Ice Age Earthquake!

It’s hard to grab time to write down what we’re actually doing in the white heat of a summer field season: my day began at 4.30 this morning when my husband finally rejoined me in my tent (post-sophisticated cocktail party) and I started to worry whether I had booked a tool store and portaloo to be delivered to a Mesolithic site on the North coast of Jersey today. We’re part of the Ice Age Island project, a three year project looking at the Pleistocene archaeology of Jersey.  We’re investigating Pleistocene and early Holocene archaeology held in capture points around Jersey – coastal fissures, caves and inland valleys – in order to better understand changing hunter-gatherer archaeology throughout the now submerged Gulf of St.Malo. Our main field base is our excavation of a Magdalenian site of Les Varines, but my heart remains solidly Neanderthal, and I predominantly spent the day talking through raw materials from la Cotte de St.Brelade with Anne-Lyse Ravon from the University of Rennes. It’s never as simple as that, of course: I had to spend 45 minutes after our morning briefing waiting for my 2 year old daughter to wake up before I could get her dressed for the day, say good bye properly, and head off.

We lose half our student team tomorrow (witness the cocktail party last night) and it’s sad to think that, just as we’ve all pulled together as unit, we’re about to be broken asunder. The tents will go down, we’ll lose half our crack team, and new crop of wide eyed archaeological debutantes will join us. We took a lucky couple into the Jersey Heritage stores with us today, helping to sort through the 94,000 artefacts that Professor Charles McBurney excavated from La Cotte de St.Brelade. Alongside the field season, we are in many ways still dealing with his post-ex: doing all the things that, given the time and  resources, he and his team would have done – refitting, detailed technological analysis, and attempting to source the material dropped by Neanderthals at La Cotte. Doing this allows us not only to reconstruct their behaviour within the site itself, but the complicated itineraries they followed as they moved around the landscapes of the Gulf of St.Malo. The coats of Normandy, Brittany and especially Jersey are rich in Neanderthal archaeology: there seems to be something about the contact between the modern terrestrial landscape and the drowned plain that makes this a favoured place for Neanderthals and their prey – and not simply because coasts provide capture points.

Anne-Lyse Ravon is an expert of the raw material used by Neanderthals on the Breton side of the Normano-Breton gulf:  she’s been helping us identify and group the raw materials our Neanderthals have been collecting, and also helped us out today with refitting material. The Norman-Breton landscape made itself spectacularly felt at around lunchtime today when we were hit by an earthquake – and hour late they felt the same earthquake in Brittany along the same fault that structures the landscape of the offshore region.

This excitement over, Matt Pope and I were interviewed by Daniel West for a project he’s conducting into the different ways in which we study and talk about Neanderthals: I really enjoyed the experience – it’s always useful to reflect on how and why we construct the knowledge we share. My favourite question has to be “do you think about Neanderthals when you smoke?” (and this to two reluctant ex-smokers on a little excavation smoking holiday). That done, it was off to the Jersey Heritage Museum at Hogue Bie to view some more raw samples…tonight off to flight club to experience an authentic Jersey Meal of Bean Pot, Calvados, and Jersey Wonders. Best job in the world: I love this island!!!


Beccy Scott

Post-doc, British Museum – Pathways to Britain / Crossing the Threshold / Ice Age Island

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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Finding Neanderthals in France, article reviews, and conference planning.

My last post for the Day of Archaeology is a mix of writing about another Postdoc project I am hoping to work on (and the process of shaping your research career), as well as describing other typical activities that researchers get done over a day.

I spent most of today working on a Postdoc application with a deadline looming alarmingly close. I’ve been busy writing a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship application, which has to be submitted on 11th August.  This is basically a European-wide competition for a two year research position, where you must move outside your normal country of residence. It’s up to you to find a research team at a European lab, propose a project to them, and get the go-ahead to apply for the funding from the central European Commission for Research and Innovation, which for early career researchers is called ‘Marie Curie’ Actions after the renowned scientist. These brilliant fellowships are aimed at supporting young researchers by training them in new skills within different research communities, and helping Europe as a whole become a more vibrant competitive research community.

As I’ve discovered over the past few years, perhaps the most important thing you can do to help your research career (apart from publish, publish, publish!), is to get out and meet people. Go to conferences, talk to colleagues, attend workshops, and take the opportunity to network whenever it presents itself. All the projects I am currently involved in have happened this way, by meeting people outside of the Universities where I did my degrees.

With colleagues at the CAHO conference: Dr John McNabb, Dr Thora Moutsiou and Dr Nick Taylor


Tracking Ice Age Mammoths

In my last post, I talked about the main project I’m currently working on, which is studying the stone tools made by the last Neanderthals at the site of La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey. This collapsed cave site is well-known not only for the richness of its deposits, but also for the famous ‘bone heaps’ of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros remains found in the 1960s-70s excavations. These have been interpreted as the remains of a mass-kill by early Neanderthals driving herds off the cliffs into the ravine.

Standing below the site of La Cotte de St Brelade. The rock arch in shadow opens out into the ravine.

Another project I am working on today is aimed at testing this theory, as well as providing rare information about the migratory behaviour of ice age megafauna. These are the large, often formidable beasts that lived alongside the last Neanderthals: mammoth and woolly rhino, giant deer, horse, bison and the extinct ancestors of  today’s domesticated cows.

