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.


The long lives of lithic artefacts and a day of archaeological data entry

Lithic artefacts lead long lives. Radiolarians live and die in an ocean after which their skeletons sink to the ocean floor. Over many thousands of years they subsequently form bands of hard rock. 145 million years later small pieces break from a rock face in the Swiss Prealps and are transported to the Swiss Plateau by glaciers and rivers. Here, ca. 6500 years ago, somebody picked up a piece and shaped it into tools: knives, projectile points and scrapers, for example. During the period, the Late Mesolithic, many tools were made of various kinds of stone. Flint, for example, and fine grained quartzites and radiolarites. These tools had many uses, e.g. the scrapers might have been used to work animal hides or wood.

Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. Photo: M. Cornelissen.

Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. Photo: M. Cornelissen.

That is what my day of archaeology was all about: what happened to that piece of radiolarite between when it was picked up from the Sarine riverbed near Fribourg, Switzerland to when an archaeologist found it in the Arconciel/La Souche rock shelter. I am a PhD student at the University of Zürich and together with my colleague Laure Bassin, I study the production and use of lithic artefacts during the Late Mesolithic, the time when the last hunter-fisher-gatherers lived in what is now Switzerland. Laure Bassin studies the lithic technology and chaîn opératoire, the way they were made or the first part of the lives of these artefacts. I study microscopic use wear traces on the artefact’s surfaces in order to understand how these tools were used. We combine our research and can so come to understand the complete biography of these tools and what happened at the site of Arconciel/La Souche during the 6th and 7th Millennium BC when all these changes of the transition to farming took place.
Much of my research is done behind a microscope. However, an almost larger part is – like with much archaeological fieldwork – spend documenting my observations. Data bases, text and photos and drawings are all vital parts of most archaeological work. This day of archaeology I spend mostly giving in data into an image data base. During my research I produce a large number of images, artefact photos, photos of the experiments I have done and especially microscopic photos. Using such a database allows me to document what each photo illustrates and also to find these photos again.
Data entry might not be the most exciting part of my work, but it is essential and will probably save me a lot of time and stress later on. It is fascinating to think a piece of rock, consisting of tiny animals that lived 145 million years ago and was worked and used over 8000 years ago by people like you and me now lies on my desk. And that – together with my colleague – I can understand so much about that piece of stone’s history, the tools it became and the people who made and used these tools so so so so many years ago. It makes my day of archaeological data entry much more fascinating than it might seem.

Tracing Neandertal Territories in the Mountains of Southeast France

Day of Archaeology 2013 for me means being away on 2 months of fieldwork in the southern Massif Central, France.  I’ve been contributing to DOA since 2011, and if you look back, it’s clear a lot has changed  since then (see my four 2011 posts, and 2012). After my PhD I was searching for a postdoc for several years, ran out of time and money to keep looking, and ended up seredipitously with a contract to write a book about humans and birds in prehistory.

I thought that would be it, and that the 2013 Day of Archaeology would take place without a contribution from me. But it seems that archaeology wasn’t quite done with me…

My workspace at the field station, Laussonne, Haut Loire

My workspace at the field station, Laussonne, Haut Loire

As I wrote in a postscript comment to my post last year, only a few days after writing about the difficult process of changing paths from a research career to one focused on writing and wider communication, an email dropped into my inbox from the European Commission offering the very last postdoc funding I applied for- a Marie Curie Intra European Fellowship to work in at the PACEA lab, Universite of Bordeaux. After a lot of soul-searching on the wisdom of doing another 180 degree turn in my life trajectory, and talking with my husband about him coming out with me, I decided to go for it. And so here I am, in the mountains of the Massif Central!

Laussonne map

Laussonne map

The field station for Archeo-Logis at Laussonne, Haut Loire

The field station for Archeo-Logis at Laussonne, Haut Loire

My postdoc is focused on two elements: training in a new skill (the Marie Curie Fellowships are especially concerned with career development), and applying this method to an archaeological context. I’ve written on my own blog in more detail about my project, which is called TRACETERRE. This stands for “Tracing Neandertal Territories: Landscape Organisation and Stone Resource Management“. It’s part of a larger collaborative project directed by my boss, Jean-Paul Raynal, and Marie-Helene Moncel.

