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