Bones, teeth, isotopes and the Festival of Archaeology

Another year another Day of Archaeology! Big up the team that keeps this initiative going and sorry to hear that this may be the last!

My 2017 Day of Archaeology is typically varied. I’m a Lecturer in Archaeological Science at Cardiff University and am in the midst of a very busy summer! First up, writing, writing, writing. I’m working on a paper for a new Historic England project at West Amesbury, in the Stonehenge landscape. The site is only a couple of miles from Stonehenge and is Middle Neolithic, so a few hundred years before the stone circle’s heyday. We know that Stonehenge and nearby sites like Durrington Walls drew people and animals from far and wide in the Late Neolithic, but we know much less about the earlier phase. I did some isotope work on cattle and pigs from the site and results suggest that they were all from the local area, so perhaps the Stonehenge area was not such a hub in the Middle Neolithic. More information on the project can be found here:

Next up, a quick meeting with Katie Faillace, a dental anthropologist from the USA who is starting a PhD at Cardiff in October. She is coming in to look at some unusual teeth we have from a newly excavated cemetery in North Wales. They may have a very unusual trait that is rare in UK populations – but I’m eager for a second opinion!

After that I’m dashing up the road to the National Museum of Wales to give a family friendly and interactive talk on human bone analysis in archaeology, as part of the 2017 Festival of Archaeology.

The rest of the afternoon will be spent in the lab, preparing human bone samples from the Iron Age hillfort at South Cadbury, Somerset for thin section analysis. This involves cutting small pieces of bone, mounting them in resin and then cutting very thin sections to analyse under a microscope. By looking at how bacteria have attacked the bone, we can learn how the bodies were treated after death. The image aboveshows a poorly preserved bone, with lots of bacterial attack. This is very important for Iron Age Britain as we still don’t really know what people did with their dead. We don’t find many human bones and when we do they are often very unusual – odd fragments, skulls or other parts of the body, often deposited in disused grain storage pits. I’m working on this with two students, Lois Turnbull and Selina Trout, who are funded by the Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (CUROP), see the link for more information.



Exploring Prehistoric Cooking

Exploring Prehistoric Cooking

It grows stronger every year! Great to see Day of Archaeology come round again!

For me today will be a lab day – nowhere near as exciting as most posters on here, but still a bit of a treat for me. I’m a British Academy Post-doctoral Fellow at Cardiff University. My current project focuses on mobility and feasting in Late Neolithic Britain, involving a blend of isotope analysis, zooarchaeology and a number of other bioarchaeological methods. It only has six months to run so I’m spending most of my time analysing data and writing up results at the moment. That’s why a lab day is a treat!

Today I’m working on a different project – a pilot study into the use of Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) on bone collagen to reconstruct prehistoric cooking practices. This approach was pioneered by Dr Hannah Koon at the University of York and involves high resolution microscopy of extracted bone collagen to look at the way that that fibrils have degraded (a fibril image is attached to this post – the frayed end is characteristic of cooking). This can tell us whether meat was cooked on the bone, filleted first or in some instances discarded without being cooked at all. It has been shown to be successful for historic material but is unproven for prehistoric material, where fibrils may be so degraded that changes relating to cooking can’t be recognised. I have two placement students employed on the project – George Foody (who has posted to DoA too) and Katie Faillace, both of whom graduated with first class degrees last week.


We have selected samples from Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age feasting sites from Wales and Warwickshire and are getting more from Wiltshire on Monday. Touring museum stores is another fun part of the job! Today we are recording and photographing the bones and drilling small sections (c. 0.5g), which we will then crush and put in Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid to demineralise. Within a couple of weeks and with some fiddly sample preparation the collagen should be ready to put into the TEM. The project aims to tests whether the approach will work for prehistoric bone and will provide new insights into feasting practices. We hope to find out whether less desirable cuts of meat (to western stomachs at least) like pig’s trotters were discarded or consumed in the feast and whether different animals were prepared and cooked in different ways.

A Day of Statistics, Isotopes and Drilling Bones

I’m Richard Madgwick,  a zooarchaeologist employed as a British Academy post-doctoral fellow at Cardiff University. So what’s my day of archaeology been like? Having just left Çatalhöyük on Wednesday after nearly three weeks in Anatolia, I’m very much playing catch up on research that has had to take a back seat since I’ve been away. I’ve spent much of the day feeling envious of the remaining Çatalhöyük faunal team who are all enjoying a trip to Göbekli Tepe today – I picked the worst time to leave!!

Me staring a bone out

Me staring a bone out

My day has been split between two research projects – one tedious (but worthy!) and the other more practical and interesting. I spent the morning doing some multivariate statistical analysis on a large dataset of around 25,000 animal bones. I’m using a snappily named approach called backwards stepwise binary logistic regression to assess what factors impact on the preservation and modification of animal bones in the archaeological record. This follows on from my PhD research and I’m currently looking in to the causes of abrasion of archaeological bones. Trampling, exposure to acidic conditions, utilisation, earthworm activity. bioturbation, boiling and roasting and water action have all been cited as causes of abraded (or polished) bone but until we know the factors that are important in its occurrence it’s difficult to make any sense of patterns.I spent the afternoon drilling, abrading, weighing and demineralising bone samples from the late Neolithic site of Durrington Walls, next to Stonehenge. I now have 50 chunks of pig jaw happily fizzing away in weak acid in the lab. This is the first part of the sample preparation for isotope analysis – in this instance I’ll be analysing the samples for carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotopes. Later I will also be testing the teeth from the jaws for strontium isotopes. This aim of the game is to understand more about how pigs were raised and where they came from. Durrington Walls is a huge feasting site and we know some cattle at the site came from Scotland thanks to the work of Sarah Viner and Jane Evans. It’s much more difficult to drag a pig over such distances, but I’m hoping I can get some evidence for long distance movement – pigs were of great importance to the feasts here and I think there’s a good chance they were sourced from a wide area. This will provide us with evidence of where people came from to take part in these great feasts.