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.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Science, Art and the Construction of Reality in Archaeology

I found out this weekend that my application to take part in an exciting art/science collaborative project was successful! It was only by chance that I found out about the project, through some random browsing around Twitter. Joining Twitter was one of the best things I ever did, so many opportunities and connections to be made that I would never get the chance to see otherwise. The project I am joining is ASCUS/TNS Engage project. ASCUS is a non-profit organisation that supports collaboration between arts and sciences, and builds connections between different organisations, institutions, individuals and the public. TNS is The Number Shop, an art studio and gallery. Artists from the studio will be developing new work based on dialogues with scientists, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Some of the work will actually be produced during Open Studios during the festival, so that the public can come and experience the work being produced. The idea is to bring the public into the process of art creation, whilst also making the underlying science accessible.
The Catalhoyuk 'Mother Goddess' (Wikipedia)

The timing of the project is great for me. I recently had a post published over on Then Dig, on the Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science, and I have had a long term interest in how art can be used as a communication and interpretive tool. Not just art, but how visualisation in general can help communicate complex scientific concepts (and in the case of 'invisible' microarchaeology, how it is essential for transparency and explaining how we arrive at a particular interpretation). My application to the project pitched my work on studying archaeological sediments under the microscope, so that we can detect traces of past activities that are too small to see with the naked eye, and the contrasting case studies of the Ness of Brodgar and Catalhoyuk.

The artist I am working with is interested in construction of reality and the different ways in which humans throughout history have explained things they didn't understand. Some of her work includes clay figurines, which immediately makes me think of the Catalhoyuk 'Mother Goddess'. I am really excited to discuss the construction of archaeological realities, and see how my research is interpreted through the eyes of an artist. It will also be great fun to be involved with the Edinburgh International Science Festival!

Microfossil of the Month: Awn phytoliths

These micrographs show grass awn phytoliths, on the left the spiky hair part is still attached to the rest of the awn, the one on the right shows a hair that has become detached. Awns are hair or bristle type structure which are particularly common on grasses. In some species, such as emmer wheat, the awns contribute to seed dispersal, by hooking into the soil. Changes in humidity cause the awns to expand and contract, acting like a ratchet to propel the seed into the ground. Not to be confused with trichomes, which are another 'hair-like' structure, but a much finer growth of hairs on the surface of the epidermis, and can also produce distinctive phytoliths. Both of these examples are from the same sample, extracted from ashy deposits in an external area at Sheik-e Abad, an early pre-pottery Neolithic site in Iran. The site was excavated as part of the Central Zagros Archaeological Project. I worked there for 2 months after submitting my PhD in 2008, one of the most fascinating sites I have ever worked on. I hope I will get to go back there one day.