At a Conference . . . Connecting with others

We all live on a pale, blue dot spinning in space.  Blue. . . atmosphere. . . water.  I explore the DNA and proteins of archaeological fish bones to understand what happened in the past under the blue surface of the water in order to better understand the lives of those in the past and the future of our present oceans.  I also am starting up a holistic outreach project called Fish ‘n Ships which focuses on connecting modern fishing and food, historical fishing and food, and aquatic ecology (picture below from our opening event).  Today though, I am at a conference: Marie Sktodowsha-Curie Actions (MSCA) ESOF satellite event ‘Research and Society’ because my funding for my job in BioArCh at the University of York comes from MSCA.



Isotopes and Environments

From Jennifer Jones:

Happy Day of Archaeology! Today is a little unusual for me. I’m in Tokyo Japan, getting ready to travel to Nagoya tomorrow for the International Quaternary Union conference where I will be presenting some of my research about past climate change in the Palaeolithic, and will get the chance to hear the most up to date research on climate change, environments, and human behaviour. Going to conferences is a crucial way for archaeologists to share research, make connections within the wider archaeological and research community, and to debate and discuss key research themes.


Today is a day off for me, and I visited Meiji shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, set in a huge man made forest of 120,000 trees of 365 different species donated from across Japan. This shows the huge impact that humans can have on the local environment, and even thought it was only created in the last 100 years, the forest dominates this piece of land in the centre of the city and makes for a very striking landscape.

Jennifer Jones

I am a Marie Curie funded Post-Doctoral Research Fellow based at the University of Cantabria in the North of Spain. The Cantabrian region is home to the world heritage site that encompasses the rich archaeological cave sites full or fantastic cave paintings, animal bones, portable art, and stone tools. My project ‘CLIMAPROX’ “Hunter-Gatherer adaptations in northern Iberian Refugia from the Last Glacial Maximum to the Mesolithic: a multi-proxy climatic investigation” is exploring changes in environment using stable isotope analysis of animal bones in combination with other environmental proxies (e.g. sediments, pollen, microfauna, and fauna) to understand human responses to environmental change from the Last Glagical Maximum to the Mesolithic (c.22,000-8000 BP) in the Cantabrian Region in Northern Spain. This was an important period of time, where several key things happened; there was an increase in population, we see the emergence of cave art and portable art, and we see a greater diversification in diet at the end of this time, which ultimately leads to the origins of farming in the Neolithic. I want to find out the role of the environment in driving these changes, and how the environment affected human behaviour at this crucial time in prehistory.

Recently I’ve been sampling animal bones to undertake stable isotope analysis from sites for isotopic analysis which involves visiting museum collections, to find suitable bone samples to choose for isotopic analysis. I have to make a full written and photographic record of all of the bones before I cut, them to ensure that sampling is as minimally destructive as possible. I am very privileged to work with these collections, and it is always very exciting to know that from these bones we can find out lots of valuable information about past environments. I’ve enjoyed looking out for cut marks, and marrow cracking marks on the bones-evidence that humans were using these animals as food.

Next I have lots of lab work to pre-treat the bones to extract the collagen for carbon and nitrogen analysis. I enjoy lab work, and there is a real thrill when you get back the results after all of your hard work. After that there is the fun of working out what they all mean! Hopefully for next year’s day of archaeology I will have lots of interesting and exciting results to tell you about!



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!’ ( 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 (, and the Annual Student Archaeology (ASA) conference series (, 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 ( 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 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 and

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!

ArchaeoLandscapes Europe

Increasing Public Appreciation, Understanding and Conservation of the Landscape and the Archaeological Heritage of Europe

Archaeology can be so fascinating – digs in nice and exotic places, meeting new people and experiencing new cultures, teaching students and learning from students, telling stories about the past to the public.

But I am sitting in my office in Frankfurt/Main (Germany) today and trying to cope with our new website. The old one was hacked a while ago to be used for DoS attacks on another server so we had to take it offline. We used that opportunity to refresh the old page so now I am working on tinkering the new site a bit, adding content here and there, trying to find mistakes and replacing some placeholder images with pictures from the project before the site will go live again as soon as the provider has managed the domain transfer.

Sounds all rather boring but in the end it’s exactly part of the things I like so much in archaeology: teaching and telling stories! And the background of the webpage of course is the project ArchaeoLandscapes Europe (ArcLand), funded by the EU culture programme for 5 years (sept 2010 – sept 2015) to foster all kinds of remote sensing and surveying techniques, to spread the knowledge all over Europe within the archaeological community and of course also to the broader public. It’s about telling the public that archaeology is more than a dig in a temple in the jungle or an investigation of a pyramid. It’s also – and mainly (?) – about understanding the history of a landscape and the people that lived in it, it’s about trying to find out how people could cope with their environs and which traces they left – and it’s about finding these traces. From the air (aerial archaeology, LiDAR, satellite imagery) and from the ground (geophysics, field walking) and in all cases non-invasive.

From left to right: near infrared aerial image - rob aerial image - LiDAR scan - geomagnetic survey

From left to right: near infrared aerial image – rob aerial image – LiDAR scan – geomagnetic survey

And yes, this is absolutely fascinating – and it brings me to many nice (though not always exotic) places where I meet new people and old friends, where I experience new and well known cultures and where I have the opportunity to tell the stories that are relevant within the framework of the project. It is talking to archaeologists who know a lot about the remote sensing and surveying techniques and learning a lot from them, it is talking to students to make them aware of the fantastic options of these techniques and it is talking to the public to share the fascination that I still feel when I look at a newly discovered site on an aerial image, on a landscape palimpsest on a LiDAR scan or on the hidden subsoil feature visible in the geophysical data.

I really feel very happy when I can see that the grants that our project provided helped students and young researchers to experience new techniques, to exchange knowledge and expertise with other people and to meet people from different areas of Europe to widen their (cultural) perspective. And I am happy to see that all these activities have always been a lot of fun for all those that have been involved.


ArcLand partners meeting in Amersfoort (NL) in 2013

Sure, it’s a EU project which means that there is a lot of administrational work to do. The EU is supporting us with a lot of money and I can understand that they want to make sure that this money is well spend. Still, I am swearing a lot over time sheets and lists of invoices and all that. But that is a very fair price for all the options this support offers to many people all over Europe and abroad! And it shows that Europe is more than a bunch of bureaucrats that only care about the bend of bananas to be imported into the EU! Seeing all these people from the Baltic to the Iberian Peninsula, from Ireland to the Balkan getting together, learning from each other , exchanging ideas and enjoying themselves at our workshops, at our conferences or when visiting our travelling exhibition really makes me feel the the idea of a joint and peaceful Europe is worth all that money.

So all in all, working on a webpage is not that bad, it’s raining outside anyway, so I am sitting in my dry office and I know that the work that I am doing is one tessera in the large archaeological mosaic. Watch out for our webpage to go live again hopefully soon!