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