Monday, 30 November 2015

Microfossil of the Month: Discus diatoms

Almost forgot to post a microfossil for November! That would be sad as I've managed to do the monthly micrograph then microfossil posts every month for almost two years now. I've just been so busy with teaching, and the lack of microscope camera makes taking pictures a bit more of an effort than it used to be. Good news is that we do have a new set of microscopes and cameras for the archaeology lab here at Newcastle, hurray! The lab however is located in a different building to my office, so photograph acquisition still requires a bit more planning than it used to. As it is almost the end of 2015 (yikes), I am thinking of a new monthly blog feature, perhaps a thin section of the month, where I show you exciting pictures of whole thin section slides!

But for now, here is something very pretty. Like the sponge spicules I posted earlier in the year, these little creatures are not my specific area of expertise, but they occasionally show up in my phytolith slides. They are little unicellular organisms that produce beautiful silica cell walls (or 'frustules') in all shapes and sizes. They are used in palaeoecological studies to look at things like changing water acidity, as they are very sensitive to local changes in the environment, and work well alongside other techniques such as pollen analysis. There have been very limited applications of diatom analysis in archaeology. The only purely archaeological case study I could find was in Antiquity journal - a study to determine the cause of death of a Neolithic child discovered in a well in Sweden. The diatoms recovered from the well and skeleton enabled the archaeologists to reconstruct the water conditions, and also to determine that the child was alive when they entered the water, as diatoms were recovered from inside the bone marrow. The study screamed 'taphonomy' at me, as it is unclear how the diatoms enter the bone marrow. But apparently the method is used in modern forensic cases, and diatoms in bone marrow are an 'accepted' sign of drowning - diatoms enter the lungs in water during drowning and are deposited around the body from blood circulation. My very brief review of the literature indicates that it is not entirely accepted in the forensic community, and that diatoms are also found in non-drowned cases. Pesky taphonomy.

Anyways, this image is from my diatom test plate - a set of 25 reference specimens. The close up is of Arachnoidiscus ehranbergi (left) and Coscinodiscus oculus iridis (right). What wonderful names, presumably from the Greek for spider and sieve respectively, and Latin discus, and both named by Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg in the 1800s. I chose these two to zoom in on as they remind me a bit of Xmas baubles, and I'm feeling a bit festive.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Call for Papers: European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2016, Geoarchaeology session

I am pleased to announce a session I am co-organizing at the EGU 2016, Geoarchaeology: Human adaptation to landscape changes, landscape resilience to human impact, and integrating palaeoenvironmental and archaeological records (GM6.2/SSS3.10), supported by the International Working Group on Geoarchaeology. If you are an archaeologist who has never been to a EGU I would highly recommend it - it gives you an important insight into work going on in the geoscience community, much of which is relevant to themes archaeologists are interested in. I first attended in 2010 (being lucky enough to be awarded an early career grant - see below), and I remember being very impressed my projects integrating historic documentary sources with climate data for example, in looking at human responses to environmental change, and if you are into isotopes, you are very likely to find the latest in cutting edge methods coming from the geoscience community. Likewise environmental archaeologists, come and learn about the new proxy methods that people are using for lake core analysis!

Our session is broadly geoarchaeology, with a focus on multidisciplinary approaches, integrating multiple datasets, and promoting a greater degree of interaction between archaeology and geosciences. So basically everything that I go on about in my blog all the time. Our keynote speaker is Professor Jamie Woodward, editor of Geoarchaeology journal and author of the popular The Ice Age: A Very Short Introduction. We are now accepting abstracts, which are open until January 13th 2016. However if you are an early career researcher (undergrad, postgrad or postdoc) and want to apply for financial support, you need to get your abstract in by December 1st. Any questions get in touch!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

AEA conference 2015 - some thoughts on taphonomy, equifinality, and multi-proxy approaches

This weekend I went to my first AEA conference. As a student, then as a fixed term post-doc, it is difficult to fund conference attendance, and also to find the time when there are so many conferences to choose from. Having done a few years of the big conferences (SAA and EAA) to maximise audience and networking opportunities, I’ve decided to spend some time at the smaller ones, where I can focus on my specific interests. Overall it has been an enjoyable weekend, and it was great to be back in York and catch up with old friends and colleagues, including Matthew Collins, who I can’t thank enough for writing me many references over these past few years (I bet he’s relieved that I finally got a job so he can stop writing them!).

There are three ‘themes’ that stood out for me at the conference. The first was the study of taphonomy, and how wildly different this is between different techniques in environmental archaeology. The second was the recognition of the advantages of integrating methods, approaches, lines of evidence, whether this be through the use of multiple environmental proxies, or using archaeological alongside historical evidence. The third was the social media side of things – a relatively highly tweeted conference, there was some discussion over the etiquette of live tweeting. My thoughts on the first two feature here, the latter I will write about in a different post.

A little bit of background for the unfamiliar, taphonomy is the word we use to describe the processes that have had an impact on the archaeological record. What has caused the patterns that we see? It is not a straightforward process of counting bones or plants, we have to consider things like preservation – how much has been eroded away? Have some materials preserved better than others? Has material been physically altered in some way? All of these things ‘blur’ the human activity signal that we are trying to ‘read’ from the archaeological record.

I was happy to see the glamorous world of dung analysis featuring on several occasions, the first of which was a paper by Don O Meara, in which he conducted his very own taphonomic experiments on the impacts of the human digestive system on the preservation of various botanical remains. I will spare you the methodological details (it’s exactly what you think). The results were very interesting. He showed that the survival of seeds within the digestive system is incredibly variable, with some species not surviving at all, whilst others preserved differently depending on the extent to which they are chewed etc. The most notable result was the lack of standardisation with such processes, the lack of consistency in the patterns, making it difficult to apply these experiments to archaeology in general. This contrasts heavily with zooarchaeology, where these sorts of experiments can produce repeatable results and patterns which can then be identified in archaeological material.
Unsurprisingly this got me thinking about phytolith taphonomy. Taphonomic studies seem to be taken much more seriously in other specialist areas, perhaps because it is possible to do repeatable studies and get meaningful consistent data? O Meara made the distinction between biostratinomy and diagenesis i.e. some material never even enters the archaeological record, whilst other material is modified after it enters the record. Both aspects of taphonomy influence the archaeological assemblage in different ways. With phytoliths we have the added problem that, unlike seeds, we really don’t have a clear idea of the variability in production between different plants, and the wide range of environmental and other factors that influence this. If a seed were studied as phytloliths, one seed would equal thousands of phytoliths – how then do we say anything meaningful with a sample set that could represent a fraction of a single plant? On a more positive note, O Meara also suggested that taphonomy is not simply destructive, but we can think of it as adding a layer of information.

