Day of Archaeology: Camping in Mongolia

Day of Archaeology: Camping in Mongolia

So on the actual Day of Archaeology I was in my archaeological office job daydreaming about my recent fieldwork in Mongolia. Here is the story of my Mongolia summertime excavation amid wildflowers and beautiful mountain passes in pictures …

The roads were fairly rough; this is the main road between the Soyo site and the tiny mountain village of Ulaan-uul. Tiny ground squirrels bounded around among the trackways, and often yaks or herds of other animals including camels, goats, sheep or horses, would cross the road in front of us.

The vans that took us were built to a 1950s Russian design. They were made for Siberian winters, with an engine inside so it could be fixed in relative warmth even if it was snowing outside. They forded many rivers remarkably well, but in the instance above, we did get stuck. Our driver changed to four-wheel drive but on several occasions we had to get out and push the car.

We camped beside beautiful clear streams in meadows filled with wildflowers. Mongolia is great for camping! Our site office in the field was a ger, which took a remarkably short time to set up and was very weatherproof! We drank from the local clear streams as well; I used a water-filter to purify the water before drinking.

The food at the dig was typically Mongolian – lots of meat, and very freshly cooked! The head is considered one of the best bits; a special portable blow-torch is used to remove the hair from the skin so that the skin can also be eaten. I really enjoyed the breakfast porridge or khosh; there was a delicious breakfast donut that was quickly became one of my favourite foods!


We surveyed and sampled and excavated different parts of the Soyo landscape; I was hoping to find out more about the environmental changes that happened when pastoralism increased and large herds of animals began roaming the central Asian steppes. It will take some time to process the samples I collected in the laboratory and answer the question of how much things changed under a mobile, pastoral economy. Thanks to Dr. Julia Clark at the American Center for Mongolian Studies for a really great archaeological research opportunity!

From a House to a Forest

I am the National Register Archaeologist for Minnesota, and I work in the Heritage Preservation Department of the Minnesota Historical Society.  I really enjoy my job, and working with the National Register of Historic Places program. It is a great feeling to help list an archaeological site or district in the NRHP. It doesn’t guarantee protection, but it helps, because it is an official recognition that this is an important place, and it is a record that will last after I and the current land managers for the site are long gone. In this sense, the NRHP listing is a guide for future generations, that will help make sure it is remembered. Another part of my job is Public Archaeology, and I’m currently working on a report of a 10-year project, on a site that was among the first National Register listings in Minnesota.

Petaga Point (21ML11) is an important site within the Kathio National Historic Landmark District, which was designated because of the ancestry of the Dakota nation here, and the contact with them by French explorers Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Luth in 1679, and Father Louis Hennepin in 1680. The site is located in Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, and my friend Jim Cummings (Park Naturalist and archaeologist) and I had been curious for years about a report from the 1960s on semi-subterranean houses that were thought to be about 1,000 years old – long before the French contact but likely related to the Dakota. In 2006, we suspected we had found one of the houses. It was an oval shaped depression in the ground, like what was described in the 1960s in a grassy field, but now the area is a restored pine forest in the state park. We decided to investigate by digging one 1×1 meter unit per year, during the Kathio Archaeology Day public event. Over the decade, we found a remnant of the house, amid disturbance from the 1960s excavations. By luck, we hit an intact strip of ground that they left between two large excavation blocks (a baulk about 40 cm wide). We followed this, and carefully recovered a thin layer of charcoal from each unit. This was a remnant of the burned house. Radiocarbon dates from our dig and curated samples from the 1960s yielded a surprise – the house is not 1,000 years old. It dates to somewhere around the late 1600s to early 1700s, after the French contact but within the time that the Dakota were still resident near Mille Lacs lake.

Excavating a burned house in Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.

Excavating a burned house in Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.

Archaeobotanical analysis by Seppo Valppu revealed many more surprises. There were many charred needles of white and red pine, and charcoal of spruce, balsam fir and birch. These were likely materials used in the construction of the house, and therefore provide a glimpse of the forest cover around that time. And there were many charred seeds. Lots of these were from food – blueberries, raspberries, pin cherries, elderberries, bunchberries and hawthorn, along with Chenopodium (goosefoot). These all point to the mid-summer months. Surprisingly, there was no wild rice, which was widely used by the Dakota, but that is not available until late summer. And there were many plants of unknown function, that may have been used as medicines or for other purposes.

