C.R Archaeology Friday

One of our most recent projects is looking into historic cave use around Llandudno in North Wales this is to help CADW, the Welsh historic agency protect the caves with gating. While carrying out research into the caves around Bodafon farm a reference to this stone was found in a old local journal and having never heard of it or seen it before the church kindly let me take images for 3D scanning and photography’s for the local museum.

Early Medieval carved stone from Bodafon road above Llandudno

Early Medieval carved stone from Bodafon road above Llandudno

We have a range of small building recordings and watching briefs on at the moment but one of most exciting on going sites is a large Neolithic settlement and later pit group identified through excavation in perpetrating for the building of a new school in Anglesey North Wales. We have already carried out 5 months of excavation over two stages. We have hundreds of samples from these features and have been processing them through floatation and sieving.

The excavation produced over a 1000 stone tools and 2000 shreds of pottery, through this intense sampling this umber is raising.

prehistoric Pottery

neolithic pottery from a Neolithic settlement site on Anglesey

mix of Neolithic pottery from all stages of periods

mix of Neolithic pottery from all stages of periods

Four of  over thirty Flint scampers recover to date

Four of over thirty Flint scampers recover to date

polished axe fragments

Fragments of broken polished axe reworked in to tools

local history group visit our prehistoric cave excavation

Local history group visit our prehistoric cave excavation

Flint, Finds and Fieldwork!

Hi my name is Josie Mills, I’m an MSc researcher at UCL and am currently working on the Ice Age Island project on Jersey!

Our day on the Ice Age Island project (see here for more info) began bright and early as the team amassed to clean and tidy the base post our mid-dig party, sending off our first team of student volunteers, who leave the project on Saturday.

As our project is based in two places, one dig, one archiving, after breakfast I jumped into a car heading to Jersey Heritage Stores, where we are in the process of archiving some 94,000 flints excavated from La Cotte de St. Brelade in the 1970s (see here for more info).

Before the students arrived at the store I spent some time with Dr. Chantal Conneller looking through the collections from the North Coast of Jersey for evidence of Mesolithic stone tools. These collections are particularly fascinating because they span the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic but also have stone tools from the Mesolithic and Neolithic. It just shows the sheer importance of the North Coast of Jersey as an archaeological landscape, perhaps because of the wide clear view across the, now submerged, topography that would have existed throughout much of the Ice Age.

CoastlineA view of the North Coast from Grosnez

Usually we have one student in the stores to get experience of the archive system and the bigger picture of how our re-organisation effort will allow the stone tools to be studied by location in the site, helping us to understand specific areas of activity and raw material use. Today we had two students Eloise and Stacey, who spent the morning writing new bags for artefacts and organising them into boxes.

10393891_10154328764480366_4380804967825527440_nUCL students Eloise and Stacey working in the stores

After lunch there was an earthquake, the biggest on Jersey for around 200 years – fortunately everyone and the site was fine!

BsRUeUnCQAAOmL2.jpg-largeMe with the large flint nodule at the Houge Bie geology museum

I rounded off my archaeological day with a visit to the geology section of the Hougue Bie Museum. Where I got to see a giant flint nodule dredged from the Casquet Reef, near Alderney, which is very exciting for my dissertation research based on flint provenancing in the Channel area.

A day in the life of MOLA project managers, as dictated to Louise Davies

The ‘unsung heroes’ of every excavation we do: the MOLA Development Services Project Management team (AKA the dream team) are terribly busy and important, and have therefore dictated their day’s activities to me, Louise.


Mike Smith

A fairly recent addition to the MOLA management team, Mike joined us from Southampton and has fitted right in. Today Mike has filled his day with an exciting medley of writing update reports for a large infrastructure project, writing a WSI (Written Scheme of Investigation) for a trial trench evaluation at a hotel site, and looking into potential new tenders. He has managed to stay awake throughout and has some lovely cheese sandwiches for his lunch.

The face of pure concentration

Mike hard at work – crossing t’s and dotting i’s (c) MOLA 2013


Derek Seeley

It’s that time of the month, and Derek has mainly spent the day invoicing. He has also sorted out a new watching brief that’s about to start soon, and, most importantly, has arranged his day on the golf course tomorrow.


Stew Hoad

Stew has been very grumpy today, mainly due to being knocked off his motorbike yesterday by a white van man and suffering lots of bumps and scrapes, and because he’s just had his WiP meeting. He did manage to edit a report though, and has done lots of liaising with clients.

Poor Stewie and his injuries (c) MOLA 2013

Poor Stewie and his injuries (c) MOLA 2013


David Divers

Also largely absorbed by invoicing today, Did has managed to make time to replenish his tea bag supplies and eat a pot of delicious olives. He also took the monthly grilling we are all subjected to by the MOLA finance team in his WiP (Work in Progress) meeting. Here we have to go through all our projects, explain what’s going on, justify the profit margins we have managed to achieve, and get told to invoice, invoice, invoice.