The second ‘dung’ themed paper was by Eline van Asperen, who studies dung fungal spores as a proxy for past herbivore abundance. The potential of dung spores as a proxy is as an indicator of openness in the landscape. This is something that is difficult to achieve with pollen studies, which can give you an idea of vegetation composition, but not the ‘pattern’ of that vegetation within a landscape. Again the question of taphonomy was raised, and I was very impressed by van Asperen’s systematic experimental work, and the willingness to admit that interpretation of fossil data can be very problematic. As one example, spore abundance is assumed to correlate with herbivore abundance, but her studies showed that spores can actually show up, in large numbers, in areas that animals have not had access to. This is despite the fact that spores only travel c. 50cm. Something else which is directly relevant to phytolith studies was the impact of processing methods on the spore asssemblage. Spores have often been extracted alongside pollen, but she showed that this can alter the morphology of the spores to the extent that thy cannot be identified, whilst some types do not survive the process at all. Of great concern when you are looking at ratios of different fossil types, and when you are using (often subtle) morphological features to identify the genus or species. I look forward to reading more about her experiments, which are looking at the depositional pathways of the spores. Something else that really needs to be done for phytoliths.

Another paper I liked on Saturday was by Emily Johnson. It was a zooarchaeology paper looking at different types of bone fractures, but reminded me of the work we did on the Feeding Stonehenge project. There were a number of points I thought were interesting, and were lessons for the wider subject beyond animal bones. The first was to do with the way that we measure and present data, and the influence this can have on the interpretations we make. For me it also highlighted how essential it is for other studies, such as pottery lipid analysis, to integrate evidence to get a better picture of what was going on in the past. With the Stonehenge data, we know about the volume of animals and butchery through the zooarchaeology, whilst pottery lipids tell us more about how the animals were used and processed for a specific activity. Likewise with Johnson’s study, I wondered about the lipid signal for grease processing in pots, could this be distinguished from other types of fat from the same animal? Also the question of spatial distribution – often in pottery residue studies, a sample of pots is taken from a site, and considered as a single category. Both the Stonehenge study and Johnson show that specific context is hugely important - different activities are occurring, and associated waste is being deposited, in different locations. If we don’t consider the spatial dimension, we are only seeing a fraction (of a fraction) of the overall picture.
Another paper I really enjoyed was by Suzi Richer. From an archaeobotanical perspective, she questioned the way that commercial archaeology often puts forward one interpretation as objective fact when producing an environmental report, when there may be multiple possible interpretations. I don’t think this is a problem just in the commercial world, we see it all the time in academic archaeology as well. Suzi asks what is constraining us? Are we afraid to admit we don’t have an objective, definite explanation for what we see? In the commercial sector, will other stakeholders (such as engineers) not take archaeology seriously if it doesn’t say something definitive? In academia, why are we worried that admitting there may be more than one way to interpret the data? Do we choose the interpretation we like the best, or that is more exciting? I agree hold heartedly with her final point, that by integrating multiple lines of evidence we can help reduce the problem of equifinality.
This leads on nicely to the geoarchaeology papers. I think geoarchaeology is inherently multi-proxy, as it covers such a wide range of methods, compared to archaeobotany and zooarchaeology. So does this help narrow down the interpretations? The geoarchaeology papers variously combined micromorphology, phytolith analysis, geochemistry (µXRF, pXRF, ICP-AES). The first, which was commendable in its attempt to integrate geoarchaeology data with spatial patterning of lithics, was Charlotte Rowley (et al)’s study of Flixton Island. However I did have some concerns. The approach reminded me of my own PhD, where I spent the best part of my first year doing a similar ‘look and see’ geochemistry on sediment samples. It turned out that the (mountains of) data didn’t show much of interest, and/or there were so many possible explanations for the data as to make it of little use. This is a real problem with spatial geochemistry studies, discussed recently in a review by Matthew Canti and Dirk Huisman.
Barbora Wouters presented a range of examples from towns in medieval northern Europe, highlighting how integrating multiple methods can provide a better explanation of processes. As this has been my own methodological approach I am very keen to see that there are others working on this area. Overcoming (some) of the problems of phytolith taphonomy, but at the same time showing the daunting complexity. The µXRF showed the huge variation that you can get in geochemical data over a small area. If this is what we are seeing when we focus on specific points, what are we missing when we measure bulk samples? An averaged signal from hundreds of activities, a chemical palimpsest?
Hayley McParland’s study on phytoliths and macrobotanics at Songo Mnara looked for activity areas in different parts of the site. It offered some tantalising hints of the variety of plant use, and it is great to see the whole range of plant remains being analysed simultaneously across a site. As with other phytolith studies, I feel we are still unsure of the complexities of depositional pathways and whether we are seeing a direct activity indicator or something else? The more phytoliths I see from different environments, the more I realise that preservation at Çatalhöyük is highly unusual. To me this is an example of where taphonomy can be seen to be adding information – if phytoliths are degraded and worn, what is that telling us about the processes? At Çatalhöyük we only ever see phytoliths like this where they have been deposited in exposed external areas and have become highly trampled and weathered. Is there a difference in degradation index between different areas – external versus internal space?
Lots to think about! Hence the tl;dr post - thanks if you made it this far :)

Friday, 6 November 2015

Pollen for Archaeologists

The past few weeks have been pollen themed. Teaching pollen for Environmental Archaeology, and a new paper out on pollen analysis (and geoarchaeology) at Radzyń Chełminski in Poland. The latter is from my time working on the Ecology of Crusading project, and is a nice case study in using multi-proxy approaches, including historical documentary sources, to investigate landscape change. Pollen analysis is not my area of research expertise, but I have spent a long time working with pollen data. As a geography undergraduate I had several pollen classes for modules in Quaternary Environments and Biogeography, and it also featured heavily in my MSc Geoarchaeology. Pollen analysis does what it says on the tin - we extract pollen grains from sequential layers in sediment cores, and count them to see how vegetation has changed over time. If we have a sediment layer dated to 1000 years ago that is full of oak pollen for example, we can reasonably assume that there was an oak woodland somewhere in the region 1000 years ago, even if the landscape today looks quite different. Of course interpretation is complicated by a variety of factors, including differential production and dispersal of pollen in different species. Pollen analysis is sometimes referred to as palynology, from the Greek paluno (sprinkle) and logy 'study', but technically this refers to more than just pollen, and includes a wide variety of palynomorphs such as spores, dinoflagellates and algae. Palynology  doesn't however include my own favorite microfossils, the phytoliths, which are biological 'casts' of plant tissues.

