Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Experiential experiments

We've spent the past couple of days doing burning experiments in the reconstructed mudbrick house at Catalhoyuk, as part of our Wellcome Trust project. The aim of the experiments is to collect some pilot data relating to smoke emissions when ovens and hearths are in use. We don't have time in the pilot study to conduct a detailed series of controlled experiments - there are a lot of different variables that could be adjusted to test different scenarios - but we do hope to get some basic comparisons of different fuel types and how emissions change over a few hours of burning. I think the most useful part of doing this pilot work has been the practical side of things, the experience of having to find the materials for fuel, finding out how much fuel works best (and at what point there's too much fuel and you get smoked out of the house), observing how different people react differently to smoke levels. We tried using animal dung but it smouldered really badly, which we realised was because it was not fully dried out. All of these observations will help us design better experiments for our future work, which will enable us to build a model of fuel use and smoke exposure under different scenarios. We also realised that we need to think more closely about including ethnographic work in the future study - the people who live at Kuccukoy village near Catalhoyuk have a lot of experience and important insights that have been crucial for collecting usable data in the pilot study. Whilst ethnographic analogues cannot be used as direct comparisons with archaeological cultures, there are definitely practical insights that can help us develop our hypotheses.

Catalhoyuk - Wellcome project

After yesterday's musings I figured I should post about some of the fun archaeological stuff I've been up to at Catalhoyuk this week. The reason we are here this year (we being myself and project postdoc Helen Mackay), is that we were lucky enough to be awarded a grant from the Wellcome Trust. We are collecting archive samples to export for analysis, doing some burning experiments in the reconstructed mudbrick house, and general networking and scouting for collaborators for when we (hopefully!) do the full sale research project.

The focus of the Wellcome project is to investigate the potential relationships between 'biofuel' use and respiratory health in the archaeological record. The materials that people used for fuel in the Neolithic (wood, dung, reeds etc) are being promoted today as sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, however there has been a lot of research showing that these fuels are actually just as bad for respiratory health as fossil fuels. Biomass burning releases a lot of particulate matter as well as things like carbon monoxide and other things that are bad for you.

Day one on site involved settling in then giving a short seminar presentation to discuss the project and get feedback from team members. Everyone was really interested which is great, and we had some useful discussions about the different research strands, and some suggestions for other areas we could possibly include. Day two we set up the first burning experiment in the experimental house - we are so fortunate to have on-site a reconstructed mudbrick building for testing out ideas like this. With a bit of help from one of the Turkish women we managed to get a good fire going, and set up the particle monitors to measure the particulate matter that is released over the course of a typical burning episode. Today we did repeat experiments using various combinations of wood and animal dung to see how variable the different fuel types are.

Although these are only pilot studies, I am really interested to see the data we are collecting. The experience of running the experiments has also been very useful; we learnt very quickly that the amount of fuel used and the way the fire is constructed seems to have a big impact on the amount of smoke released. In some cases there was so much smoke that we literally could not stay inside the house. In the cases where it was possible to stay inside the house during burning, there was still a noticeable amount of particulate matter in the air, and Helen and I both came out covered in a fine layer of microcharcoal and ash particles!

Chatting with Scott Haddow from the human remains team has also been very useful. Scott is doing a review of the Catalhoyuk ostearchaeological material for the Wellcome project, and reassessing some of the suspected evidence of anthracosis. Although it looks like there are very few individuals with indicators of respiratory disease, this in itself is actually a very interesting observation as it may tell us something about behaviour of people and levels of exposure to irritants. I can't wait to do the full scale study and compare all of this data properly.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

25 years of Catalhoyuk

Day 2 at Catalhoyuk.

This blog post was supposed to be full of excitement at all the cool samples we've collected and the experiments we have been doing in the reconstructed mudbrick house, but instead I find myself contemplating the institution that is Catalhoyuk. Not Catalhoyuk the Neolithic settlement, but Catalhoyuk the archaeological dig, the community of archaeologists, locals and all the other people who are or have been involved with the project. I don't think I ever fully appreciated what Prof Ian Hodder has achieved here, not until I got my job at Newcastle and realised the time and effort that goes into organising fieldwork, and generating funding for projects. Field seasons that last 2 months, with up to 100 people on site at a time. A dig house with labs and storage. Catering, accommodation, the politics, and of course the archaeology itself.

I always felt like I never quite belonged here; my visits were always timed as the excavation was well underway, and everyone was busy digging in the day, socialising in the evening. Most people spent a great deal longer living and working on site than I did, and it was very hard to jump in and make friends. Everyone else already knew each other and knew the routine, and I felt like I had no clue what was going on. I still owe so much to Shahina Farid, field director  until 2013, who took time out of her busy schedule to help me (and giving me cigarettes in the days before I quit...). The first time I came here was 2004, and by 2012 I was just getting to the point where I felt like I belonged, like I knew what was going on and my research was contributing something. Then the nomadic postdoc years kicked in (including a period where I thought I was going to have to leave academia), and I never had the chance to come back, until this year and the luck of getting Wellcome Trust funding to explore one of the many ideas that I have for this amazing site.

It's a strange feeling being back; at once everything is so familiar yet different. No more shed out the back, the site of themed parties, Efes beer and questionable music. In its place there is a new building that blocks the view of the mound and is a bit too bright inside. It's also very quiet compared to the last time I came here. The atmosphere is more subdued, like everyone is just getting on finishing things, no time or desire for socialising in the evenings. Not that I have ever been great at socialising, but even introvert me was happy sitting in the corner watching the world go by. Now there's not much to watch, though it has been nice to see familiar faces, people who I have become friends with through the shared experience of being a Catalhoyuk team member, and since 2008 consolidating that connection through social media.

