Codes, Bones, and a Backstory

Happy Day of Archaeology 2014! It is a day where archaeologists from all around the world share what they are doing in order to spread awareness of the breadth and diversity of archaeology not only to the public, but to other archaeologists. For me, I always love learning about the different projects that people are working on, and learning how they are using similar methods and theories on completely different regions and time periods, or conversely examining a time period similar to mine in a unique manner. It is also a time when we learn what archaeologists really do: it’s not just digging in the dirt and interpreting fantastic burials. We spend a lot of time doing lab work and analysis.

Coding at my kitchen table

Coding at my kitchen table

Today when I woke up early, the sun was shining, there was enough dew on the ground to ensure easy digging, and there was a light breeze that meant outdoor work would be nice and cool. But I’m not digging today. I’m sitting inside at my desk coding cemetery data, which means that I’m taking archaeological reports on cemeteries and creating digital versions of them on my computer that I can use to run statistical and spatial tests. It is one of the parts of archaeology that is both mind-numbingly boring but also extremely insightful. As I go through each grave coding it for age, sex, type of coffin, presence or absence of artifacts, and 30 other variables, I start to make some connections and see patterns. For the most part though it is the most lackluster element of archaeology. So instead of recounting this day that has been beyond boring, I’m going to retell the story of how I came to be where I am.

I spent most of my summers as a child running up and down the gullies of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York. I would often find fossils of brachiopods and trilobites, as well as old bottles and ceramics. My collections each day would be brought back up to my parents cabin for analysis. The first time I thought about becoming an archaeologist was when I began playing the first-ever version of Tomb Raider on my computer. My dad actually helped me find khaki shorts and a turquoise tank top so I could pretend to be her while exploring the gullies (of course it was the kid version, so it wasn’t that scandalous).

Working on my first archaeology dig in Ohio!

Working on my first archaeology dig in Ohio!

When I started college, I had chosen anthropology as my major and archaeology as my sub-field, not so much because I was interested in it, but because I loved history and wanted to travel. During my first undergraduate osteology course I fell in love with the study of human remains and mortuary practices. I wanted to piece together who the average person in the past was, and what their afterlife beliefs were. My first ever mortuary field school was in Giecz, Poland and other than some culture shock at the beginning, I really did enjoy it, and I knew that this was what I wanted to be.

After graduating, I became a Ph.D student at Syracuse University in their Bioarchaeology program. Despite doing well and enjoying my study materials, grad school wasn’t quite what I had expected. I was getting to study bones, but wasn’t learning anything about the context of the cemetery or culture. So I applied for a one-year Masters program at University of Edinburgh. It was the best decision I ever made. I left Syracuse, moved to Scotland, and spent an entire year completely immersed in osteology (I also did a lot of traveling around Scotland and did develop a taste for fine whiskey, but that’s a different story).

Excavating on MSUs campus

Excavating on MSU’s campus

After Edinburgh, I knew that I wanted to keep studying the dead, but I didn’t want to be a bioarchaeologist. I wanted to be a mortuary archaeologist who looked at death rituals, funerary behavior, and the entire archaeological culture in order to understand the dead. I was accepted into the Ph.D program at Michigan State University. Since starting there, I’ve been involved in a number of digital archaeology projects, traveled to Rome and England for research, and discovered that I’m truly passionate about learning about variation in mortuary practices. It was when I started at MSU that I began Bones Don’t Lie as a way to force myself to read a wide range of mortuary archaeology journal articles and stay up to date in the field.

My advice for anyone wanting to become a mortuary archaeologist is this:

  • Take geographic information systems classes, and take them early. It was something I was forced to learn during my undergraduate work, and I’m so glad I did. Being able to use mapping software is a major advantage.
  • Keep up to date in the field. You don’t need to write a blog, but set aside time to read from a range of journal articles to stay current with research and methods.
  • Don’t be afraid to change universities. If you aren’t happy in your program and it isn’t what you expected you can always change.
  • Take a one-year Masters course in osteology. You can a lot of experience quickly, and it aids the transition into grad school. The Ph.D is very different from undergrad, and can be a tough leap for some people.
  • Find a number of mentors to help guide you. Throughout my career I have been lucky enough to have a number of mentors that I could ask open and honest questions about my decisions.

Learn more about the Day of Archaeology on their website or Twitter!



Also, check out Heritage Jam today! I’ve submitted my Ieldran map project, and this year’s theme is death! So cool!