Pollen is one of those techniques that I feel is under appreciated - all archaeologists should be aware of how pollen analysis works, as it forms the basis of vast majority of environmental reconstructions, which are central to our understanding of questions such as the development of agriculture, patterns of migration, to anthropogenic landscape change. It is for these reasons that pollen analysis is one of the key 'practical' techniques that I focus on in my Environmental Archaeology teaching. In the past I have focused largely on working with reference material, being able to identify key genera/species, and how pollen keys work. However whilst designing a new module at Newcastle, specifically for students without a background in sciences, I wanted to go beyond this and focus on the experience of working with archaeological samples, which I think is a better way of demonstrating some of the problems and limitations of the technique. But what to do without a good set of 'easy' archaeological slides to work with? I came across a great solution developed by Prof Christopher Hill at Boise State University, Idaho - create your own 'virtual' pollen slides! It's a pretty simple idea - using pictures of pollen grains you can create an 'assemblage' on a PowerPoint slide, provide a reference key for expected species, and students can go through the process of counting, data interpretation and presentation. It worked really well, and can easily be scaled for larger class sizes. I'm hoping to develop a similar exercise for phytoliths!

Monday, 26 October 2015

Microfossil of the Month: Which Wood?

Something a little bit different for October. This fits in nicely with what I've been up to this week, preparing teaching materials on wood charcoal analysis in archaeology. Although I am not technically a wood specialist, I am wondering if I should pick up a new skill set, as it would actually be very useful as a thin section micromorphologist. This image shows a cross section through an unidentified fragment of wood charcoal in a thin section of sediments from the tower at Cesis Castle, Latvia. There are layers within the sediment that are full of tiny wood charcoal fragments, and actually we see bits of wood a lot when looking at thin sections of ash samples, unsurprisingly. You can see the annual rings quite clearly in this fragment, and it can be identified as a soft wood species (coniferous) due to the lack of pores. Soft woods are a bit more difficult to identify than hard woods (from deciduous trees), as their structure is more simple and less distinctive. In this example we can see resin canals, which do not have a very thick layers of cells surrounding them, which suggests this is from the genus Pinus. The transition from the earlywood part of the ring to the late wood is fairly distinct which excludes a number of species. Possibilities include black pine (Pinus negra), mountain pine (Pinus mugo) or Scots/Common pine (Pinus sylvestris), all of which have distinct rings and abrupt change from early wood to late wood, and large resin canals with thin walls. Scots pine is one of the dominant species in Latvia today so seems the most likely candidate. As I do not have my own extensive reference collection, I have to use digital reference collections to help make IDs - luckily there are lots of great collections out there, for example which covers central European species. Are you an anthracologist? What is your ID suggestion? Answers in the comments! :)

Wood charcoal fragment with early wood (black arrow) and late wood (white arrow) labelled. Together the early wood and late wood form the annual ring. The early wood grows faster, late wood grows more slowly and is denser.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Say Cheese! Feeding Stonehenge

The beginning of the semester at Newcastle is just flying by. So many exciting opportunities for the future - but right now a little something from the past. Back in 2010 I started a postdoctoral position with the BioArCh group at the University of York, investigating food residues in pottery from Durrington Walls, thought to be the settlement that housed the builders of Stonehenge. I've blogged about the progress of the project on a number of occasions, and wrote about it for the Day of Archaeology back in 2012. This week the academic paper from all that hard work was published in Antiquity journal, along with a university press release, and it's very satisfying to see the final results in print. Being related to Stonehenge, I suspected it may be of general interest, and I was quite excited to see whether the media would run the story. I spent yesterday evening watching with a combination of awe and horror at how this process unfolds - a carefully worded story of science has been interpreted either as 'they liked to barbecue after work' or 'they ate a lot of cheese'. Sigh. That's one way of looking at it. Sort of.

The BBQ bit is pretty accurate -  the animal carcasses with burnt extremities is pretty definitive - but it is the implications of this practice that is the most exciting part of the story. Building Stonehenge would have required a huge number of people, and a significant level of organisation and cooperation. These 'feasting' remains point to one of the processes by which these people came together in a large group, and tells us a lot about this society. The cheese bit, well - we found dairy fat residues, which tended to be in the small 'hand sized' pots, rather than the large 'cauldron' types that the pig fats were found in. We can't say definitively which dairy product this was, though yogurt or cheese seem more likely than milk. Though I do like the idea of these being little milk drinking cups! Again, the interesting bit is the prevalence of the different food types - a relatively small proportion of dairy products, and only in some areas of the site, compared to a huge abundant of meat. Another take is that dairy products were the 'food of the Gods' - the restriction of dairy to 'ceremonial' areas supports the idea of a ritual purpose, though not necessarily for the 'gods'.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Microfossil of the Month - Globigerina Ooze

A bit of a geoscience themed iPhone micrograph for September (I am getting quite good at this iPhone down the eyepiece photo taking thing). Yes, there really is a sediment called ooze...Globigerina ooze! Archaeologists are probably aware that much of our global scale climate reconstructions come from the isotopic analysis of deep sea sediment cores, and Globigerina ooze is one of these sediments. Huge areas of the ocean floor are covered in this stuff, which consists largely of the shells of various foraminifera, of which the species Globigerina bulloides is the most common. The shells of these little creatures are composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and it is the oxygen component of this that is used for oxygen isotope analysis in the reconstruction of temperature in the past. The name Globigerina ooze was first used to describe the sediment during planning and construction of the earliest transatlantic telegraph cables. They are very delightful looking little things, and although we don't really come across them much in archaeology, they do turn up occasionally in building materials for example, and it is useful to be able to distinguish them from other microfossils such as diatoms and pollen. And even though archaeologists don't work on deep sea cores, we certainly rely on the climate data from these analyses. In order to understand climate and environmental change on archaeological timescales, we must understand the wider context of global environmental change in the Quaternary.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Ochre in Orkney

Oh the excitement! Today I received a parcel from Earthslides, with 20 new thin section samples from the Ness of Brodgar. These samples were collected in 2014 and are mostly from the Trench T midden. Although I don't yet have the kit in place to do a proper analysis, I couldn't resist having a quick peek with my old Swift scope. The level of complexity is daunting - so may fine layers of stratigraphy hidden within layers that appear relatively homogeneous in the field. But already I can see something interesting things - layers of burnt peat,  a very large amount of burnt bone, and even a tiny fragment of red ochre pigment, about 2mm in diameter. This pigment has been found in various contexts in Orkney (and elsewhere around the world), for example Gordon Childe at Skara Brae found containers of pigment he interpreted as 'paint pots'.  At the Ness it is thought that the pigment was ground down and used as a paint for the stone walls in buildings. Behold my attempts at taking photos down the eyepiece with my iPhone camera - sorry about all the reflections, but you get the idea!

