palaeolithic

Travelling in time

A day off. I’m heading down to the south coast of England for a wedding.

On the move: for us it’s a task, mandated by the need to get away, to see friends, or to work. For the people I’m taking a break from studying, it was a way of life.

I’m working on a project looking at human society, landscape and environment during the last Ice Age in Worcestershire, a part of the West Midlands long thought to have little to offer on the subject. But that’s changing: we’re starting to realise that the areas around the Severn and Avon valleys contain a rich record of the ebbs and flows of Ice Age life over the past half a million years.

At times, the area was under hundreds of metres of ice that probably topped even the mighty Malvern Hills. At others, temperate grasslands were grazed by hippos, their watering holes stalked by lion and hyaena. And for much of the period, a chilly, treeless, but fertile steppe supported huge herds of migrating mammals. The iconic Woolly Mammoth, Woolly Rhinoceros, and reindeer were accompanied by wild horses, giant deer, and my personal favourite: the mighty Steppe Bison (Bison priscus), an extinct giant whose bones abound in the gravel terraces of Midlands rivers.

Steppe Bison

Steppe Bison (Bison priscus)

The people who followed these herds ranged far and wide across a Britain still connected to the continent by the vast expanse of Doggerland. Now buried deep below the North Sea and the English Channel, inundated by post-Ice Age sea-level rise, the fate of Doggerland is a reminder of how precarious our treasured landscapes can be.

We arrive in Hampshire in the damp afternoon, to stay with family. I take the dog into the woods, a landscape of conifers similar to the young forests home to small groups of hunter-gatherers as Northern Europe emerged from the dusty chill of the Younger Dryas about 11,700 years ago, marking the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic.

conifer plantation

These Mesolithic travellers faced very different challenges to their Ice Age predecessors, but in the forests of Northern Europe there were, at least, plenty of options for shelter. We often find Mesolithic flintknapping waste within the shallow irregular pits left by toppling trees. Why? Well, the tangled mess of root and earth swung skywards when a tree falls provides the perfect windbreak and the beginnings of a very cosy shelter.

As I walk up through stands of larch and pine, I come across a small clearing created by a domino toppling of a small group of trees. They came down a few winters back, and I’ve watched their progress ever since, imagining how they might have been used 10,000 years ago. For a while after they fall, ‘tree-throw’ pits are often filled with dirt and stagnant water – hardly an attractive prospect. But this cluster, undisturbed by foresters, has grassed over nicely. The sticky clay and tangled root have weathered to a perfect facsimile of a wattle-and-daub wall, and the light pours into the clearing from the hole in the canopy. It has all the appearance of a village of comfortable dwellings, and that – I imagine – is just how similar scenes would have appeared to my predecessors, travelling through on their own journeys all those thousands of years ago.

A village of fallen conifers

As I call the dog and turn to trudge up the slope, one final detail catches my eye, and breaks the spell. Poking out of one wall of clay and root is a car tyre, entwined decades ago into the root system of the growing tree, and now exposed once more. Tomorrow I continue my journey on tyres of rubber, and leave my stone age dreams behind.

Car tyre within tree throw

Rob Hedge

https://incurablearchaeologist.wordpress.com/

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!

Contemplating and Communicating the Palaeolithic landscapes of Wales

This post has been published on behalf of Elizabeth Walker at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

I’m Elizabeth Walker, currently the Interim Head of Collections Management for Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. I’m an archaeologist by background specialising in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology of Wales. After a busy week attending meetings for the delivery of new displays at St Fagans National Museum of History, discussing the arrangements for bringing items in on loan and dealing with questions of collections management from all areas of the Museum I decided to have my own rare day of archaeology today.

So what have I been doing? The day began by planning a public behind the scenes store visit to see some of the remains from mammal species now extinct in Wales. As my bus brought me into Cardiff this morning I looked across at the city stretched ahead and I began to think how different the landscape of Wales was throughout the Palaeolithic. There were no roads or permanent settlements. People were mobile hunter-gatherers walking through their landscape, dependent upon the climate, the passing of animals and the fruits of the season for obtaining their food.

