Late Upper Palaeolithic

An adventurous visit on a forbidden peninsula

Alas, on this very last Day of Archaeology I was on leave (yes, indeed, there are some of us who really can afford such luxury as having several days off from work!). Yet, despite vacation and weekend, I went off to explore a site on Saturday – and it had almost all in it that made me decide for this job: adventure, hidden places, and the great feeling of finding something someone has left behind several years or maybe even decades, centuries, millenia ago.

On my last post I still had been a post-doc in the UP-NORTH project at UCL and writing about another exciting trip – back then the team went to Jersey. Well, summertime is a very likely time to find archaeologists out in the field! Since last year I’ve been back working in Germany as a post-doc in a collaborative research centre, the CRC 1266 “Scales of transformation – Human-Environmental Interaction in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies” at Kiel University (https://www.sfb1266.uni-kiel.de/en?set_language=en). The project I’m working in is about the “Pioneers of the North: Transitions and Transformations in Northern Europe evidenced by high-resolution data sets” and actually hosted at the Centre of Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology at Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig (http://zbsa.eu/research/projects/projekte-mensch-und-umwelt/pioniere-des-nordens?set_language=en) where I used to work before.

After a presentation about the project at a conference in spring this year, a colleague came up to me stating that he had been informed about a potential Late Upper Palaeolithic site in north-eastern Germany. Thus far, he had only seen photos of artefacts that appeared confincing to him but his time had not allowed him to take up this lead, Now he heard the presentation, he thought he could show us the photos, make a connection to the collector for our team, and maybe something comes out of it. Yay, great! Why not?

To explain why this suggestion was of particular interest for my new team, I have to introduce some details about this bit of archaeology: The first people (pioneers) to enter northern Germany after the last glaciation (c. 26,000-19,500 years ago) are archaeologically associated with the so-called Hamburgian – no, no burgers but reindeer hunters who left a whole lot of wastes near Hamburg that were found and in the 1920s firstly categorised by Hamburg university scholar Gustav Schwantes and termed Hamburgian by him. The Hamburgian is similar to the British Creswellian a Late Upper Palaeolithic entity that clearly arose from a Magdalenian (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdalenian) substratum and also dates to the beginning of the Lateglacial Interstadial (appr. 14,700 – 12,700 years ago – the beginning comprises c. the first 700 years). In that period temperatures rose rapidly, precipitation increased, and vegetation and fauna reoccupied the northern regions that were more or less recently freed from the large inland glaciers. Traditionally two variants of the Hamburgian are distinguished based on their projectile typology: The classic Hamburgian with shouldered points that is considered slightly older and the Havelte Group with large but slender tanged points. Most sites of this archaeological group are found in the northern Netherlands, north-western Germany, Denmark (though only the Havelte variant), and Poland (here only the classic variant). Surprisingly, there seems to be no site in eastern Germany. Therefore, the idea that there might be a potential site in north-eastern Germany made us quite excited – what might there be between the classic Hamburgian areas in Poland, the Havelte Group material in Denmark and the diverse material in NW-Germany?

Yet, entering the site wasn’t as easy and straight forward as one might expect: The findspot is located on a private peninsula that also is in parts a natural conservation area. So the owner and the environmental protection agency had to agree on our coming. The latter is something we also know very well from sites in our part of northern Germany where somehow the relevant archaeological sites are also frequently located in natural protection zones with different degrees of excluding archaeological field works – but that’s an entirely different story that partially explains the scarcity of modern excavations of this period in the State of Schleswig-Holstein.

Back to the NE-German peninsula. Finally, this Saturday everything was arranged by our colleague and we had the permission to enter the peninsula. The trip began at 7.30am in Schleswig to arrive at the appointed time 10.45am at the gates to the private property. Well, at least that was the plan – not considering motorway closures due to accidents… the arrival time was finally at 11.30am but – thanks to modern communication media – the colleague was contacted early enough about the late arrival. So after a 4hrs ride, everybody already waited at the gates that were closed behind my car again displaying a large sign about danger of unadjusted ammunition… I learned then that prior to German unity and the decampment of the Russian troops in 1990, the area had been a military base since the 1930s with still some material of the Nazi tank shooting training remaining in the grounds. Eh, nice!? I was asked to leave my car with all that is dear to me and not waterproof at the gates and join the others in the car of the ranger. Luckily, the first swarm of mosquitos attacked me there already so that quickly I sprayed the parts without clothes – so hands and face (in the end it’s northern Germany – we had about 15°C all day) but also all my clothes with anti-mosquito spray because these nasty creatures were already trying to get through my trousers… Our ride then took us past the former airfield and the barracks village that were left to nature since 1990 but also past the former estate of those who owned the peninsula for some 650 years before the Nazis overtook it. To see nature at work on those buildings was also quite an amazing modern lesson in archaeology!

