Exploring Prehistoric Cooking

Exploring Prehistoric Cooking

It grows stronger every year! Great to see Day of Archaeology come round again!

For me today will be a lab day – nowhere near as exciting as most posters on here, but still a bit of a treat for me. I’m a British Academy Post-doctoral Fellow at Cardiff University. My current project focuses on mobility and feasting in Late Neolithic Britain, involving a blend of isotope analysis, zooarchaeology and a number of other bioarchaeological methods. It only has six months to run so I’m spending most of my time analysing data and writing up results at the moment. That’s why a lab day is a treat!

Today I’m working on a different project – a pilot study into the use of Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) on bone collagen to reconstruct prehistoric cooking practices. This approach was pioneered by Dr Hannah Koon at the University of York and involves high resolution microscopy of extracted bone collagen to look at the way that that fibrils have degraded (a fibril image is attached to this post – the frayed end is characteristic of cooking). This can tell us whether meat was cooked on the bone, filleted first or in some instances discarded without being cooked at all. It has been shown to be successful for historic material but is unproven for prehistoric material, where fibrils may be so degraded that changes relating to cooking can’t be recognised. I have two placement students employed on the project – George Foody (who has posted to DoA too) and Katie Faillace, both of whom graduated with first class degrees last week.


We have selected samples from Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age feasting sites from Wales and Warwickshire and are getting more from Wiltshire on Monday. Touring museum stores is another fun part of the job! Today we are recording and photographing the bones and drilling small sections (c. 0.5g), which we will then crush and put in Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid to demineralise. Within a couple of weeks and with some fiddly sample preparation the collagen should be ready to put into the TEM. The project aims to tests whether the approach will work for prehistoric bone and will provide new insights into feasting practices. We hope to find out whether less desirable cuts of meat (to western stomachs at least) like pig’s trotters were discarded or consumed in the feast and whether different animals were prepared and cooked in different ways.

Behind the scene – A day in Archaeological Science @BioArCh

On occasion of the Day of Archaeology 2015, I decided to take on the challenge of describing a typical day in the labs of BioArCh.

BioArch is a research group within the Department of Archaeology at the University of York that includes a wide range of expertise in human palaeoecology, paleodiet and environmental archaeology, with specific focus on the analysis of proteins, lipids, DNA and stable isotopes, human and other mammal and bird bones, molluscs, soils, microscopic remains of plants and animals.

The work in the lab is very varied and this video shows a part of my daily routine as a PhD student in Bioarchaeology. My project aims to reconstruct diet and food consumption in the multi-faith society of medieval Portugal, in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together for seven centuries. The main objectives are to identify if contemporaneous communities of Muslims and Christians showed different diets and if their diets changed after the Christian conquest of Portugal, completed in the 13th century. This project is included in a wider network researching the relation between food and faith. To know more about the project and the network, have a look on our blog.

In order to reconstruct the diet of past populations, small samples of bone are collected from human and animal skeletons. The next step is to extract the collagen from the bones. Once extracted, the collagen is then analysed and run through a machine called IRMS (isotope-ratio mass spectrometer) that provides the ratios of the stable isotopes of Carbon (delta 13C) and Nitrogen (delta 15N). The values of C and N inform on the consumption of meat, marine or river fish, and different types of plants (C3 vs C4).

The protocol for collagen extraction is composed of several steps. In this video I am cleaning a rib with a scalpel to get rid of the dirt on the surface (0:56), collecting some samples from the cold room that underwent demineralisation over night (1:19), rinsing the samples with water (1:48), making up a solution to favour the gelatinisation of the samples (1:59) and putting the samples in the oven where the gelatinisation is undertaken (2:16). In the last scene (2:25) I collect another batch of samples where gelatinisation was complete.

At this point the samples are half way through the protocol and a few more days will be necessary to get them ready for the analysis in the IRMS!

I hope you enjoy the video and hopefully it will give you an idea of what is going on in the lab.

If you fall in love with this video and can’t help sharing it, click here.