Pin cherry pits from the burn layer.

Pin cherry pits from the burn layer.

As we write our report, we feel that the best use for the archaeobotanical data is to go to the elders of Minnesota’s Dakota communities, to use as they wish. It is gratifying to see such a benefit from environmental archaeology, from one of the state’s most significant sites. Kathio Archaeology Day, and the 10th year of our project, is September 26, 2015.

Karen Stewart: A day in the life of an archaeobotanist

I was doing some botanising even as I walked to work this morning, when I spotted this on an acorn on my way through Shoreditch park –


As it’s a gall I hadn’t seen before I brought it into the office to see if I could find out what it is. A swift Google introduced me to Andricus quercuscalicis, a gall wasp which induces these ‘knopper’ galls. Mostly irrelevant to me as an archaeobotanist though, as apparently they only started appearing in Britain in the twentieth century!

My first actual job of the day is some charcoal analysis from a Bronze Age ring ditch site in Hampshire. The first sample I looked at was all oak, which can be quite boring, as it’s the easiest of all the woods to identify. On the other hand, that means I can absolutely tear through it and save some time for the samples that are more challenging.

My second sample of the day has been entirely oakless, and is thus taking much longer to work through.  It doesn’t help that all of the fragments are pretty small –


At the very end of my day of archaeology 2015 I had a quick look at a wall hook from a Saxon grave chamber, which has some mineralised wood attached to it. It’s part of an ongoing project that I’ve been working on since I started with MOLA in 2009, and is almost ready for publication. Of course, that means that there are a million things to check at the last minute. Having provided an answer (sort of!) to the finds specialist and editor, that’s me done for the day! See you in the pub next year!

Seeds and Silchester

As the University of Reading Insula IX ‘Town Life‘ Project draws to a close, so does the PhD that i’ve been writing on it over the last few years. As Silchester has dominated my archaeological life over the last five years, it seemed right that I spent most of my Day of Archaeology 2014 there (technically yesterday). I have been studying the macroscopic plant remains from the excavations since 2009, when I turned up as a recent graduate, searching for good archaeobotanical dataset to study for my masters (I chose well!). I’ve sorted and identified 1000s of charred, mineralised and waterlogged seeds from Insula IX. The insights gained range from finding out that olives were consumed at Late Iron Age Silchester, to showing that residents of the oppidum were growing and processing their own cereals. After spending a few summers working in the Science@Silchester team, elbow deep in a flotation tank for 7 weeks, I was just returning for the afternoon to teach a session on Archaeobotany at Silchester to the field school students, passing on some of the knowledge I’ve gained over the last few years.

My day kicked off with coffee number 1 at my desk at 8:30am, finishing off a beautiful powerpoint presentation on the many wonders of charred plant remains. I may have gone a bit overboard, but you need lots of images to explain how bags of soil magically turn into tiny plant remains. After squeezing in an hour of PhD chapter editing, I headed off to the train station to make my way to Silchester. The cycle between Mortimer station, spiritual gateway to 100s of field school students, and Silchester takes me through tiny country lanes. The soil around Silchester is a mix of clay, sands and gravels, so there’s more in the way of pasture and orchards than cereal fields. Eventually making it on to the droveway, the stench of portaloos tells me i’ve made it to Insula IX!

Blue skies over Insula IX

Blue skies over Insula IX ©Lisa Lodwick

After a quick catch up with the Science@Silchester team (you can read about them in last years Silchester post), I’m bundled in to the mini bus by Amanda Clarke to take me off to St Mary’s. It feels a bit strange to be teaching in a church, but the students were very keen, and I hope they learnt something. I also got to show off some of my favourite plant remains, including the charred olive stones from the final day of the 2012 season, and some beautiful spelt grains from a pit excavated back in 2006.

Archaeobotany teaching at Silchester

Microscopes and plant remains set up in the church! ©Amanda Clarke

I head back up to site to see how flotation is going. As the archaeology in Insula IX is running out, there’s unlikely to be any more ‘deep features’ this year producing waterlogged or mineralised plant remains, but hopefully the remaining pits will produce some good charred assemblages to complement those studied for my PhD research. Mike Fulford’s site tour kicks off at 4:30, so I’m able to catch up on the all new developments in Insula III – the most exciting (for me) is the discovery of a (probable) corn drier, interpreted by the Victorians as a hypocaust. If this feature can be dated, it will provide great evidence for how the agricultural role of Silchester changed over time.

