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...