When the cars came to a stop at the coast, I found out why I had to leave everything behind – the next part of the way was taken by boat (kayak) to the other side of a little bight filled with reeds. At this point even the smartphones that were brought along – just in case and to have at least a chance to take some photos were left behind (alas – no photos to the text!). Well, it was still stormy but we gave it a try to reach the shore close to the site but having passed half the way and the main deep, our guide decided that it was too dangerous to go on and we landed on a sandy ground from where we could also reach the site by foot. Alas, through the reeds that were growing about half a meter taller than me and that were the home of the mosquitos… and the waves of the Baltic Sea splashing into the kayak had made me not just wet to the bones but had also washed away all mosquito protection… I have to admit it gave me a bit of a jungle feeling trying to keep pace with my guides through this thick and high reed forest attacked by nasty clouds of blood thirsty creatures – I guess if I had been a bit more claustrophobic and / or akarophobic that would have been a moment of pure panic! Finally, after several minutes we reached a little oak forest and after some metres that was cut by the coast exposing only a little beach and giving space to a cool wind from the sea that blew away the mosquitos.

And there we were: Several hundred metres of land cut by the coast revealing archaeological finds of several thousands of years. Once I started looking, the beach and the littoral water was filled with flint artefacts – mostly flakes but also some nice scrapers. You could see how the coast worked on the land and even see artefacts in the exposed sections of different thicknesses. In these, you could also see how the land had developed on top of the glacial moraines and tills from the last Ice Age to a fairly enriched peaty soil over millennia. Well, but the material we found that day did not resembled the potential Hamburgian artefacts that had brought us here. Yet, we were only granted a small time window to visit the site and have a look around – certainly not enough time to start a proper survey. The finds that we had made were packed up and given to the collector who will report them to the State authorities. So after a good look around, we had to return through the reed and to the boat that took us only over the main depth this time and dropped us off in another reed jungle but not as tall as the first one with some grass islands in between and not that many mosquitos. We followed a way cut into these reeds by the large wild boar population on the island until we came back to the car.

On our way back to the gates, we still made a little detour to climb up the former airfield tower to enjoy a grand view over the peninsula – and find out that after only 27 years and admittedly little knowledge about Russian army architecture, we could no longer tell what several of the rooms in the basement were used for… making us think what we do with remains that are several thousand years old and processed far more intensively by natural forces…

Finally, we arrived back at the gates and were released to our own cars and back to modern day civilisation and at this point it really felt like we had just been on a trip through time.

Though this sounds like a good end to an adventure story, a good archaeological excursion does not end at the gates. We looked for a nice café where we could sit together and talk about what we’ve seen, how we interpret what we’ve seen and how to proceed further. We remained undecided whether we come back here – we first plan to examine the original artefacts that brought us here in more detail. However, if we do come back we will hopefully have more time and then we will certainly have a more systematic survey plan. Only after another two hours there discussing and warming up with soup, coffee, tea, and cake we finally started our several hours long trips back home.

Though not as long a day as in last year’s report, I still collapsed into bed after the 13 hours day that was physically far more demanding than last year’s trip with a terrible headache, really itchy mosquito bites, still a bit wet, and dirty but still happy that my job allows me to have such adventurous, almost Indiana Jones like days.

 

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I still cannot believe it’s the last Day of Archaeology… this is too sad.

However, as many others did before me, I want to thank the volunteering team so much for giving us all the opportunity to describe our very diverse daily lives as archaeologists. It’s been a real pleasure taking part in it and reading all the many interesting insights into other colleague’s worklife and reminding me how blessed I am with such job offering this magnitude of possibilities. Thank you, Day of Archaeology!

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 (https://www.facebook.com/upnorth.archaeology/ ) 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)

MarvelLaCotte

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

siteLaCotte

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 (http://www.jobs.ac.uk/job/AOE765/research-associate/ ) and describe a day like mine -still different!- in the UP-NORTH project at next year’s Day of Archaeology!

2. Getting started in Archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

Getting started in archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

I’m going to explain how and why I came into archaeology (which will discuss volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student), and why I went into the field of early medieval archaeology. I hope this will show the positive effects of history and archaeology in schools, the role of museums in stimulating interest, and the significance of public access to archaeology. It will also hopefully provide some insight into the value of education, and the challenges of studying archaeology as a mature student.

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