Reconstruction painting showing Cardiff as it might have looked 230,000 years ago

The Welsh caves have provided a wealth of evidence for Palaeolithic peoples’ lives and the Museum has been conducting excavations in caves to uncover and interpret them. Excavations have taken place at Pontnewydd Cave, Denbighshire where evolutionary early Neanderthal remains have been found associated with the bones and teeth of the animals that would have been around 230,000 years ago. These mammals include the cave bear, leopard, cave lion, narrow-nosed and Merck’s rhinoceros along with species still familiar to us today; horse, wolf, red deer, bison, voles and lemmings. On Gower, Bacon Hole has revealed evidence for straight-tusked elephants and hippopotamus during the last interglacial. A time when there were no people, as they didn’t get across the English Channel before Britain became an island.

A straight-tusked elephant tooth from Bacon Hole (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

As the last ice advance began to take hold the land-bridge reformed and people entered Wales. At caves including Paviland Cave and Cathole Cave, Gower, mammoth and woolly rhinoceros remains have been recovered from excavations, along with hyaena, reindeer, bison and other large mammals. As the last ice advance retreated people followed the herds of horse and deer back into Wales and Museum excavations at Hoyle’s Mouth and Little Hoyle, Tenby, have generated ample evidence of people’s cultural debris; stone tools, debitage from making stone tools, butchered and cut-marked animal bones discarded after their meals and after removal of the skins and other resources necessary to sustain human life. These help provide an insight into the lives of the people who once lived in Wales 10,000 and more years ago.

Adult and juvenile cave bear teeth from Pontnewydd and Paviland Caves (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

My behind the scenes tour this morning saw Museum visitors being excited at seeing a selection of these bones and teeth from the Museum collection close up. These mammal remains are kept in the Museum where anyone can arrange a visit to see them.

Photos from the Behind-the-Scenes tour

So after my day of archaeology what shall I do now? Despite the rain, rather than taking the bus I think I’ll spend the next few hours walking through Cardiff, across the Cardiff Bay Barrage and along the Wales coast path through Penarth on towards Barry. I’ll pass the findspot of the Lavernock Palaeolithic handaxe and I’ll think about the landscape and the mammals that once roamed South Wales and plan out my weekend gathering, picking some cultivated fruits. So in my own modern way I will continue some of the activities of the Palaeolithic people – but I’ll be wearing my technical waterproof clothing, rather than damp animal skins!

Lavernock Handaxe (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

 

Digging Diaries – ICE AGE ISLAND PROJECT (Jersey)

During the period of the 5th-19th July I had the opportunity to fly over to Jersey and take part in the excavations at Les Varines, as part of the Ice Age Island Project. Alongside this, I was tasked with recording a Dig Diary for the BBC4 programme Digging for Britain. The site itself is Upper Palaeolithic, dated to around 45KYA – 60KYA, and one of its main aims is to document the flow of knapped flint debotage, discarded blades, and the odd core within very slowly moving, and confusingly stratified sediments. The project also has wider aims of understanding the lives of Upper Palaeolithic hunter gatherers on Jersey, at a time when much colder temperatures made the environment startlingly different. There is no flint on Jersey, so finding these people’s tools tells us a lot about their activities across what is now the English Channel.

With trowel in hand, I made my way over and met up with the team, an international group comprised of many different universities and levels of experience. After the ritual flailing of tent poles, our group convened with the directors and supervisors of the dig. We were told all about the site, its age and what we were looking for, as well as the connections with Jersey Heritage. This really brought home how the excitement of a modern dig is projected to a wider audience, with its own vibrant social media presence, including the Ice Age Island twitter page, complete with its own hashtag. (#IceAgeIsland, if you’re interested.)

As an undergraduate studying Archaeology and Anthropology, I needed to balance excavation as well as the filming. I wanted to dig for as much as possible and learn as much as possible, but I also really didn’t want to miss out on exciting discoveries on the opposite end of the trench that might be interesting to film. The Dig Diary needed a daily update on the progress of the dig, with the director, Ed Blinkhorn, guiding the camera around the site and the deepening test pits. I also needed to film excavation itself and the general surroundings.

