Neanderthals

Neanderthals on Naxos, Greece?

Hi there, thanks for tuning in!

What a cool event and initiative this is – it’s always fascinating to engage with the field of archaeology and see what kinds of great research is being done all around the globe. That being said, we should introduce ourselves.

Our 2016 Team

We’re the Stélida Naxos Archaeological Project (aka SNAP), a team digging away on the beautiful island of Naxos, Greece. Not the worst place to dig in the world, that’s for sure… We dig on a hill called Stélida on the West side of the island:

And although we’ve just very recently finished our 5th working season (our 3rd excavation season after 2 years of surveying), we definitely didn’t want to miss out on Day of Archaeology 2017!

Our 2017 Team

So, what are we about?

SNAP is a geo-archaeological excavation of a chert source (chert is a type of rock). We say geo-archaeological because we borrow methods from the Earth Sciences (like geology) in order to help solve archaeological problems.

This site is associated with early prehistoric stone tool workshops—places where what we call lithics were created. So it’s quite different from the traditional archaeology we see in this area of Greece, which usually include things like figurines and ceramics. Stélida was first used as far back as 260,000 years ago, with some of its early visitors likely including Neanderthals. Awesome, right?

But wait for it: what’s more awesome is that, if we’re right about Neanderthals having been on this island more than 200,000 years ago, it means that it very much predates the popular idea that the region was only colonized by early farmers arriving about 9,000 years ago.

Would it mean that Neanderthals could have gotten here on boats?

This is an exciting time to be working on the earliest history of human activity in the Aegean. We hope to conduct a detailed survey and excavation of Stélida because it has the potential to teach us a lot about the earlier prehistoric Cyclades, specifically how early humans and Neanderthals moved around this region.

 

A Day On the Dig

Digging on a beautiful Greek island is nothing short of fantastic.

The sights and sounds from the moment you wake up are vibrant and lively. We also owe it to the wonderful village of Vivlos for giving us a place to call home when we’re not digging up on Stélida. Instead of writing about it here, we’ve got a cool video on what an average day on the dig looks like, starting from the 5am wake-ups:

And then the rest of it captured in this cool Instagram story:

 

Ask Us Anything

In an effort to make our work more dialogical, we decided to open up the floor for questions from our followers and viewers from all over the world.

This season, we answered all of the brilliant questions on an average day on the site:

 

Carter’s Corner

SNAP is directed by Dr. Tristan Carter of McMaster University. (Some call him Stringy.)

And since Dr. Carter’s a fantastic lecturer, we couldn’t hesitate to get him his own vlogging show, Carter’s Corner, where he answers viewer questions from various locations. For the first series of 5 videos, we have him sitting in Trench 28 up on the hill of Stélida.

In keeping with the spirit of our “Ask Us Anything”, we continue to take questions from our followers from all over the world and Dr. Carter responds directly to them in a lighthearted vlog-style series. Here is our official release of our first 5 episodes—we hope you enjoy!

Excavation Blogs

If you’re more of a reader, we also wrote weekly blog posts this season for our 6 weeks on Naxos, here on Medium, documenting our week-to-week lives on the dig:

 

Next Steps

The next couple of years for SNAP looks exciting, but without all of the dirt and thorny bushes.

Specifically, next summer, we’ll be having a study season, which means that we won’t be doing any digging, but instead really getting down and looking at everything we’ve found over the past 4–5 years and all the data we’ve collected.

Over the next two years we’re also looking forward to more public engagement and local cultural heritage activities, such as creating a teaching pack for local elementary schools as well as an eventual public exhibition at the Naxos Museum (which is currently being renovated). Super exciting!

 

Keep in Touch

If you’ve liked our work and want to stay in touch, we’d absolutely love that too.

We have a bunch of social media that is also open for questions and comments:
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit

Our official website has official information about the project: http://stelida.mcmaster.ca

And lastly, if you have any direct questions, please feel free to email us at stelida@mcmaster.ca—we’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for checking out our work at SNAP!

From Streams to Deltas: Navigating Archaeology Careers, 5 Years On

In 2012, five years ago, I wrote what was to turn out rather amazingly as the most popular post thus far for the Day of Archaeology project. I can’t know all the reasons why people might have felt attracted to my words, but the idea of needing a “Plan B” in our careers must have resonated.

My annual posts since then track a career path of unexpected turns – I’m probably somewhere on Plan E by now, although that makes it all sound rather more controlled and systematic than the organic reality. Things have certainly gone pretty off-road from the seemingly obvious, standard route that 18-year-old me understood took place, should one be lucky enough to progress from an undergraduate degree to the dreamed-about status of lecturer and researcher. Maybe I was naive, but I don’t think I was alone, and my 2012 post tried to see the positive sides to a confusing (and at times disheartening) outcome.

