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