UP NORTH and then?

Another milky morning in Central London and time to open all the windows to get some “fresh” air into the office. Lets face it: Life as a researcher in archaeology is usually not particularly exciting because the majority of our time is spent at our desks in front of a computer in more or less nice offices (Photo 1).

Office Photo 1 UP-NORTH project office at UCL Institute of Archaeology, London (photo: S. B. Grimm)

However, there are some of these days which make this job so much cooler and more exciting than any other job I can imagine: Sometimes these moments actually happen in front of the computers when you plot your results and they come out just the way you expected them to and you suddenly get the feeling to understand some patterns in (pre-) history. Quite awesome this deep history understanding!

Yet, many of those much cooler days are outside the office, when you go on field trips or archive visits or excavations. These can be nearby or at the other side of the planet – it’s always interesting to poke your nose into another archive whether an earthen or a shelved one.

Since last September I have been working in London for the UP-NORTH project ( ) at UCL Institute of Archaeology – a good position to be curious. London is a pretty nice place for archaeology: The non-stop (re-) building of the city constantly produces new finds and the density of other institutions working in the field or closely related to our field such as the British Museum, the Society of Antiquarians, SOAS, or the Royal Holloway creates an amazing diary full of lectures, workshops, presentations, and exhibitions. However, to earn a living work also needs to be done.

The UP-NORTH project is funded by the ERC and tries to understand the resettlement of northern Europe after the Last Glacial Maximum (ca. 26,500-19,000 years ago) and the subsequent diversification of the behaviour of those human groups in the context of climate and environmental change. So our study period is the end of the Ice Age. In contrast to “classic” archaeologies that consider typo-technologies of material remains with the climatic and environmental indications from the site or from a larger surrounding, we try to directly connect archaeological remains with climatic and environmental analyses. We therefore use stable isotope analyses and aDNA on archaeological material. To put this in the larger context, the archaeological assemblages need a precise and solid chronology. We achieve this chronological position by dating the very same archaeological material. Yet, before any of this can be done, we need to know where the relevant archaeological assemblages can be found.

So my job in the last months was to poke my nose in other people’s research: I filled long spread sheets with information about radiocarbon dates, sites, and assemblages and contacted people to find out more about those assemblages: their actual whereabouts, whether they would fit our purpose (Which pieces are actually preserved? What is preserved of them? How good is the preservation really? How many pieces are there of an ok preservation?), and whether we would be allowed to sample the material. Thus, I spent most of my time reading PDFs or books about great archaeology and writing e-mails. Once some of this e-mail writing was done – I also got to visit archives with one or more of my colleagues to either have a closer look at the material or to already take the samples such as in fantastic Brno.

What I learnt from all this? That an important part of modern archaeology is basically team work. Everyone in our team has a different expertise so that together we can cover quite a large number of questions and methods. Furthermore, we work closely with our local collaborators who have the necessary insights in the material and the sites to help us make the best choices for sampling. Without a team effort modern archaeology is simply not thinkable.

Last Tuesday we had one of these team days out: Three of us visited Jersey to see what the earthen archives there are currently revealing in the #IceAgeIsland project of our UCL colleagues Matt Pope & Ed Blinkhorn, British Museum’s Beccy Scott, Southampton’s Andy Shaw, and Manchester’s Chantal Conneller – btw, again a team effort!

Most people outside archaeology think it’s exciting to travel so much – mainly because they mix it up with their travels to go on vacation. Well, it is nice and I won’t complain but let me tell you about my day out in wonderful Jersey – and decide afterwards whether you were willing to do this for some bones, stones, and rocks:

My day started with the alarm going off at 3.30am – I’m no early bird and getting up and awake to get going takes some time for me. So at 4.30am I could leave the house to catch my train to King’s Cross where *surprise-surprise* my train to Gatwick was cancelled. Londoners will smile because many, especially those living south of London, know this problem too well. However, at 5am in the morning this forms quite a problem in London because the Underground is not going before 5.27am from King’s Cross towards Victoria station where the Gatwick Express represents an alternative way to the airport. Yet, I got that tube and with some sprinting in Victoria Station and Gatwick Airport reached my flight at 7.20am to Jersey in time.

