Victoria

A Day of Archaeology at the Top of the World

The Day of Archaeology 2012 started the way every other day this week did, in the lab.  Unlike the past seven summers, the Nuvuk Archaeology Project is spending a good bit of the summer in the lab.  We have been digging at a furious pace over those summers, because Nuvuk, site of a village occupied from Thule times through contact and up until the 20th century, the associated cemetery, and, it turns out, an Ipiutak occupation 500 km north of any previously known,is eroding at an average rate of 6 meters per year, up from an average of just over 3 meters per year around 1950.  All that digging has resulted in quite a mountain of artifacts and faunal material.  The individuals recovered from the burials are analyzed and reburied in the Barrow cemetery, but the other items remain.

We don’t take a lot of weather days during the short summers, so lab work mostly happens on weekends during the school year.  The Nuvuk crew is mostly made up of local high school students, augmented by undergraduate and grad students in summer, and they have full school days and often sports commitments as well.  As a result, we haven’t been able to process (clean, mark, catalog) everything before the next field season begins.  I decided that we should use the remaining project funds to make sure that was done and done properly. Thus, lab work.

Our crew was fairly small today.  One person who started the summer with us got a more or less permanent job, and another was offered 4 years of summer internships in the field she hopes to go into after college, and a  third just got married on Tuesday!

Trace, Kyle and Coby hard at work in the lab, cataloging Nuvuk artifacts.

Trace showing everyone a really nice whalebone pick head he is about to catalog.

Victoria takes a turn at data entry. All those catalog sheets have to be entered into the existing catalog, created in the field when we record proveniences with the theodolite.

We also have a volunteer working in the lab.  Becca Connor is an intern with the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.  She’s also interested in socio-natural systems, particularly the possible effects of environmental change on subsistence.  She’s in the process of pulling samples of faunal material from a midden at Pingusugruk, a bit down the coast from Barrow, that was excavated with very good provenience data for faunal material.  I’ve picked a couple of units that seem to contain faunal material from the top of the midden to the bottom and don’t seem to have anything usual happening, and she’s going to ID that with my help and see if any changes are apparent.  The house the midden was associated with was abandoned & reoccupied, so we’re hopeful.

Becca asking what to do with the Styrofoam peanuts that the bags of faunal material were packed in for shipping (it was excavated in the 1990s.)

The morning passed with bags being opened, their information checked against the catalog, and the contents being sorted and cataloged.  We are using archival paper labels that we adhere with an Arcyloid solution, so that happens as another step to reduce the exposure to acetone fumes.  We do it under an extractor, so only 1-2 people can work on it, and it has to happen on the bench Becca is using.  I don’t allow materials from more than one site on a bench at a time.  Less chance of confusion that way.

The afternoon was very different.  The final nalukataq (whaling feast) of the year was being held in Barrow, so we took the afternoon off so everyone could attend.  The 5 successful captains set up a windbreak on the nalukataq grounds, and anyone and everyone is welcome to come, get fed and take some home.  The way the Iñupiat see it, the captains & crews don’t catch the whales, the individual whales have chosen to give themselves to the individual captains, who are expected to take very good care of the whale and share as much as possible out of respect for the whale. Prayers of thanksgiving are said before every round of servings.

It starts with soup (usually with bread & such) around noon, then mikiaq (fermented meat, blubber, blood & so forth) around 3 PM.  It’s very tasty when made right, and no odder than moldy lumps of curdled milk with veins of mold running through it, AKA a nice ripe Stilton.  Around 6PM there is quaq (frozen whale meat) and frozen muktuk (whale skin with some blubber attached, which is both delicious and incredibly warming on a cold day).  There is almost always a sort of dried fruit stew, apples & oranges, and if the captains and/or their wives have been able to arrange it, often special treats like frozen fish or akutaq (AKA Eskimo ice cream).

I was a bit late because I got caught up in another issue, so I missed the first course, the goose soup.  I did get there in time for mikiaq, and got 2 rounds.  The first I had some of right there with the folks I was sitting with, and it was very tasty indeed.  Unfortunately, I forgot my camera & had to use my phone, so the pictures aren’t the best.

Tails and flippers set out at nalukataq for visitors to help themselves. Flags of some of the whaling captains who are hosting this nalukataq fly above the windbreak in the background.

The blanket is at the left, with kids on it between servings. Adults don’t go on it until the evening.

One thing I love about Nalukataqs is that there are always some little kids in pretty parkas playing in the sand & gravel between servings.  They just get into their own little worlds there amid all the people.

Little girl playing in the sand.

Girl playing in the gravel next to the blanket, which is on the ground at the moment.