Tuesday, 8 September 2015


Like many archaeologists, and people in general, I am deeply saddened by the ongoing destruction of cultural heritage in Syria, and the plight of the people who have become refugees. Every time there is a new horror story in the news, I've been going back to my photographs from the time I spent in Syria in 2010. I didn't have time to go and see Palmyra, and it saddens me that I will never get the chance now. What saddens me more is that I have no way of knowing what has happened to the Syrians I met while I was working there. The lovely guy who helped me with my paperwork at the border crossing from Turkey, and made sure I got on the right bus to get to Baniyas. The lovely family I met, who gave me a Syrian pop music CD and a carved cowry shell. The shopkeepers at Al-Hamidiyah Souq who sold me olive soap and beautiful inlaid boxes. The local man who showed me around Margat castle - we couldn't communicate well as he had no English and I have even less Arabic, but we somehow managed with smiles and gestures, and he asked me to take his photo. To think that only 5 years ago they were just ordinary people going about their day to day lives, and how quickly their world has been torn apart. I am bloody awful at taking photos when I'm away doing archaeology. I have folders full of soil section photos and only a handful with actual people in them. I wish I'd stayed in touch, instead of assuming I would just see them again next field season. I hope they have managed to find somewhere safe. I wish there was more I could do. I found this blog useful that suggests some of the things that we can do to help Syrian refugees.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Microfossil of the Month: Fragile phytoliths

I promise brand new images will be coming soon, but for now here is a micrograph from my old files, this time from my work with the Central Zagros Archaeological Project back in 2010, and is from ashy deposits in an external area at the Neolithic site of Sheik e Abad in Iran. This is a great example of a conjoined phytolith that is not particularly well silicified and/or has suffered erosion. The pattern of the cells is not very distinct, and quite 'faint', though you can just about make out the wave pattern of the long cells in places. For comparison, see this example of well-silicifed wheat phytoliths from Catalhoyuk, and this reference specimen of Setaria italica, both of which have very distinctive and well defined cell morphologies. The reason I chose this micrograph is that it is a very good example of how fragile phytoliths are. Despite being composed of silica, which is pretty resistant to decay, phytoliths are physically quite fragile. Think of it like glass - it is very hard and strong, but also brittle especially when it is thin. Phytoliths are microscopically thin, and break very easily. In this photo you can see the 'cracks' that have formed, probably from the process of mounting it on a microscope slide and pressing down on the coverslip. The reason I suggest this is 'in situ' breakage on the slide is because the broken pieces are still in contact with each other, like pieces of a jigsaw. If the breakage had occured earlier, either during deposition or sampling, we would not expect to see all the pieces together like this. It makes me think about how we actually count phytoliths - what are we actually counting? How does the sum of individual cells (usually 300-800 are counted) relate to a quantity of actual plants (one plant contains hundreds of thousands of cells)? In this example, should the phytolith be counted as 'one' conjoined fragment, or should we count each of the broken pieces separately?

Thursday, 13 August 2015

There and back again...

It's the end of August, and there have been some big changes...again! All so very sudden I've hardly had time to catch up. Just a couple of months ago, I posted a rather long discussion about leaving academia; after 7 years of postdocs I was no longer eligible for early career fellowships, and it was becoming harder and harder to up and move the family for yet another temporary position. There comes a time when, no matter how much you love your research, all those grown up things like getting a mortgage, childcare and schooling become part of the equation. So my family and I made the decision to move back to my hometown of Newcastle when my fellowship at Edinburgh came to an end, and I was lucky enough to get a job doing outreach and social media for Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Newcastle University.

So it came as a big suprise when Newcastle posted an advert for a permanent lectureship with a geoarchaeology focus, just as we were packing our bags in Edinburgh. I can count the number of times geoarchaeology lectureships have come up in the past 7 years on one hand. I submitted an application, and put it to the back of my mind. This was literally the ONLY academic job I could now apply for with my current personal/family circumstances. And...I got it! In Newcastle, my hometown, where all my family live. Huh. I am not the sort of person who believes in fate, but the set of circumstances that had to conspire in order for this to happen are so unbelievable I might be tempted to think of it as such. So, starting September 1st, I am joining Archaeology at Newcastle as a Lecturer in Landscape Archaeology.

This doesn't mean that the worries I had back in May have disappeared. However, I think the fact that I have struggled so long and hard to get to this place have given me an important perspective on academia and archaeology that will make me a much better teacher and advisor. Having a sustainable career in archaeology is not easy. We all know we're not going to get rich doing it, but it is important to make sure students are well informed, and that they aquire the skills that are needed to get jobs in the competetive commerical archaeology sector. And not everyone will want to become an archaeologist - in which case, raising awareness of the fantastic transferable skills you gain from an archaeology degree is important. It is one of the few subjects where you are able to gain a genuine mix of humanities, science and analytical skills, which comes in very handy in a wide range of graduate careers!

The Armstrong Building - my new office will be in here somewhere

Monday, 27 July 2015

Microfossil of the Month: Setaria italica tissue phytoliths

Last month I thought that I would be unable to post any new micrographs for a while, however with a stroke of luck, and digging out of an old hard drive, I came across all the files from my PhD thesis! A stark reminder of the importance of proper archiving of digital image files, I must have hundreds of images that have not been catalogued properly...I'll add that to the to do list! Here we have a micrograph of a reference specimen of Setaria italica, more commonly known as foxtail millet. In this image you can see that this is a very well silicified bit of plant tissue, with all the individual cells being clearly defined. This is a leaf fragment and you can see the spikey hair phytoliths, which are also called trichomes. the little 'dumb-bell' shaped short cells are known as bilobes or bilobate cells. These bilobes are typically found in plants with C4 photosynthesis, and can give an indication of the broad type of environment. C4 refers to the biochemical mechanism that the plant uses to obtain and process carbon dioxide from its surroundings. The more common mechanism is known as C3 photosynthesis, and C4 plants have an advantage over C3 plants in environments which are prone to drought, high temperatures and limited carbon dioxide. So if we have a dominance of C4 plants on an archaeological site, this could be interpreted as having a hot, dry environment in the past. However, as with all plants in archaeological contexts, it is important to remember that plants are capable of existing outside their preferred environments, and the presence of C3 plants on site does not necessary reflect local environmental conditions!

Sunday, 26 July 2015

What is the point of blogging?

Blog readers, I need your help! Or rather, a fellow blog reader and student needs your help. Fleur Shinning is a Masters student in Heritage Management at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her research is investigating how the use of blogs and social media contributes to the accessibility of archaeology, and she is studying several blogs as case studies, Castles and Coprolites being one of them. Her end goal is to contribute to improving public outreach activities, and she is hoping to get blog visitors to answer a series of questions regarding their motives for visiting the blog. You can access the questionnaire here: As an incentive anyone who answers the questionnaire will be entered into a competition to win 6 issues of Archaeology Magazine!

