PhD student at the University of Bristol, researching cooking and subsistence practices in the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) and other Neolithic cultures in Central Europe via organic residue analysis of pottery

Dirty pots reveal cooking practices of early farmers in Neolithic Poland

Today, like most Fridays, is the culmination of a week’s work in the lab. I am a PhD student in the Organic Geochemistry Unit (OGU) at the University of Bristol working on the European Research Council-funded ‘NeoMilk: The Milking Revolution in Temperate Neolithic Europe’ project. NeoMilk is an interdisciplinary collaboration of researchers at the Universities of Bristol, Exeter, College London and Poznań (Poland), and the National Museum of Natural History, Paris, researching the development of dairying practices in Neolithic Europe by archaeological, chemical, zooarchaeological and statistical analyses. These interdisciplinary proxies will provide a window on the cultural, environmental and temporal variables of cooking and subsistence practices, to better understand the context of the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture in the development of agriculture in Central Europe.

My role is to analyse organic residues from food and other organic materials absorbed in pots from sites in and around Poland from a variety of environmental and cultural contexts, and compare results on inter- and intra-site levels (individual households, chronologies and vessel typologies).

In order to find out what these residues are, I have to prepare the potsherds. The following is a typical week for me in the lab:

Monday:

Take sub-samples from potsherds I wish to analyse next. Only 1-2 grams of ceramic material is required for organic residue analysis, so only small areas of each sherd are sub-sampled, nearly always allowing the profile of the sherd or any areas with surface decoration to be left intact. A modelling drill is used to remove a very fine outer layer of the sherd on all sides that it will be sub-sampled from, so the presence of any surface contaminants from handling or contact with plastics can be minimised. I then use a hammer and chisel to remove that part of the sherd and then wrap it in foil until it is ready for analysis.

David using a modelling drill to prepare a small area of a sherd for sub-sampling

David using a modelling drill to prepare a small area of a sherd for sub-sampling

Tuesday:

Crush and weigh the sherd fragments I’ve sub-sampled. Knowing the mass of the ceramic material lipids will be extracted from will allow me to calculate the concentrations of the lipids, which is useful as the analytical instruments are very sensitive and won’t work optimally if the lipid extracts are too dilute or concentrated.

David crushing a small sub-sample of a sherd prior to lipid extraction and analysis

David crushing a small sub-sample of a sherd prior to lipid extraction and analysis

The OGU has a weekly seminar and lab meeting on Tuesday lunchtimes which is a good opportunity to announce news, discuss any issues and tidy the lab.

Wednesday:

Chemically extract the lipids from the sherd fragments.

David extracting lipids from a sherd

David extracting lipids from a sherd

We use gas chromatography, an analytical technique that screens the compounds in the lipid extract, firstly so we know lipids are present (sometimes they aren’t, either because of poor preservation or because the archaeological use of the vessel didn’t contribute to the absorption of lipids into the vessel – e.g. it wasn’t used for cooking food) and secondly so we know whether there are also any contaminants present that may have been introduced during extraction in the lab or before when the sherd was handled or came into contact with plastics during excavation or post-excavation. We can often differentiate these sources of contamination by including a blank in each batch of sherds we extract and analyse.

Thursday:

Run the samples and a blank on the gas chromatograph (GC).

David about to inject part of a sample into a gas chromatograph

David about to inject part of a sample into a gas chromatograph

As well as separate compounds within the lipid extracts, the GC determines the abundances of each compound, which we use with the weighed sherd fragments they come from to calculate the approximate concentrations of lipids from each sherd. At this stage I can determine which samples are suitable for further analysis tomorrow. Those that are too dilute will not be viable, though those that are too concentrated for the instruments can be diluted with hexane.

Friday:

Run the selected samples on a second instrument that allows us to identify the compounds screened yesterday by finding the mass-to-charge ratios of their ions. This technique is called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC/MS). GC/MS is useful for identifying compounds that are biomarkers for aquatic species.