How to Tell Scotland’s Stories in Just Twelve Months

It’s a busy day here in the Dig It! 2015 office and we can’t wait to share it with you. Just because we’re in an office and not knee deep in mud, doesn’t mean that our jobs are any less exciting! Trust me.

OpeningIn case you haven’t heard of us, Dig It! 2015 is a year-long celebration of Scottish archaeology, co-ordinated by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Archaeology Scotland. Two fantastic organisations, which are definitely worth checking out.

From kids taking over museums, and people exploring the story of their own local area, to digs, festivals, competitions, there are so many ways for people to get involved. We will also be exploring our past through song, art, performance and story-telling. It will be exciting, fun, grassroots and messy – just like archaeology and archaeologists.

But somebody has to set it all up! This means that the Dig It! 2015 team is always running around, meeting with organisations and individuals and coming up with fantastical new ideas to celebrate Scottish archaeology. Yup, “fantastical”. You heard me.

Today, wGlasgowe started off by catching up from yesterday’s meeting in Glasgow. Two members of the team met with a Scots Language Development Officer at Education Scotland to discuss how they could get involved in Dig It! 2015.  The resulting idea was the “Archaeology of Language” using two of our themes – Identities and Arrivals – to explore how the people who have settled in Scotland have left their mark on our language, through the words we use, the placenames we have and even our own surnames. 

We also have a very interesting meeting next week, where we will start to combine archaeology with gaming, so we made sure that everyone was caught up on all of the details. This could be a great way to engage with young people who might not have thought about archaeology before now. What will come from the meeting? A game? An app? A lecture? Who knows!?


For lunch, we walked through the Meadows to Summerhall, which is a creative hub for the arts. We’re currently working with various artists and theatre companies, and we are always looking to add something new to the programme. Again, this is a great way to engage with new audiences. After all, archaeology is for everyone!

Finally, we booked our tickets to Orkney. Orkney is pretty much bursting at the seams with Scottish archaeology, so we can’t wait to visit! We’ll be meeting with various organisations in order to find out what we can do for them. By helping them to raise awareness of their efforts, these organisations should be able to reach a wider audience, which will enable them to continue their important work.

Then it was time to head out, but even on our days off, we always have our eyes open for any potential project tie-ins. On Sunday, for example, one of our team members will be hosting an archaeology Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. An archaeologist’s work is never done!

If any of you would like to get involved with Dig It! 2015, please do not hesitate to contact us at info@digit2015.com. It’s going to be a great year!

In Search of Rocks and Stones

Name: George Geddes

What do you do?
I’m an Archaeological Investigator with RCAHMS

How did you get here? 
I started with a BSc at Edinburgh followed by a few years on the Scottish digging circuit. An MA at York in 2003-4 focussing on the archaeology of buildings in the Western Isles led to five years at Headland Archaeology as their building surveyor. In 2007, I took up the post as St Kilda Archaeologist for the National Trust for Scotland, which led to an interest in conservation management planning. In 2008, I moved to RCAHMS to work on a range of archaeological survey projects.

What are you working on today? 
Today I am splitting my work over a series of projects: as aerial survey forms part of my work, I am interpreting and cataloguing photographs of cropmarks taken in the Lunan valley last year, an area where a whole archaeological landscape of multiple periods survives under modern land use.

Later in the day I will continue researching the work of Gordon Childe with RCAHMS from 1942 to 1946 and digitising the photographs, notes and sketch plans he made on about 700 sites during the war, so that they can be viewed on Canmore.

Gordon Childe, a Commissioner at RCAHMS for 4 years, in Edinburgh.

Gordon Childe, a Commissioner at RCAHMS for 4 years, in Edinburgh.

We are also producing a new book on St Kilda’s archaeology, surveyed by RCAHMS in 1983-6 and 2007-9, and I am researching and writing the chapters for the 19th and 20th century, exploring new approaches to the sites and their wider context.

My most recent fieldwork has been a re-survey of the fort at Finavon, and the discovery of a whole new and significant phase, and a trip to the Flannan Isles, where a medieval chapel and seabird hunters bothies survive – for both, I will begin the drafting of our detailed descriptions.

Favourite part of your job? 
In comparison to project manager, the job title ‘investigator’ seems so old-fashioned but the Ordnance Survey and RCAHMS used it for many years as it describes so well the process of critically engaging with the archaeological landscapes and collections in Scotland. Whether it is getting to grips with complex earthworks at Finavon, or teasing together the evidence of how we have got where we are today in interpretation, the focus at work is so often on that process of investigation.  When this process is coupled with a good old sense of ‘public service’, it can be very productive and rewarding.

