experimental archaeology

A Life in a Day

Last year I quit my job in the city, moved back home, and made the decision to move back into archaeology. It was a very difficult decision to make as I had to give up the life I was used to in London, but I feel it was the right one. I’m very passionate about community archaeology, and I believe it is important for people to be aware of the landscape and history around them as this helps to increase the understanding of their heritage and identity. I also believe that so many skills can be gained through participation, both practical and personal.

When I first left my job I was so nervous I’d be unable to find any volunteer roles, and I’d be sitting around not working at all. How wrong I was! I’ve been very lucky to be involved in a range of amazing projects and the experience I’ve gained has been invaluable.

As my main interest is community archaeology I tried to focus on getting experience in that, both in how community archaeology works behind the scenes, and general experience of working with the public. I’ve been involved in a range of projects over the last few months. Rather than focus on one day, I’m going to give an overview of each of them, along with a link to their websites so you can find out more.

The first place I got involved in at the beginning of the year was the Portable Antiquities Scheme. My nearest branch is in Winchester, with the Winchester Museums Service. I had experience working with finds on excavations, but I rarely got to see anything other than pottery and animal bones, so the experience has been so important. The scheme is a funded project to record archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales. Most of the finds are bought in by metal detectorists, but not all. It has been really successful in encouraging good practice in finders and land owners, and many finds have been recorded on the database, including the location of where they were found. I am one of the many volunteers round the country who help to photograph and record these finds. I feel very fortunate to be able to handle these items, and learn more about them.

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Photographing worked flint 

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Editing the image on the computer, ready to put on the database

As well as recording items, I’ve also been on training courses during my time with the PAS. I’ve had a day course on Roman coins at the British Museum, and a really interesting session on Roman brooches, and the different types. The Portable Antiquities Website is: http://finds.org.uk

I then got involved at Stonehenge, signing up to be a Neolithic House Interpreter. I took all the training, and then the opportunity came up to work on building the houses too. It was a fantastic experience, as it really gave me insight into how these buildings could have been built originally and the range of materials available. It was great to look at the archaeological evidence from Durrington Walls, and really think about how these buildings were first built, and how they were used. I also really enjoyed daubing, using a mixture of chalk, water and straw to cover the walls, it’s very therapeutic! The houses were built under the guidance of the Ancient Technology Centre, more information can be found here – http://www.ancienttechnologycentre.co.uk

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Putting the daub onto one of the Neolithic Houses

The volunteers have also received training on fire training (very important in a house made of wood and straw!), bread making, flint knapping, and clothing and organic materials. This is so beneficial and has really helped when speaking to visitors onsite.

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As the houses only opened at the beginning of June, I’ve only done a few sessions as a house interpreter, but the knowledge gained on the building of the houses has really benefited. I feel I can really explain to the public about how the houses were created. I’m also very proud of the houses and the team that worked on them, they are beautiful structures. More information can be found on the Neolithic Houses blog – http://neolithichouses.wordpress.com 

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These are the two main projects I’ve been involved in, but I’ve also had the odd day here and there. I helped to survey the roof of Hampton Court Palace, which was a bit scary balancing on the wooden beams! I’ve also done some work with the East Oxford Project helping to sort finds from test pits, and attending a really interesting pottery weekend run by Paul Blinkhorn. I additionally spent a day in the Natural History Museum in Oxford moving small mammal skulls, and repacking them into more suitable containers!

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Balancing on a beam in the dark Hampton Court attic!

So, although I’d absolutely love a proper paid secure job (it’s exhausting fitting in the babysitting and gardening!) I feel very privileged to be involved in all these projects, which is why I wanted to write about all of them. There is such a range of work going on around the country, and it’s very exciting.

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Monrepos – research in progress

Finally, I want to write a bit about our archaeological research which has to continue while the museum is prepared for the re-opening.
Of course, an apparent question is: Why don’t the other researchers write their own posts about their work? Well, the answer is simple and, presumably, very common in science:
It’s a matter of time!

Work schedules of cooperative projects and deadlines of submitting articles have to be kept. Since most institute members also try to help with the museum, time is getting short and even shorter… So we practice one of the amazing achievements of human behavioural evolution: division of labour! So while I’m blogging, others continue with their work.