Alice Toso

Dealing with the dead of Villamagna, Medieval Italy

I really don’t like dead bodies. But the thing about archaeology is that you never really know what you’re going to dig up, and in my last major dig, there were lots and lots of dead bodies – in the end the team excavated nearly 500 medieval skeletons from the area around a church at Villamagna, near Anagni in central Italy. The results of that excavation (the cemetery and all the rest of the large-scale multi-year project) are now being published; interim reports can be found here. Our book includes an inventory and preliminary discussion of the skeletons, the demography of the cemetery and basic paleo-pathology, a discussion of the isotopes and discussions of the topography and chronology of the cemetery, the burials and the finds. But these dead people won’t lie down and I keep finding myself dealing with them, now well after we’re finished digging. Because ours is the largest collection of excavated skeletons from medieval Italy, I’m hoping that these bones can be further studied by bioarchaeologists who are going to be more able to design and carry out a programme of scientific research that will benefit from such a large sample size, from clearly defined and meticulously recorded stratigraphic contexts. I’m in Rome this week trying to help this project along.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

The team who is going to take over the study of the bones of Villamagna include the indefatigable anthropologist who directed the initial inventory and study of the project, Francesca Candilio, and now a pair of bioarchaeologists, Sabrina Agarwal from Berkeley and Patrick Beauchesne from University of Michigan, Dearborn. Their interests lie in understanding better the general health of the population and how it might have changed over time, looking at oral health, at indications of stress on the body associated with certain kinds of work, at changes in bone density at certain moments of development and during the lifetime, and indicators of disease. Francesca has some ideas about some peculiar bone formations on some of the bones, and has identified some people who suffered fatal wounds, while others lived with their wounds for many years. Through information about nutrition levels, general health and indications of physical labour in this population we can reconstruct these particular aspects of daily life in a rural village for which we have otherwise limited data available from textual sources or other archaeological indicators. I am not a bioarchaeologist, but I remain on board because I want to think about ways in which this kind of information about health and life course can relate to the stratigraphic contexts of the cemetery and the rest of the site.


HRU 4348, the male who died in the 13th century because of a projectile wound to his head, the point of which is still there!

We all met in Rome this week, Sabrina and Patrick flew in from California and I came over from London; Lisa Fentress, the project director, and Francesca are based in Rome. We visited the site, brought some specimens to Francesca’s lab, and collected some of the samples for preliminary work to be done. We went over our data collection practices from the dig and reviewed the anthropological inventories and analysis that the dig team carried out. Francesca explained the methods her lab uses for age-ing and sexing the skeletons, and her binders full of measurements and data. She pulled out some of the interesting pathologies, and weirdnesses in the population, and also showed off one of her favourite head wounds: a guy who was buried in the thirteenth century, inside the monastic cloister, with a ballista point lodged in his cranium.

I feel very pleased that these bones will be taken over by such a competent and interesting team of people. I like Sabrina and Patrick’s approach of social bioarchaeology (Sabrina recently edited a book on the topic), looking not just at health and living conditions of people, especially through the lenses of gender, age, and social status. Francesca has expertise in teeth patterns, looking at migration of populations through dental traits, and will be happy to include Villamagna teeth in her data sets.  I think there is still a lot of work left to be done figuring out this population, and devising a strategy for the archeo-anthropology and bioarchaeology which will exploit the stratigraphic data from the excavation alongside the samples of the skeletons, and I’m interested in thinking this through.

Aside from feeling pleased to shepherd the bones into the hands of another team, there are two issues which really interest me about this research. One: the majority of these skeletons (ballista-point guy not included) came dates from about 1300 to about 1400 (several of the skeletons were dated by C14), so after the monastery was suppressed and the monks expelled. For that period we have very little information about who owned the estate of Villamagna and how the church was administered, so I’m very keen to think more about who takes over a monastery and its estate lands when the institution is suppressed and there is no clear successor to administer the estate. The village and the site of the monastery which we excavated were clearly abandoned about 1300, but this major cemetery with lots and lots of skeletons are clear evidence that the church was still in use, and some priest was involved in burying the dead. The other issue that I’m very excited about at the moment is that in the middle of this phase, in 1348 and 1349, life in central Italy must have changed radically. In 1348 the Black Death arrived in southern Italy, where – by some counts – the population was reduced by half. If I look around me right now and imagine half of the people who surround me dropping dead, my job, my family, and every aspect of my life would be radically different. It may have been so for Villamagna in the fourteenth century and I would like to know whether this was the case, or whether the Black Death didn’t affect this place in particular. We have no indication of Plague Pits, no sense of epidemic-scale deaths, which in itself is might point to the site’s survival relatively unscathed. On the other hand, the site must have been profoundly affected by the three earthquakes which shook southern Italy on 9 September 1349. In Rome, part of the Colosseum collapsed from the quake whose epicentre was located down in the Apennine mountain range—much closer to Villamagna than Rome was. It seems very unlikely that the standing buildings of Villamagna were not destroyed, and thus the population forced to relocate or otherwise reorganise their subsistence. And yet we have only slim indications in the archaeological record of that kind of destruction and rebuilding. Was everything already abandoned then? Or was it restored, only to be abandoned 50 years later? I hope that having a better sense of the population buried here might help shift our thinking about these two catastrophic events and catastrophe in general in a rural village.