As the blog author I have also answered a series of questions on blogging for Fleur's research, and it reminded me about the blogging carnival that I took part in during 2013. One of the questions that participating bloggers were asked to answer was, why did you start a blog, and why are you still blogging? It is interesting to look back at my answers, and I thought it would be interesting to reflect on why I am still blogging two years later. My reasons for blogging, and the nature of my blog posts, have slowly shifted. It was initially a practical decision, a way to post and share information about a conference I was organising, then became a sort of profile building exercise to promote my research. From there it has evolved into a forum for sharing microscope photos, and other forms of academic output which would not fit into a traditional academic paper. And even non-academic output - where else could I publish my archaeo-parody-poetry?
Since joining Twitter c. 2 years ago I have become even more aware of science communication scholarship, and the potentials of blogging in a subject area like archaeology for achieving a wider readership, public engagement, and impact for academic research. Through my experience teaching undergraduates, I have become aware of the potential of blogging as a teaching and learning tool. And perhaps best of all, the process of blogging and considering how to communicate to different audiences, has made me think about my own identity as a researcher - being self-reflexive if you like.
For the unaware, I will now try and explain reflexivity (Theory Alert). In simple terms, reflexivity is the philosophical position that a person's ideas are inherently biased, that our values, beliefs and interests influence how we see the world. And in research, our very presence will influence that which we are trying to study. By being self-reflexive, we look critically at ourselves and try to identify our own biases, and acknowledge how we effect the outcome of our research. In archaeology,  pretty much everything we do involves interpretation of some sort - the trowel doesn't lie, but the facts don't speak for themselves either. The archaeologist doing the interpreting has their own set of experiences which determine how they see things, and so there can be multiple possibilities for how archaeological knowledge is determined (still with me?).
Ian Hodder, most associated with this idea in archaeology, made the point in 2003 that 'reflexive methods' have focused on 'interpretation at the trowel's edge', or breaking down the distinction between discovery, description and interpretation.  So being reflexive about the process of doing archaeology, rather than being reflexive about ourselves as individual archaeologists. There has been less emphasis on autobiography, dialogue, self-positioning and writing. Which brings me to the point (there is one, I promise) - the process of blogging about my research is the very thing which has made me think critically about what I do, how it is seen by others, and how to position myself.
Disclaimer - I'm a scientist Jim, not a theorist! So please do correct me in the comments if I haven't presented this correctly!
Oh, and go and fill out Fleur's survey:

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Castles and Coprolites - now on video!

Just taking this opportunity to share a video I recently posted on my YouTube page, from my talk at the Archaeological Research in Progress conference 2015, organised by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Any feedback and comments on this would be much appreciated, as it is the first 'full length' talk I have done that has been recorded (by the talented Open Access Archaeology). I now have a grand total of 3 videos posted on YouTube, and it got me thinking about the idea of doing video-blogging. Is this something that people would find interesting? I was thinking of doing short videos that summarise different aspects of my work (and related research areas), and including PowerPoints that I have previously used in my teaching - this could either be at a very introductory level, or a little more advanced. What sorts of topics would people like to see?

Also taking this opportunity to share my IndieGoGo campaign again, which is now half way through and on 21% - thank you to all who have supported so far and spread the word! :)

Friday, 12 June 2015

Ness of Brodgar: Latest from the Lab

Some exciting news for my research at the Ness of Brodgar! I just heard from that the 2014 samples are well under way being set in resin. I thought readers might be interested in a quick post on the process of creating archaeological thin sections, and I do recommend that you go check out the Facebook page, Hidden Worlds, if you want to investigate this further. Below you can see block of sediment, as collected in the field. These were posted direct from Orkney to Cambridge, wrapped up tight in tissue, tape and bubble wrap, to avoid disturbance during transport. These are carefully unwrapped and air dried over a few weeks, before being transferred into large desiccators. These are the big glass domes you can see below, and they have tight sealing lids that create an air tight seal. Resin is added to the plastic boxes containing the samples, and the whole thing is put under vacuum, using a pump. This removes all the air and draws the resin up into all the little spaces in the block of sediment. The samples will now sit in the fume cupboard for a while until this process is complete, and the resin is set. Then, it is onto the next stage, turning this block of resin into a slide - keep an eye on the blog to see how this happens!

From block of sediment to block of resin! Images by Julie Boreham on Hidden Worlds
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and the Orkney Archaeology Society, who funded the fieldwork that enables me to collect these samples, and to turn them into thin section slides. And of course, the Ness of Brodgar team, for letting me be involved in such a fantastic project! Blog readers will be aware that I am currently running an IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds for the next stage of my work at the Ness. I would also like to highlight that my work is just one small part of a much larger project, and that you can support the excavations themselves, through donating to the Ness of Brodgar Trust (Registered Scottish Charity No: SC044890).

The Importance of Being Uncertain?

A little Tweet this morning inspired today's blogging:

You'd think that archaeological scientists would be willing to admit there is always uncertainty. However well we collect our data, however good the sampling strategy is (and it often isn't!), we are almost always dealing with a record that is complex and fragmentary. The best we can offer, to all but the most basic questions, is a range of possibilities. Multiple working hypotheses that we can continue to refine as techniques improve and more data becomes available. I think I read somewhere once that we should present a 'definitive story' of archaeology that can then be changed if needed. But I am not sure if this works - it can be hard to change an idea once it moves outside academia.

As usual I think my perspective as a geoarchaeologist, and a microarchaeology specialist, come into play here. Geoarchaeologists are especially aware of site formation processes and taphonomy, and the palimpsest nature of the archaeological record. We can get closer and closer to a 'truth' of sorts by narrowing down the multiple options, but I am not sure we can ever be 100% certain of anything. I was recently long-listed for a Fellowship where I was planning to look at some of these questions, the way that we collect data and interpret it, and the perspective that microarchaeology can provide. I didn't get it in the end, but the feedback was interesting. The committee liked the idea, but also commented that if we admit uncertainty to the public they take it for ignorance.

What bothers me most is when archaeological research is picked up by the media, or when it is pitched at the 'high impact' journals. In the case of 'ordinary' journals, I think most of the time the language used is more cautionary (though I have seen examples when an author moves from 'probabilities' in the discussion, to definitive statements in the conclusion!). However in journals like Nature and Science, and in press releases, basically anything high profile, the language begins to change. We see possibilities becoming absolutes, one possibility becomes the story, and makes its way into popular knowledge. I guess Nature and Science aren't going to publish 'could be the earliest evidence of animal domestication but actually it could be interpreted in a number of ways depending how you look at it'.