For example, Dr. Martin Street just finishes writing an article about dogs… in space… and, more importantly, in the Upper Palaeolithic. This paper is his contribution for an exhibition catalogue of another institute. You see, we help where we can!
The previously mentioned Dr. Radu Ioviță has several research projects including field projects in Romania and Kazakhstan. Besides answering questions of actors, today he worked on one of his lab projects and made figures for an article he co-authors about bifacial symmetry.
A Master student he is working with, Nina Schlösser, made spear throwing and thrusting experiments the other week to understand microscopic breakage patterns of lithic tips. Some of us helped her back then throwing and thrusting spears, measuring the depth of the shaft in the animal, or simply switching cameras on and off. Today she was one of the many helpers in and outside the museum and for some unknown reason she was using a shaft again.

Radu’s and Nina’s work contributes to our previously mentioned research theme “Diet and Nutrition”. Understanding hunting equipments and, thus, hunting strategies in the past contributes to the very old problem how to get to the food.
This important motivator helps to fill the larger picture of our research concept which is “Becoming Human: the Evolution of Hominin Behaviour”. In our institute, we focus on ice age (Pleistocene) material as the longest part of human history to portray this process.

Many people instantly think of big glaciers, massive ice sheets, snow, and cold temperatures when they hear “Ice Age”. However, these phases of glacial growth were repetitively intersected by several millenia of warm phases so called interglacials such as the Eemian and, probably, the Holocene. Another of our research themes, “Human behavioural strategies in interglacial environments”, focuses on these warm periods. Important projects in this theme are, for example, the 300,000 years old site at Schöningen or the Eemian site of Neumark-Nord 2. Both sites represent specific lake shore environments which allowed a good preservation of organic material. The bone material needs detailed recording to distinguish natural processes from carnivore and human activity. Therefore, the pieces are not just determined to body part and animal species but they are also examined for breakages and potential cutmarks. Our Basque colleague, Dr. Aritza Villaluenga Martinez, spend some of his working day with this detailed recording.

He is one of the researchers having his desk in our comparative collection on the top floor.

Such collections are needed for more reliable determinations but in some difficult cases, direct exchange with other experts is the best way to come to a reliable conclusion. Therefore, most of our archaeozoologist have desks on the top floor.


Likewise others, Aritza used the Friday afternoon to additionally work on corrections of two reviewed papers. Moreover, earlier today he helped together with our colleague Geoff Smith cleaning up outside the museum.

Another one working late on a Friday afternoon is Wolfgang Heuschen M.A. For his dissertation, he examines schist plates from the Magdalenian site Gönnersdorf. These plates were regularly engraved with Pleistocene mammals such as woolly rhino or mammoths as well as stylised female silhouettes. Continuous use and post-depositional damages make finding and documenting these engravings a difficult task, in particular, requiring a moveable light.


Wolfgang focuses on signs and symbols which are occasionally difficult to distinguish from unintentional scratches. Therefore, he systematically records the plates and establishes regulations in the composition of engravings. Thus, regulations of early societies, our third research theme, can be filtered from the archaeological material.

In a comparable manner, we all contribute to the three research themes that support the research concept – if we are back to our usual working mode. Then we fill large parts of the process of becoming human as a team and explain more and more bits and pieces of the evolution of hominin behaviour – from Tuesday on, we also present what we already learned to the general public in our newly re-opened museum.

So if you are interested: Please, come and visit us!

Artefact Reproduction as a Trade

My name is Martin Lominy. I’m a trained archaeologist, a career educator, a self-taught craftsman and the founder of Aboriginal Technologies Autochtones, a Quebec based business with an educational mission aimed at providing the general public with a more practical vision of the past and a better understanding of aboriginal cultures of North America through the experimentation of ancient technologies.  Since 2005 we have provided artefact replicas, educational workshops, interactive conferences, craft demonstrations and consultation services for a variety of institutions such as schools, colleges, universities, interpretation centers and museums across Canada and beyond. We also enjoy collaborating on various projects ranging from experimental archaeology to movie sets. Rather than summarize too much information or present one of many projects, I’m offering here a photo essay of various subjects and activities we have worked on since last year’s post.

Collaboration with a PhD student from the University of Montreal to make and test Aurignacian arrows. Photo credit: Luc Doyon

Photo credit: Luc Doyon

Collaboration with PhD student Luc Doyon from the University of Montreal to make and test Aurignacian arrows on an animal target.

Educational kit designed for Quebec schools to supplement the teaching program on Iroquoian society through activities based on experimental archaeology.

Educational kit designed for Quebec schools to supplement the teaching program on Iroquoian society through activities based on experimental archaeology.

Part of large order of Northwest coast fishing tools for a Hollywood movie set.

Part of a large order of Northwest coast fishing tool replicas for the movie set of Night at the Museum 3.

