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! :)