At Jersey Airport, me and my two colleagues plus a baby boy were picked up by Matt Pope, his daughter, and Chantal Conneller. After a short discussion about the plans for the day, we set off to Les Varines, a Late Upper Palaeolithic site that received quite some media cover last year when engraved schist plates were found there. Being in Matt’s car, we received a first introduction to the island, its politics, peculiarities (they still have a bailiff there! and a scarily large looter community), and most of all its geology. So in Les Varines we were already quite well prepared when Ed Blinkhorn overtook to give us an introduction into the sites history and more insights in the complex geomorphological developments at the site and how these can be read from the 3D recording of the archaeological finds. We had a look at the structures that were gradually excavated (Photo 2) and then Chantal showed us some of the lithic material that had come out there – exciting for all the lithic lovers among us… so Chantal, the baby boy, and me. Organic material is very rarely preserved on Jersey. At les Varines they found a few bones last year. Some of which seem not to be burnt and, thus, of some interest for our project. Yet the preservation seems rather poor but if we can date them and possibly determine the species by ZooMS, it would help UP NORTH as well as the Ice Age Island project. Les Varines is one of the most northern and certainly the most north-western outpost of the Late Upper Palaeolithic Magdalenian expansion. The people leaving the remains at Les Varines went up north and then west, only Final Magdalenian people related to the Creswellian went further into Britain. By the time we were leaving the site, a first group of tourist was already guided over the site – making people aware of their heritage and making archaeological knowledge public is also part of the job. As the day of Archaeology also proves every year.

LesVarines Photo 2 Excavation at Les Varines (Photo: S. B. Grimm)

On Jersey we next got on the road again to visit Beccy Scott in her intertidal excavations at Petit Portelet. Although quite a bit too old for our project, raised beaches and the possibility to find pockets of clayey loessic sediments from the Middle Palaeolithic in the intertidal zones is quite amazing. Tide can make the sea-level fluctuate up to 12-15m at Jersey – that is very impressive! Especially since the land mass can increase significantly during a very low tide. However, excavating in this spot on the beach therefore means constantly keeping an eye on the sea! Well, and not wearing too fancy clothes… (Photo 3)

PetitPortelet Photo 3 Excavators at Petit Portelet (photo: S. B. Grimm)

We had some nice lunch nearby and then set off to the north of the island where some Mesolithic sites were explored in the past years. Unfortunately, none of these findspots revealed organic material thus far. Their location on the steep northern coast is quite interesting, in particular, since the project also collaborated with geophysicists to explore the sea ground off shore this northern coast and found that many parallel and intersecting valleys exist in the granite forming the island. Walking through these steep valleys during periods of lower sea-levels must have felt a bit like walking through a towering, stone-made Manhattan. On these spots on top of the modern coast an overview over this labyrinth of canyons was possible (Photo 4). What we could see from this spot were also many cracks and caves in the steep coastal cliffs. These are not easy to be explored as we should also find out on our next stop: La Cotte. Likewise Petit Portelet, this famous Middle Palaeolithic site can only be reached during low tide – and then you have to climb over a more or less slippery boulder field. In the 19th century, people reached this site – as well as some of the north coast caves from above via ropes that they also needed to climb back up if they wanted to leave the spots in time before the tides came back up. I clearly preferred the boulder field. And it was quite a WOW-effect turning around the cliff corner over the boulder field and suddenly standing in front of gigantic granite towers that embraced the site (Photos 5a and 5b). I doubt that coming from above has quite the same effect. This site now has a really good organic preservation – alas, the sediment our project would be interested in was shovelled away in the late 19th / early 20th century. The Middle Palaeolithic is meanwhile comparably under threat – this time it’s the natural elements disintegrating the rock and the sediments and gradually letting them crumbling down and washed out to the sea. Archaeological field work is forbidden due to the potential dangers of falling rocks hitting excavators and protective measures are installed and constantly tried to be improved.