Science assistant Rory manning the flotation tank

Science assistant Rory manning the flotation tank ©Lisa Lodwick

Flotation sample at Silchester

Disappointing number of plant remains.. plenty more samples though! ©Lisa Lodwick

After getting my fill of archaeology for the week, I’m off to home to continue with the PhD editing. I’ve produced lots of new evidence for how, where and when the residents of Late Iron Age and Roman Silchester were supplied with food, and I’m looking forward to finally finishing so I can discuss the findings with the rest of the project team.

The Insula IX excavations are coming to an end this year – open day dates are Saturday 26th July and Saturday 9th August.

Follow Amanda Clarke’s wonderful blog from the excavations

Silchester Twitter @silchexcavation

I tweet about plants and archaeology @LisaLodwick. You can read more about my AHRC funded PhD research at the University of Oxford here.

Counting Phytoliths from Songo Mnara, Tanzania

Right now, I spend my life counting phytoliths – over 3500 phytoliths so far….What’s a phytolith and why does it get me out of bed and into the lab before 7am? How did you not realise this was such an exciting archaeological technique?

© Hayley McParland-Clarke

Phytoliths are a bit like plant negatives; essentially the plant absorbs monosilicic acid (H4O4Si) from its water supply and during transpiration as the water ‘leaves’ the plant, the monosilicic acid becomes solid opaline silica. It has to go somewhere, so it fills in gaps within the cell structure of the plant. These gaps are either within the cells, or surrounding the cells, making silica negatives of the internal cell structure. Not all plants make phytoliths though, just like not all plants preserve well as charred plant macrofossils, and not all pollen grains enter the local archaeological record or preserve well. Plants have to degrade in situ for the phytoliths to be included in the archaeological record, no technique is perfect. But the key is, that phytoliths are well preserved in a variety of contexts and can add to our understanding of plant use; not only on sites with poor preservation of plant macrofossils and pollen, but also in contexts where plant remains may not have entered the archaeological record following charring. For example, organic crafts such as grass or palm matting may not be preserved by charring and therefore might be invisible on archaeological sites without waterlogged preservation. These may be visible through phytolith analysis if they have degraded in situ. To help identify diagnostic phytoliths I collected lots of plant samples from the field and I’m now creating a phytolith reference collection in the lab. It’s not a magic bullet to help us understand plant use in the past, but it is pretty cool!

I’m working on late 14th to early 16th Century samples from Songo Mnara, a Swahili stonetown in Tanzania, part of the  [1] and my PhD project at the University of York. Songo Mnara is part of the Kilwa Archipelago and it’s linked to other settlements and islands along the East African coast through the Indian Ocean Trade network. Songo Mnara has truly amazing preservation of stone buildings!! To get to the site you have to take a Dhow from Kilwa Masoko with a guide and once you arrive on the island you have to wade through a tidal Mangrove swamp, which can be anything between ankle deep and chest high! It’s off the beaten track, for sure.

Songo Mnara © Hayley McParland-Clarke 2013

During the 2013 excavation season, two types of structure were excavated; a stone house divided into rooms and a collapsed wattle and daub structure, which appeared open plan. Initially it was thought that the monumental stone architecture in the town was standing in an open area, but extensive test pitting by Dr Fleisher combined with Geophysical and Magnetometer survey[2] revealed the presence of concentrations of daub within this space. Excavation exposed two wattle and daub structures with comparable finds assemblages to that of the stone structures.

The phytoliths I’m looking at today come from Trench 32, one of the daub structures. Spot samples were taken across the entire packed sand floor surface of the structure on a 1m grid, in order to assess whether phytolith analysis can be used as a tool for spatial analysis and to understand the use of plant materials within the structure. Samples were also taken from the ‘outside’ of the structure in the open area to identify clear differences in the phytolith assemblage between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and to see if it was possible to recreate the environment immediately adjacent to and further away from the structure.

Sampling for Phytoliths at Songo Mnara © Hayley McParland-Clarke 2014

Sampling for Phytoliths at Songo Mnara © Hayley McParland-Clarke 2014

I’m really hoping that we’ll be able to see activity areas within the structure through the plant assemblage, for example food preparation areas or areas of matting. It may be possible to identify construction materials such as wood, or roofing materials such as palm thatch. I’m also hoping to see evidence of Indian Ocean Trade through phytoliths from imported edible plants within the assemblage, but as with all archaeology I can hope for lots of things, it doesn’t mean it’s there! We also sampled the stone house, which is really interesting, because it has clear rooms within it, whereas those divisions weren’t clear when excavating the daub structure. Phytolith analysis might enable us to see the limits of the daub structure by providing an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ botanical signature.