What did university not teach you? 
While University was fantastic at providing a broad overview, and the opportunity to share and develop ideas, it did not provide an adequate grasp of either fieldwork skills (excluding excavation) nor of the character of Scotland’s field archaeology. While this can to some extent be learnt simply by tramping round sites on one’s own, as so many of us have done, the advantages of doing this more intensively (i.e. looking at everything within a study area), and with experienced colleagues, makes a huge difference. When one considers that RCAHMS has had staff in a similar post to myself since 1908 (initially in fact, the only staff), there has been a huge amount of accumulated organisational experience, passed on from generation to generation (this can include bad habits too!).

The chapel and lighthouse on the Flannan Isles

The chapel and lighthouse on the Flannan Isles

Surprising part of your job? 

George thinks his colleagues are surprising...

George thinks his colleagues are surprising…

The colleagues! No seriously, I’m surprised that there is still so much investigative work to do in Scotland. Though we are really far ahead of most countries in the world in having more than a century of relatively coherent and structured fieldwork (by many individuals and bodies) behind us, resulting in a fantastic collection not to mention an ever-improving sense of the past, great swathes of the country still require thorough field survey, to support research, planning and to enable the public to engage with the past. This national project, when combined with an excellent and robust system of planning-led archaeology, and community archaeology, must surely be the envy of many countries.

Top tips for aspiring archaeologists?  Earn a fortune in something else and then self-fund excavations and surveys in the land of your dreams (i.e North Rona).

Colleagues on North Rona

Colleagues on North Rona

Archaeology Scotland – Eila Macqueen

I’m Director of Archaeology Scotland and have been in post here for nine years now. Day of Archaeology still takes me by surprise as I always intend to be more organised but never am! My approach to things is always a bit last minute as I have a lot of competing priorities keeping the organisation afloat.

My team is now up to 13 staff working on a wide-range of projects and activities to help people engage more in archaeology in Scotland. Just now things are hotting up for this year’s Scottish Archaeology Month (SAM) which takes place each September. Lesley McEwan, our SAM coordinator had been planning a Big Dig in Edinburgh as part of SAM and we are working with AOC Archaeology supported by a wee HLF grant to make this happen and convince local people to try out a test pit in their gardens. Lots of media coverage about this this week including something in The Sun apparently! That’s a first for us.

I was quite surprised by a couple of negative comments on the Scotsman online about the gardens dig. They were along the lines of “you’ll find nothing and why would people want to dig up their garden in the summer when they need it for the kids to play in”. I find it strange that archaeology can be seen in isolation from the benefits it can bring – learning new things, skills, meeting people, research and so on. Perhaps we need to be better at communicating that which is one reason why things like Day of Archaeology are so good!

So far my day has been taken up with our response to the recently issued consultation on the new Historic Environment Strategy and merger of Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission in Scotland. Keeping an eye on and trying to influence policy and practice in Scotland is a large part of what we do and we work through our networks to try and have positive changes for the protection and appreciation of archaeology.

This afternoon I’ve been sending some text and images to the developers of our new website which is an exciting event for us – to have a new site after many years of our existing one. The site should be live before the end of August (all being well). I hope you will have a look and let us know what you think www.archaeologyscotland.org.uk

Robert Adam (RCAHMS) – Edinburgh

Edinburgh. ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Edinburgh. ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Robert Adam, RCAHMS (copyright RCAHMS)

Robert Adam, RCAHMS (copyright RCAHMS)

I’m Robert Adam and I am the Aerial Photographer with the Aerial Survey Team, recording all aspects of the historic landscape that makes Scotland what it is. In my twenty-nine years as photographer with the RCAHMS, I have had the good fortune to travel the country and photograph both architecture and archaeology from the air and on the ground.Not being an archaeologist hasn’t prevented me from appreciating, learning and understanding the basics of the subject. However, like many other non archaeologists, I always thought that archaeology was found in the hinterlands of any country. From the farm land fields of Scotland, of which I have photographed many a crop mark site to the highland clearance areas through to an Indiana Jones type of site set in the deserts.

However, I found that you do not need to travel further than your front door to encounter an archaeological site. I live in the south side of Edinburgh and found only recently the Caiystane near Oxgangs Road, a standing stone with weathered cup markings. Nothing particularly outstanding, and one of many in the area.