LesMarionneaux Photo 4 View from the North Coast at Les Marionneaux (photo: S. B. Grimm)


Photo 5 a (above) Marvel about the size of b (below) the La Cotte site (photos: S. B. Grimm)


We made our way back over the boulder field and beach just to see off Andy Shaw who was guiding a group of archaeology interested inhabitants to those outstanding towering granite columns of La Cotte. We got on our way back to the airport just in time to go through the security, have a little snack, and catch the plane back to London.

Mind you, I guess it is needless to say that after all this boulder climbing, heath and beach walking, site visiting, landscape learning, archaeology and geology talking I was quite shattered when I arrived back home at 10.15pm that night (this time without any serious trouble by tube or train). However, it was a gorgeous day out but I hope this little narrative will stop non-archaeologists from idealising out travels – even if they are little friendly visits as this one with lots of other chittery-chatter, they are work, not vacations! And thus on the next day we were also back in the offices… Yet with lasting impressions of a beautiful island, marvellous archaeology, and a big gratitude to our colleagues who took their time to show us around.

However, my days in the UP-NORTH project and in London are counted. In two weeks, I will have left the UK and by September I start a new position in northern Germany – so this time, I’m going up north and then east (more Hamburgian style for my fellow Lateglacial specialists). Yet, this leaves someone of you with the possibility to apply for my position ( ) and describe a day like mine -still different!- in the UP-NORTH project at next year’s Day of Archaeology!

Digging Diaries – ICE AGE ISLAND PROJECT (Jersey)

During the period of the 5th-19th July I had the opportunity to fly over to Jersey and take part in the excavations at Les Varines, as part of the Ice Age Island Project. Alongside this, I was tasked with recording a Dig Diary for the BBC4 programme Digging for Britain. The site itself is Upper Palaeolithic, dated to around 45KYA – 60KYA, and one of its main aims is to document the flow of knapped flint debotage, discarded blades, and the odd core within very slowly moving, and confusingly stratified sediments. The project also has wider aims of understanding the lives of Upper Palaeolithic hunter gatherers on Jersey, at a time when much colder temperatures made the environment startlingly different. There is no flint on Jersey, so finding these people’s tools tells us a lot about their activities across what is now the English Channel.

With trowel in hand, I made my way over and met up with the team, an international group comprised of many different universities and levels of experience. After the ritual flailing of tent poles, our group convened with the directors and supervisors of the dig. We were told all about the site, its age and what we were looking for, as well as the connections with Jersey Heritage. This really brought home how the excitement of a modern dig is projected to a wider audience, with its own vibrant social media presence, including the Ice Age Island twitter page, complete with its own hashtag. (#IceAgeIsland, if you’re interested.)

As an undergraduate studying Archaeology and Anthropology, I needed to balance excavation as well as the filming. I wanted to dig for as much as possible and learn as much as possible, but I also really didn’t want to miss out on exciting discoveries on the opposite end of the trench that might be interesting to film. The Dig Diary needed a daily update on the progress of the dig, with the director, Ed Blinkhorn, guiding the camera around the site and the deepening test pits. I also needed to film excavation itself and the general surroundings.

During my time on site, I learnt a lot about filming people, letting someone know you are filming them instead of having them turn round, startled and confused, was important to learn early on. When you are documenting an excavation, it becomes clear how many techniques are employed and why- we had geological trenches open up, boreholes were dug, and 3D Photogrammetry employed, with photos taken from a drone. It was very interesting to see how tried and tested techniques, as well as modern ones, are combined in order to tell the tale of the site.

