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