Stone axe from our collection used by local archaeology cooperative Gaïa for a dwelling reconstruction experiment. Photo credit: Francine Gélinas

Photo credit: Francine Gélinas

Stone axe replica from our collection used by archaeology consultants Gaïa for a dwelling reconstruction experiment.

Set of stone tools made for a public dig simulation at a local interpretation enter.

Set of stone tool replicas made for a public dig simulation at Pointe-du-Buisson museum.

Collaboration with survival school Les Primitifs to teach a group the production techniques of aboriginal fishing technologies.

Photo credit: Mathieu Hébert

Collaboration with survival school Les Primitifs to teach the production techniques of aboriginal fishing technologies.

Set of prehistoric bone tool replicas for educational activities interpretation in a museum.

Set of prehistoric bone tool replicas for interpretation activities in a museum.

Experimenting the production of a prehistoric pitch recipe based on recent discoveries.

Experimenting the production of a prehistoric pitch recipe based on recent discoveries.

Young apprentice collecting raw materials for cordage production. Most of our replicas are made with materials that we harvest ourselves.

Young apprentice collecting raw materials for cordage production. Most of our replicas are made with materials that we harvest ourselves.

Some pottery tools from our collection used in an experimental workshop with university students.

Some pottery tools from our collection used in an experimental workshop with university students.

Assisting a class of grade school students in a model project on aboriginal people.

Assisting a class of grade school students in a model project on aboriginal lifestyles.

Most archaeologists get covered in dirt. We mostly get covered in dust.

Most archaeologists get covered in dirt. We mostly get covered in dust.

It seems most of our projects begin like this.

It seems most of our projects begin like this.

One of our most popular items: cooked knives. Just as we use it for artifact replication, our customers used it to rediscover old woodworking techniques.

One of our most popular items: crooked knife. Just as we use it in our reproduction process, our customers used it to rediscover old woodworking techniques.

A variety of Northwest Coast artifact replicas for a school program on aboriginal culture in British Columbia.

A variety of artefact replicas for a school program on aboriginal culture.

A custom replica for a European collector. Many of our clients order pieces that they could otherwise have in their collection.

A custom replica of a warclub for a private collector. Many of our clients order pieces that they could not otherwise have in their collection.

Experimental Archaeology: Bones, Stones, and spears

Cleaning bones

 

Today is getting close to three weeks since a recent experiment using some hammerstones on bones, and I’m trying to see how they’re cleaning up. Lots of the sciences use experimental research (sometimes it’s called actualistic research in archaeology) to try and understand the world around us. Archaeology is no exception, and we’ve been doing these kinds of projects for decades. Sometimes these projects are more along the lines of reconstructing past ways of life but there are lots, myself included, who take a more scientific approach to trying to understand what our human ancestors were doing.

I’m in my first year of a PhD at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/people/research/milks), and I’m interested in the earliest known weapons in the archaeological record, which are simple wooden spears: how did they fly (did they?), how well do they work as hunting weapons, and what were our human ancestors doing with these weapons? A big part of my research is involving capturing data on to answer these questions, using state of the art equipment at the ballistics facilities at Cranfield University, located in the Defence Academy of the UK. It’s a lot of fun, and among other things I’ve also been brushing up on my basic physics so I will really understand the instrumentation and results. But this last experiment involved bashing bones with stones – something lots of archaeologists and anthropologists have done before me to answer slightly different questions about what earliest hominins through to Neanderthals were doing to maximize the meat on animals and especially marrow and fat inside bones. Essentially we’re interested in whether some kinds of damage on bones you see in the archaeological record could be caused in multiple different ways – just another way that archaeology is so confusing but so interesting!

My bones are finally getting pretty clean, which is a relief. I’m much more comfortable with stones, or fossilized bones. This particular experiment has really forced me to engage with animals in a way that hominins would have had to on a daily basis. (Well, they probably were not soaking them in detergent for a few weeks, but certainly in handling them.) We’re so distanced now from getting and processing meat – especially in the Western world. This project really highlighted to me, on a personal level, how much work our ancestors would have invested on a daily basis to eat, and how unpleasant some of it must have been!

Annemieke Milks

A day with Macedonian archaeology “Educational ceramic workshop”

The Student Archaeological Association “Axios” was established to perform activities in order to promote archaeological values in society and to raise the awareness about cultural heritage and its protection.

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The purpose of the project “Educational ceramic workshop”, which is in the field of experimental archaeology, is to familiarize and to bring closer different segments of the lives of the people from the past to the students from the Department of Art History and Archaeology. This training allowed the students through creative work to enter into a different world and try to express themselves following the examples of a given material culture.

With longstanding systematic archaeological research, the number of items of movable cultural heritage significantly increased. Especially notable is the number of pottery items which are already exhibited in the museums.