Essentially I’ll be learning a detailed geological technique called petro-archaeology, that allows us to determine where in the landscape Neandertals were obtaining the raw materials to make their stone tools. Specifically, we are especially interested in the flint sources: most of the geology in the area is igneous, which means it comes from volcanic action (the Massif Central is a world famous centre for volcanology, where you can see virtually every type of volcano and lava).

Sancy Massif

Sancy Massif, north of where I am based, showing volcanic formations

It’s possible to make stone tools from these kinds of rocks, but they are often very hard, and can also be coarse. Flint is a sedimentary rock, meaning it forms from the slow accumulation of mineral deposits. Flint is famous for the high quality tools that can be made from it, because of the predictable way it fractures. It’s often associated with Cretaceous chalk deposits, such as the big cliffs in the southern UK, where you can see black bands of flint nodules. So flint forms in marine contexts, but it can also form in other situations such as in lakes.
Although there are few primary sources of flint in the Massif Central (i.e. outcrops of rock containing flint), there are many different secondary sources. These can be eroded outcrops, material washed into river gravels and other kinds of sources. My training will be in identifying these secondary types of sources, based on the way the outer surface of flint cobbles changes during the process of first formation, erosion and later exposure at archaeological sites.

Some of the geological reading I've been getting up to speed on. Volcanoes galore!

Some of the geological reading I’ve been getting up to speed on. Volcanoes galore!

Because there are more than 70 different secondary sources in the region which have been painstakingly identified over more than thirty years (by Paul Fernandes, who will train me), this is too much to try to attempt to learn in two years. So I will be using a source-centred approach, where I look at one flint source, and see how this particular rock has been used by Neandertals. In particular, we are interested in where this rock ends up: which caves or open-air archaeological sites is it found in? And secondly, in what form does it occur: as finished tools, raw blocks, or flakes of stone that have been struck off blocks (cores) but not yet made into tools.

Finding these things out can tell us a huge amount about techno-economics: the way in which Neandertals were choosing to organise their exploitation of resources on landscape scales. For example, working out which types of technology they used to make tools and which stages of tool production occur where can reveal the level of investment of energy: were they making tools quickly, and dropping them soon afterwards? Or were they carefully choosing which kinds of tools to make, and which ones to take with them in toolkits, maintaining them by re-sharpening? Both these strategies can be used as adaptations to different situations, particularly the level of mobility.

A handaxe, one type of tool Neandertals seem to have carried with them as part of mobile toolkits, which could be re-sharpened and used in many tasks. This one is from near Bournemouth, UK

A handaxe, one type of tool Neandertals seem to have carried with them as part of mobile toolkits, which could be re-sharpened and used in many tasks. This one is from near Bournemouth, UK

The question of Neandertal mobility is also a key reason for studying in such detail the different sources of stone used. We want to know where the stone from a flint source was going: which sites is it found in? How far was flint being transported, especially in comparison to other stone types? We can even begin to work out the paths taken through the landscape by Neandertals: did they have to cross rivers, high mountainous areas? Which passes would have been likely to be used? We also plan to excavate at the flint source itself, to see what activities were taking place, and also which tools came from other places in the landscape.

We can then begin, by combining all the geological and techno-economic data, to build up a detailed understanding of the inter-connections between different parts of the landscape that Neandertals were living in. And this is just the stone tools: other parts of the archaeological record, such as animal bones preserved in caves, are studied by other project members. We can use these to determine things like what season people were living at sites, and where they were probably hunting the animals in the landscape.

Gravel bar system, Switzerland- one example of a secondary source of stone. Image used with permission via Creative Commons: " I, Paebi [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons"

Gravel bar system, Switzerland- one example of a secondary source of stone. Image used with permission via Creative Commons: ” I, Paebi CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons”

All this creates a web of the palaeo-landscapes that Neandertals were inhabiting. But the impact of sourcing flint tools goes even further, because if we can map the extent of inhabited landscapes, we can start to think about territories. This is crucial because territories are not just regions full of resources- they probably were also involved in defining social interactions between different Neandertal groups. This is something we are still learning how to measure, but it has huge significance because different kinds of territories and social interactions suggests particular cognitive capacities. This is of course one of the key areas of research in human evolution: how did Neandertals differ from us, and how were they similar? Did they have similar webs of social connections, or were they living local, isolated lives in small groups that did not regularly meet? If this was the case, how did they find mates, and prevent huge in-breeding? All these fundamental questions can be advanced by new data and investigations such as the research I am doing.