Speaking of social media, there is now Wifi on site! In 2012 there was a desktop computer where you could sign up for a timeslot to check emails, very slowly. Back in 2004 there was nothing, not even a mobile phone signal. Yes, I am fully aware I have turned into a middle aged person who is doing the 'back in the old days' cliche. I feel like I've grown up here. Maybe that's another reason it feels strange, being here as a fully fledged academic rather than as a student.

It definitely feels as if things are coming to a close. This is the last year of Prof Ian Hodder's 25 year permit, and everyone knows that we won't be back here next year. I wonder what will happen to all the local people who work in the dig house, or the guy who runs the little shop selling cold drinks and ice cream. And the guards - they always remember me, even when I've been away for 4 years, Mustafa came over to say hello today. 25 years of Catalhoyuk. I'm privileged to have been working here for half that time.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Geoarchaeology and mudbricks

Remains of stone wall base, and a whole lot of roof tiles at Olynthos
Anyone who is familiar with Catalhoyuk, or indeed Near Eastern prehistory in general, will know there has been a lot of focus on mudbricks. What are they made of? What can the raw materials and manufacturing processes tell us about Neolithic society? And also floors - we love floors in the Near East, counting them, describing them, analysing them. I was therefore a little surprised when I was doing some background research on Olynthos, to find that no-one has really looked that much at floors, or mudbricks, in classical archaeology. In fact, I was surprised to find out that the houses were made of mudbricks at all, though this is probably just due to my lack of familiarity with the period. We are so used to seeing the remains of stone walls, and the stone monumental architecture, but the mudbricks don't seem to preserve. The roof tiles on the other hand are everywhere (as can be seen nicely in the image from Olynthos to the right). The lack of preservation of mudbricks is probably due to the fact they were dried in the sun rather than fired, and therefore easily eroded by the elements, whereas the roof tiles are produced through firing, similar to pottery (which is also found in abundance). It is going to be a challenge I suspect, to distinguish between the packed earth floors, decaying collapsed mudbrick, and the collapsed upper storey floors. There has been a lot of work done on mudbrick in other parts of the world which will be a useful comparison. There is so much potential for geoarchaeological approaches, all this earth-based material being used and transformed in different ways. There is a whole PhD in here I'm sure - hopefully I can find a student who is passionate about both ancient Greece and geoarchaeology to take on the challenge!

Ethnographic example of mudbrick building with stone foundations and tiled roof - from Olynthos site information panel

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Getting to know Olynthos

Today was my last day on site at the classical Greek city of Olynthos in northern Greece. Although I have never studied Greek archaeology, or indeed anything classical, ancient Greece is something I was always fascinated by as a child. If I'd thought to study archaeology as an undergraduate I can imagine that ancient Greece is something I would have gone for. Regular blog readers know I was a geographer before I was an archaeologist, and that background has situated me more in prehistory, with it's greater emphasis on long term environmental change and human-environment interactions. But yet again I find myself being fascinated by themes and comparisons rather than specific time periods, and also the differences in approaches to archaeology in different areas. Ancient Greece is exciting as there is a wealth of documentary evidence and we know so many of the little details compared to prehistory. But like other historic periods I have worked on (e.g. The Ecology of Crusading), the documentary evidence does not tell us everything. And when it comes to understanding the environment, and the daily lives of ordinary people, there is so much that we can't get at from written sources alone.

Although classical archaeology is still archaeology, it turns out that there are very different traditions compared to other areas of archaeology, particularly with researchers based in north America, where there is a definite division between 'anthropological archaeology' and classical archaeology. It seems so strange to me have these divisions, when we are all interested in understanding societies in the past, and we are all using various combinations of material culture and documentary evidence (albeit with greater emphasis on one or the other depending on the time period). As ever, my approach is to ask what the questions are, and which methods or approaches can best address those questions. I'm happy to say Olynthos director Prof. Lisa Nevett has a similar outlook, and has had a long term interest in the possibilities of microstratigraphic analysis for understanding ancient cities such as Olynthos.

I was invited to join the project because of my work at Catalhoyuk, and my recent World Archaeology paper which discussed the challenges and possibilities for integrated multi-proxy approaches to understanding use of space. For me this is an exciting opportunity to apply the methodological approach I have developed over the past decade to a site that is larger and more complex. Although the site is more recent in terms of age than Catalhoyuk, what are the different taphonomic processes and how does these impact the methods we can use? As well as the broader methodological questions, the more immediate aims are to test several hypotheses suggested during excavation, largely related to the presence of floors. I've collected a series of samples from three different trenches in one large building, and will be looking to see whether we can identify different surfaces in thin section. From there we will devise a more comprehensive sampling strategy integrating spatial geochemistry and phytolith analysis, and target more rooms, and more buildings!

Monday, 3 July 2017

Off to Catalhoyuk, via Olynthos

It seems like I only just got back from Oregon and I'm off again, this time to Catalhoyuk in Turkey, via Olynthos in Greece. I am really excited about the Olynthos project. Although I am no expert in ancient Greece, I was always fascinated by the mythology as a child, and it will be great to finally visit Greece. I was invited to join the project as a geoarchaeologist, specifically looking at the micromorphology of floor deposits in collaboration with the archaeobotany and geochemsitry experts. The excavations are co-directed by Lisa Nevett at the University of Michigan in collaboration with the Greek Ministry of Culture & Sports and the British School at Athens. One focus is the excavation of house Bix6 on the North Hill. New data on artefacts and their distribution as well as geochemical testing by fellow geoarchaeologist Carla Lancelotti have indicated broad spatial differences in uses between rooms in the building. I will be applying sediment micromorphology to house Bix6 to examine the differences that have been detected through geochemistry, and hopefully identify the specific activities occurring in each locale how these changed over time. Such an approach has never before been applied to an ancient Greek household, and it will be very interesting from a methodological perspective to compare our analyses with the insights from classical texts about household use of space.