Drawing showing view of six standing stones and wayside crosses. No.1 the Caiy Stane. Copyright RCAHMS (DP050277)

Drawing showing view of six standing stones and wayside crosses. No.1 the Caiy Stane. Copyright RCAHMS (DP050277)


There are several suggestions as to the origin and purpose of the stone. The stone may have been erected in the Neolithic period and marks a burial. Others suggest it commemorates the site of a battle between the Picts and the Romans.

General view of the Caiystane. Copyright RCAHMS (DP092799)

General view of the Caiystane. Copyright RCAHMS (DP092799)




It’s a fairly featureless piece of stone and not what you’d call attractive, but it’s where it’s sited that makes it fascinating: smack dab in the middle of a housing estate. It is a site with an interesting and unknown history; nestled somewhat inconspicuously within the estate that many people must pass in a day not giving it a second look.

This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.


Sticks and stones: a day in the life of a finds specialist

My name is Dawn McLaren and I am a finds specialist here at AOC Archaeology Group, based in Loanhead, Scotland.  On a day-to-day basis I’m involved in analysing artefacts recovered as the result of archaeological excavations undertaken by AOC’s fieldwork team.  Most of the objects that I have the privilege of working on come from archaeological sites in Scotland but as we have offices in York and London I’m also involved in identifying finds from digs across England.  My job is to identify any artefacts uncovered and this means figuring out what material the objects are made from, what date they could be and what they might have been used for.  In order to get as much information from the finds as possible, I work closely with AOC’s fieldwork team to understand as much as I can about the context of the finds on site and their possible significance, as well as working with AOC’s conservators to ensure that the objects are cared for properly once they come out of the ground.

Examining the grinding face of a rotary quernstone

Dawn examining the grinding face of a rotary quernstone

To give you an idea of the range of finds that I deal with, in the last few weeks I’ve been looking at a some Neolithic pottery from a site in northeast Scotland, some ironworking waste from a Roman site in southeast Scotland and a post-medieval assemblage of iron and worked bone from an urban site in Edinburgh. As I said in my 2012 Day of Archaeology blog, each artefact I meet presents its own challenges and it definitely keeps me on my toes!  They all have their own story to tell, so let’s see what’s in store today….

Today I’m examining a small group of worked stone objects from a Roman site in southeast Scotland. My first step is always to examine the individual objects in detail to allow me to observe any surface markings that might be tool marks left from manufacture of the object, wear from use or damage sustained to the object before it was deposited.  Some types of stone tools are more recognisable than others, such as this wonderful fragment of a rotary quernstone (see images), but this detailed approach allows me to categorise the wear and helps me to create, where possible, a biography of the artefact- from its manufacture to its deposition after its use had ceased.

Analysing a Roman quernstone fragment

Analysing a Roman quernstone fragment

The next stage is to catalogue the objects and this means describing each artefact in detail and taking measurements of each item.  Assisting me in this task is Marissa, an overseas student who I’m supervising here at AOC Archaeology this month on an Arcadia Internship.  The internship aims to provide training and experience in post-excavation work and is an important part of AOC’s commitment to making archaeology accessible to a wider audience and to provide valuable experience to promising students.

Taking measurements of central socket

Taking measurements of central socket

Having now looked at all stone objects within this particular assemblage, the star find for me is definitely this wonderful quernstone fragment!

Roman quernstone fragment

Roman quernstone fragment

These rotary quernstones would have been used as a pair – an upper and lower stone – to grind grain into flour. The lower stone would remain stationary and the upper stone would be turned by hand as the grain was fed down a central hole in the upper stone.  This particular stone represents approximately one half of a lower grinding stone and has a clear series of vertical grooves decorating the edges of the stone and a convex grinding face which has been deliberately dressed to make a rough surface for the grain to be ground against.  What is really interesting about this example is that the style of the quern mimics imported Roman lava quernstones but is almost certainly made from local sandstone.

For more information on our post-excavation services please check out our website:http://www.aocarchaeology.com/services/post-excavation




Its 30min past Day of Archaeology here in Estonia, so not too late to post my thoughts from the day.

I was sitting in my office in Tallinn, working with the dataset from Hungary for the University of Southampton and thinking about the TED’s talk I went to see day before (over live link from Edinburgh) about the globalisation and openness. Pankaj Ghemawat told us that when looking the data, there is actually no globalisation, or at least not at the level we’d like to think about it. He encouraged us to look for our own answers based on the data.

