Mesolithic

What’s it like working in a research team in archaeology?

I work on stone tools and soil chemistry from a site in Yorkshire called Flixton Island 2 as well as a little bit of work on another much bigger and better known nearby site called Star Carr – and yes, it can be dull at times (putting soils out to dry is never thrilling, though oddly calming) but the results about what they can tell us about how people were living tens of thousands of years ago can be really exciting. These sites are both from the Mesolithic period, when we were still living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in Britain. It’s all about getting down to the nitty gritty, day-to-day lives of people in the past.

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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)

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

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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!

Into the Bronze Age, commercial excavations at Llanfaethlu Anglesey

Since 2014 C.R Archaeology have been the principle archaeologist at the new school development at Llanfaethlu Anglesey on behalf of Anglesey council. A desk based assessment, geophysics and trenching uncovered a large amount of late #Neolithic pit and a possibly #Neolithic house. Further evaluation in 2015 led to the discovery of three #Neolithic houses,the largest Neolithic settlement in Wales.

As of June 2016 C.R Archaeology have been carrying out a watching brief on behalf the construction company. To the south of the #Neolithic settlement this watching brief uncovered a large group of early #Bronzeage pits and a classic #Bronzeage feature in #Wales a Burnt mound.

A break in construction this week has given the opportunity to start processing the large amount of pottery and stone artifacts.

8000 Year-old Hazelnuts in a Prehistoric Landscape

The outskirts of Liverpool may not be the first place that springs to mind for a phenomenological exploration of prehistory – but Lunt Meadows in Sefton offers just such an opportunity. On Friday 24th July visitors had the chance to walk out across a wetland landscape little different to almost 8,000 years ago, when groups of people lived here in some of the first houses ever built in Britain.

The site, on a sandy island nestled into a bend of the River Alt

The open landscape at Lunt Meadows is a haven for wildlife and archaeology

The site cleaned and ready for visitors

The site cleaned and ready for visitors

The day begins with a small team of archaeologists opening up and cleaning the site, revealing a fresh surface of damp sand with subtle signs of long-past occupation. The outlines of three houses can be seen, together with pits, stone tools and debris, burnt hazelnut shells, preserved reeds and carefully arranged groupings of pebbles, including iron pyrites or fool’s gold – striking to modern eyes when sparkling in the sunlight, but even more so to people who had never seem a metallic object. (more…)

indoor research

So here I am spending another day indoors in front of my laptop. Not all archaeology is having fun in the field! Instead, I have fun doing PhD research. My research topic is how to improve public perception of the Mesolithic in Britain. I’ve been undertaking an analysis of the narratives used to portray the period by academics in learned publications and in more public-facing media. I’ve also been developing resources for teachers to use in the classroom based on using compelling narratives that will help children understand this strange and far-off period of prehistory.

Today’s work.

Item 1 – continue compiling a list of wild foods that have been eaten in Britain, and identifying which of these would have been available in the Mesolithic, and which have been found on Mesolithic sites. Why? I want to get children to see the differences between their modern foods and what their forebears had to eat, and I want them to understand what kind of diet may or may not be healthy. It’s also good for me to see how many wild plants I could now use for food myself!

Item 2 – continue my analysis of the content of 178 items covering the Mesolithic that have been published in three popular archaeology magazines since the early 1970s. Not only is this essential to see how the subject is presented to an interested public, but it also helps me learn more about the period. I’ve already come across sites I had not heard about. How about Langley’s Lane? Possible Mesolithic votive deposits on the edge of a patch of tufa.

Item 3 – read an article on ‘perspicuous meta-narratives’! In other words how archaeology should use clear  language to communicate instead of jargon. Another reference I can add to my thesis, and more words that I shall have edit down later on (already over 84,000 of the damned things!).

Item 4 – make sure I have a piece of cake. I did some baking last night and brought in cake for the postgraduate room here in York – a squidgy oatmeal cake and a chocolate buckwheat cake with blackcurrant jam in the middle.

Item 5 – if I get time, investigate flights to Göteborg in Sweden in October, and trains to København in Denmark, and then to Schleswig and The Hague as part of round trip to look at museum displays and school visits on the Mesolithic later in the year.

Item 6 – pour myself a bottle of beer at home this evening and hope I have achieved half of the above.

