Friday, 26 August 2016

Bristol visit

I just got back from a great visit to Bristol, to discuss timetables and a plan of action for the NERC grant. My coI is Dr Ian Bull of the OGU, and expert on all things faecal biomarker related. The last time I was in Bristol was in 2014, when I was a research fellow at Edinburgh, doing a whole range of pilot studies on various projects. The first time I went to Bristol was during my PhD, around 2004, to be trained in faecal biomarker analysis. Ian is like the unofficial third supervisor and the guy who showed me how to write a good academic paper. So it's somewhat surreal, but exciting, to be going back there as a PI. I'm always blown away by the amazing laboratory facilities they have -  it has to be one of the best places in the world for organic geochemistry, and there's always some fancy new kit to gawk at. We had a visit to the new radiocarbon AMS lab in archaeology. It's the first time I've seen one of these in person - such a complex bit of kit, it's inspiring to see what humans are capable of. Apparently this one is the 'bench-top' version!

Friday, 12 August 2016

I love middens

We are in the process of updating the School website for History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle. I've been asked to provide some high resolution photos for various sections, and so have been digitally digging through my image archive. I came across this amsuing photo from 2004 - my first ever visit to Catalhoyuk. It was either during my MSc or just after I finished. So long ago that I still dyed my hair black! I remember this midden - I think it was Unit 1668, and probably isn't there anymore. The first midden I worked on, looking at archived micromorphology slides at the University of Reading, and trying to compare the phytolith data from the same units. Although the Masters project had a lot of limitations (working with archive samples is very difficult when trying to compare microstratigraphic data), the lessons I learned formed the basis of the project I went on to do for my PhD. So I still have a soft spot for this particular midden! These were taken using one of my first ever digital cameras as well, back in the day when mobile phones didn't have good cameras. I was so excited that it had a macro function.

Me sat in a midden, Catalhoyuk, South Area 2004

Now there is some microstratigraphy

The story of how I started working in Oregon

If you follow me on twitter you may have seen a series of posts over this year relating to a NERC application I submitted. From writing the thing, >10,000 words (that's a whole undergraduate dissertation!), going through the internal review process, finally submitting it in January. Then anxiously waiting for reviewer feedback, frantically responding to reviewer queries within a very short time frame, then waiting for another couple of months to hear...the amazing news that I was awarded the grant! When the administrative process is complete, I'll write a proper post about the project and what it is we hope to do, but for now I wanted to tell the story of how I ended up working on a project that initially seems far removed from working on Neolithic middens in the Near East, or even Neolithic pottery in Britain. I like this story, as it goes to show how opportunities turn up in strange ways, often when you don't expect them, and that the research process can take you in directions you didn't originally plan for. It also shows how a project can take a while to get off the ground, especially if you are not in a permanent post, or one where you can apply for large grant funding.

Back in 2011 I had a conversation with my mother in law, on the aspect of my PhD work that seems to fascinate people the most - the fact that I spent quite a lot of time analysing prehistoric poop. Not just any poop, but poop that turned out to be (largely) human. Fun story, with interesting implications about neolithic health and attitudes to waste and cleanliness. My MIL volunteers with the Archaeological Society of Central Oregon (ASCO), and she suggested I do a lecture for them about it. She also mentioned the fact that in Oregon, they had some very famous ancient poop. This rang bells, and sure enough, it turned out that a paper I had read recently was on coprolites from Paisley Caves, a site based quite close to where my in-laws lived. She put me in touch with the site director, and that's where it began.

I visited the site during the summer to collect some pilot samples, to see whether the methodology I had developed at Catalhoyuk would work at this type of site. The thin section slides turned out to be amazing, and also quite complicated. The sediments are highly variable and full of all sorts of amazing stuff. We knew based on these pilot samples that there was huge potential here, but as a post-doc I had no way of actually getting funding to develop the project. Even when I started a fellowship at Edinburgh in 2013, where I was technically eligible to apply to NERC, I was not allowed to because I only had a two year contract. The drawback of being an archaeological scientist is that you can't just sit and write, you need to do the lab work first, and it can be very expensive. The organic chemistry and micromorphology that I use are particularly expensive, and impossible to do without funding.

As soon as I got my position at Newcastle, I knew that this was the first project I wanted to pursue. Archaeological science is very much a team process -  the site director is an expert in the archaeology of the region and provides the framework for interpretation, whilst my lab collaborators have a level of technical expertise that can only come from having a background in chemistry. I guess I am the facilitator who links the two, having a foot in both worlds. It will be the first major project I've been involved in where I am overseeing the process, rather than carrying out the lab work myself. I'm not yet sure how I feel about that! I love spending time in the field and in the lab, and it will be strange delegating out the different tasks rather than doing it myself. I look forward to writing more about it over the next 3 years, so watch this space...

Monday, 1 August 2016

6 Amazing Archaeological Sites That Lara Croft Hasn’t Visited (But Really Should)

Originally posted on The Archaeology of Tomb Raider. The site was archived for a while so I figured I would share it here (though it appears it may be back up and running last month, do go and have a look!).

1) Pavlopetri – The City Beneath the Waves

In the original Tomb Raider Lara finds herself in the fabled lost city of Atlantis, known only through the written accounts of Plato around 360 BC, where it is said to have vanished beneath the waves some 9000 years earlier. This would make Atlantis around 11,000 years old, pushing its occupation right back to the beginning of the Holocene, or the end of the last Ice Age. In archaeological terms, this date corresponds with the early Neolithic cultures of sites such as Jericho in the Near East, or the hunter-gatherer ‘Clovis’ culture, one of the earliest groups of people to inhabitant North America.

Alas, Atlantis remains a myth but until some lucky person becomes the most famous archaeologist of all time and finds the legendary city, we can make do with Pavlopetri, equally as fascinating and equally underwater. The Bronze Age town of Pavlopetri, located off the south coast of Greece, is 5000 years old. It was submerged around 1000BC as a result of volcanic activity, earning it the nickname ‘City Beneath the Waves’.

The sunken ruins of Pavlopetri (Image credit: Handout via The Guardian)