Maya Research Program’ s 23rd archaeological field season in Belize

MRP Logo 2013

What is the Maya Research Program?

The Maya Research Program is a U.S.-based non-profit organization (501C3) that sponsors archaeological and ethnographic research in Middle America. Each summer since 1992, we have sponsored archaeological fieldwork in northwestern Belize and ethnographic research in the village of Yaxunah, Mexico. The Maya Research Program is affiliated with the University of Texas at Tyler.

Our goal is, first and foremost, to conduct research that helps us better understand the complex ancient societies of the Americas. MRP is proud to have a diverse staff of talented scientists contributing to this goal and many of our affiliated scholars are recognized as leaders in their fields. Recent support has come from the Archaeological Institute of America, National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, the Heinz Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies. In addition, the Blue Creek field school has been certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists and the project was recognized as the winner of the Archaeological Institute of America’s Excavation Outreach contest.

Another key MRP goal is to encourage the participation of students and volunteers — anyone who wants to experience the real world of archaeological or anthropological research and understand how we learn about cultures may join us. We see this as a critical educational component of MRP’s work and it helps us accomplish our research goals as well. The ages of our participants range from 18 to over 80. So many of our participants return year after year that MRP has become an extended family. About half of our participants are university students under 30 years old and the other half are professionals and retirees. While the majority of participants come from the United States and Canada, we have students from Australian,  European, Latin American, and Japanese institutions as well. For students, academic credit can usually be arranged either via UTT or the student’s home institution. Many of our students go on to become successful graduate students in archaeology or a related field and return to focus on MRP projects for their theses and dissertations.

In 2014 and 2015 we again offer opportunities to participate in our field program and learn about the Maya of the past and today. The Blue Creek Archaeological Project is open to student and non-student participants, regardless of experience. The field school has been certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists and participants will receive training in archaeological field and laboratory techniques. Academic credit and scholarships are available. We invite students and volunteers to participate in the Maya Research Program’s  archaeological field season in northwestern Belize.

2014 Season Dates:
Session 1: Monday May 26 to Sunday June 8
Session 2: Monday June 9 to Sunday June 22
Session 3: Monday June 30 to Sunday July 13
Session 4: Monday July 14 to Sunday July 27

2015 Season Dates:

Session 1: Monday June 1st to Sunday June 14th

Session 2: Monday June 15th to Sunday June 28th

Session 3: Monday July 6th to Sunday July 19th

Session 4: Monday July 20th to Sunday August 2nd

If you are interested in joining the team this summer or next  – please get in touch soon as space is limited! If you have any questions – please don’t hesitate to contact us:

Maya Research Program
1910 East Southeast Loop 323
#296; Tyler, Texas 75701
Phone: 817-831-9011

MRP’s 23rd archaeological field season in Belize

The Maya Research Program is having a very successful 23rd archaeological field season in northwestern Belize! This summer we are concentrating on the site of Xnoha. Xnoha is a medium sized Maya center located on the edge of the Alacranes Bajo. We are delineating the architecture of the site core, three of its elite residences, and a possible shrine structure. In addition, we have recorded and conserved the mural recovered from Tulix Mul, secured numerous soil samples from wetland features, and finalized excavations at “Alvin’s Cave” and “Rice Mill Cave 3.” Our bioarchaeology field school is active this session and we are looking forward to our 3D modeling and photogrammetry workshop next week.  If you are interested in seeing weekly updates from the field – you can follow our progress on our Facebook page or via the photo gallery on our website.


Eastbourne Ancestors Day of Archaeology 2012

This is the first ‘Day of Archaeology’ that we (Eastbourne Ancestors) have taken part in and so we are quite excited to be involved!

I’m also excited as this is my first full time job in archaeology as the Project Co-ordinator for Eastbourne Ancestors. I work in the commercial world of archaeology as an osteoarchaeologist (human and animal remains) in my spare time too, as well as excavating with a local society and the Eastbourne Museum Service. Archaeology is for everyone and I strongly believe in the community aspect, getting hands on.

You can follow our progress here:

Although the ‘Day of Archaeology 2012’ fell on 29th June, I was in meetings which wouldn’t have made for exciting reading…but today is a different story.

We are a Heritage Lottery Funded project run by the Eastbourne Museum Service in East Sussex. Our aim is to To fully examine all the human skeletal remains in our collection from the Eastbourne area in order to produce a demographic profile of the past populations that were living here.