 

Digging Diaries – Skulls, Shamans and Sacrifice in Stone Age Britain

Hello all archaeology fans from the Digging Diaries Youtube channel!

Here’s a great video covering the amazing Mesolithic dig at Star Carr, North Yorkshire.

Nicky Milner and her digging team from York University are embarking on their final ever excavation on site to unlock the secrets of this mysterious landscape.

Subscribe to our channel and follow us on Twitter (@DiggingDiaries) to keep up to date with all  the new exciting digs and dives happening all over Britain this summer.

Happy Digging from all the team!

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.

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!

Come Up to the Lab and See What’s on the Slab

I SEE YOU SHIVER WITH ANTICIPATION?

MicrotalkHello all, I’m Spence and I’m an archaeological lithics specialist. You might know me on the Twitter as @microburin and for my sometimes irreverent blog where stones tell stories about our Mesolithic forebears. And yes, I have a lithics lab located in north-west London which I’m leasing until I have finished the detailed analysis and cataloguing of several lithic assemblages – largely comprised of flint – from the North York Moors in north-east England. The beauty of having a dedicated space is that you can lay out all the lithics from each ‘site’ or assemblage. This helps not just with becoming intimate with each assemblage, raw materials, artefacts, and debitage (we NEVER say ‘waste’ in the the world of lithics!) but also with attempts to refit pieces, almost the reverse of the reduction process, so that we can understand the flint knapper’s strategy, perhaps even their competence.

Chain gangs

The other key aspect of lithic analysis is that the debitage can tell us even more than the artefacts – for this period that means items such as microliths, scrapers, piercing tools, burins, denticulates, blades and the like. Together, the patterns of presence and absence of debitage and utilised items in any given place, and the raw materials that were sourced in often distant locations, form what we call a chaîne opératoire – literally an operational sequence – that helps us begin to understand what our Mesolithic friends were up to. I’ll come back to this a little later.

The excavation of features in the Mesolithic, especially in my study area, is rare. Firstly, there simply haven’t been any large scale excavations conducted to modern standards. Secondly, feature survival itself is relatively rare – organic survival is seldom encountered (and so it’s largely lithics that survive) and the very nature of Mesolithic activities and mobility through the landscape over millennia leave little evidence most of the time. The Mesolithic, for me, is all more interesting for being distant, often ephemeral in terms of what survives, mysterious and hovering around being just within and yet just beyond reach. It’s frustrating and rewarding at the same time.

Image_MesokidImage credit: hans s | Foter | CC-BY-ND

The Captain has turned on the seat belt sign – a little turbulence ahead

Whether the Mesolithic really existed at all outside artefact typologies and our own convenient constructs, sandwiched as it is between the climatic warming of the last glaciation (Late Devensian) and the onset of the Neolithic ‘package’, it was far from a time of continuity or stability. From the time of the return of pioneer communities, climatic volatility like the so-called 8ka event which saw a period of cooling, rapid sea-level rise with positive and negative undulations, eventually saw the separation of Britain from the continent. Vast ancestral tracts that were rich in resources disappeared. We also have evidence for at least one major tsunami event – the Storegga slide – that certainly had a catastrophic  impact on coastal communities and completed the inundation of Doggerland. There’s an increasing body of evidence too for repeated fire-events in the Mesolithic forests and around lake edges that are posited as indications, at least in part, of human management of the landscape and its resources.

“Far from being an endless period of hazelnut crushing, berry picking, game stalking and salmon fishing, the Mesolithic was a time of turbulence – climatic, environmental, social and technological – where many of the themes surely resonate with our own challenging world experiences today.”

Lithic life

Image_AdderMost days, like The Day of Archaeology today, are spent in the lab surrounded by my babies. I’m focused primarily on the analysis of an assemblage I excavated some years ago on the North York Moors uplands – now largely humanly-transformed heather-clad grouse moors on acidic peat. After falling into a griff (water channel), being bitten by an adder (thick boots), I came across a small, sandy eroded area with – you guessed it – flints on the surface. The rescue excavation, with kind permissions from the landowners and National Park archaeologists, lasted about ten days (and it only rained once) in a remote area. Every flint was plotted over 20 sq metres to reveal discreet knapping events, firespots, a stone-lined hearth containing burnt microliths and indications of a possible structure. Flat-stone features seem to be associated with knapping, microlith manufacture and tool concentrations including scrapers.

