Dirty pots reveal cooking practices of early farmers in Neolithic Poland

Today, like most Fridays, is the culmination of a week’s work in the lab. I am a PhD student in the Organic Geochemistry Unit (OGU) at the University of Bristol working on the European Research Council-funded ‘NeoMilk: The Milking Revolution in Temperate Neolithic Europe’ project. NeoMilk is an interdisciplinary collaboration of researchers at the Universities of Bristol, Exeter, College London and Poznań (Poland), and the National Museum of Natural History, Paris, researching the development of dairying practices in Neolithic Europe by archaeological, chemical, zooarchaeological and statistical analyses. These interdisciplinary proxies will provide a window on the cultural, environmental and temporal variables of cooking and subsistence practices, to better understand the context of the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture in the development of agriculture in Central Europe.

My role is to analyse organic residues from food and other organic materials absorbed in pots from sites in and around Poland from a variety of environmental and cultural contexts, and compare results on inter- and intra-site levels (individual households, chronologies and vessel typologies).

In order to find out what these residues are, I have to prepare the potsherds. The following is a typical week for me in the lab:


Take sub-samples from potsherds I wish to analyse next. Only 1-2 grams of ceramic material is required for organic residue analysis, so only small areas of each sherd are sub-sampled, nearly always allowing the profile of the sherd or any areas with surface decoration to be left intact. A modelling drill is used to remove a very fine outer layer of the sherd on all sides that it will be sub-sampled from, so the presence of any surface contaminants from handling or contact with plastics can be minimised. I then use a hammer and chisel to remove that part of the sherd and then wrap it in foil until it is ready for analysis.

David using a modelling drill to prepare a small area of a sherd for sub-sampling

David using a modelling drill to prepare a small area of a sherd for sub-sampling


Crush and weigh the sherd fragments I’ve sub-sampled. Knowing the mass of the ceramic material lipids will be extracted from will allow me to calculate the concentrations of the lipids, which is useful as the analytical instruments are very sensitive and won’t work optimally if the lipid extracts are too dilute or concentrated.

David crushing a small sub-sample of a sherd prior to lipid extraction and analysis

David crushing a small sub-sample of a sherd prior to lipid extraction and analysis

The OGU has a weekly seminar and lab meeting on Tuesday lunchtimes which is a good opportunity to announce news, discuss any issues and tidy the lab.


Chemically extract the lipids from the sherd fragments.

David extracting lipids from a sherd

David extracting lipids from a sherd

We use gas chromatography, an analytical technique that screens the compounds in the lipid extract, firstly so we know lipids are present (sometimes they aren’t, either because of poor preservation or because the archaeological use of the vessel didn’t contribute to the absorption of lipids into the vessel – e.g. it wasn’t used for cooking food) and secondly so we know whether there are also any contaminants present that may have been introduced during extraction in the lab or before when the sherd was handled or came into contact with plastics during excavation or post-excavation. We can often differentiate these sources of contamination by including a blank in each batch of sherds we extract and analyse.


Run the samples and a blank on the gas chromatograph (GC).

David about to inject part of a sample into a gas chromatograph

David about to inject part of a sample into a gas chromatograph

As well as separate compounds within the lipid extracts, the GC determines the abundances of each compound, which we use with the weighed sherd fragments they come from to calculate the approximate concentrations of lipids from each sherd. At this stage I can determine which samples are suitable for further analysis tomorrow. Those that are too dilute will not be viable, though those that are too concentrated for the instruments can be diluted with hexane.


Run the selected samples on a second instrument that allows us to identify the compounds screened yesterday by finding the mass-to-charge ratios of their ions. This technique is called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC/MS). GC/MS is useful for identifying compounds that are biomarkers for aquatic species.