With five crews hosting (and therefore 5 whales to share), there was a mountain of meat and muktuk.  Crews bring it from the ice cellars just before it is served.  Most of them brought in trucks, and one crew actually got a front end loader and stacked the boxes of whale in the bucket to bring them over.

Meat and muktuk being brought from the ice cellars.

Then it was shared with everyone…  There were people from other villages, at least as far away as the Kotzebue region, and people who live in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and they will take their whale home and share it even farther.

That isn’t all of the whale.  Similar amounts will be shared by these captains at the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, they will share on special occasions.  Of course, crew members and those who helped tow and butcher the whale already got shares when the whale was taken, and they will be sharing that throughout the year too.

Going to Nalukataq may not sound like archaeology, but whaling has been the organizing focus of this culture since before most of the sites I work on were formed.  I really don’t see how one can expect to interpret these sites without a pretty good understanding of what whaling actually entails.

Virgil Yendell: Geoarchaeologist and his lovely sediments

Here are some shots of a trial pit under a former pub in Victoria. The lovely sediments from the base show c. 10,000 yr old fluvial gravels over lain by sandy deposits of a substantial tributary of the Thames, possibly the Tyburn, running through Victoria. During the prehistoric this river appears to have silted up and a waterlogged woodland is evident from the brown peaty deposits, which later developed into possible clayey water meadows that would have been used for pasture during the historic period.

 

Another Day In The Life (Of An Archaeological Geophysicist)

When self-employed, a year just goes like that <clicks fingers>.

You may have read my Day of Archaeology blog post from last year.

I have since worked in a number of cemeteries searching for unmarked graves using geophysical methods. I spoke at the Cemeteries and Crematoria Association of Victoria conference in April (my first ever conference presentation) and am in the throws of writing my first paper about some work I did over the last year.

I have been undertaking geophysical surveys at the Creswick Cemetery (in Victoria, Australia) for the last year-and-a-bit, tracking down unmarked Chinese graves and an old homestead and associated features (rubbish pits, garden beds, etc.). In all this time, I have been able to test just about every geophysical method under the sun, and so am able to compare the effectiveness of certain methods at detecting certain types of archaeological features. I am hoping it will make a good read. Our data collection phase finished last week, so now it is (academic) reporting time. The client’s report has already been written and is publicly accessible for those interested.

Earlier this week, I had a computer issue and lost all of my tax data. Sadly, my taxes are due today. Hence, I spent the last four days doing nothing but my tax. Needless to say, this hasn’t been a very ‘archaeological’ week. Taxes were finished and submitted late last night, thankfully.

Today, though, I am driving back to Creswick, where three cemeteries nearby heard of my work and are interested in my surveying their empty land to look for any unmarked graves that may be present. Assessing each cemetery prior to providing them with a quotation will take me all of this weekend.

I have also branched out into geodetic surveying (i.e. creating maps of archaeological excavations and landscapes) using GIS, RTK GPS and robotic total stations. These technologies are certainly a far cry from the days of old, when we just used measuring tapes and a compass! I’ve also been using car- and tripod-mounted laser scanners to create full-colour three-dimensional models of archaeological sites, heritage structures and cemeteries (you’d be surprised by how many people want to look at what is written on headstones in a cemetery far, far away). I’m also looking into using airborne LiDAR for a major archaeological prospection project.

That’s about all for me for the year.

And, for those of you wondering, the big settlement project I was getting ready for last year ended up not getting any funding, so it didn’t happen. Anyone fancy donating some cash to the project?

Until next year… feel free to stalk me on my Facebook page , Twitter and my blog.

Live long and prosper.

A day in the life of a National Finds Adviser for the PAS

I work for the Portable Antiquities Scheme as the Deputy Finds Adviser for Iron Age and Roman coins and part time as a Roman Finds Adviser. It’s my job to help our national network of Finds Liaison Officers to identify and record all the tricky coins and artefacts brought in by metal detectorists to record and to emphasise their research potential. Every day working for the Scheme is different. The past couple of weeks have seen me give lectures at metal Detecting Clubs in Liverpool and the Wirral, attend a conference on Roman coins from Britain and record more than 1000 coins from new sites discovered throughout the country. This entry gives a snapshot of what I’ve been doing today.

