micromorphology

Its not all mud and artefacts

I thought it would be fun to write for the Day of Archaeology as I believed I’d be in the lab elbow deep in soil thin sections from exotic and far flung places, finishing off micromorphological slides before heading off later on in the month for 2016’s field work season.

A day in the life of a geoarchaeologist though never seems to run smoothly and as my blog post for DoA loomed I was faced with the stark reality that I was going to have a tidy up and get ‘stuff’ finished day before I went on a week’s holiday (Holiday: a week of prep’ing for teaching).

 

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Holiday reading

 

But being as everyone seems to leave before I could press that magic on holiday button I was charged with several tasks the first of those being attending a meeting to discuss the progress of publications on the project I was part of for my Ph.D. The meeting went well and everyone seemed to leave with a much needed spring in their step, progress on who was writing what was achieved.

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The AAREA office where it all happens

I managed to get back to the office, quite a pleasant space, shared by myself and colleagues on the project I am currently working on. As you can see from the pictures, particularly of the white board, we spend lot of time discussing ideas. We, at the AAREA Project are rather proud of our white board and believe that if the archaeology doesn’t pan out we may have jobs as code writers and secret agents.

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The white board of mystery and mayhem

The big ideas on the board are based around sustainability, resilience and the adaptive cycle with a biscuit-meter in the bottom right hand corner. So in essence, I returned to the office, noted the biscuit-meter was reading full steam ahead on the chocolate digestives and refuelled prior to finishing off a paper that’s been hanging around waiting for geochemical analysis results.  A few hours later I managed to tick the submit box, the air of satisfaction that flows over you is amazing that after all the sampling, soil shuffling, chemical juggling theory testing and microscope monitoring you can sum up two year’s work in 7500 words.

On a wave of euphoria my last job on this DoA was to head into the lab for a bit of polycarbon resin impregnation. I have some lovely vitrified stone samples collected from another project I’m involved in where we are looking at vitrified Iron Age forts with the SIAVH Project in Scotland. That completed I successfully pressed the out of office button.

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Last job of the day: setting vitrified stone in resin

However, when I reflect on my day, it’s not all, as the title says ‘mud and artefacts’. When you typically think of an archaeologist you imagine them visible from the waste up, in a field covered in dirt and uncovering the mysteries of  the historic world but, in reality archaeology is a multidisciplinary subject that can provide you with a wide range of skills and eclectic days where you just have to get ‘stuff’ done.

Paisley Caves – a view from the microscope

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Working on the microscope

So this is my second year taking part in the Day of Archaeology. It’s great to look back at my post from last year, when I was working as a research associate on the Feeding Stonehenge project – lots of new things have happened since then, including a new position for me as a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Since joining Edinburgh I’ve been working on a lot of new and exciting projects, which you can read more about in my blog, Castles and Coprolites. This week I’ve mostly been sat in front of a microscope, analysing thin section samples from the site of Paisley Caves, Oregon USA, directed by Dr Dennis Jenkins. Paisley provides evidence for the earliest dated human occupation in North America, famously in the form of ancient human DNA recovered from coprolites, aka fossilised faeces. The samples I am working on are known as thin section micromorphology samples – perhaps not as well known as animal bones and charred plant remains, thin section samples investigate the actual sediments in which archaeological materials are found.

The way in which sediments are deposited can actually tell us a great deal about the environment and human activity in the past, and are also useful in helping interpret the artefacts that are found within the sediment. For example looking at soils and sediments under the microscope, we can tell whether they were deposited by wind or water action, or whether they were trampled by humans or animals. With the Paisley samples we are looking at the formation processes in the cave environment, to see whether this can help understand the activities that were occuring in the cave.

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Thin section slide of sediments from Paisley caves. Photo by Julie Boreham, Earthslides.com

Thin section micromorphology is quite a specialised technique, and requires laboratory processing. We cut out blocks of sediment from profiles during excavation, wrap them very carefully to avoid any disturbance, then take them to the lab where they are set in resin and cut into slides for viewing under the microscope. I have been working with Earthslides to process the Paisley samples, and we will be presenting a poster exhibiton of the thin sections at the European Association of Archaeologists conference this September.