I will be on site at Olynthos for a few days collecting samples for the pilot study, before travelling directly to Turkey for my first visit to Catalhoyuk since 2012. 2012 was an odd year, as my employment situation was a bit up in the air, and I thought it would probably be the last time I'd be able to go to Catalhoyuk, but I collected a whole bunch of samples anyway just in case. When I got my job at Newcastle in 2015 one of the things I was really excited about (apart from the job security, hurrah), was the chance to continue my research at Catalhoyuk. My PhD and postdoc work there opened up so many questions that I've just been dying to answer, and now I finally have some money through a Wellcome seed award to go and work on these questions. It is going to be strange going back; there has been so much change in terms of team members and project directions, and the 25 year excavations have just come to a close. I can hardly believe I have been working there myself for 14 of those years. FOURTEEN. And I only just feel like I know what's going on, and that my research is really just starting. The technology that has become available in recent years, technology that wasn't available when I first started work there, offers so much potential. I wish I could have gone earlier before digging finished this year, but coordinating all my commitments is getting increasingly difficult.

A mosaic floor at Olynthos. Source: Akademie iik, Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

A day in London

I was hoping to post this whilst on the train but the not so great free wifi scuppered my plans. I arrived in London yesterday evening following a day of exam board meetings. The exam board is where we go through all the marks and see who has passed, what grades they have, and who gets prizes. The whole process is anonymised until final marks are confirmed, then we get to see who got which prizes. I was really happy to see some of the first students I taught when I joined Newcastle finish their degrees and do so well! No names though as I'm not sure the details have been released to students yet.

So, I'm in London for two reasons - firstly to go to an appointment at the Turkish consulate to collect visas for myself and other team members for fieldwork at Catalhoyuk in July, and secondly for University Archaeology Day. I think the last time I went to Turkey was 2013 - how time goes by so quickly! Up until then I had been pretty much every year since 2004! University Archaeology Day is a new event that is led by UCL this year, to showcase all the fantastic work by archaeologists across the UK, and highlight why students should consider coming to study the subject at university. Not sure what to expect, but it will be nice to pop along to some of the talks and catch up with all the new things people are doing. I'm also wearing my new Trowelblazers t shirt for the occasion (I also wore it to the exam board yesterday!).

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Micrograph of the Month: Wood fragment

I'm in the middle of writing a brief introductory paper about the work we are doing at Paisley Caves, which includes some of the micromorphology results from our pilot study. The slides from this site are complex, and also so fascinating. Complex because the are very heterogeneous and include a huge variety of biogenic material, including lots of fragments of plant tissues, and there is also some weird stuff going on with the chemistry in the cave environment. Here is an example of a small fragment of wood, within a layer of mixed material overlying a layer of microfaunal dung pellets. The layer is between two radiocarbon dates approximately 8180 and 9565 years cal BP. In the picture below I've shown it at a range of magnifications, and images C and D show it in PPL (C) and XPL (D). Modern wood in XPL usually looks a bit fluorescent because cellulose is birefringent. Usually with archaeological material I'm much more accustomed to seeing wood in the form of charcoal! The only other material I've seen like this myself in archaeological contexts is waterlogged wood, though a quick but of online research shows that dessicated wood from an Egyptian coffin also retains this property. I haven't yet identified the genus or species of this, though I am hoping a friendly archaeobotanist can perhaps help with this, given that the pore structure seems fairly clear! Most of the species that come to mind from this region are softwoods, whereas this looks like a hardwood of some sort.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Paisley Caves - notes from the field part 3

Many many samples
We are coming to the end of the field season for the NERC project at Paisley Caves. Only a few days until I return to Newcastle, and I've been spending the last few days packing up all the samples and sorting out the paper work for exporting them. One box is heading straight to Earthslides for micromorphology slide prep, and the others are going back to Newcastle for microfossil and biomarker work. In the meantime team member John Blong is heading to Eugene to spend a few weeks at the Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, collecting extra material from the excavation archives.

I have discovered that cool boxes are a great way to pack samples; the boxes are very lightweight and also pretty sturdy, and I am hoping the fact there is a lid + obvious top and bottom will mean that they are not shaken about too much on their journey back to the UK. Cool boxes are fairly pricey new back in the UK, but you can get them fairly cheap in the US, and I can guarantee that if you go looking around a few thrift stores (aka charity shops in UK speak) you will be able to pick one or two up for a few $$. We managed to find the two boxes below for only $2! Bargain.The main full length monolith samples are another story - being over 1 metre in length they were a bit too big to fit in the cool boxes, so we had to go with a large cardboard box. Luckily we also manged to find some firm foam which made packing them in tightly much easier.

One thing that struck me is how it it SO MUCH easier arranging shipping now that I have a permanent job. It is crazy how as a PhD student, and even the multiple postdocs I did afterwards, how there is often very little (if any) budget for shipping samples (or even just visiting museums etc to collect material from archives). I survived for years by hijacking other sample shipments or carrying samples in hand luggage (actually a reasonable choice for smaller sample numbers but also a huge pain going through customs depending on where you are travelling from). Other times I've paid for shipping out of my own pocket - which can be significant for micromorphology samples, which are both heavy and fragile, and require an express service to ensure they survive the transit intact. This time I was given the magical Newcastle University international shipping account number, which means all I had to do was fill out a short form and leave the boxes at the approved DHL pick up point!