Right now, I’ve only been here just over a week, and am only one month into a two year postdoc. So there’s a long way left to go. But it’s very exciting, and I hope to start the petro-archaeology training and looking at the flint collections very soon. Meanwhile, there’s always time on fieldwork to have a day off, check out the local wildlife, cuisine and culture, and enjoy some of the lovely sunsets in this region. Very different landscapes to when Neandertals were living here!

 Sunset at Laussonne

Sunset at Laussonne

I am funded through a European Commission Framework 7 Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship for Career Development, and I work at the PACEA laboratory, UMR-5199, Universite Bordeaux 1.

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A Day in Swiss Rescue Archaeology

There was a big contrast between this day’s morning and afternoon.  A large project, renewing all pipes and drains and the street, as well as implementing a district heating system is underway in the medieval town of Unterseen, Switzerland.  A small team from the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne is investigating the archaeology as it is being exposed by the building work.  Mechanical diggers and all sorts of building machines serve around us as hole after hole are opened and closed at an unrelenting pace.  We do a combination of a watching brief and a more traditional excavation. It is a complex construction site, one of the most challenging I have worked on.  There are many partners (firms and authorities) on site; there is little space in the old town centre for all these people and their material.  Besides, the many shops and restaurant lining the street suffer greatly from the extended work during the main tourist season.

It is thus essential that the archaeology delays the building work as little as possible.  To be able to allow some traffic we only truly excavate one of the 16 small fields (7x9m) at once.  For the remaining area we react to the construction work.  That means we document the archaeology as the builders open new sections of trenches, after which the building continues and the archaeology gets destroyed.  We thus strictly limit ourselves to excavating and recording only that which is threatened to be destroyed.  It a stressful project and only possible at all – as is so often the case – through good and intense communication between the local authorities, the various building partners and the Archaeological Service.  The scientific results are fantastic though, considering the way we work.

©Archaeological Service Canton Berne. June 2012.– Niche in a medieval wall in Unterseen, Switzerland.

© Archaeological Service Canton Berne. June 2012.– Niche in a medieval wall in Unterseen, Switzerland.

We have been able to confirm the old suspicion that during medieval times, the town was not yet characterised by the `Stadthaus´ and the surrounding open spaces as it is today.  Instead we now know that, at least along the eastern side of the town, a narrow alley lined by densely packed rows of houses allowed traffic to pass through the town from gate to gate.  Of these houses, we only find the cellars.  The stone-built cellar walls are often plastered.  Some even twice, showing not only the care with which they were constructed, but also their extended use and the way they were cared for.  Stairs leading down into them and wall-niches for lamps and candles further help to bring the medieval occupation of Unterseen to life.

These new finds, however, also raise new questions.  The building work does not reach the depth of the cellar floors and it is here most finds are to be expected.  As a result it remains unknown for now what these cellars, and the houses above them, were used for.  Without finds it is also difficult to date them precisely.  However, from historical sources we know much of the small market town was destroyed by fire in 1470AD. After that it was decided not to rebuild the central part of the town, but leave open spaces surrounding a large trading house, the precursor of the current `Stadthaus’.  And indeed we see many signs of fire on the remaining cellar walls and the rubble that fills them. So it is likely the cellars date between the city’s founding in 1279AD and 1470AD.

In the afternoon I was able to meet up with a colleague to talk about the start of a next project.  Summer 2010 I was involved in another rescue archaeology project in Andermatt and Hospental just below the Gotthardpass in Switzerland.  On the site of a future golf-course, at ca. 1500masl (which must be almost finished now), we discovered a number of archaeological features, dating from the Late Mesolithic (ca.6000BC) to Early Modern Times.  The Canton of Uri, who is responsible, has now provided funds for a small post-excavation project.  We were able to excavate part of the Late Mesolithic site, Hospental-Moos, before its destruction and this now forms the heart of the project.