In many areas of research, it doesn't matter much. It's not like it's going to change anyone's life if the earliest domesticated animals were in Turkey, Syria, Iran, wherever. But I do wonder about some research. Studies of ancient migration, peopling of the Americas, anything with the potential to be used politically. These are topics that could have a significant impact on living communities. Surely it is important that we do not create definitive narratives? But as the paper by Crema states, there is little interest in defining and reporting uncertainties, in their case with chronometric data, but I think it applies to the discipline as a whole. Does it matter whether or not we tell our archaeological stories with certainty? Should I remove the 'potentially' and 'possibility' and 'one way of interpreting..' from my writing? I am genuinely interested in hearing from other archaeologists on this one!

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Crowdfunding Microarchaeology

Regular readers of my blog will have heard that I am soon to be leaving academic research for a while, and will be working full time doing outreach and recruitment work, part of which will be encouraging women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study geosciences and engineering. However, I hope this is not the end of my work as a geoarchaeologist, and I have been developing a plan to stay involved in archaeology in a voluntary capacity. Initially I thought about trying to do this as a consultant, but to be honest there just isn't the market for this type of work outside academic research, and in any case I would much rather focus on the teaching aspect, where I can give my time to projects that interest me, rather than any old commercial work. So, I have devised a plan to set up a travelling field laboratory, initially to complete my work at the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney, but with the longer term aim of doing outreach work with school groups and volunteers, using archaeological microscopy to teach people about science Scottish and Northern English heritage.
To do this, I need to have a dedicated polarising microscope. I have previously been able to use university equipment, but as I will no longer be employed as a researcher, I will obviously not have access to this. Someone suggested that this could be a good project to use crowd funding, and so I have set up a campaign on IndieGoGo. Although I have backed several projects on IndieGoGo and Kickstarter, this is the first time I have ever tried running my own crowd funded project. Despite the fact I will merrily ask research councils for tens of thousands of ££, it is a bit nerve racking asking ordinary people! Knowing the names of the individuals who want to support your project adds an extra level of responsibility and accountability, but at the same time is so much more satisfying, as it  shows that there are real people out there interested in the work that I do. Please do read through the campaign, and consider funding if I have convinced you it is worthwhile - I have come up with some fab geoarchaeology themed perks for supporters too! If you have any questions at all please do comment either on the campaign page or here on my blog.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Microfossil of the Month: Multi-celled Sedges

Yikes, I can't believe it's already June, and time for a new microfossil! This month we have firstly a general view of a phytolith slide from the site of Boncuklu in Turkey, at x100. This just gives you a taste of how chock full of microfossils these slides are! I have highlighted two particular phytoliths here shown at x400, both are conjoined phytoliths from sedge. Sedges, or Cyperaceae, are monocots which are similar to reeds, and are associated with wetlands. Though significantly, it should be noted that they can be found in other types of environment as well. At Boncuklu we know from other environmental work that a local wetland habitat was quite likely, and we also see a lot of reed phytoliths in these samples. The blocky square pattern is typical of sedge phytoliths, though it is difficult to say anything about which species they might be from. This sample is from an ashy layer in a midden deposit, and it could be that the sedges were burnt alongside reeds, either deliberately, or accidentally, for fuel.

The past month has been even more hectic than usual, and this post is significant for me. I posted recently about how my current research post is coming to and end, and with it my access to a microscope. So this may be my last monthly microfossil for a while, until I somehow get access to another 'scope with photographic capabilities. Speaking of which, I have set up a crowd-funding campaign to purchase said 'scope, largely so that I can continue my work with the fantastic excavations at the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney, but it will also enable me to continue my blog posts on archaeology microscopy and micrograph photography. And just a reminder, all the images on my blog are freely available for use in teaching, outreach activities etc (with credit), so please do consider supporting here if you would like to see this continue!

Above: Lots of phytoliths! Lower left: Close up of 1. showing sedge phytolith Lower right: Close up of 2. showing another sedge phytolith

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Ladies of the Midden Kiln

Back in March I mentioned that I was involved in a sciart collaboration, where artists and scientists come together to work on collaborative art projects, inspired by scientific research. I love this idea. I was always really into both art and science growing up (and took Art as an A Level subject!), and although I choose to go down the 'science' route for my career, I have maintained a keen interest in art, and particularly how we can use artistic expression to communicate scientific research. The artist I have been working with is Molly McEwan, an Edinburgh based artist and graduate of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and talented ceramicist. 

The photos to the left are a sneak preview from Molly's exhibition at Wednesday's Girl, a free exhibition showcasing the work of female artists from Scotland, held at Space Club and supported by Somewhere To, an organisation provides spaces and venues for young people across the UK. Molly's solo exhibition, 'Ladies of the Midden Kiln' will be held at the Number Shop Gallery in Edinburgh, and is organised in association with Archaeology Scotland. The preview will take place on 16th July from 18:00 - 21:00, with daily runs from 12:00 - 18:00 from the 17th - 19th July.

When we were brought together for this project, I discussed with Molly my work at Catalhoyuk in Turkey, and the Ness of Brodgar in Scotland, two geographically distant sites which have some distinctive connecting themes. As readers of my blog know, my work investigates how people selected and used different types of fuel in prehistory, using analytical chemistry and microscopy to look at the 'invisible' traces of fuel in the archaeological record. Molly was particularly inspired by my work on animal dung, which was used in the Neolithic for processes such as pottery firing. Molly recreated a Neolithic style kiln, and fired her own ceramics using this method. I love the way she has taken different aspects of my work, and other iconic imagery from these sites such as the 'Mother Goddess' figurines of Catalhoyuk, and the beautiful Grooved Ware pottery of Orkney, and brought them together in this way. I can't wait to go see the final work in person at the exhibition!

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Power from Poo! And, should archaeology strive for modern day relevance?

I had one of those moments this morning when I realised how odd my career sounds to those outside academia, as I found myself Googling 'Newcastle poo blog' in an attempt to find a blog I came across a few weeks ago, when I posted a fab cartoon called 'A Day in the Life of Poo'. Are there many people out there who talk about poo on a semi-regular basis? Parents of small children perhaps. My own work on poo has been on the fossilised variety, known as coprolites, but I also follow research on modern faecal analysis, particularly biofuel research and waste water analysis, as both are related to my work and interests. My research on the use of animal dung and reeds as fuel in prehistory for example draws heavily on studies of the modern use of such fuels, and how we can use archaeological case studies to inform modern biofuel policy. Likewise, one of the main methods that I use to analyse archaeological materials, faecal biomarker analysis, was developed by environmental chemists to detect sewage and agricultural pollution in lakes and rivers. So, when I was browsing the website of Newcastle University's Civil Engineering and Geosciences, I was very excited to see another faecal-themed blog, Power from Poo. The blog belongs to a researcher at Newcastle who is developing a new technology to treat waste water that uses less energy than existing methods, whilst also producing energy and/or useful chemical products. The blog also has loads of great info on how sewage provides energy for the national grid! Power from poo, it's been around a long time.

