Geoscience! Archaeology! Travel and Adventure!

Organising an Archaeology Conference

This is the first year where I have been late submitting my Day of Archaeology post, but better late than never? This is my 6th year taking part – looking over what I was doing over the past six years just shows how variable the day to day tasks of being an archaeologist can be, and this year is different yet again. I’ve been sorting out logistics for  an archaeology conference, specifically the 7th Developing International Geoarchaeology conference, which we are hosting at Newcastle University this September. So the job of an archaeologist can also include event management! This is an international conference that happens every two years, and is the only dedicated geoarchaeology conference. For those not familiar, geoarchaeology is the application of methods and approaches from geosciences to archaeological questions. Given that a vast majority of archaeology is buried in the ground, geoarchaeology is applicable to most archaeology projects, in helping to understand the processes by which our cultural materials came to be where they are, when archaeologists find them hundreds or even thousands of years after they were discarded by people in the past. This is a crucial part of archaeology; we are not just interested in the objects, but the context in which those objects are found. This context information is what helps us understand, for example, whether objects are in their original location (a primary deposit),  or whether the object has been moved and redeposited at a later date (secondary or tertiary deposit). The conference registrations closed last week, so I now have the final figures on the number of people attending, and have to confirm all the arrangements for catering and room bookings, as well as getting the conference packs sorted. With around 80 delegates that is a lot of bags to pack with various bits and bobs! With the help of the organising committee I am also making the final edits to the book of abstracts, and compiling information for delegates on the field trips and workshops. It’s going to be a great few days with geoarchaeologists from all around the world gathering together to discuss the latest research.

Pokemon, philosophy and coffee

Every time I do a post for Day of Archaeology, I look back over what I wrote previously and marvel at how quickly a year has gone by, and how much things can change in that time. This year is no different, and I will start by saying how lucky I am to be writing this as an archaeologist now employed permanently by a great university, in my hometown of Newcastle. Last year I was back in Newcastle having taken a non-archaeology job, and was preparing for a life outside academia (not really through choice, but lack of other options, given that getting a full time, secure job as an archaeologist is difficult). This contrasted with the posts I wrote for 2012 (Stonehenge!), 2013 (Early humans in caves!), 2014 (Crusades! Fossil poo!), which were much more the sort of thing I guess people expect from archaeologists. Lab work and white coats, fancy microscopes, fieldwork, and all the excitement that goes with that.  So what about today? Having put things on hold temporarily in 2015, in 2016 I am back to working on material from Stonehenge, and the early humans in caves is going to be a major focus for the next 3 years as I recently got a large NERC grant to fund it (the pilot work I told everyone about in Day of Archaeology 2013 contributed to this). I have been dealing with all of the admin that goes with it – planning project meetings, writing adverts to hire staff etc. But the main thing I have been doing specifically today is trying to finish a paper I have been working on for most of the year. It is a paper that I would never have been able to write without the security of my current job, and the time that is needed to read, read, read and reflect. Whilst many would call me an archaeological scientist, the paper I am working on today is a very heavy on theory. Part of what I am talking/reading about is that there shouldn’t be such a distinction between the two. To those outside of archaeology, I think there is very little understanding that what we do is largely about interpretation rather than indisputable facts, though of course we strive to be as accurate as we can be. Many of us start out counting things and measuring things, only to realise that the most difficult part of archaeology is not the science at all, but making sense of all this stuff that we find in the ground and measure. There is a philosophy to this; hermeneutics is a word philosophers give to describe the theory and method of interpretation. So it’s very relevant to archaeology, which is pretty much all about interpretation! Unfortunately, a lot of it is not very easy to read. If you thought archaeology and science had a lot of jargon, philosophy is ten times worse! But thinking about how we think, and how we actually create the archaeological stories that we tell people is so important. So I’ll keep at it, whilst drinking a lot of coffee. So that’s what I’m doing, in Starbucks. In true multi-tasking style, given that the local Starbucks is right next to a pokestop, I also managed to catch a lot of Pokemon…



Using archaeology to promote the study of STEM subjects

My Day of Archaeology is a bit different to previous years. Back in 2012 and 2013 I was doing lab work (for Feeding Stonehenge and Paisley Caves respectively) and in 2014 I was doing teaching preparation and looking at microscope slides. This year I am technically not doing archaeology at all, though I have been using archaeology. Let me explain – I am a geoarchaeologist, which means I use methods and approaches from geoscience to address questions about the human past. In my current job, which I just started this month, a large part of my role is trying to increase the numbers of students (and women in particular) studying Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Newcastle University. Like archaeology with the popular image of adventure and Indiana Jones, civil engineering has it’s own public image (bridges, buildings! machinery!) and if you say geoscience, the first thing most people think of is rocks. Compared to the image of archaeology which has a broad appeal, it can be much harder to convince people that civil engineering is something they would enjoy. Likewise, there is much more to geoscience than rocks (though personally I am quite a fan of rocks…). This is where the archaeology comes in.