Mesolithic sites are relatively seldom in Switzerland and in the Alps.  But archaeologists are becoming more and more aware of the prehistoric occupation and use of the Alps.  Slowly we see more research and even rescue archaeology in the Alps.  Until 2010 no Late Mesolithic sites were known at this altitude in central Switzerland, which makes this site rather special.  The fact that practically all artefacts are made of rock crystal makes it even more special.  I am very thrilled to be able to analyse these finds.

In a quiet office, we discussed which of the many samples we had taken on site are to be analysed further. Especially at sites of this nature, it is not just the finds and the features that allow us to paint an accurate picture of the past: Soil samples can help us explain the built-up of the soil.  Charred plant remains such as seeds, e.g. from hearths, might tell us about what people ate. And like pollen-samples from the soil they can also teach us about the vegetation around the site at the time of occupation.  Charcoal samples, often also from hearths, can be used to date the site’s habitation.

So my day started on a hectic construction site, where I try to unravel the development of a 13-15th Century market town.  It finished in a quiet office, discussing the last hunter-gatherer societies of the Alps and their environment ca. 7000 years earlier.  A challenging and varied Swiss Day of Archaeology!

Zen and the Art of Curation


Greetings from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Champaign! Recently, I have been spending my days in the lab helping to update and transcribe site inventories into a digital database.  The excavations that produced these artifacts were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, and the only inventories that exist are on hard copy.  Additionally, some of the artifacts are still in their original paper collection bags.  I am currently relabeling and rebagging artifacts, mostly lithics, and entering catalogue and provenience information into a digital database.  (Provenience refers to the exact location on the site at which the artifact was found; as opposed to the “Antiques Roadshow” term provenance, which refers to the entire history of the object from its discovery to the present).  It is important to curate these items using materials and technology that will help to preserve both the artifacts and their associated provenience information.


While this task might not entail bullwhip-cracking excitement and Spielberg-worthy finds, I think it is every bit as valuable as the discovery of a new site, the excavation of a unique artifact, or the ground-breaking research taking place daily.  This is due in part to my recent completion of a Master’s thesis in which I analyzed artifacts from the Chesapeake Bay region, despite living about 800 miles away in the Midwest.  I was able to conduct a majority of my research and some data collection using the Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture database (, created by the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory and other Chesapeake archaeologists and collaborators.  This information was available to me thanks to the careful curation and meticulous inventorying of thousands of artifacts by Tidewater archaeologists in Maryland and Virginia.


As I work on curating the artifacts and information from excavations conducted years ago in Illinois, my recent research experience is always in the back of my mind.  I hope that our careful curation of the artifacts from decades-old excavations will assist researchers investigating these sites to more easily access this information.  The field of archaeology continues to advance both technologically and theoretically, and it is important to preserve artifacts and information as completely as possible to assist future researchers in the reinvestigation and reanalysis of previously-excavated sites.  Who knows what exciting reinterpretations might someday be based on these nondescript bags of broken rocks?

These chert samples were collected from a site investigated in the 1960s and 1970s.


Students and Teaching and Archives, Oh My…

Unusually mixed day here – started by doing an archaeology handling session with a school group – not something I usually do. With any mixed group, there are always some who want to be there, and some who don’t care, and some who really are not fussed. Two of the boys in the group were really keen – all the questions and quite a few good answers! Real highlight though was seeing the look on ALL the faces, when I pulled out a Bronze Age sword….(which they didn’t handle, as I assumed the teacher wanted to take all of them home again).

You can tell if a young student will get the archaeology bug, when you hand them a palaeolithic hand axe, and tell them it was made 200,000 years ago. Watch that sink in, and see the reaction 🙂

Got a placement student from UCL with me at the moment, and she’s doing very well – happy to lift heavy boxes, and good with kids…useful combo!