Sometimes I run the samples on a third instrument that finds the isotopic values of two particular compounds (palmitic and stearic acid) which occur almost ubiquitously in residues. This instrumental technique called gas chromatography combustion isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC-c-IRMS) works by comparing the proportions of carbon-12 and the heavier carbon-13 in these two compounds. I can then determine whether the lipids in that sherd derive from the meat of a terrestrial non-ruminant animal (e.g. pig) or a terrestrial ruminant animal (e.g. cow), or from the dairy products of a terrestrial ruminant animal.

I also have to wash and sterilise the various tubes I’ve used for extracting the lipids from all these sherds this week, so they are ready for another set of sherds next week. I usually catch up on responding to emails and doing any writing, or I may occasionally do other work, such as photograph the 425 sherds I sampled from 14 LBK sites in north-central and northwest Poland in June.

Box containing the 425 sherds David sampled from Poland in June

Box containing the 425 sherds David sampled from Poland in June

Time for a well-earned weekend! Further information about the NeoMilk project is available at www.neomilk-erc.eu, and the instrumental techniques we use at the OGU at www.bris.ac.uk/nerclsmsf. Last Saturday I and three other members of the OGU exhibited a stall at the Thornbury Science Festival near Bristol, which included a game called ‘Palaeodetective’ that showcases the diverse research the OGU is engaged in; you can play the game online at www.chemlabs.bris.ac.uk/outreach/resources/Palaeodetectives%20Online%20Version!

My Day of Archeology – internet rules



My name is Alicja, and my today’s activity is to moderate Polish edition of Day of Archaeology in 2015.  What I really love about the whole day of arch undertaking is the fact, that in the same time I don’t have to be in some particular place. I can moderate this completely virtual event from any place in the world! And so I am, at the river shore! Talking and discussing archaeology 🙂

This is the power of the internet – we can do our work from any part of the world, which brings us together, besides many kilometers which separate us.

Happy Day of Archaeology everyone!



Rathnadrinna Research Excavation, Cashel, Co. Tipperary, Ireland

This year marks the first season of excavation on Rathnadrinna Fort, funded by the Royal Irish Academy of Ireland. Rathnadrinna Fort is a trivallate, circular hilltop enclosure situated in Lalor’s-Lot townland, 3.33km south-southeast of the Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary, Ireland.  The hilltop affords the fort extensive views across the adjacent low lying land and is inter-visible with a number of high-status forts surrounding the Rock of Cashel, to the north. Rathnadrinna Fort is the largest and best preserved of Cashel’s forts, and research here presents an ideal opportunity to learn more about the evolution and function of such sites in a royal landscape.

After three weeks digging we have uncovered a stone-lined corn-drying kiln outside the fort, the excavation of the fort ditches is underway and these are proving to be substantial in nature. We have revealed the old ground surface beneath portions of the fort banks and the excavation of the fort interior is revealing many interesting features. Finds to date include worked flints, an unidentified ferrous object from the fill of the kiln, and an interesting assemblage of late post medieval finds from a dumping episode outside the fort bank.

Our international team of volunteers includes diggers from Brazil, USA, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, Austria, England and Ireland. We have facilitated local primary school visits where the children were able be archaeologists for a day, meet the diggers and see our discoveries. For the Day of Archaeology Rowan Lacey gave a display of flint knapping, James Bonsall did a Magnetometer Survey over our kiln, Liudas Juodzbalys showed us a DVD of his experimental iron working, we had a game of hurling, the site director bought everyone a bag of the finest Morelli’s chips and Mickaela from San Paulo made a cheese fondue! Follow us on www.facebook.com/rathnadrinna