The skeletal analysis will include determining the age, biological sex, stature, metric and non-metric traits, ancestry, health, diet, handedness and evidence of pathology. We will also be conducting research into migration studies using isotope analysis, physical appearance using facial reconstruction and family connections, DNA and C14.

As part of this project, we will be giving volunteers the opportunities to participate in artefact conservation, osteoarchaeology workshops, field work, study days, talks and demonstrations and much more. We will conclude the project with academic and public published material as well as an exhibition.

On Friday, Jo (the boss) and I took a road trip to Bournemouth University to deliver 30 skeletons to students to study for their MSc dissertations. We also have a student from Exeter University studying clavicles for two weeks with us for her research. In a few months time we will be taking some of the collection to Canterbury University to be studied by their MSc and BSc students too.

Today is our first volunteer day, we have 5 volunteers busily cleaning skeletal remains from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery site in Eastbourne. Each day for a month, volunteers will be helping to get the remains ready for analysis, which they will also receive training for as part of the Project.

By the 2013 ‘Day of Archaeology’ I hope to have some interesting findings to write about: Where did these people come from? Are they local? How did they live and die? What did they wear? What did they look like?

Excavation & Skeletal Analysis

For many years I would be on my way to Egypt at this time of year, trying to figure out how to stretch the grant money to cover as much time in the field as possible. But this year I’m in my research lab at the university, working on the final stages of several projects.

As an archaeology student I discovered that I was mainly interested in the people themselves, rather than their garbage. So my specialization is in human skeletal remains (bioarchaeology). I’m particularly interested in how human skeletons reveal aspects of the interrelationships between culture, environment, and health. I have excavated ancient cemeteries in Egypt and Pakistan, and have studied human skeletal remains from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley Civilization, and from historic cemeteries of the Fur Trade Period in western Canada.

A 2,000 year old cemetery in Egypt.

Today I’m examining 2,000 year old human bones and teeth for evidence of fractures and various forms of disease.

Tuberculosis in the spine.

Usually there are one or two interesting or important discoveries made in the field, but often the significance of your work isn’t clear until you’ve had a chance to examine all of the finds and to determine where they fit in the big picture of the site, and of the ancient culture more broadly. That process usually takes years!

I also study the historic and prehistoric ways in which people dealt with their dead. With this research I don’t excavate, but instead I examine the above-ground and archival record of historic cemeteries in western Canada in order to assess the fit between archaeological interpretive models for prehistoric cemeteries and the documented evidence for burial practices.

If you’d like to learn more about my research, please check the website on my profile.

Osteoarchaeology with the WEA in Sheffield

This is my last summer of ‘freedom’ before I start writing up my PhD thesis, and so I thought I would spend some time avoiding my database and volunteering for the WEA, who are now well into the first year of their Inclusive Archaeology Education Project. The project is being rolled out across Yorkshire and the Humber, and aims to provide opportunities for people under-represented in archaeology to learn about and participate in archaeology.

The three year project will enable 300 people, including adults with learning disabilities, mental health service users, adults with physical disabilities and members of black, asian and minority ethnic communities to get involved in archaeology. The courses include a classroom component and then a number of field trips to archaeological sites across the region.

This week I was involved in a ‘bones’ session with the Sheffield group. A couple of us from the Osteoarchaeology group at the University of Sheffield ran a session looking at both human and animal bones. This involved an ‘exploding sheep’ activity, where each of the learners were given some bones from a sheep and had to work out what part of the body they were from, and re-fit them. We also did a similar activity for our human skeleton. We also talked about bones from different animals and the learners had to guess which animals some bones belonged to. It was a great afternoon, the learners were very enthusiastic about the activities, and we had loads of fun!

I’m very much looking forward to volunteering on some of the upcoming field trips with the group over the next month. It has been a pleasure working with them!

To find out more about the Inclusive Archaeology Education Project then visit their blog here:

To find out about Zooarchaeology and Human Osteology at the University of Sheffield go to:




Day of Archaeology – LAARC Lottery Part 5 (Textile Finds)

Day of Archaeology: Blog 5 – Textiles

Moving onto and into our Leather & Textile store, we have two classic objects chosen by you, completely at random.

Our first randomly selected object, from shelf number 876, is a Roman leather shoe, excavated from site BUC87 – once the heart of Londinium. The LAARC holds over 5000 Roman and medieval shoes (we are the largest Archeological Archive in the world after all) and this artefact is a fine example of its type. The leather sole of the shoe has been preserved through waterlogged conditions but once exposed would quickly dry and shrink. Luckily the Museum ofLondon’s conservation department owns a magic machine called a freeze-dryer which, through the process of sublimation, leaves these leather objects in a very stable condition.