Therefore, acquiring knowledge about the preparation of the pottery in the Bronze and Iron Ages, undoubtedly contributed to a better understanding of history, and also to increase the level of professionalism in the field.

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Getting to know the method of manufacturing pottery objects from the Bronze and Iron Age went through a practical part by making the same objects used in those periods. It must be mentioned that during the project activities we implemented methods, techniques and authentic materials for the above mentioned periods.

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Due to the specifics of the matter, the planned activities were carried out at the Museum of the City Negotino, on an open space and in a pottery workshop. All the activities were conducted in collaboration with experts in the field of applied art, cultural heritage protection and museology: sculptor-expert in the field of pottery, senior curator-archaeologist and a potter.

On this occasion, we would like express our special thanks to Peter Rizov for the permission to use the premises of the Museum in Negotino; to Branko Velickovski for his generous help with the project; to Ilija Kostadinov for the permission to use his pottery workshop and for the procurement of the materials, and to Association Archaeologica who gave us the opportunity to present our project within this manifestation marking the Day of Archaeology 2013.

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Tim Braybrooke: Senior Archaeologist Daydreams of Experimental Archaeology & BBQs

Today, I am in the office mostly crunching numbers in a post excavation analysis, data basing stylie.

Crunching numbers but fondly remembering my most recent fieldwork site, down by the river where, after finishing up for the day, we would spark up a BBQ and, with the smoke and scent of grilling bangers and chicken wafting through the warm evening air, we started making pots and votive figurines out of the clay freshly machined from a trench and then firing them on a bonfire.

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm………

Oooooohhhhh………

Ta-dah!

Oh happy days…

BBQs and pot making don’t constitute a normal working day for professional archaeologist but demonstrate that the best advantage must always be made of any given situation.

Until the next given situation: crunch, crunch, click, click, tap, tap, scribble………

 

Why I Love Pot

Hello, this is Alice Forward, PhD student at Cardiff, wrapping up the Cosmeston Archaeology contributions for Day of Archaeology 2011. We have had three excellent blogs today; Nicolle who started the day with photo scanning, Louise at lunchtime discussed how she was lured to archaeology by medieval dreams, and afternoon tea with Kyle, a Cosmeston old timer who is particularly familiar with the 2010 season of excavation. These three are part of a group of six students undertaking a post-excavation course on the material from Cosmeston. We will be bringing you blogs from each (Stuart, Sarah and Beth) over the next three weeks on our Cosmeston archaeology blog, so please check us out!

Post-excavation generally places archaeologists into two camps. Those who secretly enjoy organising things and those who are likely to start taking holiday time in order to avoid those rainy pot washing days. I most definitely fall into the former of these, but it isn’t the cataloguing that gets me going! Post-excavation enables you to directly engage with the archaeological record and analytical process. As Kyle said you understand so much more when you begin to bring it all together.

This week has involved initial work with the paper archive and, as all the finds had been washed and bagged on site, we moved straight to marking and sorting the pottery. The key principle for marking pottery is that it should be resilient but reversible, so that if necessary it can be removed. In order to achieve this we use Paraloid B72 (a non-yellowing acrylic resin) mixed with acetone (20% weight to volume). A thin band of this is painted on the object and, after it has dried, the site code and context number is written on in black ink. When the ink has dried a second layer of Paraloid is applied to seal the information. This can be removed without damaging the object using a cotton swab and 100% acetone (for more information see Collections Link).

As Louise also mentioned, marking pottery is necessary for a number of reasons. Firstly, boxes get dropped, mice can chew through plastic bags and plastic bags degrade. With pottery all marked up, there is no danger of losing context, enabling future generations to study assemblages. Secondly, particularly with pottery, interpretation of contexts can be helped if it is clear that parts of one vessel were deposited within a number of different features. To keep a record of this, and to enable reconstruction of the pot, you need to be able to know specifically where the sherds came from.

Sherd Nerd

Alice Loves Pot 4 eva

Alice Loves Pot 4 eva

Why do I have such a fascination and love of pottery?! I first began to find it particularly interesting when I was excavating in Leicester city centre on the High Cross development. The work there was bringing up massive amounts of ceramic material and I was particularly frustrated that I couldn’t identify the sherds (other than what was medieval and what was Roman). This lack of knowledge cultivated a desire to be able to know my way around a ceramic assemblage. I was lucky enough at ULAS to have a supportive manager, Nick Cooper, who began my formal training. Since starting the PhD at Cardiff University I have developed a good knowledge of South Welsh pottery. This saved me this week, as people were tired of just marking random bits of pottery, but once they were able to recognise what they were marking the job became far more interesting.