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Terminal nail-biting

The results so far from the lithic analysis and processing of charcoal samples from the firespots and hearth are particularly exciting. Remember, there have been few excavations of any size in the last seventy or more years in this area, fewer still with results that allow spatial analysis. These are also the first feature-associated radiocarbon dates for the Late Mesolithic for north-east Yorkshire with a final suite in-process at SUERC right now. This is a nail-biting time! What we appear to be looking at is a multi-period site, a palimpsest, a persistent place that our Mesolithic friends returned to repeatedly over at least 2,000 years and where we might be looking at the very time of transition between the “terminal” Mesolithic and Neolithic. What this also proves is that knapping events within just a few metres of each other can span at least a couple of thousand years. This means that many of the large-area surface assemblages gathered by collectors over the past seventy years (but seldom if ever spatially recorded) probably represent many individual events over a considerable time period, each plausibly for different purposes or motives.

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Joined at the hips

Once complete, I’ll be moving onto several other surface assemblages from the vicinity – with the sense of caution given the findings at the excavated site, although spatial plotting has been undertaken where possible. Here is where laying out all the lithics from neighbouring assemblages has proved a boon and a surprise. A rejoining utilised (micro-wear) flint blade had each half in two different assemblages, recorded ten years apart, and almost 200m from each other. ‘Paired sites’ are rare but do occur, for example in the Central Pennines. Might one be looking at coeval activities in the vicinity of what was once a small lake (which has been pollen-cored), long-since dried up? Read more about the project and view the poster on the Lithoscapes website »

Tools of the trade

spencer_banner.inddIn the header image, perhaps a little contrived, I’ve tried to illustrate the lithicist’s toolkit. You’ll already have noticed that the lab is less bestrewn with slabs than belittered with handy polystyrene insulation blocks procured from my local DIY store. They’re great for flagging lithics with cocktail sticks. The camera desk clamp, or tripod collapse avoidance device, is a recent addition after months of searching. On a good day I can process perhaps 30 to 50 lithics at a detailed level of attribute and metrical recording. That leaves more detailed analysis of particular artefact groups for a further round, in addition to photography and, ultimately, selective drawing.

And yes, that is a Lotto ticket on the scales! You know how archaeology is these days.

Is that a rod microlith or are you just happy to see me?

One of the significant hurdles for lithicists is recording assemblages systematically according to a replicable set of standards – ones without ambiguity for future researchers and with absolute clarity in describing morphology, typology, right down to the raw material type. This subject could see me ramble on for far longer than your patience will endure, suffice to say here that I am using and testing a typological protocol developed by my friend and colleague at Lithoscapes, Paul Preston. His doctoral research, soon to be published, extensively reviewed our legacy of lithics classifications and taxonomies to form a new standard. I’m delighted – and undeniably relieved – that he’s shared this with me and allowed me to apply it to the assemblages presently in my guardianship. Learn more about Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation »

It’s knocking on a bit now on the Day of Archaeology, perhaps time for a cheeky chardonnay. Thanks so much for reading and taking an interest in the Mesolithic and stones with stories in resonating places. My thanks to the team of organisers, muddy or otherwise, behind this special international event. The many hundreds of posts each year provide the most fascinating insights into the inner workings of archaeologists and specialists – a through-the-keyhole peek at the world around us. May I also take this opportunity to congratulate Lorna Richardson, one of DoA’s lynchpins, on her recent rites-of-passage achievement. Well done Dr Richardson!

Best wishes,

Mesolithic Spence

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Microburin has left the building!

Monrepos – a museum is reborn2

Back to the museum – what happened? Five years ago the German government created an economic stimulus package meant for the construction industry to pass through the worldwide finance and economic crisis. With money from this package public buildings could be renovated and our house, the princesses palace, was chosen as one of these projects.
However, that meant we all had to move out, in particular, the museum. So the museum was closed for the public and the research centre squeezed into the corners of the house that were currently not under construction. That were cosy but also hard times!
Afterwards we had new windows, new floors, new heatings, new rooms, new kitchens, new guest-rooms – really lovely working here now! A prove for this pleasant atmosphere could be the help we received from Saxony-Anhalt: Juliane Weiß M.A. got into contact with our institute through the Upper Palaeolithic excavation at Breitenbach, a project of our colleague Dr. Olaf Jöris. Juliane subsequently visited Monrepos and since we found out about her amazing cooking and baking talent, we invited her to prepare an Old World Stone Age buffet in our lounge kitchen for our guests on Monday.