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Paisley Caves - notes from the field part 2

Back from the field now and making sense of all the photos and paperwork. As well as taking samples from Paisley Caves itself, we also spent a day doing a survey of the local vegetation and collecting samples for a botanical reference collection. Part of the project involves analysis of pollen and other plant remains from sediments and coprolites, and whilst there are several available collections and published material on the likely species that we will find, it is always helpful to build a project specific reference collection, and this will be added to the growing library of material based in the Wolfson lab at Newcastle. This will be one of the major tasks undertaken by project research associate John Blong, and he will be collaborating with project affiliate Katelyn McDonough, who analysed material from Paisley for her Masters and is currently working on botanical remains at the nearby Connelly Caves for her PhD. This is the first fieldwork where I have had the chance to put my newly acquired plant taxonomy skills to the test - back in January I attended a NERC training course in Belize organised by the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, which involved an introduction to taxonomy as well as procedures for collecting, pressing and cataloguing modern plant specimens. We had a great day hiking to the top of the ridge and looking at lots of beautiful desert plants. The local biogeography of the Paisley ridge is interesting. On one side, where the cave entrances are located, the face is very steep and rocky, and covered mostly with shrubby vegetation. The other face has a gentler slope, with deeper very sandy soils, and had a greater diversity of vegetation including a whole range of desert flowers. It makes me wonder how people who occupied the caves so long ago knew which plants were useful and which to avoid - how long did it take to develop this knowledge, and how much did this influence how people moved around within the landscape?

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Paisley Caves - notes from the field part 1

It's the end of the first week in Oregon as part of our NERC project at Paisley Caves. As usual fieldwork fills me full of ideas for blogging, with none of the time or internet access to post them. The weather has been hugely variable here. For the first few days it was below freezing at night time. I was in my tent in a super warm sleeping bag, with fleece jogging bottoms and beanie hat, and I was still not really that warm. Then after the second day the weather switched to baking hot, and by the end of the week we were all in t-shirts and covered in sunscreen.

The view of the landscape from the entrance to the Paisley Caves is amazing - a huge expanse of sagebrush desert with the occasional agricultural feature in the distance. Dirt tracks snake across the landscape, heading towards the town of Paisley on the left, and Summer Lake hotsprings on the right. I'm going to miss this view.

The day begins at 5.30, waking up in the tent to varying degrees of chill, getting dressed into cold clothes as quickly as possible and heading to the main tent where breakfast supplies are waiting in the cool box. The first thing I do is make coffee. Proper coffee, with filters and everything, using a nifty travel coffee maker that is on my essential camp items list. Breakfast is bread and peanut butter, cheese, cereal bars. We head to site for 8. The crew has cleared most of the sandbags away, exposing the section where we will take our samples. We do a lot of recording, drawing sections, taking photos. There is a team from Oregon State who are doing photogrammetry on all the sections, and two other researchers working on macrobotanical and geochemical sampling. The most difficult bit is coordinating with everyone, making sure that tasks are completed in order before we jump in and make big holes with micromorphology sampling! We finish around 4.30, time for a beer. Only the hoppiest of west coast IPAs for me. For those who want to, there are showers at the nearby Summerlake hot springs, and the rest of the evening is spent sitting around a campfire. Crackling juniper wood and cheery voices, a mix of american accents from Oregon, California, West Virginia, and my own northern English. I head to my sleeping bag around 9 or 10, wanting to stay longer but knowing I'll be useless in the morning if I do. It is so quiet at night time.

I'll be posting further updates over the next week, and you can also read a bit more about our project on the University of Oregon website here.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Adventures in medium sized mammal bone preparation, part 2

Well, I arrived in Oregon a couple of days ago, trying (without auccess) to get over jet lag before starting firldwork fot the NERC project tomorrow. Before I start with the stream of NERC related posts, a little update on my taphonomic experiment that I posted about back in November. Readers may recall that we came across some recently deceased racoons plus a hawk on the side of the road, and I decided they would make a fine addition to my animal bone reference collection. I set them up in a wire cage to be left to the elements, thinking that when I came back 6 months later they would be in the advanced stages of decay, perhaps even ready to extract and clean up the bones. Nope. 6 months sounds like plenty of time for two medium sized mammals plus one hawk to decay, but I didn't account for the fact that when I deposited them back in November, winter was coming, and they have been buried under two feet of snow for the best part of those 6 months! So, they pretty much look like they did when I left them, except they have deflated, which I guess means that at least the internal organs have decayed. One interesting observation is the newly constructed corvid nest in a juniper tree, suspiciously close to the experimental site, and the fact that the leg of one of the racoons is now sticking outside the wire cage, and the tail is covered in bird poop.
Something else that is quite striking is the change in vegetation. I usually visit Oregon either in November, or later in the summer. I don't think I've ever been in May, and it is so much greener than I am used to. After this field season it's unlikely I'll be back in Oregon until next year, so I'm hoping that summer will accelerate the decay process. Hopefully those sneaky corvids won't find a way to get them out of the cage!