The process of counting involves using a high powered microscope at x400 magnification to identify phytoliths, photograph them, measure them and count them. I count around at least 250 per slide, which means that I’ve counted thousands from this site so far, and I’ve a lot more to do! Phytoliths are 3D objects, but when you’re looking down the microscope you only see the 2D image, which means that you have to remember that each phytolith type might look different depending on which angle you’re looking at it from! Phytoliths aren’t always round like pollen, in fact they’re frequently not round at all, they come in all shapes and various sizes!

Although lab work is often thought of as completely different to fieldwork, it’s sort of the same. I search through transects on the slide, much like layers of stratigraphy looking for microscopic evidence in the form of phytoliths rather than artefacts. It can take a long time, it’s systematic and sometimes I don’t find anything of interest. Recording stratigraphy on site tells you a lot about site formation processes and human actions, likewise recording information about the slide assemblage is useful. For instance, lots of phytoliths which are still articulated suggests that there was little bioturbation, or lots of microcharcoal might suggest burning episodes.

© Hayley McParland-Clarke 2014

I’m on my last few slides from this pilot study now, and I’ve started to get an idea of what’s happening in the structure which is really exciting. Each phytolith assemblage has a different character, which suggests that the spatial approach might be working!! I can clearly see a difference between the assemblages from the floor surface ‘inside’ the building and the outside; I can also see variations across the floor surface within the structure.

Future research will focus on the comparison of the stone house and the daub structure to see if there’s a difference between the uses of each structure. I also hope to look at some of the open area samples to try to understand how the urban landscape impacted on the local environment. Follow my progress and find out more about phytolith analysis, archaeobotany and archaeology on my blog, or follow me on twitter @Hayley_McP.

[1] Managed by Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Dr Jeff Fleisher, funded by the NSF and AHRC.

[2] Welham, K., J. Fleisher, P. Cheetham, H. Manley, C. Steele, and S. Wynne-Jones. 2014. Geophysical Survey in Sub-Saharan Africa: Magnetic and Electromagnetic Investigation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Songo Mnara, Tanzania. Archaeological Prospection.

A rainy day in Kent, UK

I earn most of my freelance income as a specialist doing archaeobotany and since last posting a ‘Day of Archaeology’ post I have added part-time …’we need bodies on site to get this bit finished by the deadline..’ digging to my income streams. I really enjoy digging, being outside, working as part of a team and doing that something extremely physical but needs finer skills for surveying, recording and working out what’ going on. Break time chats are great. During my recent stint I was mostly the only woman on site. This meant I had my own loo. Luxury!

But today I’d have had the 6am text saying ‘Don’t turn up, site is unworkable’ and lost a day’s pay.

Luckily for me, I have my specialist work to return to on rained off days. Currently these are samples from Gallo-Roman features from my French client. I have lovely waterlogged plant remains to explore and am able to earn money today.

I’ll sit in my workroom, lit by a daylight bulb as there’s not much daylight coming through my windows at the moment and pick out waterlogged plant macrofossils until I stop to go to kungfu this evening. I’ve found that kungfu training is a brilliant way to stay fit to dig when I’m back in the lab sitting on my backside all day. The weapons and stance training replicates the movements I have to make on site to get features dug quickly and effectively and spoil lifted or wheeled away. During my recent stint digging there was no way I could have trained in the evening after the beasting I’d had on site all day getting through clay with flints.

So, that’ll be my day. I may nip out for a coffee in ‘The Moonlight Cafe’ Faversham as I owe them £1.60 for the cappucino I had yesterday and neither of us had small change.

If I have time I’ll try translating a French journal article, very slowly as my school French stopped when I was 13 but I enjoy working it out and it’s fun to learn French archaeological and archaeobotanical terms. I may also get my 2014 tax return up to date so I can call up my accountant when I have earnt enough money to pay him.

Not a glamorous day in archaeology for me but a practical and necessary one. The most glam bit will be me putting away my scuba gear. I’m a BSAC Sports Diver with maritime archaeobotanical hopes. Maybe next year I can report back from a shipwreck or submerged landscape.