However, what also happened was that the stories inevitably revealed themselves as the excavation continued, and it was important to keep my camera close. For example, halfway through our group’s time at Les Varines, two coursemates, Sarah and Robin, were at the top of the trench, digging down, spit after spit, in a test pit that was slowly turning from archaeological to geological. After reaching a depth of more than a metre and a half, temperatures rising to the 30s, and ever-stranger trench game questions floating out of the hole (“Which hat would you rather be, a fedora or a fez?” “Good question”…) they were finally rewarded with flint. Filming that sense of relief and a cheer or two was probably the best footage I managed to capture, and its spontaneity only enhanced the excitement felt. This I feel is the greatest benefit of filming archaeology- because by documenting a dig one reveals both the story that the archaeology tells us through excavation, as well as the lives of the individual archaeologists themselves- at least for two weeks!

Sam Hoppen

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Earth Moving

Jersey Quake

So half way through our 2014 Day of Archaeology a small earthquake hit the island of Jersey and we got to take a pause. We currently have about 40 people all told on the island: students, volunteers,family members, staff and visiting researchers and as the quake hit, we were of course all just doing whatever it was we were meant to be doing. A shaky freeze-frame of our Archaeological Day.

Most people were at the main dig on the eastern half of island furthest from the epicentre and most barely noticed it. Perhaps the soft sediments the site is situated on took some of the shock.

I was with five or six others at the stores where the ground beneath the concrete floor grumbled like a freight train was burrowing under it, a colleague on the second floor of the adjacent store felt far more movement and the unnerving sound of juddering artefacts.

Staff back the dig HQ on the west of the island nearest to the epicentre felt it the most, like two long explosions, shaking the hard granite on this side of the island.

In the minutes after Twitter provided the confirmation that it wasn’t just our store that shook and that the island had experienced a tremor. I tried to get in contact with everyone just to check in, it felt like what you should do after a tectonic event. (I wasn’t really worried but felt I needed to let everyone know that was, like, not an explosion but actually an earthquake)

So right in the middle of the Day of Archaeology I had to summon up a mental snapshot of the project, where everyone was, what everyone was doing and all of our connections to friends, media and other groups on the island.

It felt like, halfway through the project (where we have moved quite a volume of earth ourselves) for a moment the ground moved and we were forced to stop and take stock.

By the end of the day we had all come back together and everyone shared their experience of this little moment in time (including those who’d been at the zoo and seen the animals go crazy).

I went to sleep thinking about the rumbling caves and collapsing cliffs, shaking granite and tumbling boulders. I can now add tectonics to my list of night-time fieldwork worries.

Flint, Finds and Fieldwork!

Hi my name is Josie Mills, I’m an MSc researcher at UCL and am currently working on the Ice Age Island project on Jersey!

Our day on the Ice Age Island project (see here for more info) began bright and early as the team amassed to clean and tidy the base post our mid-dig party, sending off our first team of student volunteers, who leave the project on Saturday.

As our project is based in two places, one dig, one archiving, after breakfast I jumped into a car heading to Jersey Heritage Stores, where we are in the process of archiving some 94,000 flints excavated from La Cotte de St. Brelade in the 1970s (see here for more info).

Before the students arrived at the store I spent some time with Dr. Chantal Conneller looking through the collections from the North Coast of Jersey for evidence of Mesolithic stone tools. These collections are particularly fascinating because they span the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic but also have stone tools from the Mesolithic and Neolithic. It just shows the sheer importance of the North Coast of Jersey as an archaeological landscape, perhaps because of the wide clear view across the, now submerged, topography that would have existed throughout much of the Ice Age.

CoastlineA view of the North Coast from Grosnez

Usually we have one student in the stores to get experience of the archive system and the bigger picture of how our re-organisation effort will allow the stone tools to be studied by location in the site, helping us to understand specific areas of activity and raw material use. Today we had two students Eloise and Stacey, who spent the morning writing new bags for artefacts and organising them into boxes.