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Field season is about to begin

Field season is beginning a bit earlier than usual for me this year. 2015 - 16 was wonderfully successful in terms of project development and grants, which in turn means that there is a lot going on in 2017. The first round will start at the end of next week, when I will be heading off to Oregon for the main period of fieldwork for the NERC project at Paisley Caves, which I've been blogging about a fair bit. I can't wait to be back in central Oregon getting my hands dirty, literally. It is such a beautiful landscape, very quiet and we'll be a small team, which I prefer. We'll be camping near the site, and taking showers at Summer Lake Hot Springs. So the stress of sampling at such an important site will be rewarded with a bit of relaxation at the end of the day!

When I get back from Oregon I'll be making frantic arrangements to get my research visa for Turkey. This involves leaving your passport on the consulate in London for 1-2 weeks, which is a bit difficult when you are travelling around either side of your intended travel dates. The plan is to visit Catalhoyuk towards the end of June/beginning of July, so there will be a fairly speedy turnaround between getting back from Oregon and getting the visa. This will be my first visit to Catal since 2012. How has it been so long?! From 2013 - 2015 I was working at Edinburgh, and didn't have the time or funding to visit the site, and couldn't really justify it as I still had a lot of archive samples to work on. This year I am going as part of a new Wellcome trust funded project that we were awarded at the beginning of the year. We are combining multiple strands of archaeology (geoarchaeology, bioarchaeology) with GIS and civil engineering, as a pilot study to look at the possible respiratory health impacts of all the silica-rich fuels that people were burning. If the pilot study works, we can build a larger collaborative project that brings together a team to look at the question of health in more detail. Obviously this also feeds into my other interest, coprolites! As part of the larger project we will also look at gastro-intestinal health.

Following Turkey there is another exciting project in the works, in Greece. I'll save details about that for another blog, but I am really keen to see it work out, lots of method development potential and the opportunity to answer some important questions. And finally, somewhere in there, towards the end of July, beginning of August, I'll be taking a short trip to Orkney to take a few extra samples for the Ness of Brodgar project, and to discuss more collaborations...

Monday, 24 April 2017

Did the people of Çatalhöyük build boats?

Two posts crossed my Twitter feed last week that got me thinking. Both are related to experimental archaeology and use of wetland resources. If you are a regular reader of my blog (or indeed my academic papers) you will have noticed that I talk a lot about the environment of Çatalhöyük, and how this may have influenced human activity in the Neolithic. You will also notice that I have criticised some of the early interpretations which, to me, present a simplistic interpretation of evidence that doesn’t consider the complexity of the environment, or people.

Çatalhöyük was situated in a wetland environment, and there have been debates over the influence this had on agriculture. Where were people growing their crops if the local area was not suitable for agriculture?  One theory suggests people travelled to fields that were located many km away from the site, which in turn has implications for social organisation. This always bothered me, firstly because of the limitations of the evidence being used (which I won't go into here), but also because people are amazing and innovative and very good and adapting to environments that we would consider to be ‘not ideal’. Furthermore, wetland environments themselves are variable and complex, and the huge area of the Konya plain was unlikely to be totally unsuitable for growing crops, even if localised areas were too wet.

The first post I saw this morning was about experimental reconstruction of mounds called ‘terps’ within salt marshes in the Netherlands, which have been interpreted as a way of growing crops in the wetland environment during 600BC – 1200AD. Whether natural or constructed, these sorts of dry areas within the wetland would make sense for where the Çatalhöyük residents were locating their crops. Maybe we need to look in more detail at the immediate landscape around the site; current geoarchaeological models are very broad scale and could easily be missing localised differences like this.

Experimental archaeology - reed boat construction by Pamela Holland
The second post was about experimental building of boats using reeds. It is becoming increasingly apparent that reeds were a major resource for Neolithic (and earlier) communities in the Near East, and there is also a long ethnographic history of the utilisation of marshes in Iraq for example. Two sited I have worked at, Çatalhöyük and the earlier Boncuklu, both have masses of remains of burnt and unburnt reeds. Some of these have been interpreted as fuel, and we also have evidence of these materials being used in basketry and matting. It struck me that there is no reason why the people of Çatalhöyük would not have the technology to build similar types of boats as these. The skills are similar to those needed for construction of roofs and weaving materials. 

But how would we identify a ‘decayed boat’ deposit? If we found a huge concentration of reed phytoliths like this, it would most likely be seen as discarded materials from roofing. This is a good example of how we ‘see what we know’ in archaeology. If a possible interpretation is outside our own realms of experience, we are unlikely to recognise it as a possible option. 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Micrograph of the Month: TBD

You know nothing, Lisa Shillito! This is how I sometimes feel being a micromorphologist, especially one looking at samples that are a different to the contexts I am used to. Here are some more images from the Lufton Roman Villa sample I mentioned last month. I am not actually going to say much about this as I am not entirely sure what it is, and basically am scouting for opinions from fellow geoarchaeologists. This is a small rounded inclusion about 1mm in length, consisting of lots of brownish purple rhombohedral crystals embedded in a yellowish (almost ash-like?) matrix. As you can see, the crystals themselves don't look much different in XPL. The inclusion is located within a layer of mixed microcharcoal and calcareous debris (probably from the lime layer underneath). There are some bits of lime that have a similar appearance, sort of like iron staining of the carbonate. My guess is possibly iron carbonate crystals replacing the calcium? I will definitely be bringing this slide to the DIG conference workshop for opinions!