Reading the last paragraph back has slightly surprised me and made me realise how exciting my life must seem…

Finds in context

Pot sherds awaiting cataloguing

Pot sherds awaiting cataloguing

Hey, well I suppose I should start by introducing myself. My name is Kyle Young and I’m a second year (going into third year) student studying Archaeology at Cardiff University. I am currently taking part in the post-excavation archiving of the Cosmeston site, mainly dealing with the past three years of excavations. The past three digging seasons have concentrated on the area of the site marked as Cosmeston Castle on the Ordnance Survey maps, which refers to the manor house complex. The post-excavation work involves sorting through, and labelling the archaeological material (mainly pottery) that was excavated, along with creating the digital archive from the paper record sheets.

I was at Cosmeston for the 2010 season and the work I am currently doing with the finds from the site is enabling me to have a better understanding of what occurred there. Through working on the site I  could see and understood what it was, but it is through studying the finds that I am beginning to fully appreciate what actually happened within the manor house, and also during the post-medieval period when it was demolished.

The medieval pottery that has been uncovered at the site appears to be of quite fine quality. There are a large number of imports from France and large amounts of Bristol-ware. This suggests a high-status household. There are also examples of extremely fine locally made products, such as the ram’s head vessel (a possible aquamanile) found in this season’s excavations. The only other similar vessel from this area was found at Cardiff Castle during excavations in 2004-2005 by local unit GGAT, indicating that this was a high-status item.

The large quantities of post-medieval pottery excavated at the site – such as North Devon sgrafitto wares, Bristol tin glazed bowls and a Cistercian style lid (a 16th Century style of glazed pot) – are useful in dating the final phases of the manor. Found in contexts associated with the demolition of the manorial buildings and robbing of walls for building material, they help tell us when these activities occurred.

Applied clay spirals on the body of a medieval Saintonge jug.

Applied clay spirals on the body of a medieval Saintonge jug.

It is the job of archaeologist in post excavation to look at the assemblage from the site and attempt to sort it, which is currently what we are doing with the Cosmeston collection. Most of the previous seasons’ work has already been sorted and catalogued and merely requires each sherd to be labelled with the site code and context number (as Louise noted in her blog earlier). Currently we are dealing mainly with the 2009 excavations, so the site code is COS09.

The 2011 excavations, however, have yet to be fully sorted and catalogued and so require us to do this before we can label anything. So far we have sorted the pottery finds from the 2011 demolition layer and labelled the sherds accordingly. As we continue to work through the material we will bring you all the latest news on the Cosmeston blog.

Piecing togther our past in post-excavation

Hiya everyone, Louise writing here.

Archaeology and medieval history is something I’ve been interested in for years, but never really knew how to get involved with any projects and I was put off applying for a history degree by my careers adviser when I was in college. ‘Why do you want to do a history degree when your A level subjects are sociology, law and English? Best you apply for an English degree somewhere’. Rather disheartened by this negative response I decided that education wasn’t for me and I joined the world of full time employment. I tried my hand at many different careers, from care assistant and pharmacy technician to burger van and mushroom picker, but I never felt satisfied with the work, so as my 30th birthday was fast approaching I took the plunge and enrolled at Neath Port Talbot college to do an Access to Humanities course. It was brilliant. The lecturers were all very supportive and encouraged us all to go down which ever route we felt was right for ourselves.

Is it local or from Bristol?

As a result of going back to college I have ended up studying Archaeology and Medieval History at Cardiff University. Part of the course requires you to undertake work placement in an archaeological environment. I chose to do post excavation as it’s what I would love to do with my degree eventually, I find it fascinating how small fragments of pottery or bone can be dated and analysed to give us a better understanding of how our ancestors lived. I think that in post excavation more time can be taken to look at the finds and details from site that may have been missed in the field.

Kyle checking his fabrics

This week we have been labelling pottery, a very tedious but vital task and one which provides the opportunity to cross fit pottery from different contexts to try and piece together complete vessels. Each tiny sherd of pottery must be labelled with the site code and context number just in case a little bit gets misplaced. It was pretty dull but then Alice (Cardiff PhD student and Cosmeston finds co-ordinator) did a workshop on how to identify the pieces that we were labelling. Suddenly the bits of pottery began to mean something more to me. I can now tell the region that each piece would have been made in and how the complete item may have looked, which is making the essential job much more interesting. Post excavation is a long meticulous process but very rewarding as I know I am helping to preserve the archaeology for future generations to appreciate.