Five years on, I’ve realised that this untenured, untethered, and often uncertain situation is the new normal, for me and many others in archaeology. Winning an incredibly prestigious postdoc wasn’t enough to guarantee an academic position or even other research grants, and I’m not the only one who is now technically unemployed, but somehow working full time. So for this final year, join me at the helm to see what my working life looks like, doing archaeology in many different ways.

 

Exotic flints from the silcrete quarry workshop

 

 

First task of the day is checking the proofs of a journal article which was accepted a couple of days ago. It reports the results of my postdoc fieldwork (covered for Day of Archaeology in 2015 here) and subsequent analysis of the stone tools from a prehistoric silcrete source and quarry-workshop in the Massif central, south east France. This was a really challenging site to excavate and study, as while hugely abundant (there are probably over 500,000 knapped objects), the technology is very informal, making dating activity very difficult. We did however find some possible hints of direct extraction from the bedrock using pits, as well as some extremely interesting flint artefacts that were what we call ‘exotic’: imported to the site from four different flint sources up to 70 km away. It would have been nice to know when this was happening, so we could tie it into the archaeological record for different prehistoric periods in the region – I was especially hoping for some evidence of Neanderthal lithic transport- but the sample we recovered did not allow us to do that. Still, I’m really proud of the paper, especially as it’s part of a special issue in the journal all about silcrete use around the world, which I co-edited.

Once the proofs are all approved, my next job is catching up on correspondence for multiple related projects linked to my work with TrowelBlazers, an organisation focused on cheerleading women in archaeology, geology and palaeontology. The past year my focus has mostly been on our Raising Horizons exhibition (which we were busy planning in the last post for Day of Archaeology). As a collective of four women, we each have evolved different areas of responsibility to develop what TrowelBlazers does, which means we can all take ownership of what excites us most, while benefiting hugely from brainstorming, positive critiques and endless support of each other’s work (not to epic and hilarious email threads). It’s the most continually fun and inspiring work I’ve done as an archaeologist, and I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved with Raising Horizons, one of my two babies of 2016 (the other being an actual Homo sapiens infant). We’re most of the way through a UK tour for the exhibition, having successfully crowdfunded the entire enterprise thanks to the fantastic engagment and generosity of our community. I’m working on contract documentation and final planning for three upcoming showings at the British Science Festival, the Lapworth Museum in Birmingham, and the annual conference of the Palaeontological Association (one of our major sponsors).

At the Raising Horizons exhibition launch, February 2017

After the Raising Horizons admin is out of the way, I can get a bit creative in thinking about two potential new projects linked to TrowelBlazers: first a consultation on working with a hugely significant archaeological site in the UK to tell the story of the women who worked there, and second, mapping out possibilities for a collaborative grant application to create an entirely new exhibition on particular women who made key contributions to both science and society. I’ll be having skype meetings for both these projects next week, so the main task is preparing for those conversations. Project management and exhibition work is not something I had thought much about before the chance opportunity to develop Raising Horizons appeared, but it turns out it’s something I love (fascinating deep research, coupled with creative connections and juxtapositions), and am really good at.

After a lunch break (with the luxury of working close enough to home to visit my family and share a meal), my afternoon is all about the Big Book Project. An earlier contract with Sigma Science for a book on birds in prehistory is temporarily on ice, but my incredible editor is marvelously supportive, and so I have a second contract for a popular science extravaganza on my official area of expertise, the Neanderthals. With the manuscript due this autumn, most of my days are focused on delving into the nitty gritty of their archaeology, and packing in all the unexpected and compelling stuff we know about this species, plus how we know, and why we seem so obsessed with them. It’s a dream project, and right now we’re close to being able to share the title which is immensely exciting (and also terrifying, in a rollercoaster-over-the-edge way).

Snapshot of book writing; Scrivener software totally recommended!

Can what I do now still be called archaeology? I’ve not done any fieldwork for the past two years, and I have a bad case of trowel itch. Yet even without an active excavation or current analytical research project, all my time and energy is spent on archaeology in one way or another. Increasingly that includes working to improve it as a discipline, both for the people in this field, and to make what we do mean something, beyond intellectual curiosity. The answer to my question in 2012, “once an archaeologist…? ” is definitely, yes, always. My biggest lesson since starting out is that everything in archaeological careers is about luck. But, you also have the ability to load your own dice, and the more throws you give yourself, the better chance you have of rolling a good score. My own professional course been less of a single-stream, focused trajectory, and more of a braided river delta, where the lie of the land means diversifying expertise, taking chances when they come, and reaching the horizon in more ways than you imagined.

Lena River Delta. Image: Public domain, NASA, via Wikimedia Commons


Day of Archaeology 2014: A life of lithics, balance and luck

Hey!

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!

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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.

C.

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.

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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