Unknown rounded inclusion in Roman floor sample and close up of crystals. Left: PPL Right: XPL

Thursday, 6 April 2017

SAA Conference, Vancouver 2017, Part 2

twitter meet up - complete with badge ribbons!
Conferences can be a bit hit or miss for me, depending on how sociable I am feeling. The downside to being an introvert is that it can be really difficult to do the networking and discussion thing that is an important part of the whole conference experience. I think people are often surprised at how quiet I can be in person given the amount of social media stuff I do. But that is why I love social media, it makes interactions easier (most of the time).
I actually managed to make quite a few connections this year at the SAA conference. Just like giving presentations, networking becomes easier with practice, and I find myself in a place where I finally feel like I know what I am talking about (it only took 9 years post PhD but hey). One networking event that was a lot of fun was the Twitter meet-up, though I didn't stay for too long due to the dreaded jet-lag. It is interesting to meet all these people in person that you only know through their Twitter names. It's like meeting new people, but you already know a bit about them through the things they post so you can avoid that whole awkward introductory small talk bit. It was nice to find a bunch of people who actually read my blog (hello!) - whilst I have all the stats on visitor numbers, I get very few comments so it is hard to know exactly who my readers are, and it's nice to know that people find my informal ramblings interesting.
In addition to a hectic schedule of papers and posters, I ended up going all the way to Vancouver to catch up with people from the UK, including the publishing team for the Archaeological Journal and publishers for a book I am working on. I also finally met in person our postdoc for the NERC project, Dr John Blong, who will be joining us in Newcastle next week. So all in all it was a very busy and productive week, spreading the word of archaeological science at Newcastle.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

SAA conference, Vancouver 2017, Part 1

Me looking thrilled to be presenting my poster
I just got back at the beginning of the week from the Society for American Archaeology conference, held his year in Vancouver. Although it is 'American' archaeology, the geographic spread of attendees and research topics is very international, and I ended up catching up with friends and colleagues from all over the UK as well as the US. I ended up being incredibly busy as I foolishly agreed to do three different sessions. Many months ago I was asked to participate in two sessions as a discussant, as well as submitting a poster on my NERC project. I assumed this meant a role of leading the questions at the end of the session, but on arrival realized it is almost the equivalent of a keynote, and involved giving an actual 15 minute presentation summarizing the papers and state of the field! Luckily the sessions are both topics on which I am passionate, and I managed to put together two talks that went very well.

The first was the Science of Organic Residue Analysis and the Art of Archaeological Interpretation, a session which aimed to make residue analysis more accessible to a general audience. This was a double session from 9 til 5, and I commend the organizers Michelle Eusebio and Ann Laffey for keeping the whole thing running strictly to time! In a way I made the ideal discussant for this, as the topics of the papers ranged from the biomolecular to the microfossil end of the 'residues' spectrum, and I feel very strongly that as researchers, we need to be able to communicate the complexities of our science, not just to the 'public', but to other archaeologists!

The second session was Of Dung and Humans, organised by my PhD supervisor Wendy Matthews and her postdoc Marta Portillo. This was a shorter and very focused session that was very productive; it exemplified the ideal of archaeological science research, question driven and integrating multiple methods and lines of evidence. I was one of 3 discussants, along with Naomi Miller and Linda Scott Cummings, both of whose work I have read and admired for a long time, and it was really interesting getting different perspectives from the US and UK/Europe. The participants included geoarchaeologists, archaeobotanists and zooarchaeologists, all working towards a common goal. We had a really productive discussion, and my summary overlapped with some of the points I made in the Organic Residue session, about the importance of focusing on questions, rather than a favored methodology.

My final contribution was a poster presentation, which was scheduled on the dreaded Sunday morning slot from 8-10. By this point a lot of people have already left the conference, and the first hour was very quiet, but it picked up after 9. I ended up getting a lot of questions, and meeting with a number of fellow coprolite enthusiasts. It is always nice to meet people in person whose work you have read, and who appreciate the archaeological importance of fossil poop.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Micrograph of the Month: Roman floors

I haven't posted a micrograph for ages, but this one is so pretty I just had to share it. I'm in the middle of doing an analysis of Roman occupation deposits for the Lufton Roman Villa project. I don't know too much about the wider context yet, but my initial observations of this particular sample suggests we are looking at an old floor surface. There are 3 distinct layers, and the uppermost layer is composed of a calcareous material, in which are embedded lots of tiny crushed up ceramic fragments. The middle layer is a sandy aggregate with the occasional bit of soil/clay and charcoal, and there is a very thin lowermost layer (thin because of the sample size, not sure yet how thick it was in the field) which has a lot of organic material including wood and grass charcoal, and possibly fungal spores. I will be writing more on this as the analysis progresses, but for now here is a nice image of one of the ceramic fragments (the orangey-red rectangular inclusion) embedded in the grey calcareous/lime layer. This also shows the boundary between the lime layer and the underlying sandy aggregate.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Teaching archaeological sediment micromorphology part 2

This semester I've been teaching archaeological sediment micromorphology, as part of a third year module in geoarchaeology. I mentioned a few weeks ago how hard it was to teach a subject this complex in only 2 hours per week, and that in future I was thinking of removing it from Geoarchaeology and turning it into a stand alone module. I still haven't decided whether to do this, as I think it's important to have some teaching of it at UG level, but a module focusing entirely on micromorphology is probably more suitable for Masters level.

Related to my frustrations, I made an offhand comment on Facebook that despite it being one of my specialist subjects, sediment micromorphology is very boring to teach. More than any other method I have studied, micromorphology is definitely the one filled with the most jargon. Don't get me wrong, I think jargon is important. We need the specialist language to describe the many complex features and processes that we see in thin section, and to make that description as objective as possible. But it does pose challenges, both in teaching the subject, and in presenting research results. In the former, you just can't get away from the fact that there is a lot of repetitive rote learning involved. In the latter, it is no use simply giving a huge table of dense terminology that means nothing to non-specialists - people must rely on your interpretation rather than being able to see for themselves how you arrived at that interpretation.

