. On site I’ve been getting on with taking micromorphology samples out of the midden section in Trench T. The excavation in this part of the site is being supervised by Dr Ben Chan, who I previously worked with on the Feeding Stonehenge project. There are other familiar faces from York too – Prof Mark Edmonds and Alison McQuilkin, who recently completed her dissertation on phytoliths from the famous Mesolithic site of Star Carr. The Ness is like a magnet for archaeologists!
Block samples wrapped up

Sampling today has been a bit more challenging that yesterday. Because of all the rain we’ve been getting, the deposits are saturated with water. My usual method for collecting blocks is cutting directly from the section with a knife and wrapping tightly with tissue and tape. This is somewhat different from the ‘standard’ method, which involves shoving a metal tin (Kubiena tin) into a section and working the sample out that way. I like the tissue and tape method as it allows you to choose the size of the sample, according to the stratigraphy; with Kubiena tins you are limited to the size of the tins. From previous experience I have also found that drier deposits can become dislodged easier in tins, and the best method to use varies depending on the deposits. Tins would probably work well at the Ness, as deposits are generally quite compact. Cutting is working quite well but I have to be careful at the interface of different deposit types, to make sure the block doesn’t fall apart! And I have to double the thickness of the tissue I’m using so that it doesn’t tear when it gets wet. This is quite the midden - whereas the middens I worked on at Çatalhöyük were impressive in their depth, this Ness midden is impressively long, covering most of the length of the trench. Ben reckons that it may represent different episodes of build-up that have ‘merged’ into what we can see in the field today. 11 collected so far, working my way down the slope tomorrow!

Monday, 18 August 2014

Return to the Ness! Day 1

Layers of ashy midden deposits sitting on glacial till
A dizzying view of excavations in Trench T
After a small adventure involving delayed flights, gale force winds and navigating with no GPS signal (how did we ever cope before smart phones with Google Maps?), I finally arrived in Orkney yesterday. This is actually the last week of excavation before the trenches are covered over until next year, so it’s all very quiet on site. Most of the students have left, and the remaining teams are working to complete recording by the end of the week. I have had a quick tour around to get a feel for what’s happened since I was here last year, and have spent today planning my sampling strategy. As usual so much is going on and there’s plenty for a micromorphologist to do. This year I am focusing on collecting samples from middens in Trench T. Regular blog readers will have seen the snippets I’ve posted about my analysis of middens in the central excavation areain 2013. Although analysis of the 2013 slides is still in progress, we can already see some interesting features, possibly related to burnt fat deposits, but also small fragments of wood charcoal, which is interesting considering the low volume of charcoal recovered from excavation (is this a result of taphonomy/preservation? Or is it a result of not much wood being used?).

There are two strands to my work. The first is to help resolve questions that arise during excavation related to the formation processes of these deposits and the activities they represent. The second is to examine the nature of resource use, particularly the use of fuel, through the remains that we see in middens, with comparative material from ‘primary’ ash deposits in hearths. Even in the field we can see differences in the thickness, colour and extent of different ‘ashy’ layers. What sorts of fuels are represented? Did this vary seasonally or on longer timescales? How is this linked to fire-related activities such as pottery production?   
Sampling underway in Trench T

Interdisciplinary work is key when addressing questions like this. The team of specialists includes magnetic susceptibility, pXRF amongst others, and to understand these deposits requires integration of all these different lines of evidence. The most exciting bit will be when everyone has completed their analyses, and we get to compare all of our data! Will it tell the same story, or will there be conflicting lines of evidence? And how do the results from on-site analysis compare with what we know about the wider landscape? Pollen records from Orkney have traditionally been interpreted as showing a 'treeless' landscape by c. 5000BP, though the picture may be more complicated depending where on the islands you are looking, and newer studies show woodland may have persisted into the Bronze Age (Farrell et al. 2012)

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Geoarchaeology at the Crusader Castle of Margat (Qal’at al-Marqab), Syria

I'm pleased to announce the publication of the final article on my work at Margat Castle, Syria:

Shillito, L-M., Major, B., Almond, M., Anderson, E. and Pluskowski, A. in press. Micromorphological and geochemical investigation of formation processes in the refectory at the Castle of Margat (Qal’at al-Marqab), Syria Journal of Archaeological Science

For those without a subscription the final version of the manuscript is also available open access on my academia page here (you'll need to log in).

This is the end product of a pilot study I started in 2010. It was initially envisaged to be a test for a larger program of research, looking at differences in activities and resource use between different phases of the castle's occupation, but unfortunately due to the deteriorating situation in Syria, I was never able to return. I still have the lovely gifts I was given by the Syrians I worked and lived with. I wish there was some way of knowing if they are ok. I have posted about these samples on and off for a while now. I've been working on them in the background, as my main focus has been on other projects and teaching, and I feel especially sad to be packing them away in the 'analysed' box. I might get them out for teaching next year.

As well as being a great site, this has also been an experience for me as informally publishing 'work in progress' reports on my blog, before the final paper was submitted. It's interesting to see how the work developed. I am especially grateful to Hans Huisman, a micromorphologist who got in touch after seeing some of my blog posts and offered very useful advice on some of the features. My first post on Margat was back in 2012, when I gave a brief introduction to my work and our hopes to identify different types of mortar, though in the end that aspect of the research was put on hold as our samples were just too limited to say much. The second was one of my monthly micrographs, showing the different types of basalt pebbles that are frequently seen in thin section. The director of the site thinks that the basalt pebbles were collected from a nearby beach, and we see them used as flooring in some parts of the castle. I used another set of images for another monthly micrograph image, this time showing lime fragments containing forams. You can see why this is such as fascinating site if you are interested in different building materials and technology, there is such a variety of materials used, which I'm sure we could link to different parts of the landscape, to help understand resource use and provisioning of the castle. The real 'work in progress' post was a plea for information, this strange speckled appearance that I hadn't really seen before, and thought might be manganese, turned out to be iron oxide (though there is still a bit of Mn in there). The final post shows dung deposits with metal oxide staining, and explains how my interpretation of these deposits was adjusted after discussion with Dr Huisman.

So there you go, the story behind the paper. I hope it is a useful contribution, and that some day peace will return to the beautiful country of Syria, and that I will be able to meet up with the kind people I worked with, and show them the thin section slides.