Sometimes I run the samples on a third instrument that finds the isotopic values of two particular compounds (palmitic and stearic acid) which occur almost ubiquitously in residues. This instrumental technique called gas chromatography combustion isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC-c-IRMS) works by comparing the proportions of carbon-12 and the heavier carbon-13 in these two compounds. I can then determine whether the lipids in that sherd derive from the meat of a terrestrial non-ruminant animal (e.g. pig) or a terrestrial ruminant animal (e.g. cow), or from the dairy products of a terrestrial ruminant animal.

I also have to wash and sterilise the various tubes I’ve used for extracting the lipids from all these sherds this week, so they are ready for another set of sherds next week. I usually catch up on responding to emails and doing any writing, or I may occasionally do other work, such as photograph the 425 sherds I sampled from 14 LBK sites in north-central and northwest Poland in June.

Box containing the 425 sherds David sampled from Poland in June

Box containing the 425 sherds David sampled from Poland in June

Time for a well-earned weekend! Further information about the NeoMilk project is available at www.neomilk-erc.eu, and the instrumental techniques we use at the OGU at www.bris.ac.uk/nerclsmsf. Last Saturday I and three other members of the OGU exhibited a stall at the Thornbury Science Festival near Bristol, which included a game called ‘Palaeodetective’ that showcases the diverse research the OGU is engaged in; you can play the game online at www.chemlabs.bris.ac.uk/outreach/resources/Palaeodetectives%20Online%20Version!

Students in archaeology

Me giving the closing address for the 2nd ASA conference (Image Copyright: Heidi Babos)

Me giving the closing address for the 2nd ASA conference (Image Copyright: Heidi Babos)

Hello, I am David Altoft, currently an MSc Bioarchaeology student at the University of York. My contribution to the Day of Archaeology last year was titled ‘Anyone can be an archaeologist!’ (www.dayofarchaeology.com/anyone-can-be-an-archaeologist). The opening paragraph summarised well my belief that archaeology needs to be more permeable to participation and sharing of ideas from an integrated audience of different demographics.

The ‘demographic’ I belong to is archaeology students. Last year I reported on the development of the student-run archaeology journal, The Post Hole (www.theposthole.org), and the Annual Student Archaeology (ASA) conference series (www.asaconference.org.uk), that I was Editor-in-Chief and founder of, respectively, in 2012-13. These two initiatives offer archaeology students an unprecedented opportunity to share their innovative research and original ideas in two accessible and increasingly respected platforms.

The Post Hole has been shortlisted for the biennial British Archaeological Award (www.archaeologicalawards.org.uk) for the Best Public Presentation of Archaeology and I will attend the awards ceremony at the British Museum with Emily Taylor and Rianca Vogels, the 2013-14 Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor, on Monday to find out whether or not The Post Hole has won. I will be delighted even if it doesn’t win, because by being shortlisted, The Post Hole has been given recognition for the positive impact it has made for opening the discipline of archaeology and proving that students can be as responsible as any other demographic for the production of great archaeology.

Annual Student Archaeology conference
The Annual Student Archaeology conference has made huge strides since last year. Following the 1st ASA conference I co-organised with other students at the University of York, I established the ASA National Committee which comprises of student representatives, currently from the Universities of Bournemouth, Cambridge, Durham, Southampton, and me at York. Together we have promoted the conference series to fellow students at our respective universities and discussed the future overall direction of ASA. In January this year we received bids from groups of students at four universities in the UK to host the 2nd ASA conference and we selected the University of Reading as the Organising Committee responsible for this challenge.

The 2nd ASA conference was held at the Department of Archaeology in Reading on 19-20 June and attracted undergraduates and postgraduates from not only across the UK, but also from other countries: Brazil, Germany, India, Italy, Poland and Switzerland! This has reinforced my growing realisation that an ‘integrated archaeology’ is permeable across borders as well as demographics. ASA helps break down this geographic barrier to student participation in archaeology by issuing a call for posters to those who cannot attend the conferences in the UK, and this year’s Organising Committee received poster abstracts from students in Nigeria, South Africa and the United States, amongst other countries.

