Saturday, 26 November 2016

Adventures in medium sized mammal bone preparation

I think the zooarchaeology short course at Sheffield really inspired me, as now I think about animal bones as well as soils and plants in all situations. I'm currently working in central Oregon doing some preliminary work for the NERC project. As I continue to work in this region, we will need to build reference collections to work with. This is built into the NERC project, in terms of a plant microfossil reference collection. Animal skeletons in general are not so easy to get a hold of as plant specimens. Being the resourceful, perhaps slightly strange academic that I am, I noticed a few carcasses by the side of the road and figured why let them go to waste? The landscapes of the USA are so different to the UK, and something that is very noticeable is the amount of roadkill. In the UK I think animals that are hit by cars are cleared up pretty quickly. In the US the roads are much bigger, and animals that are hit just stay there. Or get removed by scavengers. This week I noticed what looked like a racoon at the side of a road. My very patient husband kindly pulled up the truck for me to check it out, and it turned out to be not just one, but two poor racoons. A male and female pair, both must have been hit running over the road, but there was no obvious sign of physical trauma or damage to the carcasses. So, we put them in the back of the truck (the male was noticeably heavier than the female). On the same day we also came across a hawk. He had obviously been there a bit longer than the racoons as there was some degradation of the eyes, and signs of scavenging on the torso. But the skeleton didn't look damaged. I am not 100% sure what species he is, but most likely a Cooper's hawk. Into the truck!

I did a lot of reading about the best way to prepare specimens for bone reference collections when I prepared some fish a while ago. I used a cold water maceration method for the fish, but given that this would involve skinning and gutting two medium sized mammals + plucking a bird of prey, the method is not at all appealing. I thought I'd try the open air decay method instead. As I will be away for about 6 months before I come back to do more fieldwork, this seems the ideal method, to let the organic matter decay naturally. This landscape is perfect for it. We find loads of small mammal bones wandering around the sagebrush, all perfectly defleshed and bright white. We set up an old dog crate and put them inside, to protect them from scavenging. I'm thinking about whether to ask my sister in law to visit it occasionally to take pictures of the decay process. I'm really curious to see how long it takes until only the skeletons are left, and the difference between the hawk and the racoons.

First NERC project meeting in Oregon

The NERC project officially started on the 1st November. Since then we've held interviews for the first PDRA post, and last week I traveled to Oregon for the first project meeting with partners Dr Dennis Jenkins and Dr Tom Stafford, at the Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. It felt very surreal, finally having got the grant that we talked about for so long, and to be honest, did not quite expect to get! Not that we all don't think it's an amazing and worthwhile project, but getting funding for archaeological science is pretty difficult, and the success rate for NERC is really low (11% for the standard grants, new investigator scheme in 2015). I've made this journey many times, as I have family in central Oregon, but I must be getting old or something as the jet lag really kicked in this time. Still, many coffees later we had a productive meeting, going over the schedule for the next three years, planning the first session of fieldwork in the Spring, and going through the sample archive. The journey from where we are staying in central Oregon, to the university in Eugene, is a great example of a shifting landscape. We go from juniper sage brush high desert into the Cascades mountain range, with the number of pine trees gradually increasing until they dominate the landscape. At this time of year there is also the chance of snow the higher you go - I took some amazing pictures literally 10 minutes apart showing how rapidly the shift is from one to the other!

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Geoarchaeology session at EGU 2017

I am pleased to announce I will be co-convening a session on Geoarchaeology at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2017. Please do consider submitting an abstract to our session - there is funding available to support the participation of early career researchers and researchers from low income countries. The deadline for support applications is December 1st 2016. For further details on our session and how to register see here.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Adventures in fish bone preparation

Cold water maceration
If you follow my Twitter feed you may have noticed a string of posts discussing the best methods for preparing specimens for animal bone reference collections. This all started a while back when I decided to take the Sheffield Zooarchaeology short course. Having had little training in bones I thought it would be a good idea to get some basic skills, as I am responsible for the reference collections at Newcastle. However the majority of our existing collection is large domesticates, and being an environmental archaeologist, I figured we needed some microfauna. I already have a lecture in my Environmental Archaeology module that covers animal remains as environmental indicators, and wanted to expand this to include a practical. Being a second year undergraduate module this is very much an introduction to the subject, and the learning outcomes focus more on understanding the implications of recovery and taphonomic issues, rather than developing expertise in species identifications.

Nonetheless, in order to do this, I needed some specimens! Luckily Newcastle is attached to the Hancock Museum who were kind enough to lend us some birds and small mammals. But after doing the Sheffield module what I really wanted to include were fish bones! There is an amazing virtual fish bone resource at Nottingham, but there's nothing like handling the real thing, and I happened to notice the fish counter at Tesco sells whole fish. So following a meal of grilled sea bass, I undertook a cold water maceration preparation method, placing the bones in a soup container with water and a tiny amount of washing powder. I kept the vent open on the lid, and left them on the kitchen windowsill for 3 weeks. After 3 weeks I decanted the water, and the majority of the flesh had dissolved away. Admittedly it smelt terrible, but not actually as bad as I thought it would be. I added fresh water, a bit more washing powder, and left them for another week before decanting again and rinsing about 10 times to get rid of any remaining residue and washing powder. I left them to dry on paper towels overnight and voila, beautiful clean fish bones!

For the class activity I set up the computers with the Archaeological Fish Resource website, and got the students to find the species we were looking at  (Dicentrarchus labrax). Then we tried to identify the skull bones by comparing them with the website reference specimen. It went really well, some of the students even suggested they should get to prepare their own specimens as part of the module! Next on the list is a pigeon that I found on the side of the road. Currently undergoing an initial stage of open air decomposition under a plant pot in the back of the garden, I'll be transferring him to a container in the next week...

One whole sea bass, fully defleshed and drying

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Archaeological Journal

Well this is actually 'old news' in that I've known about it for quite a few months now, but I thought it best to wait until the transition process was well underway. Also, it's on the website now so I guess that means it's official - I will be taking over as editor of the Royal Archaeological Institute's Archaeological Journal in May 2017. I have been shadowing the outgoing editor Prof. Howard Williams for a few months now to get a feel for things, and am in the process of handling my first few submissions, as we transition from an email submission system to an online editorial management system with Taylor and Francis (side note, go and check out Howard's Archaeodeath blog!).

When I saw the position advertised earlier this year I jumped at the chance to apply. Strangely enough I really do enjoy editorial work, and having gained a lot of experience as a guest editor and assistant editor for a number of other journals, figured I could take on this new challenge. Despite the fact that some aspects of this sort of work can be frustrating (finding suitable reviewers, and particularly those who can give a quick turnaround is remarkably difficult), I also like being able to contribute to the dissemination of new archaeological research, and this post in particular, being linked to the Royal Archaeological Institute, will enable me to become more involved in the wider archaeological community in the UK.

Although a lot of my earlier work has been outside the UK, I've always said I'm a thematic person rather than a regional specialist, and this I hope gives me a good overview of the wide remit of The Archaeological Journal, which covers all periods and topics within the British Isles and Europe. My more recent work as part of the Feeding Stonehenge project, and current work at the Ness of Brodgar, is the sort of thing that I am hoping to encourage more of in the journal, namely that multiple proxies within archaeological science be discussed together in the process of interpretation, rather than the short report style papers that we are more used to in pure science journals. The longer submissions that are encouraged in The Archaeological Journal makes it an ideal venue for this sort of work.

Another thing I like about the Archaeological Journal is that it encourages submissions from across the commercial and heritage sectors as well as academia, and this is something else that I will continue to encourage during my tenure.