And here I am, working with the database gathered over half a dozen years or more. Main question I struggle with is how my work (merging and preparing  datasets for analyses) might change the end results… and how the people who are going to analyse the data trust someone like me to play with it and to make it “eatable” for them?

I do not agree with Pankaj about the globalisation, but i do think we need to know the data we draw our conclusions from much better, or even if we help someone else do it.

Archaeology down South: between Buenos Aires and Patagonia

Right now it’s winter here in Argentina and we are nearing the end of the first term at the Universidad de Buenos Aires where I teach a year long course in Research Design. Facing me is a pile of my student’s projects to finish correcting by Monday, our last class before the winter break. It is often frustrating but, then again, immensely satisfying when our students finally develop the knack and learn how to put together a solid research proposal. What I most enjoy are the original ideas they bring each year, and being able to keep up with new subjects or research in regions I have little time for otherwise. I enjoy teaching and tutoring.

My time in Buenos Aires is mostly dedicated to carrying out analyses and writing about our research in the archaeology of Originary Peoples in Southern Patagonia. The research year for me “begins” in April after our return from the field and I have to begin to download, classify and label all our digital information (photos, GPS data) as well as digitize our field notes. A lot of this goes into Dropbox so all our team can easily access our database. All this last week I have been going over our field notes trying to inventory and choose more samples to date the archaeological deposits. We also have to plan for time writing up our research as well as preparing for two conference presentations programmed for October. All of a sudden the year seems already too short. (more…)

Iron Age Slag – No Puns Please!

I’m Dawn McLaren and I’m a finds specialist at AOC Archaeology Group based at Loanhead, Scotland. On a day-to-day basis I’m principally involved in the post-excavation analysis of artefacts recovered as the result of developer-led excavations ranging from early prehistoric through to post-medieval in date. To give you an idea of the range of finds that I deal with, in the last couple of weeks I’ve been looking at coarse stone tools and querns from an Iron Age settlement, some pottery from a Bronze Age burial and post-medieval metal finds from an urban site in Edinburgh. It definitely keeps me on my toes!  

Today I’ve been examining some later prehistoric ironworking waste from a multi-phase site at Beechwood, Inverness and I’m really excited about what it is telling us about metalworking on the site.  The site, which was excavated by my colleague Rob Engl and others, revealed several Bronze Age/Iron Age timber roundhouses, palisades and enclosures together with evidence of Neolithic settlement.

Dawn identifying slag from Beechwood

Starting from the beginning, what is ironworking waste?  Basically, it is the non-iron component of ore that is separated out from the iron during smelting and smithing but there is inevitably other associated debris such as bits of ceramic hearth lining and vitrified stone which don’t necessarily need to be connected to metalworking. I’m terribly over simplifying, of course, but I hope this gives you an idea. Visually, this material doesn’t look like much, I admit! It often looks like rusty or glassy shapeless ugly lumps. But I’ve been trying for years to convince people that it’s really interesting and can tell us a lot about metalworking technology.

My first step is always to visually examine (macro and microscopically) the individual pieces looking at the colour, texture, shape and how melted and fused the material is. Another important part of the initial identification is to determine whether the material is magnetic. All of this information helps me to split the assemblage into broad categories: what is ironworking waste and what has been formed as the result of another pyrotechnic process, what is diagnostic of iron smelting and what might be bloom- or blacksmithing debris. Once I’ve identified the individual pieces, I record all the details (e.g. weight, quantity of pieces and measurements) into a spreadsheet so that I can feed in the contextual data later.

Small smithing hearth bottom from Beechwood

I’m pleased to say that the assemblage from Beechwood has a bit of everything!  It’s not a large assemblage but so far I’ve identified several smithing hearth bottoms and fragments of smelting waste so that I can say that both processes were taking place on or around the site.

Smelting slag from Beechwood

Now that my catalogue of the slag is complete I’ve started to look at where the pieces were recovered from. The excavations at Beechwood covered a very large area and I can see from my initial examination that the ironworking debris is focused in two quite disparate parts of the site. One area, which we’ll call A, includes a possible metalworking hearth or furnace associated with smelting slags and the other area, B, which is quite a distance away and must represent a separate focus of activity, has small residual amounts of both smelting and smithing debris. We’ve already had some of the pits and postholes from these areas radiocarbon dated and those associated with the ironworking waste have provided wonderful Iron Age dates.

Looks like my task for tomorrow is to see how the Beechwood evidence fits in to other Iron Age metalworking sites in the area!

For more information on our post-excavation services please check out our website:http://www.aocarchaeology.com/services/post-excavation