During my time on site, I learnt a lot about filming people, letting someone know you are filming them instead of having them turn round, startled and confused, was important to learn early on. When you are documenting an excavation, it becomes clear how many techniques are employed and why- we had geological trenches open up, boreholes were dug, and 3D Photogrammetry employed, with photos taken from a drone. It was very interesting to see how tried and tested techniques, as well as modern ones, are combined in order to tell the tale of the site.

However, what also happened was that the stories inevitably revealed themselves as the excavation continued, and it was important to keep my camera close. For example, halfway through our group’s time at Les Varines, two coursemates, Sarah and Robin, were at the top of the trench, digging down, spit after spit, in a test pit that was slowly turning from archaeological to geological. After reaching a depth of more than a metre and a half, temperatures rising to the 30s, and ever-stranger trench game questions floating out of the hole (“Which hat would you rather be, a fedora or a fez?” “Good question”…) they were finally rewarded with flint. Filming that sense of relief and a cheer or two was probably the best footage I managed to capture, and its spontaneity only enhanced the excitement felt. This I feel is the greatest benefit of filming archaeology- because by documenting a dig one reveals both the story that the archaeology tells us through excavation, as well as the lives of the individual archaeologists themselves- at least for two weeks!

Sam Hoppen

Keep up to date with the best archaeological digs and dives in Britain at https://www.youtube.com/user/DiggingTube 

Follow on Twitter @DiggingDiaries

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!

DSC_0254

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.

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!

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!

Really, really, really, really old stuff!

This is the third time I’ve taken part in the ‘Day of Archaeology’, and I don’t want to repeat myself, so please do take a look at my previous blogs “Day in the life of a HERO” and “We can be heroes, just for one day”. Suffice it to say, I’m the Historic Environment Record Officer for Leicestershire County Council – for more information do look at the Leicestershire & Rutland HER page on our website!

I have started off today by thinking about the Palaeolithic. I think it’s fair to say that the Palaeolithic doesn’t come up all that often in archaeology. There are chance finds of Palaeolithic date – such as hand axes that are found in fields – but there aren’t a lot of sites, as such. To find the Palaeolithic you usually have to dig quite a big hole, since it’s usually deeply buried!

The reason I’ve been thinking about it is that on the HER we have a list of period dates, and it seems that the Palaeolithic ones are painfully inadequate. (I attended an HER meeting this week and it was brought up there). In the East Midlands Research Framework (2012), which you can download here, it gives the following periods and dates (kya means ‘thousand years ago’):

Period 1: Cromerian and Intra-Anglian (950-450 kya)

Period 2: Pre-Levallois (450-250 kya)

Period 3: Levallois (250-150 kya)

Period 4: Mousterian (60-40 kya) -> Neanderthals!

Period 5a: Early Upper Palaeolithic (40-27 kya) -> Modern Humans

Period 5b: Late Upper Palaeolithic (13,000-9,500 BC)

Now, I don’t know about you, but dates of 950,000 years ago kind of blow my mind! The gaps in the chronology, by the way, indicate glaciation periods when no-one lived here (the most recent being the Dimlington Stadial).

There are a few Palaeolithic sites that have been investigated in recent times in Leicestershire/Rutland, all from different periods, and all very different in character. The earliest is at Brooksby, then there’s one at Glaston, and also Bradgate Park.

Activity on the River Bytham, at Brooksby Quarry (Period 1)
HER Ref. No. MLE21117

Something this old really does make your brain hurt when specialists start talking about it. There are all sorts of mysterious scientific analyses that can be carried out. It’s just so ancient! These weren’t humans like us. They were making tools from stone, not flint.

Brooksby Quarry

Brooksby Quarry

The River Bytham was a huge river that flowed west from Lowestoft, along which humans may have travelled into Britain. It has left behind sand and gravel deposits that are now being quarried, giving us a brilliant opportunity to learn about this period of time.

So far hundreds of artefacts have been recovered by ULAS, many of which are very fresh and don’t seem to have travelled far. These include cores and flakes made from local quartzite pebbles. Early humans must have been living alongside the river and making tools, which is pretty exciting!