Although the Power from Poo research is based firmly in the present, the broad overlap in themes with my archaeological work  reminds me how a lot of the research that (geo)archaeologists do has much unrealised potential, and can actually be limited in scope as we focus on the past without thinking how it can inform the future. There are so many opportunities for real interdisciplinary work where archaeology could have impact beyond the heritage sector. Some would argue that archaeology shouldn't need to have any impact beyond furthering our understanding of human history, and the focus of archaeology should be an inherent interest in the past. Maybe it's my geoscience background, but I'm inclined to think it should be a mix of the two. I would be interested to hear if you, readers, have any opinions on this? Should archaeology strive for modern day relevance?

Microbial Electrolysis Cell: producing energy from domestic wastewater and an agricultural waste (image by Power from Poo)

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Onwards and upwards

Warning, this post is going to be a long one. Well, relatively long as far as my blog posts go. It's the post I thought I'd never write, the one that so many others before me have written - it's the 'alt ac' career post! For those of you not familiar with the term 'alt-ac' is used to describe a career outside academia, specifically for those who were once, or aspired to be, on the academic career ladder. I myself am a bit of an odd case - on the one hand you could say I've had an extremely successful academic career so far. I've worked on some very high profile research projects, I've published over 30 peer-reviewed papers, some of which have been highly cited, giving me a h-index of 7 (apparently good for an early career reseearcher in archaeology, if you take notice of these sorts of metrics). I've won over £100k in grants to fund my research, despite being in a position where I have been limited in the type of grants I can apply for. My teaching has received excellent feedback, and my students even nominated me for an award this year. There's just one problem - I have never had a job for more than two years. Since finishing my PhD in 2008 I was first employed on an ad hoc basis for two years as a research assistant, followed by two research associate positions, each of which were two years or less, followed by a Fellowship of two years, and a 10 month teaching position. I've got more experience and credentials than most, yet I'm not much better off than a new PhD in terms of (permanent) academic job prospects. Successful, yet sort of not at the same time.

1. There are no jobs!
I have been applying for academic jobs  for about four years now, focusing on the UK with occasional dabbles in the US market. Within that time there have been only a handful of jobs advertised in my area in the UK (archaeological science), and even fewer (two) in my specific specialism, geoarchaeology. Even fewer of these have been open, rather than fixed term contracts. I've been fortunate enough to be short-listed for some of the most prestigious positions, just enough to keep on trying, and I was assured that my current job would be the one that turned into a permanent post (however....this article sums that up nicely). There comes a time in life when it's just not worth moving again for another two year position. It takes the best part of a year to set up a new lab, establish a network across university facilities, at which point you get very little actual research done before you have to start applying for the next job. Two years for me is also the time it takes to establish a new social circle and make friends, and that upheaval is also one which has started to get wearisome.

2. Being an archaeologist
Whilst my early frustration has been with the simple lack of jobs to apply for, and having to move every two years, I have also become increasingly uncomfortable with 'selling' archaeology to my students. A big part of my current job, as a personal tutor, has been working with students and advising them on career options in archaeology. The sad truth is that in the UK, you will earn more working in Tesco than in an entry level archaeology position. And even with a Masters degree you will be earning less than most other graduate jobs that require just an undergraduate degree. I see my students working hard in the classroom, working harder in the field to get as much experience as  they can, dreaming of being an archaeologist, without really understanding what an unsustainable career it is, and it makes me sad and frustrated. Especially so if you come from a less well off background and don't have the family support to help you do things like buy a house (imagine trying to save a deposit, or even getting a mortgage, on a salary of £16k), or pay the rent while you do a poorly/un paid internship that might give your CV and edge. Academia is one of the few routes where you can expect to earn a decent living doing archaeology, but see the first point above. It's hard selling that to students, especially now that the cost of going to university is so high.

3. Being an academic
I love research, and I love teaching, which for me has always been research-led. I get to talk about all the cool stuff I'm working on, and the insights you get from student discussions can be fantastic. I also enjoy doing outreach work - again, it's great to talk about all the science that I find exciting, and convincing other people how fascinating it is. I enjoy writing papers and applying for grants. Seriously, there is something really satisfying about constructing an argument for why someone should give you money. I enjoy the challenge of impact. I do believe that research should have a broader purpose than simple academic interest, and although many grumble at having to write impact statements, it makes you realise that your research can make a real difference. BUT - I've come to realise that even if I did get a 'permanent' position in the next year or so, the only step forward for me is to expand my work through building a team of researchers. I have started this recently, bringing together a great team of microfossil people, and we have even got our first PhD studentship funding. But whilst this  prospect used to excite me, it now really worries me that in order to build my own career, I would have to essentially use researchers like myself, who will be employed on fixed term contracts, with uncertain futures. Again, it's not something that is easy to sell.

4. NOT being an academic
So, that brings us to the last part of this post. Like many others, I believed for a long time that academia (as in, a permanent lectureship) was the only choice for me. Ironically, as I have moved up the ranks, essentially working for the past two years as a lecturer in everything but job title, it has become clear that there are actually many ways for me to do the work that I love, without actually being a lecturer. I am really excited about my new job, which I will post more about at a later date. It will let me focus on the aspects of my career that I have enjoyed the most, in a department that puts employability at the centre of the student experience, and where post-doctoral researchers develop skills which are easily transferable to the professional sector (with real salaries), rather than being narrowly focused on academia. What's even better is that I will have the chance to spend more time doing social media, as a central part of my job, and to learn new things about marketing analytics. When it comes down to it, I've realised that my real passion is learning new things, being challenged, and becoming very good at something.

5. But still being a geoarchaeologist
Over the next few months you will see some changes in the blog layout. I will continue my usual features on micromorphology, microfossils and archaeological science. I will be expanding the blog pages to include details on my new consultancy work, which will include thin section analysis, as well as editorial, content and social media services. I may even start a new linked blog to focus on those things, to avoid boring those of you who are just here for the cool archaeology stuff (though I doubt any of you have read this far!). Onwards and upwards! Or slightly southwards geographically....