ASA2 delegates networking with the IfA

ASA2 delegates networking with the IfA

ASA2 delegates networking with the Royal Archaeological Institute

ASA2 delegates networking with the Royal Archaeological Institute

The third main barrier ASA is trying to remove for student participation in archaeology conferences is thematic and practical specialisation. Archaeology is perhaps the most diverse discipline there is, as it is essentially the anything, everything and anytime study of the past. Understandably, conferences require having a scope, though many students may be unsure which one to approach to present their own work. ASA tries to be the opposite of most conferences and so the Organising Committee has the task each year of selecting the best papers from students across the discipline and then defining the sessions from those. It is difficult accommodating different fields of research and being engaging to all delegates of the ASA conferences, though I think the team at Reading achieved that balance by splitting the programme for the first ten sessions in two and having the eleventh and most universal session, ‘Issues and Debates’, attended by all delegates.

TAG session proposal
The truth of the matter is that we won’t ever achieve a completely ‘integrated archaeology’ as we all have our own interests that cause us to be involved in this discipline in the first place; however, there certainly is a lot more we can all do to ensure archaeology is at least a more integrated discipline.

For my part, I am currently finalising a session proposal to submit to the organisers of this year’s Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference. Whilst ASA is doing a great job of encouraging students to share their own work and ideas with the discipline, I would like to do almost the opposite and use another existing platform to ask the discipline as a whole how it currently interacts with students and what it could perhaps do to better integrate with this demographic.

It’s fantastic that there is growing consensus across the discipline that we need to better understand and interact with the public ‘outside’ the discipline and with practitioners between the academic and non-academic sectors of the discipline, but what about students in between all these groups? Are students the too often overlooked demographic of archaeology?

I hope that my proposal for a session on understanding of and engagement with students will be accepted for TAG 2014, and a subsequent call for papers can obtain the perspectives of an integrated audience from the different sectors of the discipline. Keep an eye out for any news via my Twitter profile, @DavidAltoft.

The future of ASA
So what else have I been doing lately? On Wednesday, I and fellow representatives on the ASA National Committee ratified a constitution for the conference series. Like The Post Hole, ASA benefits from being entirely run by students as this leads to a rapid turn-over of participants, and with them, fresh ideas. However, that also creates problems. I have been working behind the scenes for ASA for almost two years, whether it’s been by rallying support for ASA on its Facebook and Twitter pages, creating it’s by-now emblematic stripy red banners, or sending hundreds of emails to universities and academic and student societies. I’ve had a mad love for ASA to thrive; however, I won’t be a student forever (as soon as September, if I don’t secure a funded PhD – hint, hint, universities and funding bodies!) and so this constitution serves as a framework of knowledge from previous trial-and-error to guide future Organising and National Committees.

Southampton representative, Alistair Galt, handing out questionnaires at ASA2

Southampton representative, Alistair Galt, handing out questionnaires at ASA2

Following lots of discussion with the rest of the National Committee, applications have been opened today for students at universities across the UK to bid to host the 1st ASA conference in June 2015 and apply to join the National Committee for 2014-15. For the former opportunity, we have designed an application form, available now at www.asaconference.org.uk/get-involved. For the latter opportunity, we have emailed the Heads of all UK university archaeology departments to encourage them to consider having elections in their departments for students to democratically elect representatives onto the National Committee at the start of the coming academic year.

Students wishing to join the National Committee at universities that haven’t held elections by 7 October will be offered a second chance by sending brief statements of interest for the consideration of the retiring National Committee during 8-27 October. The new National Committee and Organising Committee (and thereby host of ASA3) will be announced on 28 October at www.facebook.com/ASAconference and www.twitter.com/ASAconference.

My Masters and future
Like last year, I’m not writing much about what I do for my degree. That’s not because it isn’t the most important thing I spend my time on and interesting at all; it’s just something I’m sure any current or previous student reading this will already know about and identity with – lots of reading and writing!