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With, Juliane’s delicious help, we can explain at least one of our current research themes straightforwardly to every guest: Diet and Nutrition… Looking at the hazelnut biscuits, I’m sure everyone agrees about the importance of this topic for human behaviour.

Since everything around and within the building was so nice and new, the museum exhibition was also intended to make a fresh start. Unfortunately, the money from the government wasn’t intended for that and, hence, couldn’t be used for creating a new exhibition. Therefore, other money had to be found for new shelves, new lights, new signs etc. and a fresh concept for our old stuff. Likewise our research centre, the museum is focused on how human behaviour developed in the past 2-3 million years and creating a new concept for this really old story of mankind isn’t that easy! And to be honest, most archaeologists are no museum designers, psychologists focused on flows and requirements of customers, business project organisers, marketing experts etc. But all these skills are needed to make a really good and interesting museum. In our case, we decided to get help from outside our archaeology box and, consequently, many hours in the last years were spent by some researchers, first of all our head, Prof. Dr. Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, learning… Learning about marketing strategies, customer psychology, about digital possibilities in museums, concepts other museums use etc. and finally finding a way to apply all this newly acquired knowledge on our very old exhibition material.
After this concept was created, it needed to be realised. Our regular staff was accompanied by photographers, designers, craftsmen, carpenters, electricians and many others during the last year. Occasionally, the great ideas meant for the museum had to be adapted to the possibilities and / or the budget. Still most of the ideas could come true.
So here we are Friday July, 11th – countdown is running for the exhibition opening next Monday at 1:30 pm…
Frank Moseler M.A. is going to run the museum. Today he accepted what felt like 100 phone calls with bookings for guided tours through the museum for the next weeks. Besides this organisation, he is preparing scripts for regular and the professional guided tours and, just by the way, he tries to finish his dissertation about the use of fire in the Upper Palaeolithic at our research institute. In the museum, he is supported by Edda Perske who is organising the receptions desk and museum shops, while Michael Bernal Copano is preparing for supervising the museum rooms. They both struggled with getting to know the electronic till system today – certainly, not an everyday task at a museum but something that is used everyday and, therefore, has to be understood.
Besides the archaeologists, our museum will have special action tours. In these tours, professional actors will help the visitors to understand how humans created faith, home, and world trips or how humans need and use power. Before taking the visitors on this journey to self-awareness, the actors themselves had many questions to the archaeologists. Dr. Radu Ioviță took some hours of his time to walk with them through the museum and answered all their questions, informed them about methods, and explained how we can learn something about human evolution from looking at stones, bones, and profiles.
For some further refinements of our exhibition, we have received help from our parent institute in Mainz during the last days. The RGZM is well known for its archaeological conservation workshops which among others worked on finds from the Chinese province of Xi’an, Ötzi’s equipment, or the world’s oldest wooden spears from Schöningen. Currently, some of the archaeological conservators from the workshops go everyday on the long way from Mainz to Neuwied to help us reviving the past in our exhibition.
Our museum is not just taking the visitors from the presence to a past time, we are also trying to connect the inside of our house with the outside. This is not just figurative of opening research and science to the public but also very literally:
Inside the museum we have a little wishing well for which our Prince Maximilian of Wied-scholarship holder, Elisabeth (Elli) Noack M.A., and our trainee Nicola Scheyling M.A. created a counterpart outside our museum: the “wishing tree”.

Usually, Elli doesn’t climb trees at Monrepos but writes her dissertation about Mesolithic archaeozoological material from northern Germany. However, at the moment the museum is our prime priority and today Elli and Nicola decorated the tree and hang up schist plates from the tree. People can engraved their wishes for the future in these plates. A first wish has already been engraved in the schist plates – and it’s such an obvious wish right now…no! It’s not about the museum – first things first: “World Cup!”
Well, probably many of us will watch the match together on Sunday night, while still preparing and cleaning the exhibition for Monday – hopefully, no goal for Germany while someone is handling a fragile piece…
Comparably to the German football team, I can formulate the baseline of this post that not just relates to making a museum but also to archaeology in general as the next post will show:
You need good players but in the end it’s all about team work!