Looking at crops and weeds from early medieval Galway, Ireland

Some Irish early medieval charred plant remains in a petri dish

Today I’m working on a research project looking at early medieval plant remains from Galway, in the west of Ireland. My focus is on material that dates from approximately 450 to 1100 AD. The objective is to pull together the results from a range of different sites, and to see whether it is possible to identify a distinctive regional pattern in the crops and weeds found. A map with all the sites included to date can be found here. It’s still very much a work in progress!

Archaeology is rarely glamorous (too much mud and dust) but somehow, today, I’ve assigned myself the most unglamorous task of all: I’ve spent my time trawling through a stratigraphic index (that’s the list of different contexts that were excavated at a site), identifying the early medieval samples, and then adding them to my database. It’s tedious and time-consuming, but absolutely necessary for multi-phase sites, to ensure that my dataset isn’t biased by the inclusion of material from a different period, either earlier or later.

The good news is that, now that this is done, I’m ready to start real analysis of the results on Monday. Meanwhile, I’m off to enjoy a database-free weekend!

A Day in the Life of an Archaeobotanist

8AM: As an archaeobotanist I can have a bit of variety in my work schedule. I can be called on to go on site at very short notice, but generally my base is in the office, doing assessments and analysis on any plant remains retrieved from site.


I arrive at the office (Museum of London Archaeology) around 8am. First order of business is usually making a cup of tea and eating breakfast while I wait for my computer to boot up. Then I check through any emails that arrived overnight before starting on my current project.


The practical work I’m doing today is part of an environmental assessment for a large waterfront site in London. Around 250 bulk environmental samples were taken during excavation at the site. We processed these in flotation tanks and now it’s my job to scan through the clean remains under a low powered microscope to see if they’re archaeologically interesting, recording very broadly what’s present. Once I’ve finished scanning all the flots, I’ll produce tables of the remains and write a report with recommendations for the next stage of work. This might include anything from recommending further archaeobotanical work on certain samples, to beetle analysis or wood species identification.

Cups of tea: 1.


where the magic happens

My work space

10 am: I’ve assessed two flots so far this morning – I could easily have spent much longer on them, but keeping to deadlines and budget is very important in commercial archaeology. Both samples contained lots of stems, some meadow type taxa, bran (the outer layer of cereal grains) and some fruit remains like fig seeds and apple endocarp (the tough bit around the seeds). At this stage I’d suggest they might be mixed dumps of stabling waste and household waste, but I’ll leave it to the analysis stage to really investigate.

Cups of tea: 2

Flots assessed: 2


12pm: Not much to report I’m afraid. I’ve assessed two more flots, one with quite a lot of wood chips in it, which might suggest woodworking at the site. At least all the flots have lots of plant remains though! I’ll often have to slog through loads of samples with nothing interesting at all turning up.


I’ve also been reminded of one of the perils of being married to another archaeologist – I have been tasked with carrying a metal detector home on the bus so he doesn’t have to come in to the office on Monday morning to collect it himself.

Cups of tea: 3

Flots assessed: 4


12.30pm LUNCH!

Cups of tea: 5

Flots assessed: 4.5

Lunchtime conversation topics: Tim Burton movies, Start Trek TNG, cheese fondue.


2pm: Still plugging away at the flots, and am now assessing one that’s full of charred wheat chaff as well as waterlogged wood chips. A pretty odd mix, but then all sorts of things float up on a river bank, as anyone who’s taken a walk along the Thames foreshore could tell you. I’ve also fielded a few tech queries from one of the less IT literate of my colleagues here, and a phone call about flotation tank meshes. Ah, the adventurous life of an archaeobotanist.

Cups of tea: Still 5

Flots assessed: 6


3.30pm: Had a good chat with our timber specialist about exotic wood timbers (exotic for us being anything not native to the British Isles). Working in London, which has been a trading hub since the Romans founded the city in the first century AD, means that we get woods from all over the world turning up in excavations, particularly in postmedieval deposits. Wood species ID is another one of my jobs at MOLA, so we often work together on assemblages.

Cups of tea: 6

Flots assessed: 8


3.30-4pm: For the last half hour of my working day I’ll be replying to emails, tidying up my workspace and washing my lab ware, and filling out my timesheet for the week.


And maybe I’ll squeeze in one last cup of tea.