Day ended showing the placement student our painfully slow database, and stores environmental monitoring systems. Then, of course, the network came crashing down around our ears….perfect way to end a week…time to go home…

Microwear analysis-determining the function of chipped stone tools

One of my technical specialties is high-powered microwear analysis, a method by which the function of chipped stone tools can be determined. Pioneered by Semenov (1964) and refined by Keeley (1980), the high-powered magnification approach has repeatedly demonstrated that variability in polish formation on utilized surfaces is related to tool use on different materials (e.g. soft tissue, hide, bone, wood, etc.). Striations, or the grooves and scratches of varying orientation and dimensions which often result from abrasive forces imparted during tool use are important indicators of intentional and unintentional motion, such as friction between a stone tool and its haft and/or the contact material being worked.  Taken together, micropolish and striations provide information on contact material, tool motion, and hafting.  In this manner, the identification of distinct surface and edge alteration of tools can be related to prehistoric patterns of activity and raw material use and utilized in the reconstruction of the organization of cultural behaviors.

Today I continue to work on material from three sites. Two sites were recently excavated by a Cultural Resource Management firm as contract excavations. These sites, which date from the Late Archaic and Woodland periods, were investigated to fufill compliance laws prior to disturbance. As part of the data recovery plans, the principle investigators have included a budget for analysis, a part of which is microwear analysis to determine the function of chipped stone tools recovered on site. A range of formal and informal tools were recovered, and so far, results indicate a wide variety of tasks  including butchery, hide,  and bone and wood working occurred on site.

The third site I am working on is the famous Lindenmeier Folsom site in Colorado. These materials were excavated and/or collected in 1934-40 during work at the site by Frank Roberts. Microwear analysis of a sample of endscrapers recovered from the site reveal that many of them were employed in the later stages of hide working. Edge wear in the form of eroded resharpening scars and heavily rounded edges along with a well formed dull-pitted polish characteristic of dry hide was present (see photomicrograph).  During late stage hide working, the edges of the tools are allowed to dull, so that accidental tearing of the hide during stretching and softening is lessened. Some endscrapers were discarded with sharp, fresh edges indicating use during earlier stages of hide working where cleaning and thinning is the object. These discard patterns illuminate the activities that took place on site, and when coupled with an assemblage of worn out, broken and discarded projectile points suggest active hunting and transport of fresh hides for processing at the site was common.  Here is a prime example of the value of why collections should be curated, as when they continue to be available for analysis, we can continue to learn from them.

Heavily worn and rounded distal edge of unifacial endscraper used on dry hide.

A New Day

Morning in York. A new day. A day doing archaeology. Not that many would recognise it as archaeology. I’ll be going through a pile of references on engaging young people in archaeology to help complete a report for the CBA. Do most archaeologists spend most of their time digging? No! We spend most of our time reading.

Just read on the BBC News website that some pot sherds from Xianrendong in China have been dated to 20,000 BP. The oldest pottery yet discovered. That puts British Neolithic pots into perspective.

Also just received a nice photo of an Acheulian hand-axe from Prof. Bae in Korea to help illustrate an article I’ve written for the Young Archaeologist magazine. The hand-axes at the Jeongok-ri site are made of quartzite. It’s very hard and tough to knap – I tried when I was out there last month. I have my poor attempt at a my very own hand-axe on my desk as a paperweight.

Field Walking in Binbrook, Ontario, Canada.

Field survey is not the most exciting thing to do in archaeology. It’s often hot or muddy or exhausting or all of the above. Sometimes you walk for eight hours and find absolutely nothing. Sometimes you find really cool things.

Today, we took a break from our excavation of a large lithic site to check out a field.

Fieldwalking in archaeology is pretty much exactly how it sounds. You get assigned a field, you drive over to it and walk a lot. The field has usually been ploughed a few weeks before and we wait for a few good rains to settle the dust. Canada does not have a significant period of architectural development, so the vast majority of our archaeology can be found less a metre below the surface. Ploughing brings artifacts up to the surface and rain washes away excess dirt, leaving them ready for us to find.

Walking along, looking for cool stuff.