Roman leather shoe

Roman leather shoe from BUC87 – and shelf 876

 A common comment on archaeological Roman shoes is that they always seem very small. The leather may have shrunk somewhat after two millennia in the ground and the freeze-drying process may add minimally to this, but on the whole our Roman Londoners seem to have small feet…Perhaps a comparative study should be conducted with the many Roman skeletal remains held at the Museum’s Centre for Human Bioarchaeology!

Our second object is a piece of post-medieval textile from site EAG87  (and shelf 809), excavated by the Department of Urban Archaeology (DUA) back in the late 1980s. Archaeological textiles suffer from damage to both their texture and colour; however, our Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts gets particularly excited about brown bits of wool!

Post-medieval cloth

Post-medieval cloth from EAG87 – and shelf 809

Again our textile much like other organics and inorganic, such as metal, has survived through waterlogged but anaerobic conditions. This fragmentary piece was probably part of the C18th backfill of a well excavated on this site.

Our last major store section holds our Environmental finds. These are typically extremely small objects that take up little space (hence the small shelf range) and include objects such as seeds, pollen and small animal bones etc. Tweet using #dayofarch or #LAARC, or message us a number below, between 1 and 44 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…

Not much real archaeology, but loads of stuff to do..

A Day of Archaeology at the curatorial side of the Museum of London

 The Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive, which includes the award London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC),  the curators of the early collections (up to 1714) and the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology.  It is a stressful and varied job, and sometimes a tad unsatisfactory as there is never enough time other than to skim over so many compelling things.

 The day started with e-mail on the train about getting resources in place for the London Archaeologist Association contribution to FoBA, then wrote a review about the Museum’s new iPhone app, feeling slightly aggrieved by a previous review on iTunes that said it was ‘unambitious’, felt the need to refute. As a lot of work has gone into getting the sponsorship and building it, then found out could not load my review because I have not downloaded the product, of course I still have the trial version, and now need to delete it and reload via iTunes, bummer, save that for home tonight as we not allowed iTunes at work. If you are iPhone or iPad enabled, do have a look, it’s a tip of the iceberg look at the Romans in London, it brings together content from the Museum of London Collections, the MoLA Londinium map, sparky little videos made by HISTORY floating on top of Google maps.

 The conditions are not great back of house at the Museum of London, heating and ventilation are poor, offices are cramped, although work is underway to improve the roof and insulation, but it was off putting to see another Head of Department spraying their armpits in advance of another steamy day. Me? I managed that before I left the bathroom this morning.

 Staff briefing meeting where, among other things, the separation of MoLA is spun and tempered by the Director telling us a little about ongoing commercial projects including Convoys Wharf and a site on Holborn that is a 16th century tavern and brewery. The Director also revealed a plan to build a mini Louvre-style glass pyramid within a void on the roof to create more office space, and apparently he travelled (in his own time) to Rwanda to name a gorilla.  He also said we would have no building works during the Olympics, …or leave (at the moment).

 Then sorted out a external enquiry about an identification of Post-Medieval earthenware vessel, curiously I thought it was North Devon Gravel-tempered ware, huge bits of gravel showing through the glaze.

 Correspondence with GLA about teaching classics and Latin in London schools, invitation to lunch at City Hall next week, the phrase ‘no such thing as free lunch’ running through my head.  Dealing with a request to borrow the Head of Mithras from Prof. Grimes excavations for an exhibition on the Livery companies, but the dates coincide with Londinium 2012, our Stories of the World exhibition, decide to consult with Junction the youth panel as co-curators of the exhibition.

 Trying to get my head around the Greater London Historic Environment Research Strategy, but actually mostly sorting out cock-ups with invoices to do with the project.

 Ensuring the catering is in place for the Finds Processing course being held at LAARC next week, great, a pile of receipts from M&S Lunch To Go to process.

 This afternoon meetings about how to fund Community Archaeology over the next three years, so cunning plans in the offing, although disappointed to have missed out on the CBA bursary scheme this week, is it because we are London? Or is it because I didn’t spend enough time on the application? Or a mixture of the two?  Then a super meeting about how to stop water getting into where we store excavated human bone, hoping it does not rain is not going to be a long term solution….

 Then bracing myself for a full on FOBA weekend, events at London Wall, and the Gladiator Games in Guildhall yard.  I think I get to spend quality time checking tickets and showing people to the seats, but it is a warm up to raising awareness about the forthcoming campaign to build new Roman Galleries at the Museum of London.

Roy Stephenson

Head of Archaeological Collections and Archive, Museum of London