Loot Busters

What can we do about looting? Lots of people like to theorise, but I tend to prefer to be more practical.
I used to work on field projects, trying to prevent looting of archaeological sites on the ground. Partly because one project in Central Asia went very wrong – several archaeologists died, I was treated for PTSD – and partly because I realised that it was futile to try to police every square inch of land, often in war zones, I decided to try another approach.
Rather than trying to stop looting often done by poor people desperate to feed their families, I decided to try to identify the material and “burn” it at the art market, in effect prevent it from being fenced. My theory is that most (not all) art dealers and collectors are basically scrupulous people, who want to be able to collect but do not support looting.
So I came up with a very simple solution – to create a web site where all the material reported stolen could be listed and therefore identified. It sounds obvious, but no-one has done it before.  Rather than giving the site a long academic name I went for the catchier “Loot Busters” (and yes, it has been hard to resist adding the Ghostbusters theme tune to the web site): www.LootBusters.com
Does it work? Surprisingly, yes. And most dealers are thrilled with the project, as it means they can identify the dodgy pieces. (Okay, a few are not happy with it). I keep thinking that, for example, Nazi loot has mostly been found by now, but a few weeks ago whilst going through the database of material stolen from Poland I noticed an 18th century piece which I happened to know was in a collection in London. Ditto a Venetian painting reported stolen by the Italians I’d seen with a London art dealer. And we’ve even found some antiquities!
There are various databases already of looted art, but most concentrate on one area – for example the exemplary Turkish Ministry of Culture web site which lists stolen Turkish material – or are hard to use. The Interpol Database only makes a couple of hundred of recently stolen items available to the public. The Art Loss Register makes no material available to unregistered users, and charges a great deal for searches – an academic wanting to look up a piece they spotted somewhere and think it stolen is unlikely to pay to check …  The Carabinieri Database is unwieldy, with very hard to use search parameters and more often than not returns this message:
These days there seem to the thousands of people working on cultural property, and dozens of conferences a year. Honestly, I don’t go to any of them – I hate theorising, and prefer practical projects.
I also don’t like the “gotcha” attitude of a lot of people who theorise about looting, so when Loot Busters find a looted piece we tell both the representative of the country from which it was stolen and whoever has it (dealer, collector or museum), so that they can sort it out – we also have a policy of confidentiality, so we can’t boast about our successes … sometimes frustrating, but keeping a low profile and letting whoever is returning the item take the credit works better in the long term.
This week I’ve been busy updating the web site, so it’s all sitting at the computer loading photos and typing … Plus we should send out another newsletter soon, so I’ll be working on that this week-end.
Most archaeologists’ main concern when it come to looting is Syria at the moment. We keep hearing reports of looting, but little precise information about pieces looted. We’ve posted photos of material that has been reported missing. Damascus Museum seems to be untouched, thank goodness, but Homs, Hama and Apamea have suffered badly. I found photos of the Hama and Apamea Museums on a web site, and the photographer, Dick Osseman, has kindly allowed us to re-post them.
This mosaic from Hama Museum is extraordinary, and pretty unique in showing women playing musical instruments – so it should be pretty easy to identify if it appears on the art market:
I’ve also been busy this week re-posting images from the Carabinieri Database of material stolen from Italy. It’s going a little slowly as I am trying to sort the material as I go into categories, and then sometimes I break them down further, but the material I’ve added can be accessed through the index here (lots more coming soon): http://www.lootbusters.com/ItalyIndex.html
Some of the stolen material is so generic I doubt it will ever be possible to identify it (other material I wonder why anyone bothered to steal it, as the financial value probably won’t justify the crime). Other pieces, such as the mosaic above, is extraordinary – I was at a conference in Copenhagen in early May and several of the archaeologists were amazed at some of the stolen material, which they didn’t know about.
This Roman relief depicting a theatrical performance on the upper level and a horse race in a Circus below is pretty unique and would be easy to identify on the art market (see: http://www.lootbusters.com/Italy/ItalyReliefs.html):
I try to make people aware of the more important pieces, so I often beg David Meadows to blog about pieces on his fabulous blog Rogue Classicism, which is on every archaeologist and Classicist’s must-read list. I’m hoping that he’ll blog this relief soon, just as he blogged this stolen Afghan glass vessel with a relief depiction of the Pharos of Alexandria (here):
I tend to downplay the excitement of dealing with looting and looted antiquities – it ain’t nothing like Lara Croft – because most of it is research rather than swinging from vines. One of the things I do love is going through the material and coming across items I probably would have missed, or which bear witness to history. This gold fibula, for example, can be very precisely dated to AD 306-7 by it’s inscription, and was owned by a supporter of Constantine in the years before he became the sole ruler of the empire (http://www.lootbusters.com/Italy/ItalyFibulae.html):
This week has been quiet, just sitting at a computer, loading up information. Sometimes things are more exciting, for example when we find a looted item and trying amicably negotiate its return. I know collectors come in for a lot of criticism for buying looted antiquities, as do auction houses and dealers for selling them, but my experience has been that the vast majority of them co-operate when they are told they have looted items, and go out of their way to help.


