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.