I'm not sure if I annoyed or offended anyone with the post. It was more a sign of my own frustration, wanting to be a good and interesting teacher, and also knowing that it is just a difficult subject that takes a lot of time to master. A fellow micormorphologist made a comment for example that it was unfair that students doing dissertation projects on say isotopes, got higher marks than those doing micromorphology projects. This is a genuine concern - whilst isotope analysis isn't easy, it is definitely more straightforward as it is much more focused, and data collection is relatively easy (assuming the mass spectrometer is behaving itself). Micromorphology on the other hand is highly variable, requires a huge input of time (even more so for students who are very new to it), and it would be very difficult for a UG student doing it as part of a dissertation in a restricted period of time to come up with an analysis that was comprehensive and publishable. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it would be much more difficult than with isotope data. And to get the highest first class marks, most mark schemes say that the work should be of publishable quality.

I've been trying to work around this as part of the Geoarchaeology module, by focusing students on a limited set of criteria (the ones I think are the most basic/essential), and identifying common archaeological materials (bone, charcoal, ash etc). Whilst the analyses the students do won't be 'comprehensive', at least this way it will be clear whether they have understood the criteria we focused on in class. The classes are structured with an introductory lecture, going through a set of terminology using case studies, and explaining why these criteria are important. The students have a microscope in front of them at the same time, with slides that I have chosen that best illustrate the features we are discussing that week, and after I finish talking, they have an exercise to go through and apply the descriptive criteria to their slides.

I am wondering whether I should put together all the class materials as a sort of 'teaching handbook', and get feedback from the workshop participants at the DIG2017 conference in September?

Friday, 3 March 2017

Thin sections related to pyrotechnology in Bronze Age Sicily

The arrival of new thin sections is always exciting, but always daunting at the same time. Sediment micromorphology has to be one of the more challenging geoarchaeological techniques, simply because of the huge variety in the types of material you can encounter, and a deposit from one site never quite looks the same as one from another, even when they are related to similar activities. The samples from Case Bastione were collected to investigate formation processes and activities of a number of features in the Bronze Age settlement, including a large 'burnt' layer, and some strange pit deposits. The most striking thing about all the samples is the ubiquitous presence of these teeny tiny little creatures - my educated guess is that these are tiny foraminifera of some sort, present within limestone/chalk or another carbonate material (I need to do some research on Sicilian geology!). What is slightly confusing is the presence of a spherulite like appearance within the shells in cross polarised light. This isn't something I have seen before and I am not entirely sure what it means!

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Teaching geoarchaeology and sediment micromorphology

Today I am doing three hours of teaching for PG students on soil. This follows two hours yesterday of teaching 3rd year students sediment micromorphology. My 3rd year Geoarchaeology module is challenging this year, as the class is 75% geography students, so I have had to modify the content a bit to make sure we go over the archaeological concepts. Having non archaeologists in the audience makes you really just how jargon filled the subject is! At the moment the module is set up so that the practical classes are about 25% bulk soil analysis and 75% thin section analysis, but I am tempted to switch this next year and focus on the bulk sediments. As much as I love micromorphology, it is a very challenging subject to teach as it is so time intensive, and I think it would work better as a stand alone module. This will give the students more time to work on materials, and to focus the seminars specifically on micromorphology. At the moment the Geoarchaeology module seminars are focused on broader theoretical topics. This way I can also expand the content and look at different geographic environments rather than just the basic descriptive criteria, and include more detail on complementary methods such as FTIR. If I get the time I would really like to turn this into a 'flipped classroom' approach, and record short videos for students to watch prior to the practical classes. The more time we get to spend actually looking at stuff down the microscope, the better! As a longer term plan it would be great to develop a module like this as a CPD training course, and spread the micromorphology love. I might put together a survey and see how much interest there would be in something like this?

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Stranger's Bag

I have just been sorting through my Folders and found a file called The Stranger's Bag. I had zero recollection of what this was, but on opening remembered that a while ago I entered the Tyne and Wear Metro Morning short story competition. Needless to say I didn't win, but it was fun nonetheless, and a good challenge trying to write something interesting in 250 words. Whether I succeeded is a matter of debate. I'm pretty sure this format is not my forte. Opinions good or bad encouraged in the comments!

The Stranger's Bag

What was that? She glanced sideways at the strange shapes protruding from the bag of the passenger beside her. She hoped it wasn’t too obvious she was staring. There was just something familiar about the shape, something seemed not quite right.

Then she realised, and stifled a gasp.

Bones. Human bones.

Her heart started to race. It was early; they were the only two people in the carriage. How far to the next stop? She stared straight ahead, pretending she hadn’t noticed, trying to keep a clam face. Then, in the reflection of the window, his head turned, and he looked straight at her. 

She leapt from her seat, kicking the bag and emptying its gruesome contents across the floor. Her head felt light, then everything went black.

‘Are you ok?’ the passenger was kneeling over her. ‘I think you passed out!’

‘The bag’, she murmured, ‘it’s…’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that’, he said, ‘they’ve survived thousands of years buried in the ground, I’m sure they can survive being knocked over on the Metro’.


She must have looked confused.

‘Oh, I’m an archaeologist by the way. I work at Newcastle University. I wouldn’t normally carry him around on the metro, but my car broke down and I need him for teaching this morning’

At the realisation of her mistake she started laughing. ‘I’m an idiot! Here, let’s give you a hand’.