10393891_10154328764480366_4380804967825527440_nUCL students Eloise and Stacey working in the stores

After lunch there was an earthquake, the biggest on Jersey for around 200 years – fortunately everyone and the site was fine!

BsRUeUnCQAAOmL2.jpg-largeMe with the large flint nodule at the Houge Bie geology museum

I rounded off my archaeological day with a visit to the geology section of the Hougue Bie Museum. Where I got to see a giant flint nodule dredged from the Casquet Reef, near Alderney, which is very exciting for my dissertation research based on flint provenancing in the Channel area.

Tracking Ice Age Mammoths

In my last post, I talked about the main project I’m currently working on, which is studying the stone tools made by the last Neanderthals at the site of La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey. This collapsed cave site is well-known not only for the richness of its deposits, but also for the famous ‘bone heaps’ of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros remains found in the 1960s-70s excavations. These have been interpreted as the remains of a mass-kill by early Neanderthals driving herds off the cliffs into the ravine.

Standing below the site of La Cotte de St Brelade. The rock arch in shadow opens out into the ravine.

Another project I am working on today is aimed at testing this theory, as well as providing rare information about the migratory behaviour of ice age megafauna. These are the large, often formidable beasts that lived alongside the last Neanderthals: mammoth and woolly rhino, giant deer, horse, bison and the extinct ancestors of  today’s domesticated cows.

In 2010 I set up a project with Geoff Smith and Sarah Viner that uses isotopic analysis of ancient teeth to determine mobility of Pleistocene megafauna.  The Pleistocene covers roughly the million years before the end of the last ice age, but at the moment we are focusing on investigating sites during the time of the Neanderthals, which is mid-late Pleistocene. Our first site is La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey, which we are working on with the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey project. We can use the Strontium isotopes present in an individuals’ teeth to determine their movements over different periods. Simply put, we can find out if an animal whose remains ended up at La Cotte had spent time in other regions of the landscape. Isotopic analysis works based on how different geology affects the levels of Strontium isotopes present in drinking water, which gets laid down in animals’ and peoples’ teeth.

This kind of direct measure of animal (and human) mobility is still quite rare for this period, although one Neanderthal from Lakonis in Greece has been published. We want to understand how animals that Neanderthals were hunting were moving around: for example, were mammoths great travellers as African elephants today can be? And were Pleistocene reindeer going on vast annual migrations as we can see in herds from Alaska in modern times? This information will help build models about how Neanderthals may have been following or intercepting megafauna at various points in the landscape. As Neanderthal fossils themselves are so precious, it’s unlikely we will be able to directly measure the mobility of many more individuals for some time. Until then, we can use animal movements to provide a framework alongside other measures for Neanderthal mobility such as transport of stone tools. At La Cotte, we may also be able to test whether the bone heaps are really mass-kills by determining if the bones represent  herds that had moved around together, and then were killed in one event.

With some of the La Cotte de St Brelade collections, Jersey Museum.

We received funding this year from the Societe Jersiaise, the island of Jersey’s learned society, to do pilot analysis on six samples of mammoth and horse teeth, which Sarah will be undertaking very soon. Today I am working on finding more funding to allow us to increase the number of samples from the site. This involves trawling various websites of funding bodies to see whether we are eligible or not for different grants. We’re in a difficult situation, as only one of us (Sarah) currently has a Postdoc, and is therefore affiliated to an Institution, which rules us out of a lot of grants. At the same time, current Postdocs are ineligible to apply for other kinds of funding, meaning that early career researchers in our position really struggle to get projects off the ground independently.

We are hopeful however that the pilot study will provide positive results which will allow us to apply for more extended funding from particular sources, and keep building up the project profile while I apply for Postdoc funding separately.

My last post for today will be a round-up of the other things I’ve been working on, including writing a funding application to work on a French project on Neanderthal landscape use.