Prehistoric Society

Returning to archaeology

In my ‘day job’, I’m an IT professional at the University of Nottingham: my alma mater from which I graduated in Archaeology and Geography some time ago. However, I’ve retained my fascination with archaeology and I’m excited to be starting a part-time MA in Archaeology here in September. In the year leading up to this, I’ve read academic books and papers voraciously, enjoyed the regular research seminars in the Department, joined The Prehistoric Society  and attended some fascinating conferences. I’m really looking forward to studying the subject again in depth over the next two years.

Today, however, archaeology had to be set aside for the morning, as my wife and I attended a friend’s funeral. It was an occasion to share happy memories with her family and to celebrate her life, so in that sense, it was a positive event and we were glad to be there. Recently, I was reading some of the papers regarding the Neolithic landscape of Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire and Mike Parker Pearson’s suggestion of the landscape being divided into domains of the living and of the ancestors, with the transition from life through death to the realm of the ancestors perhaps being related to ritual passage through the landscape. During moments of reflection at the graveside before the committal, I realised that the ritual in which we participating was one which people and communities have shared for thousands of years and that, just at that moment, we had something intangible in common with our Neolithic predecessors.

On a happier note, my archaeological activity today involved some preparation for a conference on Deer and People which is being organised by our zooarchaeology lecturer in the department, Naomi Sykes. It’s to be held in September in Lincoln and I volunteered to help. We’ve discussed some issues for supporting the conference, so I’ve set up an e-mail address for it and provided a link to the conference web page on the University’s web site. Today, I’ve done some work on Powerpoint slides for the conference to be displayed on screen before or between speakers, themed to the colours of the various sessions in the programme.

Lastly, we’re packing tonight for our regular family holiday in Northumberland, my home county and the original inspiration for my interest in archaeology, with its landscape rich in remains from the past. I’m looking forward to the luxury of some time to sit and read. I have some papers in PDF format to catch up with on my laptop and iPad while we’re away but I won’t be able to resist packing a few of the archaeology books I have on loan from the University Library and of course there’s Barter Books to visit in Alnwick. Can one have too many archaeology books? My wife may disagree but I think not!

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.