My Day of Archaeology, is, as it was last year, meta.  I am one of the founders of the Day of Archaeology project, and I have spent my day (mostly) online, editing and posting articles and Tweeting about the project.  This is pretty much as good as my Day of Archaeology is going to get.  The loosest relationship my day had to field archaeology was when I went to see my back specialist this morning about a back injury I exacerbated last year when I was digging in Poland –  I went a bit mental with the de-turfing and hurt my back so badly I had to return to the UK and missed out on working on the most amazing 14th C. Baltic site.

A pal on Twitter said to me yesterday that I was mud-avoidant.  I will be the first to admit that what  I do for my PhD isn’t exactly archaeology.  I am a PhD student at the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, and my research is ‘Public Archaeology in a Digital Age’.  So I’m looking at how, where and why archaeology and the public meet online and how archaeology as a sector creates, sustains and uses online community.  There are a few things that keep me awake at night about my research, mainly because it’s just so damn fascinating.  At the moment, I am researching the concept of archaeological authority and knowledge-ownership –  I think that  changes to the landscape of communication in archaeology are simply a technologically-facilitated continuation of longer-term developments within the sector as a whole (get me).  But  how far has the growth of participatory media impacted the archaeological sector in the UK?  How have these media facilitated collaboration between professional and layperson? Has the encouragement of audience participation gone any way towards supporting any real acknowledgement of multi-vocal approaches to heritage issues? What evidence exists that social media dialogue is about sharing archaeological authority at all, in an online context?  Which part these ‘non-professional’ digital voices will be considered inauthentic, and why?  So many questions…

I do a lot of research through surveys, and talking to people, but a lot of my work is also observation.  How people interact, what is said, how it is said, where it’s said.. so today has been interesting!  I absolutely love my PhD topic and feel hugely privileged to be funded to undertake it.  I get to read lots of sociology, which is my new Best Thing, and I have learned so much by being part of the Centre for Digital Humanities, and the interdisciplinarity there.   It has been the most interesting 2 years of my life ever (and I’ve had some interesting years, believe me)..  I just hope someone will employ me at the end of all this, the big worry for every PhD student.

I have recently moved back home to East Anglia, mainly because it’s cheap, but mostly for some peace and quiet.  The flat, open landscape here created the archaeologist inside me (she really ought to get out more, poor girl).  The wealth of wool churches, the Norman castles, the shadows of Norse in the dialect, and the Scandinavian street names led me to study medieval archaeology 21 years ago, and although I am all about archaeology and communication, AD 400 – 900 is my secret passion.  But if anyone asks, I’m strictly social media & comms, right?  Right?

For us Public Archaeologists, understanding how we meet, discuss and inform the public and understanding the technologies we can use to do this is, I think, vital.  I just hope that my research outcomes will play a small part in having an impact on how archaeology exploits Internet technologies.  Part of this understanding is the development of the Day of Archaeology itself.  I am overwhelmed by the support we have been offered by archaeologists worldwide, for free, for the love of archaeology, because we believe it matters, not just for ourselves but everyone. That we have managed all this through the power of the Internet is witness to the increasing importance of Public Archaeology at a time when archaeology is being given the death of a thousand cuts.  Without public support, we will wither.

Better get writing then, eh?