We do it systematically. Standing five metres apart from each other, we walk in straight lines in a grid pattern, staring at the ground in front of us. Most of us have been doing this for so many years that artifacts seem to leap up from the ground and we spot them as easily as if they were glowing pink. When we find something culturally modified (a flake, an arrowhead, etc), we put a bright orange flag next to it.

Walking, looking at the dirt in front of me.

When we find something, we reduce our survey to a smaller scale. Instead of being five metres apart, we stand shoulder to shoulder and walk more slowly, doing an intensive survey of the area for roughly 15m square. If we find more artifacts, we flag them as well and expand our area until we have a significant buffer zone of no artifacts. If we find enough artifacts and place enough flags, it is declared a site. And thus, most of the archaeological sites in Canada are found.

We did well today. Our site was a field within a sod farm. The sod had been harvested a while back and the land had been ploughed for us. We had a few decent rain storms over the past few days, so the weathering was decent. We started out and almost immediately found a few flakes. Intensive survey didn’t reveal much else, so they were declared to be “IF’s” (Isolated Finds) and we moved on.

First flake of the day!

It was pouring when we got up in the morning but by the time we actually started working, it was nice outside. We’ve been having a really hot and dry summer so far, so the cool breeze and overcast sky was appreciated. And since it was a sod farm, the land was mercifully flat. Sometimes, we have to survey giant hills with badly ploughed fields, where each step is both exhausting and dangerous, not knowing where your feet will land. This was a walk in the park in comparison.

Around 11am, we found our first arrowhead. Not the prettiest specimen ever made, but hey, it made us happy. Looking around the point revealed tons of other lithics and we declared our first site. Half an hour later, we found a decent biface and some more flakes, leading to our second site.



Yay, biface.


Yep, this is what an archaeological site looks like in Canada before excavation.

After lunch, we finished walking the property with time to spare. We finish up the intensive survey and start cataloguing our finds. Each IF is noted on a map. Each “diagnostic” (an artifact, usually a tool, that can be used for dating methods) is automatically recorded as a site, regardless of whether we find much much else around it. Anything with seven or more finds on the surface is also declared a site. We record what we find, where we found it and we get a GPS reading of the location on the property. When the time comes for us to return to dig it all up, we’ll look over it again and map out the exact location of all the finds before we start digging.

Steve collects all the lithics.

After the day’s work, we come out with two sites that will require further excavation, two tools and tons of isolated finds. And, best of all, we finish an hour early on the Friday of a long weekend and we head home happy.

Colouring the Past

It’s a gray and rainy day in Reykjavík and I’m thinking of colour. Arrayed before me in the National Museum’s collections storage center are an array of jasper fragments from an excavation at Reykholt, an important regional center in western Iceland. Founded in the late 10th century, Reykholt became the center of a polity forged by Snorri Sturluson, Iceland’s wealthiest and most powerful chieftain of the early 13th century. I was involved in the first years of the Reykholt Project in the late 1980s and was there briefly in its last days, in 2007. Excavations that I undertook at a small, non-elite farm about 10 kilometers away and at the site of one of Snorri’s rivals, a bit farther out, led me through a circuitous route to think about jasper, an iron-rich form of SiO2 that, like flint, chert and obsidian can be easily flaked into stone tools or used with steel to strike sparks for lighting fires. It’s this latter use that attracted the Vikings and their Norse descendants to collect, use and discard jasper at most sites. A quotidian and visually boring class of material culture, jasper fire-starters were, nonetheless, the matches in the pockets of Norse men and women and their distribution, use wear and trace element chemistry can be used to monitor the movement of people over both short and long distances (we’ve used neutron activation analysis to trace Icelandic jasper to the site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, for example).

But arrayed before me today is a puzzle. Due to its high iron content, jasper is most commonly red or ochre-yellow. Far less common are black, blue, or green colours. And yet here, from the ruins of a medieval church built at the site around 1150 and demolished around 1550 is a sea of green and greenish-blue jasper. More to the point, the wear patterns on it indicate that hardly any of these green and blue-green fragments were used for striking fires, although the few red jasper fragments in the assemblage- and all of the obsidian pieces-were used to make sparks. The question is, why were these green pieces brought to the site and why were they treated this way? Or, better, what did it mean to be “thinking green” in medieval Iceland? So far, the answer is looking far more complex, and far more interesting, than I’d expected.

