hominin behaviour

Day of Archaeology 2014: A life of lithics, balance and luck


My name is Christian Hoggard and I am an AHRC funded PhD student at the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins (CAHO), within the University of Southampton. Last year I was swamped by Masters research to be able to produce a DoA post; it is an amazing project and I just hope I can write to the standard that they deserve!

Today is not a typical day. Today is a day working from home as I have just returned from the biennial Palaeolithic-related field trip with some of my colleagues from CAHO. Over the space of eight days we mini-bused over 1950km throughout northern and south-western France visiting sites including Pincevent in Seine-et-Marne, and many other infamous sites such as Le Moustier, La Micoque, Abri Pataud and others within the Vézère Valley. Photos and a blog will shortly follow!

The typical days, however, are not as exotic. I would get into the John Wymer Laboratory at around 9 am and balance my time (until 5ish) accordingly. At the moment, I am balancing between reading, chapter drafting and writing, and other CV-related aspects. We all know that a PhD does not offer you the dream job (or any job really!) these days and it is the extra-PhD activities (i.e. teaching, outreach, outside research) alongside the PhD which can persuade or sway the interviewers to give you the job you’ve always wanted (or the only one which got you an interview for). In undertaking such I often feel that I am neglecting your research (the stuff that I am actually paid to do!) and hindering its progress. I just hope I can get the correct balance between what is needed, what I wish to give, what actually is created and what I’ve done alongside! Time will tell.

In terms of my PhD I am currently finishing off one of my first two chapter drafts ready for interrogation by my supervisor. My research is focused on Neanderthal behaviour and specifically why different technological strategies or flintknapping techniques are used concurrently. Through morphometric, technological and (hopefully!) practical examination the relationship between elongated Levallois and Laminar strategies will be investigated. Are they both used because each has their own benefit? or is it just an alternate means to an end? So far I have looked at two sites in Britain (Baker’s Hole and Crayford) and two in Belgium (Mesvin and Rocourt); a revisit to these are essential and many more sites are needed!


Lithic material in the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) – the site of Mesvin IV

The day will then finish at 5pm and I will try my best to treat it as a job; no PhD (with the exception of some emails) will be undertaken for the rest of my evening. I am trying to be a “work at work” kinda person, again that balance is essential.

So why did I include luck in my title? Well, I have been incredibly lucky to get where I am now. I am fortunate to get both my MA and PhD funded through the AHRC, I am fortunate to get a PhD position at Southampton (and also at Cambridge), and I am fortunate for the current situation. I got these opportunities not because I am more intelligent than other applicants, or because my research will cure cancer (which it won’t), but because the series of events just played out in my favour. I have seen many people, close friends of mine, who have far more amazing ideas, not get funding for PhD. This is not a game of intellect, but a game of chance, whether this includes luck or not. A level of intellect just helps this.

If luck does exist. I must acknowledge that luck runs out, and prepare like mad for its inevitability. The American journalist Hunter Thompson once said that “Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it”. Again we are back to balance. I know that I will lose my balance, it’s inevitable. All people fall. All we can do is make sure that we don’t land too hard.

Now get up on the tightrope and enjoy the view.


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!