A day off – Faunal Team Catalhoyuk 2012

Friday is our day of rest, so we are at the pool! This week the excavations at the famous Neolithic settlement opened for the season. We are a joint team from Cardiff University UK, Stony Brook, US and Poznan, Poland looking at the faunal remains to understand the human:animal relationship at the site. This week we began the season by examining the bones from building 80 (late in the site but still about 7-8000 years ago). So far we have recorded domestic sheep and dogs, wild aurochs, boar, deer and horses as well as tortoise, stork and jackal. We have a worked aurochs scapula, maybe used as a shovel, a possible bone ‘flute’ and bone gouges.

Excavation is focusing on removing backfill from the previous years ready to start excavation in ernest next week. The focus this year is on a number of houses, some of which have already produced cattle horncore installations, wall paintings and human burials beneath the floors.

Hand prints from Building 77. Two of a long series of handprints. Photo by Ashley Lingle, Catalhoyuk Research Project


The team is building with 60ish of us so far, and increasing to about 150 by the end of next week.  There are labs for human and animal bones, pots, stones, plants, conservation and finds as well as two separate excavation areas.  It is hard to keep track of everyone, so we have posted our photos and names on our lab door so folk can ID us. The excavation is truly international with folk from Sweden, Poland, US, Canada, Turkey, Greece and of course Wales.

Our first day off is being spent at the lovely Dedeman Hotel by the pool using their internet (thanks!). There is extremely restricted internet access at the site.  A highlight this week was the Tarkan concert – a Turkish singing sensation who performed to about 20k people in a mall carpark.

We are looking forward to the rest of the seasons excavations – and working with all the different specialists on-site.   Rather than material being analysed months, or years after it is dug up, in different labs around the world we are all here together.    Roll on the excavations – well, after just one more dip in the pool…..


A day in the life of a zooarchaeologist – playing with bones at the Natural History Museum

This week I have been at the Natural History Museum in London collecting data for my PhD project.

My project is looking at the size and shape change of the Aurochs across Europe over time. The Aurochs was the ancestor of domestic cattle, it appeared during the Middle Pleistocene and went extinct in Poland in 1627AD. In Britain they went extinct during the Bronze Age. This animal was quite commonly hunted by humans until domestication took place. The Aurochs was very similar to our modern day cattle, but larger. Some of the males were massive – often over 2 metres tall. Below you can see a couple of pictures of what they look like. You can imagine the amount of meat that you would get from one of these if you successfully hunted it, and you can see the size of the bones that I’m dealing with! My data collection consists of visiting Aurochs assemblages and taking measurements from the postcranial (limb bones) and teeth, as well as from the skulls.

Me with an Aurochs at the Zoology Museum in Cambridge


The data collection part of my work has taken me to various places across Europe. So far I have visited Portugal, Denmark and Poland, and later this year I will also visit Italy and France. This summer I am concentrating on the British material. This will take me to a number of museums, including the Natural History Museum in London and the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

This blog post will talk about what I have been up to over the whole week, because then this gives you a sense of the different material I have been working on.

I had visited the NHM very briefly before so I knew pretty much what to expect, however you never know what you might find in hiding away there, so I was pretty excited about my visit. At the start of the week I was booked in to look at material held by the Mammal Group, then later on in the week I visited the Palaeontology Department too. The general rule is that the Palaeontology Department deals with anything up to the end of the Pleistocene, and then the Mammal Group keeps material from the Holocene (the Mesolithic onwards), with a few exceptions.

An Aurochs displayed at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

When you first arrive at the NHM you have to go through a number of security checks and they issue you with a security pass so that you can get ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak. I arrived at the Fleet theatre entrance on Exhibition road with a lot of stuff – I had all of my equipment, and other stuff to keep me going for the week. The security guard wanted to search all of my bags and was especially intrigued by the metal implements that I had with me. These included two pairs of callipers. One smaller pair for taking smaller measurements, and a larger pair curved callipers which I had brought in order to take measurements from massive skulls. In the end he seemed satisfied that I wasn’t going to try and kill anyone with them and let me go through.