I am currently working on my dissertation, the final element of my Masters in Bioarchaeology, before I hopefully graduate in September. I have written the chapters introducing my research and reviewing the existing literature, and am balancing that with the lab work that is generating the results I will also write on. My research is the biomolecular analysis of food residues absorbed and preserved within ceramic vessels from the Early Neolithic in western Russia, firstly, to find out whether I can find any traces of their original contents, and if so, secondly, to determine what they are to infer something of cuisine during the Neolithicisation of that region.

Hopefully, if I contribute to the Day of Archaeology again next year, I will be doing so as a PhD student. It is an uncertain time for me as I pursue funding and the best possible environment for me to be one, though far from being a distraction as some people understandably worry, my involvement with initiatives like ASA and The Post Hole hopefully prove that I am passionate about archaeology and have more to mutually give to and gain from it – especially with my now much improved time management skills!

Anyone can be an archaeologist!

You don’t have to be an academic or a commercial field archaeologist to appreciate and theorise about the past. Although most people are aware of and agree with this view, archaeology as a discipline (arguably) retains an exclusive membership of ‘experts’ who are given responsibility for the majority of construction and discussion of narratives that are made on the past. For these narratives to be intellectually well-rounded and personally relevant, it is essential that the discipline is accessible to as many people as possible and participation is encouraged.

I am a student at the University of York, have just graduated with a BSc in Bioarchaeology and am about to commence an MA in Mesolithic Studies. During the past year I have had the privilege of being Editor-in-Chief of a journal called The Post Hole. The Post Hole is run by undergraduate students at York and other universities across the UK. It stands out against many other journals by its inclusivity and engaging tone, making it a brilliant platform for literally anyone to share their research and views on the past.

A diverse audience of people read and have written for The Post Hole, including: Undergraduates, postgraduates, post-doctoral researchers, lecturers and professors, commercial field archaeologists, conservators, professionals from public and private-sector heritage organisations, community archaeologists and even one or two members of the public not formally involved with archaeology. Consequently, each monthly issue of The Post Hole is always interesting to read!

Covers of recent issues of The Post Hole

Covers of recent issues of The Post Hole

I am proud to have been involved with an initiative that has put me into contact with so many people who have fascinating interests and involvements with the past – whether it’s a student with a unique and otherwise under-acknowledged dissertation project, a member of the public running a community project that engages local school pupils with the past, or someone reflecting on their experiences of interacting with the past in their job or visit to a museum. I recommend a browse of the journal’s archive to find out more about what The Post Hole publishes.

Beyond The Post Hole and focusing specifically on the involvement of students with archaeology, I and two other students at the University of York held the 1st Annual Student Archaeology (ASA) Conference in June 2013. The two-day conference brought together undergraduate, Masters and doctoral students from universities across the UK, from as far afield as Aberdeen and Southampton. The purpose of the conference was to establish a new forum for students to engage with academic archaeology by sharing and discussing their research and volunteering activities with each other and people following the conference on Twitter and via a live-streamed video.

The 1st ASA Conference proved to be an enormous success. More than 70 students came to York and left with new ideas, new connections and well-deserved recognition for their contributions to archaeology – whether it be running the Edinburgh Archaeology Outreach Project in schools, carrying out innovative experimental research on the phenomenology of Old Babylonian oil divination, or zooarchaeologically revealing undiscovered practices of cock-fighting in Roman Britain.

Reproduced with kind permission of Ben Wajdner

Reproduced with kind permission of Ben Wajdner

I do occasionally find time to carry out my own research on the past. I specialise in the chemical identification of organic residues that have been absorbed into archaeological materials, such as pottery. My undergraduate dissertation involved me carrying out analysis of organic residues from modern food that was experimentally cooked in replicas of Jomon pottery from Japan, some of the earliest ceramic vessels in the world. The purpose of this work was to build a reference dataset for analysis of actual Jomon pottery that my supervisor is currently carrying out. Current results have been published and I hope to begin my steps towards becoming a lecturer by making further publications and conference presentations.

Although I would like to become a lecturer in order to research the past for a living, I hope a result of many of the activities you will read about via the Day of Archaeology will be that my career aim will not exclude me from fascinating and truly-valuable individuals who follow alternative paths to mine.