Middle Palaeolithic

Coastal (Geo)Archaeology on my Mind

Human occupation and coastlines have a long, but not very well-understood history. Global sea level has fallen and subsequently risen by over 120m during the last glacial cycle (~132,000 years), driven by fluctuations of the masses of ice sheets. These changing coastal landscapes have produced, or take away, opportunities for humans to exploit the resources they offer. In early prehistory, the use of coastal resources has been argued to have facilitated the dispersal of hominins out of Africa and across the globe and/or aided the development of fully modern human brains and behaviours, as well as providing resources to support specialised, marine-focussed ways of life in later prehistory. Coastal archaeology is therefore at the forefront of some of archaeology’s ‘Big Questions’. Yet it’s not just about understanding the past – studies of past sea level change, and the location and survey of ‘benchmarks’ left by these sea levels, helps us to better predict how, in a world of rising seas, the hundreds of millions of people who live along coastlines will be impacted in the coming decades.

The Greek Islands. Someone has to work there… Photo: R. Inglis.

My month has been decidedly more coastal than usual in theme, and not just because I’m pining after my recent holiday in Western Australia. Working backwards from today, this week I have been analysing sediments from excavations at a Neanderthal cave site on one of the Ionian Islands, Greece. During periods of low sea level, the area around the island would have been very different, with lagoons and wetlands and all the marine resources they would have contained in the area now covered by sea. Investigations on land and underwater are being carried out in order to understand more about how the landscape changed over time, and how this affected the humans and Neanderthals who left archaeology within it.

After a week making thin sections of some of the sediments (#TBT my 2016 DoA post on how and why to make thin sections), I’ve been running particle size analysis on the sediments from the cave in order to learn more about how these sediments got to where they did, and how these site formation processes impacted the archaeology within them. Of course, things are never straightforward, and getting the stony clay samples sieved and prepared for analysis was about as pleasant as excavating through them had been, involving wet sieving, muck, and ovens – I may even have to change tack and restart the whole thing. So to be honest, I’m not in the mood to talk more about them just yet…thank goodness it’s Friday!

Sediments on their way to becoming the worst brownies ever baked – in the oven overnight at 110ºC. Photo: R. Inglis.

The Mastersizer in motion! The particle size distribution curve, showing the number of particles in each size class can be see on the graph on the screen. Photo: R. Inglis.

Also in the batch were more straightforward sandy samples (though obviously not THAT straightforward, this is applied science…) from southwest Saudi Arabia, the study area for my current project, SURFACE. With these sediments, taken from a fossil beach and dune complex that formed during a period of higher sea level (Dhahaban Quarry – learn more here), I was using Particle Size Analysis (PSA) to distinguish between shallow marine sediments and the windblown dune sediments – the transition from one to the other would mark the highest point of past sea level, thus providing a sea level ‘benchmark’. It worked after a fashion – the aeolian sediments appear to be ‘well-sorted’ e.g. all one size class, what you’d expect from a dune, and the muddy lagoonal sediments were, well, a muddy mix of all particle sizes. Still more work to be done, but it’s encouraging!

Shallow marine sediments at Dhahaban Quarry, now approximately 5m above sea level. The holes are for samples taken for optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating. Photo: R. Inglis.

Away from the lab, and the muck, and the clay (which actually maybe predominantly fine silt – who knew!), coasts still dominate my to-do list. I’m wrestling with reviewer revisions on a book chapter presenting the field survey of the coral and marine terraces that are along the coastline of the volcanic Harrat Al Birk, SW Saudi Arabia, including the Dhahaban Quarry site, which we undertook in December 2014. Through this detailed survey of the marine terraces, and future dating of the corals that are found within them, we will learn more about the position of the past coastline that created them. This has geological implications for understanding the opening of the Red Sea Rift, (which is pushing its western and eastern coastlines up and out), helps us to place the archaeology we find on land in its relationship to the sea and potential use of coastal resources, and is another data point to underpin future sea level predictions.

The final piece of coastal news this week is the publication, after a looong process, of a paper by the MEDFLOOD community, which takes a long-term view of sea level change and human occupation and use of coastal regions in the Mediterranean (the last 132,000 years). It’s chock-full of methodological data on measuring sea level, evidence for the use of coastal resources by Neanderthals and humans up to the historic period, and areas in which new research, both underwater and on land, needs to be undertaken. A superb effort to bring together this diverse group of researchers with different approaches.

MEDFLOOD meetings are always held in challenging locations, such as the Northern Adriatic, close to Venice. Photo: R. Inglis.

So there you have it. From very challenging lab work to writing to that sweet feeling of seeing a paper finally published, almost the full cycle of coastal research. I’ll wind up this post by wishing you a happy Day of Archaeology 2017, and leave you with this thought from Coastal Archaeologist extraordinaire Prof. Geoff Bailey (tweeted to the world by MEDFLOOD’s Dr Alessio Rovere):


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)


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


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

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

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