Of these green stones, roughly 10% form a coherent assemblage of desilicified, soft pieces, light blue-green in color, that have been scraped and faceted with files, knives, or abrading stones. The actions taken on them are deliberate but their forms are each different, random and seemingly accidental. Their most likely explanation is that the objects in my hand are end-products of actions taken to obtain blue-green powder, and that was most likely intended for the production of blue-green or green ink, as Reykholt was a center of literary production through the Middle Ages. These humble pieces may, therefore, be our best material evidence for the action of clerics and secular writers at Reykholt, whose products include those of Snorri Sturluson himself, among them Heimskringla (the earliest history of the kings of Norway), the Poetic Edda (a manual of skaldic poetry and one of the main sources on Nordic pagan cosmography), and Egills saga (an important foundation of the Icelandic Family Sagas). Finding illuminated manuscripts in a collection of colored stones was the last thing I expected.

However, the majority of the other stones found in the fill and under the floors of this church are united simply by being green. Many are achingly beautiful jasper, like Song dynasty porcelain in color and texture, but were simply smashed into fragments to reveal the green interior and then discarded without any other traces of use. Another large group consists of small green pebbles, some of jasper and others of white chalcedony with a green surface rind formed from contact with iron-rich basalt in a reducing environment. From their surface contours, it is clear that some of these were collected from river or stream beds, others were obtained from eroded landscapes where they were faceted and worn by Iceland’s strong winds, still others were plucked directly from the roots of ancient volcanoes with basalt still adhering to their outer surfaces. An extensive survey of the region around Reykholt has shown that jasper of any kind is extremely rare there and nearly impossible to find in riverine, terrestrial or bedrock contexts. At Hestfjall, the nearest well-known jasper source, 30 km from Reykholt, red jasper is abundant. Although blue, green, and blue-green are present, obtaining it may require long searches, scrambles up vertical cliffs, or dangerous transects across steep and loose scree slopes. Bringing these simple objects to Reykholt, then, represents a considerable number of separate actions, undertaken in different places and variable settings, over a prolonged period of time, and potentially through a series of dangerous or at least difficult actions. Why? What was important about being green?

The answer may lie in the symbolic meanings of green and of jasper itself within medieval thought. Jasper was one of the twelve stones on the breastplate of Aaron, described in the Old Testament, and was among the foundation stones of the Celestial Jerusalem described in John of Patmos’ Revelation, and formed that metaphysical city’s walls. Numerous sources, from the Venerable Bede in 8th century England to Richard of St. Victor and Bruno of Segni, writing in 12th century France and Italy, make it clear that the term “jasper” itself was used to describe an opaque green or blue-green stone, not the more common red color that we associate with jasper today. Jasper was the symbol of faith and belief during this life, that, like green plants, grows and returns to life after hardship, never truly dying despite the troubles of earthly existence. Jasper was used, at times, as a symbol of Christ and, more frequently, as one of the symbols of Saint Peter…and the church at Reykholt was dedicated to Saint Peter.

An hypothesis starts to form. Are these green and blue-green pieces of jasper, gathered with difficulty from a potentially wide-spread landscape and deposited here in greater numbers than known anywhere else in Iceland, accumulated symbols of personal devotion? Are they materialized prayers to St. Peter, tokens of belief…or perhaps supports for belief under strain and supplication for his believed ability to turn away fever, to cure foot problems, to provide longevity, to aid harvests and harvesters, to provide support for fishermen, or to guide the souls of the deceased into heaven?

Two classes of stone objects, one used for pigment production and the other unused except for its acquisition, intentional destruction and sequestration within a church, are both joined primarily by color. Together, they suggest new approaches for understanding the pragmatics of religious practice in medieval Iceland, on the one hand, and the practice of illumination, on the other, in ways that could not have been expected from such humble remains.

Well, back to it! The rest of the assemblage awaits and with it opportunities to refute this emerging hypothesis or to find additional examples that may support it. Some days archaeology takes place in the field, others in the lab. This is one of those days. This weekend may have me scouring the landscape in search of new jasper sources…