For my Day of Archaeology, I have been putting together outreach events for schools and families, to try and broaden the appeal of geosciences, and to convey the diversity and breadth of the subject. One of the talks I am doing is on Geoscience and Archaeology, using case studies from archaeology to show how we can apply geoscience methods in ways people might not have thought about. I am also working with the Great North Museum: Hancock, to develop geoscience inspired activities for Earth Science Week in October. In a similar vein, I have been writing a blog post (not yet published), on the links between civil engineering and heritage. Back to the bridges stereotype, many famous bridges (or civil engineering structures in general), have become part of the cultural heritage of a place, and it could be argued that their symbolic function is equally as important as their practical one. The Golden Gate, Millau Viaduct, London’s Tower Bridge – all have become iconic symbols of a region or city. In Scotland, the Forth Bridge was recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. And of course anyone with an interest in Roman archaeology knows the importance of bridges as material culture. Newcastle itself was known as Pons Aelius (Hadrian’s Bridge) to the Romans! Archaeology is everywhere, even where you may least expect it.


Bridges: iconic landmarks and heritage symbols (images from Wikipedia)

Multi-tasking archaeology! Teaching, fieldwork and medieval poop

I am pleased to be taking part in my third Day of Archaeology – see here for  my previous posts on work for the Feeding Stonehenge and Paisley Caves projects in 2012 and 2013. This year I am working on a whole range of things simultaneously, illustrated nicely in the cluttered picture of my desk below. I am starting my third year working at the University of Edinburgh, and have a lot more teaching responsibilities that I have ever had before. I am in the middle of preparing undergraduate lectures for the second year course, Scotland Before History, which covers Scottish archaeology from early prehistory right up to the medieval period, and making sure all the lab facilities are in place for my third/fourth year option course in Environmental Archaeology, where students get to do a lot of hands on work with environmental remains under the microscope. Alongside teaching prep, I am also putting together my schedule for a brief fieldwork session up at the Ness of BrodgarI started working there last year, and have been applying analytical chemistry and microscopy to midden deposits to investigate fuel resource use and the types of activities that people were carrying out in different parts of the site. Under the microscope you can see the micromorphology slides I am currently working on for the Ecology of Crusading conference in Riga in September – I’ve been blogging about these slides for the past year if anyone would like to know more about them! And finally, I am getting all my samples and paperwork together for a visit to the Organic Geochemistry Unit at the University of Bristol at the end of this month. I have collaborated with Bristol since my PhD, as they have the best facilities in the UK for archaeological chemistry. During this visit I will be working on a wide range of samples from my own research and in my role as research associate for the Ecology of Crusading project – identifying the species and dietary signals of medieval poo!

my desk today

Paisley Caves – a view from the microscope


Working on the microscope

So this is my second year taking part in the Day of Archaeology. It’s great to look back at my post from last year, when I was working as a research associate on the Feeding Stonehenge project – lots of new things have happened since then, including a new position for me as a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Since joining Edinburgh I’ve been working on a lot of new and exciting projects, which you can read more about in my blog, Castles and Coprolites. This week I’ve mostly been sat in front of a microscope, analysing thin section samples from the site of Paisley Caves, Oregon USA, directed by Dr Dennis Jenkins. Paisley provides evidence for the earliest dated human occupation in North America, famously in the form of ancient human DNA recovered from coprolites, aka fossilised faeces. The samples I am working on are known as thin section micromorphology samples – perhaps not as well known as animal bones and charred plant remains, thin section samples investigate the actual sediments in which archaeological materials are found.

The way in which sediments are deposited can actually tell us a great deal about the environment and human activity in the past, and are also useful in helping interpret the artefacts that are found within the sediment. For example looking at soils and sediments under the microscope, we can tell whether they were deposited by wind or water action, or whether they were trampled by humans or animals. With the Paisley samples we are looking at the formation processes in the cave environment, to see whether this can help understand the activities that were occuring in the cave.

Paisley 3

Thin section slide of sediments from Paisley caves. Photo by Julie Boreham,

Thin section micromorphology is quite a specialised technique, and requires laboratory processing. We cut out blocks of sediment from profiles during excavation, wrap them very carefully to avoid any disturbance, then take them to the lab where they are set in resin and cut into slides for viewing under the microscope. I have been working with Earthslides to process the Paisley samples, and we will be presenting a poster exhibiton of the thin sections at the European Association of Archaeologists conference this September.

Feeding Stonehenge – a view from the laboratory

Large pottery sherd from Durrington Walls

So, today is another day of laboratory work for me. I work as a research associate in the BioArCh group at the Department of Archaeology, University of York. I am part of a large team of archaeologists working on the AHRC funded Feeding Stonehenge project, which is investigating the provisioning and consumption patterns of people who lived at Neolithic Durrington Walls – the settlement site associated with the construction of Stonehenge. My role in the project is to analyse the distinctive Grooved Ware pottery for food residues and to see if there were differences in the types of food products that were being consumed by different households, and to see whether certain animals were selected for feasting. I have already looked at over 300 individual pottery sherds, and today I’ll be analysing another 10-20. I’ll also be supervising undergraduate students who have recently started their dissertation projects, working on pottery from other archaeological sites. One student is carrying out work on modern reference pottery that has been used to cook and process marine animals. The results from these experimental studies can be used to help us interpret what we find in archaeological pottery. The day starts off by coming into the lab and switching on the kit in the fume hood – we have to heat the samples to 70 degrees so I have to do this first so it gets up to the right temperature. Then it’s time for the first coffee of the day….