In 2010 I set up a project with Geoff Smith and Sarah Viner that uses isotopic analysis of ancient teeth to determine mobility of Pleistocene megafauna.  The Pleistocene covers roughly the million years before the end of the last ice age, but at the moment we are focusing on investigating sites during the time of the Neanderthals, which is mid-late Pleistocene. Our first site is La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey, which we are working on with the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey project. We can use the Strontium isotopes present in an individuals’ teeth to determine their movements over different periods. Simply put, we can find out if an animal whose remains ended up at La Cotte had spent time in other regions of the landscape. Isotopic analysis works based on how different geology affects the levels of Strontium isotopes present in drinking water, which gets laid down in animals’ and peoples’ teeth.

This kind of direct measure of animal (and human) mobility is still quite rare for this period, although one Neanderthal from Lakonis in Greece has been published. We want to understand how animals that Neanderthals were hunting were moving around: for example, were mammoths great travellers as African elephants today can be? And were Pleistocene reindeer going on vast annual migrations as we can see in herds from Alaska in modern times? This information will help build models about how Neanderthals may have been following or intercepting megafauna at various points in the landscape. As Neanderthal fossils themselves are so precious, it’s unlikely we will be able to directly measure the mobility of many more individuals for some time. Until then, we can use animal movements to provide a framework alongside other measures for Neanderthal mobility such as transport of stone tools. At La Cotte, we may also be able to test whether the bone heaps are really mass-kills by determining if the bones represent  herds that had moved around together, and then were killed in one event.

With some of the La Cotte de St Brelade collections, Jersey Museum.

We received funding this year from the Societe Jersiaise, the island of Jersey’s learned society, to do pilot analysis on six samples of mammoth and horse teeth, which Sarah will be undertaking very soon. Today I am working on finding more funding to allow us to increase the number of samples from the site. This involves trawling various websites of funding bodies to see whether we are eligible or not for different grants. We’re in a difficult situation, as only one of us (Sarah) currently has a Postdoc, and is therefore affiliated to an Institution, which rules us out of a lot of grants. At the same time, current Postdocs are ineligible to apply for other kinds of funding, meaning that early career researchers in our position really struggle to get projects off the ground independently.

We are hopeful however that the pilot study will provide positive results which will allow us to apply for more extended funding from particular sources, and keep building up the project profile while I apply for Postdoc funding separately.

My last post for today will be a round-up of the other things I’ve been working on, including writing a funding application to work on a French project on Neanderthal landscape use.

Another kind of human: researching Neanderthal archaeology

As I described in my first post, my research is on the last Neanderthals, a field I find fascinating through the ‘alternate universe’ of hunter-gatherer adaptations and lifeways they represent as a different kind of human. I’m a lithics geek, which means I study, in loving detail, the stone tools that Neanderthals made and which were fundamental to their everyday lives. My PhD involved looking at the evidence from Britain of the re-occupation by Neanderthals of this landscape around 55,000 years ago, after they had been absent for about a hundred thousand years. This meant in practice spending a year visiting a LOT of museums, to record information from over 1000 stone tools. This might sound like a big number, but in fact it’s a very small sample when you’re talking about sites which probably span over 10,000 years in time. Big French cave sites of the same period can have ten times that amount of lithics from a single occupation layer.

After this recording phase was another year (or two…) of data crunching to find out what the stones were telling me. The results showed that Neanderthals moving into Britain during a very unstable climatic period (termed Marine Isotope Stage 3; we’re now at Stage 1, and the last proper ice age was Stage 2) were living very mobile lives, with a highly organized technological strategy that promoted flexibility in their tool production and maintenance.  So where am I now two years later, on 29th July in 2011?

At the moment I have several different projects, and multi-tasking is definitely something as a researcher you need to get to grips with. I’ve just got back from three-weeks of fieldwork in Jersey, as part of a really exciting project called the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey, which will be featured in the first episode of the new Digging for Britain tv series. Although Jersey is a small island, it has a fantastically rich archaeological record.  We’re interested in the hunter-gatherers who lived there from the Neanderthals right up to the people who lived in the forested landscapes after the last ice age. My part in the project is to study the lithics (stone tools) from the upper layers of one of the most important Neanderthal sites in the world, a collapsed cave/ravine called La Cotte de St Brelade.

La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey. The original excavations were underneath and behind the rock arch, originally thought to be a cave until the roof of sediment collapsed in the early 20th century.


Neanderthals in Limbo

So, you’ve got a PhD in archaeology, what next?  I’m a Neanderthal researcher at that strange point which a few lucky people manage to miss in their career path: post-PhD, but not yet officially a ‘Postdoc’, with a paid position on a research project. I submitted my PhD in 2009, and after a long and nervous wait, passed my viva in February 2010, transforming into a Doctor of Archaeology. So far, so good, right?

Things are not as straightforward as PhD = job.  The next stage in forging an academic career involves trying to do two conflicting things: publish a ton of papers from your PhD in “high-impact” journals and books, and at the same time, write kick-ass funding and job applications, the success of which depends to a large part on your publication record. Oh, and earn some money to live on too…

My posts today will be about the reality of this process: what kinds of things a normal aspiring Postdoc does to try and get a foot on the ladder in a research career in archaeology. I’ll start by talking about my research in Neanderthals, and how this has led to where I am now: working on several very exciting projects (including one which will soon be featured on the new Digging for Britain television series!). Then I’ll get onto the funding/publishing merry-go-round: what I am juggling today, 29th July 2011, in terms of applications, writing, and planning for future collaborations. So, not a lot of digging, but certainly a lot of hard work and hopefully an insight into what goes on behind the scenes of cutting-edge research into the funkiest hominin species of all time!

Recording Neanderthal artefacts at Jersey Museum in July