Hyena den at Glaston, Rutland (Period 5a)
HER Ref. No. MLE9061

This is another site investigated by ULAS, back in 2000. Evidence of a hyaena den was recorded, which contained bones of woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, wolverine, early horse and hyenas. This is the first open air hyena den excavated, and a flint leafpoint provides evidence of human activity in the vicinity – rare evidence for a temporary hunting camp. You can read more about the project here (which is where this rather good picture came from!).

glaston_animals

Glaston hyena den

Creswellian site at Bradgate Park (Period 5b)
HER Ref. No. MLE9435

This site was first discovered in 2001 and test pitting was carried out earlier this year, again by ULAS! Basically, thousands of flints have been recovered from an eroding footpath in the park. These flints are evidence for human activity on site – it has been suggested that the site was a hunting stand where hunters intercepted animals such as horse and deer passing through Little Matlock Gorge. The exciting thing about this site is that it is in situ – there are deposits that are associated with the flints. At the moment it’s not clear what further work will be carried out on the site, but it’s certainly a nationally important site!

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Bradgate Park test pitting

So, that’s a quick dash through some of the oldest archaeological sites on the Leicestershire & Rutland HER. You can look at these, and other records, via the Heritage Gateway. Records cover everything up to now, so we’re covering about a million years of human activity!

Obviously it’s not possible to be an expert in everything throughout those million years, so forgive me if I’ve made some terrible errors when writing this. I’m not a Palaeolithic expert. Today, on this Day of Archaeology, I just found it interesting.  🙂

 

Monrepos – a museum is reborn

Monrepos-Icon

For months my institute has been bristling with activity. On Monday July, 14th is the big day: the official opening of our museum after almost four years of renovating, reorganising, and reinventing… So basically our museum is reborn.
My institute is  MONREPOS Archaeological Research Centre and Museum for Human Behavioural Evolution, located approximately in the middle between Frankfurt / Main and Cologne in western Germany. It is a part of the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum Mainz (RGZM) that is a member of the Leibniz society. So we are generally publicly founded by the federal government, the state of Rhineland-Palatinate but also by the district and city of Neuwied / Rhine. The building in which the institute resides is an old mansion of the Princes of Neuwied. The main mansion was burnt down some decades ago so “our house”, which actually is the formerly princesses palace, is commonly called mansion Monrepos and it is a “mansion of researchers” (Schloss der Forscher) as I’m going to show you today. Thus, I’m not going to write about only my work but the work of many at my, or better our institute.

Well, the contractions of the birth of our museum slowly begin! At the moment most people of the institute are busy with making last minute preparations for the opening but also for the regular running of the museum afterwards. Besides all that, the research of our house has to continue…
This is just a small example that even though the institute consists of two main parts – the research centre and the museum -, these parts cannot be really separated. The research centre gives input to the museum with the latest scientific results and the museum explains these results and the benefits for our society to our visitors and visiting groups. Usually, the majority of visitors comes from this region but in the world of pre-farming archaeologists, our museum is known to a much wider circle as is proven by already planned visits of non-local groups, for example, from Switzerland and Jordan. So our museum and our research already reach a very wide public audience but still many people are unaware of the “behind the scenes” part that I’m trying to reveal a bit during the day.
The “behind the scenes” is, in fact, populated with many people that give life to our institute. These people and their work in and for archaeology shall be the focus of my postings.

Starting with myself: My name is Sonja B. Grimm and just last week I have defended my Ph.D. thesis about how societies change in the context of significant climatic change. On the example of changes occurring at the end of Ice Ages in North-West Europe, I could show how adaptable these hunter-gatherers were and thereby resilient to many climatic and environmental changes. However, small adaptations without keeping restricting safe-guarding strategies resulted in a collapse and a necessary reorganisation of the Lateglacial societies.
Yesterday, I received my dissertation with the comments of my committee back from the university. In the German academic system dissertations have to be published including the corrections suggested by the committee. Only afterwards I’m allowed to call myself Doctor to which some of my colleagues and I are really looking forward to this day – who cares about Dr. Evil if you have a Dr. B. Grimm???
So besides blogging about the institute, most of my day will be occupied with looking through the 700 pages of my thesis – again! – finding the remarks and changing these parts. Luckily, the RGZM has a publishing house where my thesis will be published so I don’t have to worry about finding finances for the publication. However, the page layout of the publishing house is not entirely the same as my thesis… meaning I also have to change the format of many of my graphs. Oh, happy office day!

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 (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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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