They put the skeleton back in the bag, just in time for the doors to open at Haymarket.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

New thin section slides from Sicily

If you follow Hidden Worlds on Facebook you may have spotted a set of samples from Sicily have been progressing nicely over the past few weeks. These are samples that we collected last summer during a field school, at a site called Case Bastione. It is a Bronze Age settlement located in central Sicily, and has some really interesting features that we are describing as clay lined pits. The functions of these are unclear. It was initially hypothesized they had something to do with metal working, but chemical analysis has suggested other functions. We have taken a number of samples to try and figure it out. The thin section samples are taken from the pit linings, and a range of 'domestic' deposits. I am hoping we can recruit an enthusiastic student to look at these samples for a dissertation project, though I might not be able to resist having a look at them myself!

DIG2017 Conference - Special Issue of Geoarchaeology journal

Preparations are well underway for the 7th biennial Developing International Geoarchaeology conference, otherwise known as DIG, which we are hosting at Newcastle this September. We are in the process of confirming our guest speakers, and I have just received confirmation from the editorial board of Geoarchaeology journal that we have been provisionally accepted to produce a special issue of the journal based on the conference papers. This is great news, and hopefully will ensure a speedy turnaround of the papers for publication, and a lasting legacy for the conference. We are also hoping to film the talks (with speaker permission), and to host these online - details on this as soon as we have confirmed.

Geoarchaeology is the ideal venue to publish the conference papers, as the journal remit is a good reflection of the aims of DIG, including all areas of geoarchaeology from landscape to material culture. Geoarchaeology has previously published papers from DIG2011 under the theme of 'Multiscalar approaches to geoarchaeological questions'. DIG2011 was held in Knoxville, Tennessee and the papers have a focus on the Americas. For DIG2017 we are seeking papers from geoarchaeologists from all parts of the spectrum, from geoscientists working with archaeology, to archaeologists incorporating geoscience methods into their research. We are particularly keen to include papers that bridge the two aspects of the discipline, and the potentials for geoarchaeoogy to act as a bridge between science and humanities discussions of the Anthropocene.

When the call for papers has closed and we have the timetable organised, we will be in touch with authors to get an idea of who would be interested in contributing their paper, so we can finalize the proposal with the journal. Any contributed paper will of course be subject to the usual peer review process, and required to keep to submission deadlines, with the ultimate decision resting with the editors. Details on how to submit a paper can be found here.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Teaching Geoarchaeology Field Skills

As part of a postgraduate module I am co-convening, Landscape Archaeology: Theory and Practice, I will be taking a group of Masters students into the field in a few weeks time to teach them the joys of soil transect surveys. We've even bought a brand new shiny hand auger kit. I am quite pleased with how the handbook and plan have turned out. We're lucky to have the amazing landscape of Northumberland to work with, and the area we are looking at, Milfield Basin, has had extensive archaeological and geoarchaeological analysis so there is plenty of background material for the students to refer to. Preparing this exercise has been strange in some ways and almost nostalgic, as this was one of my first experiences as a geoarchaeologist. As part of my MSc Geoarchaeology, we were tasked with doing a borehole survey and writing it up like a professional commercial report. I remember distinctly the terror of being sent out with a hand auger, and being left to get on with it. There is nothing like being left in the middle of a wet muddy field and a time limit, to make you learn very quickly how to use the kit and get on with the descriptions.  It is very much one of those full circle moments. The exercise seems so simple to me now, I could do it in a couple of hours. Yet I still remember clearly how long it took me to get my head around during my MSc. It literally took the whole day!

Aerial photo of Milfield, Northumberland (from

Friday, 27 January 2017

What's new in 2017?

Writing this post as quickly as possible to make sure I don't have a month with NO POSTS! Since my merry xmas post in December, I took a break from anything work related over the holidays, then as soon as the new year happened, I went to Belize for 2 weeks, where I had zero email or internet access. That was quite nice in some ways, and it was especially enlightening to see how long my iPhone battery lasts when it is not connected to anything ( a whole week!). The last few days of the trip we were staying at a rather fancy resort, which of course had wifi, and I spent much of that time going through a huge email backlog, desperately deleting all the 'not important' ones, to try and narrow the list of things that requires a response to something manageable.
I have so many things to blog about in relation to my experience in Belize, everything from plant taxonomy to fieldwork and family, to Mayan archaeology and the similarities and differences between different subjects' approach to fieldwork. I need to sit down and collect my thoughts before I write about any of those. So what's new in 2017? I feel like I am often writing posts about how busy I am, and this time is no different. Lots of ideas I have had over the past few years came to fruition at the end of 2016, and I find myself running two amazing projects, with a number of other pilot projects on the go in the background. My NERC project will really get going this year, with the SAA conference in Vancouver in March, and fieldwork in Oregon in May. My Wellcome trust seed award project starts at the beginning of February, and will involve spending some time in Turkey over the summer. This year I also start my tenure as a member of the AHRC Peer Review College, which will involve various training events as well as possibly evaluating some proposals. And last week the longest paper I have ever written was published in World Archaeology. It is a bit of a different paper compared to my usual. Most of my papers are the typical science paper, presenting and discussing analytical data. This one is more of a review and critical analysis of a huge area of research, including a lot of theoretical discussion. Outside my comfort zone but an area I find myself thinking about more and more. Funnily enough I even got into a discussion about this with a botanist in Belize who brought up Bruno Latour (an anthropologist of science for those who don't know). It was interesting to see how dismissive some people can be about the philosophy of science (I was the same when forced to study it as an undergrad), but when you really look into it you see that thinking about how we think is actually fundamental to science!

A view above the rainforest canopy at the foothills of the Maya Mountains