9.15am: I arrive at work at the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum and spend the next half hour answering email queries from finders and Finds Liaison Officers. Answering queries is a major part of my role. Today, I’ve identified and referenced a couple of coins from the Isle of Wight, where the FLO, Frank Basford, works very hard with detectorists to record as many objects as possible. As a result, he has recorded more than 1500 Roman coins for the island which has totally changed our understanding of the Roman period there.
9.45am: I check in to the Finds Liaison Officers’ Finds Forum and leave a couple of opinions on objects posted there. One of the FLOs wants to know where he can find examples of iron Roman brooches, whilst another queries whether an unusual wire feature on the foot of a Roman brooch is a repair or part of its decoration. I make a note to flick through some Roman catalogues later to try and find parallels. I post a map of the distribution of Roman knee brooches recorded by the PAS which I’ve been working on and it provokes some interesting discussion from FLOs…
10.20am: I start putting together a provisional object and image list for a display on ‘Roman coins as religious offerings’ which will form part of a new Money Gallery at the British museum. I want to use a combination of objects from the museum’s collections and some reported through the PAS. I choose a selection of coins found in the River Thames at London Bridge, some cut and mutilated coins from a range of sites throughout the country and decide it would be a good idea to also have some artefacts too. I therefore email the curators in the Department of Prehistory and Europe to see whether they have any votive objects in their reserve collections which might be suitable. I’m hoping for a miniature object and a lead curse tablet!
1pm: Lunch and a bit of a rest!
2pm: I check up on my intern, Victoria, an MA student in Museum Studies from George Washington University. She’s spent the summer recording coins on the PAS database and scanning accompanying images and has done an amazing job, entering more than 1000 over the past month. We get a lot of help from students and volunteers and I hope they get as much out of it as we do!
2.30pm: Back to the museum display. I’ve just found out I have to write the general display text to accompany my finds by Monday. It’s only 80 words explaining the theme of my display but I think it’s going to be a bit of a challenge.
3pm: Start recording part of a large assemblage of coins from a site in Wiltshire which looks like it might be a Roman temple site. Amongst the coins are about 20 pierced with iron nails – possible evidence of a ritual practice I aim to investigate in more detail later. I add these coins to my spreadsheet of ‘mutilated coins’ recorded by the PAS and will come back to them next week when I start writing an article on ‘Cut and mutilated Roman coins recorded by the PAS’.
4pm: I start collecting together all the reference works and recording sheets that Victoria and I will need tomorrow. We’re going to a Finds Day in Sussex as part of a team of FLOs and PAS Finds Advisers to record coins and objects. Getting out and about to let people know about the Scheme is really important. We’re hoping to see some interesting finds and meet some new finders..

A Day In The Life

So what’s all this ‘geophysics’ nonsense about, eh?

I went to a lecture by an archaeologist at the local university yesterday, and he said that the most important thing about archaeology is to have fun. And this applies to geophysics and, indeed, any career (except accounting, I would imagine). I became an archaeological geophysicist out of passion, interest and a genuine enjoyment out of the job. Each site always has something new and fascinating to learn, and the site I am currently looking at is no exception.

But before I can do anything… where did I put my bloody laptop cable? I misplaced the power cable to my laptop about a week ago, and I ran the battery flat last night (I am writing this from my desktop computer), so I am having difficulty processing the data I collected a few days ago!

No matter. Let me now waffle on for a while about my current area of focus. I am putting together a proposal for a geophysical survey of a nineteenth-century railway near Melbourne (Australia). A temporary (i.e. it lasted for almost four years) settlement for the railway workers was established alongside the railway, and there was even a cemetery which is known to have the burials of a number of infants in a paddock nearby. I have been asked to find the graves (no grave markers exist at the site now) and also to try and find the settlement (which is believed to have been just tents and timber houses for the most part. The settlement site is about 700 x 700 metres in dimensions, so is quite a large site. I have decided to propose a magnetic susceptibility survey, the results of which will allow a magnetometry survey to be narrowed-down (to reduce costs and time spent in the field). This research is being done simply out of interest, rather than as part of a commercial project, so funding is going to be scarce. But I am truly excited about this one!

So today I am talking with Heritage Victoria about the proposal and preparing the proposal itself to pass on to the client. In between doing that, and writing this blog post, I am also doing a bit of marketing (which is a daily habit) to keep up interest, and have been discussing the railway settlement site with the Hunter Geophysics ‘fans’ on Facebook. I feel that informing the public about my work is vitally important; it is, after all, their history that I am researching. Facebook is just one method of letting the public know what I am up to. I am also preparing a presentation for the upcoming Royal Historical Society’s meeting in Bendigo (country Victoria) about my recent work in another cemetery (most of my work is in cemeteries!) – I want to get at least half an hour of work done on that today, but half the trouble is finding the time. It might be a job for the weekend. Finally, this evening, I have a meeting with the Secretary of the local historical society – she has been a mentor since my high school years; it will be good to catch up with her.

Now, it’s the end of the day; time for a Parma at the pub. Oh, wait, damn; I’m not doing fieldwork today – no Parma for me.