Next I met up Roberto Portela from the mammal group who organised my security pass. Only then was I allowed loose on the bones. In the mammal group you aren’t allowed to take any bags or food down to the stores, you have to take everything you need down in a plastic box, so this always takes a little while to sort out. Then we went down to the basement. I was given a desk in the centre of the mammal collections surrounded by tall cupboards full of bones, and glass cases with articulated skeletons. There was no one else down there and it might have been a bit scary if it wasn’t for the fact that I was thoroughly distracted by the bones.

In the mammal group I was primarily interested in material from the site of Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in Yorkshire. A lot of aurochs were excavated from here, along with a large amount of Red Deer, and other wild animals. I was given access to the appropriate cupboards and then it was up to me to have a rummage through to see what I could find. Often it takes longer to find good bones to record than to actually record and measure them. Every museum (or even museum department) has a different system and many museums do not have an electronic database so you have to check things manually. This can be annoying, but also exciting because you could always randomly come across things that you weren’t expecting.

I managed to track down all of the material I needed and by the end of the day I had made a good start on it. On Tuesday I was able to get going a lot earlier because I didn’t have to deal with so much security and working was much faster once I had got into a rhythm.

The way that zooarchaeologists record bones can differ depending on their project. Some people try to identify every piece of bone if they can, but this can be very time consuming, especially if you have a very large number of bones. One way of getting round this is to decide on specific parts of bones that you will record. Because primarily I am interested in measurements, my protocol focuses on the parts of bones that will be able to provide me with that information. For example the distal end (the bottom end) of long bones, because these provide very useful information. I record all of my bones in an access database which, along with excel, I will later use to do my statistical analysis.

By the end of Tuesday I had finished recording most of the aurochs bones from Star Carr and a few other sites with less material. These included Thatcham, and East Ham. On Wednesday morning I only needed to come back to measure 3 skulls – these were in great condition, and absolutely massive. This may have something to do with the fact that they were much older than a lot of the bones I have been looking at – they were from the Pleistocene.

By Wednesday afternoon I was finished in the Mammal Group so I phoned Andy Currant in the Palaeontology Department and went over there to see what stuff they had. I spent the remainder of Wednesday afternoon and the whole of Thursday there.

The Palaeontology department had material from a site called Ilford in Essex. This material has been dated to the late middle Pleistocene so is much older than the Star Carr stuff, and much bigger! Surprisingly, considering it’s age, this material was also in much better condition than that from Star Carr, with many complete bones. Complete bones take longer than partial bones to record because there are more measurements to be taken so it actually took me a fair while to record all of the bones. There were a number of skulls found at Ilford, some with complete horncores. These were neatly packed into a cupboard but were extremely heavy and difficult to get out. We spent a long time figuring out what was the best way of moving them.

After I had recorded all of the bones from Ilford I had a hunt around to see if there was any other material that could be useful. The staff in the Palaeontology department were extremely helpful, and provided me with a list of potential sites, and cupboard numbers. Still, I had to hunt through quite a few cupboards and drawers before I eventually found another assemblage that would be useful. The material was from a site called Grays Thurrock. This stuff was less complete than that from Ilford, but there were an awful lot of teeth, which took a while to record.

Finally at 4pm on Thursday I finished with all of the material in the Palaeontology Department, and treated myself to some tea and cake in the museum cafe (I recommend the lemon drizzle – a real treat!).


So that brings us to the end of your whirlwind tour of my time at the Natural History Museum. If you have been inspired by zooarchaeology and want to find out more about the kinds of things that we do, then go here to the webpage of my research group: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/archaeology/research/zooarchaeology/


I would like to thank the NHM Mammal Group, especially Roberto Portela, and the Palaeontology Department, especially Andy Currant and Spyridoula Pappa for their help with access to the collections and their general enthusiasm during my week at the Natural History Museum.