Microfossil of the Month: Wheat husk phytoliths

This month's microfossil is a classic, at least within near eastern archaeology. The beautiful little structure you are looking at here is a phytolith from the husk of wheat. A huge area of research in phytolith studies is focused on cereals, and whether cereal phytoliths can be used to identify the genus or even species of cereals, and whether we can distinguish cultivated cereals from wild grasses. This obviously has very significant potentials in studying the origins and development of agriculture. This particular phytolith is from the middle Neolithic levels at Catalhoyuk, Turkey. At this point we have definitive evidence for agriculture from other lines of evidence, such as charred cereal grain stores within buildings. This phytolith was recovered from a midden, and is interesting because of its size. There is a positive correlation between the size of conjoined phytoliths and the availability of water during the growth of the plant. you can see that this phytolith is very large and dense, which suggests it was growing under conditions of high water availability, on silica rich soils, conditions which we know to have been present close to Catalhoyuk.
Cereal phytoliths are interesting microfossils - experiments on modern cereals have shown it is possible to distinguish between different types of cereals, based on measurements of the distinctive 'wave' pattern that is formed by the interlocking long cells, and also the 'papillae' (these are the little circular structures) in the husks.
We do have to be cautious however when dealing with archaeological samples. The measurements that can identify a cereal versus a wild grass for example, fall across a range, rather than being exact numbers and so we need to have relatively large numbers of phytoliths that are big enough and preserved well enough, to allow us to separate a potential cereal from other grasses. This is fine when we have modern samples with thousands of phytoliths, but can be difficult in archaeology where the phytoliths may be broken or only present in small numbers.

Shillito, L-M. (2011) Taphonomic observations of archaeological wheat phytoliths from Neolithic Çatalhöyük , Turkey, and the use of conjoined phytolith size as an indicator of water availability Archaeometry 53: 631 – 641

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A Day in the Life of Poo!

A day in the life of poo! So I absolutely need a cartoonist to do a follow of this fab comic from Newcastle Civil Engineering and Geosciences, on showing how useful poo in it's various forms is in archaeology! Such an under-appreciated source of information, ancient poo from both humans and animals has a whole lot to contribute to our understanding of diet, health, environment, and early animal management in the past. And not forgetting that animal dung was (and is) and important fuel use in many societies. Ancient poo (aka coprolites or palaeofaeces) provides a neat little package of information, containing everything from pollen, seeds, plant tissues and bone fragments to parasite eggs and lipid residues. The fact that it represents a snapshot of a person over just a few days has a huge advantage over more traditional methods of looking at health and diet (such as isotopes from skeletons), which tend to be more time-averaged or 'lifetime' signatures, and can miss the high degree of variability that a person actually experienced.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Microfossil of the Month: Jigsaw phytoliths

This month's microfossil is a 'jigsaw' phytolith, or rather phytoliths, as it is actually a tissue fragment consisting of multiple conjoined silicified cells. These jigsaw types are associated with the epidermis of woody dicotyledonous plants, though they are also found in herbaceous plants. The two images show the same phytolith in two different focal planes. The uppermost image being the upper epidermis, and the lowermost image showing the underlying layer of 'regular' shaped cells, or the palisade mesophyll layer. The sample this was extracted from is from Sheik e-Abad in Iran, an early pre-pottery Neolithic site, though in terms of food, the plant remains suggest the people were relying to a large extent on non-domestic resources.
What makes this sample particularly interesting is the context, within a layer of dark grey calcitic ash, as identified through thin section micromorphology. Dicot phytoliths account for 10% of whole assemblage, which is a lot considering that dicots generally produce low quantities of phytoliths compared to monocots such as reeds and grasses. Thin section and faecal biomarker analysis also shows that the deposit is associated with ruminant faeces, which contained a significant quantity of long chain saturated fatty acids. These are difficult to link to a particular source as they are found in a variety of plants, but are associated with 'waxy' plants. Taken together, the phytolith and biomarker evidence points strongly to the consumption of woody/herbaceous plants such as Pistacia, by the wild goats that have been identified in the dung and faunal record.
All in all, a great example of how we bring together different lines of evidence in archaeology to provide a more complete picture than can be gained through conducting different methods in isolation. More on Sheik e-Abad, and the original paper can be found here:

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Archaeology versus History

I was alerted to a blog post a few weeks ago with the (deliberately I'm sure) provocative title Archaeology is just an expensive way of finding out what historians already know... Of course I immediately felt the need to...actually I didn't. The post does have a point. Archaeology is indeed usually more expensive than historical research. I don't think the central criticism of the article is specific to archaeology. What is actually being complained about here is poorly designed research, without a clear objective. Though it is not clear whether this is because the actual excavation being discussed (a battle field) does not have clear objectives, or that the main source linked to is a Telegraph article.
Saying that archaeology just shows what historians already know is a narrow view of the aims of both history and archaeology. Whilst the contribution of archaeology to (in this case) a 200 year old battle that is extensively documented, may be more limited, there are always things that archaeology can tell us that history can not.
Whilst most of my research is in prehistory, I have dabbled in historic archaeology, specifically medieval, as part of The Ecology of Crusading project. The overall aim of this project is to examine the environmental and cultural consequences of crusading in the Baltic during the medieval period. There are two reasons why historic analysis alone cannot address this question. Firstly, the indigenous Baltic groups at the time did not have written records, and so what we know of them is entirely through secondary accounts of incoming western Europeans. I don't need to point out how that could be problematic! The only direct record of these groups is through their material culture i.e. archaeology. Secondly, with even the most detailed and specific historic records, the nature of those sources means they are not always useful in a study concerning environmental change. In order to address this question, we need to conduct quantitative analyses of proxies that can tell us about the environment i.e. sedimentary records from lakes and peat bogs. And to link that with human activity, we need to look at the archaeology, and have a robust dating programme that can link the archaeological and environmental records. Historic sources can help, as they provided very detailed accounts, for example inventories of resources within castles. A good example of bringing these different sources together is a new paper in press in Geoarchaeology journal, 'The ecological impact of conquest and colonization on a medieval frontier landscape: combined palynological and geochemical analysis of lake sediments from Radzyń Chełminski, northern Poland'.
I like to think of History and Archaeology as sharing a common goal, just using different methods. And as with all the best research, the most appropriate method to use depends on the question we are asking. And most of the time, multiple methods are better than one! Both History and Archaeology have their problems when it comes to interpretation. Both records are fragmented, biased, only revealing certain aspects of the people under study. Both require a level of interpretation.Whether the expense justifies the outcomes is a matter for the funders to decide, and is just one of the factors to be considered when designing a research project.

Radzyn Castle (Photo by Alex Brown,Ecology of Crusading project)

Friday, 6 March 2015


Rolling hills and jagged peaks, bubbling brooks and flowing creeks,

Vast swathes of trees turn green to gold, with hues that shift in ebbs and flows,

Ten thousand bricks in reds and browns, transforming clays from cliffs to towns;

And here between the sea and land, the speckled straw expanse of sand,

Gleaming towers, slate grey tiles and tarmac trails extend for miles,

Twinkling stars and harbour lights, to sodium glare transforming nights,

Shades and dancing shadows bright, creating shifting city sights;

And there beyond the winding road, stand stones with tales from long ago,

What tales perhaps we’ll never know, symbolic meanings come and go,

In landscape then and now align, a layered view of place and time.