Craig Halsey

Craig has been working hard all day on a secret presentation for a tender bid. He has also examined some bathymetric data, emailed a client to get some information on asbestos on a site we’re about to start working on, and looked at some lovely Bronze Age flints found at Chambers Wharf on the Thames Foreshore by Courtney from the Thames Discovery Programme team.

His love of geoarchaeology coming into play here

Craig and his flint (c) MOLA 2013


Nick Bateman

As part of the Senior Management Group at MOLA and head of Development Services, Nick has spent most of the day at a strategic management meeting on the future of MOLA.

Nikki Moran (RCAHMS) – Aberdeen

Aberdeen ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Aberdeen ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Aberdeen: The Green

I am a Collections trainee based at RCAHMS as part of the Skills for The Future programme.  I obtained my undergraduate degree from Aberdeen University and lived in Aberdeen for almost 8 years.  The Green is a popular area in the centre of town and I know it well.  The Green’s interesting history has been revealed through a series of excavations.

Aerial photograph of Aberdeen’s Harbour taken in 1948. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1314739)

Aerial photograph of Aberdeen’s Harbour taken in 1948. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1314739)

The Green is situated near Aberdeen’s harbour and is one of the oldest known parts of the city. Archaeological excavations of the area revealed flints, used to make tools for fishing and hunting, which date back to about 8000 years ago.

In Medieval times it was in operation as an administrative and defensive point of entry to the city.  It also had a thriving religious community especially after the founding of the Carmelite Friary in 1273 when Carmelite friars settled here and made relationships with the local community.  Excavations were carried out in the 1980’s and 1990’s which revealed sections of the friary church foundations and areas where the friars would have lived.  Skeletons found through excavation are thought to have revealed the location of burials within the church and graveyard.  As you can see from the picture of Carmelite lane, below, the area has been completely built up over time and no physical remains of the church can be seen.

Aberdeen, Market Street,  View from South, showing Carmelite Lane. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1343754)

Aberdeen, Market Street,
View from South, showing Carmelite Lane. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1343754)

RCAHMS hold a collection of ink and pencil drawings relating to small finds from the excavations which one of the curatorial trainees has just recently catalogued.  The drawings were used for the publication “Three Scottish Carmelite friaries: excavations at Aberdeen, Linlithgow and Perth 1980-1986”, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland monograph series no
6 by J.A Stones which presents the results of excavations at similar friaries in Scotland.

This site is a great example of finding archaeology in our cities.  Aberdeen City Council have set up The Green Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) to tackle the problems of run down areas of historic significance and you can take part in The Green Trail,  a tour of areas of historical significance around the Green.  I would recommend paying a visit to the Green and while walking around just remember what was found beneath your feet and what may be found in the future.

This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.


Tracing Neandertal Territories in the Mountains of Southeast France

Day of Archaeology 2013 for me means being away on 2 months of fieldwork in the southern Massif Central, France.  I’ve been contributing to DOA since 2011, and if you look back, it’s clear a lot has changed  since then (see my four 2011 posts, and 2012). After my PhD I was searching for a postdoc for several years, ran out of time and money to keep looking, and ended up seredipitously with a contract to write a book about humans and birds in prehistory.

I thought that would be it, and that the 2013 Day of Archaeology would take place without a contribution from me. But it seems that archaeology wasn’t quite done with me…

My workspace at the field station, Laussonne, Haut Loire

My workspace at the field station, Laussonne, Haut Loire

As I wrote in a postscript comment to my post last year, only a few days after writing about the difficult process of changing paths from a research career to one focused on writing and wider communication, an email dropped into my inbox from the European Commission offering the very last postdoc funding I applied for- a Marie Curie Intra European Fellowship to work in at the PACEA lab, Universite of Bordeaux. After a lot of soul-searching on the wisdom of doing another 180 degree turn in my life trajectory, and talking with my husband about him coming out with me, I decided to go for it. And so here I am, in the mountains of the Massif Central!

Laussonne map

Laussonne map

The field station for Archeo-Logis at Laussonne, Haut Loire

The field station for Archeo-Logis at Laussonne, Haut Loire

My postdoc is focused on two elements: training in a new skill (the Marie Curie Fellowships are especially concerned with career development), and applying this method to an archaeological context. I’ve written on my own blog in more detail about my project, which is called TRACETERRE. This stands for “Tracing Neandertal Territories: Landscape Organisation and Stone Resource Management“. It’s part of a larger collaborative project directed by my boss, Jean-Paul Raynal, and Marie-Helene Moncel.

Essentially I’ll be learning a detailed geological technique called petro-archaeology, that allows us to determine where in the landscape Neandertals were obtaining the raw materials to make their stone tools. Specifically, we are especially interested in the flint sources: most of the geology in the area is igneous, which means it comes from volcanic action (the Massif Central is a world famous centre for volcanology, where you can see virtually every type of volcano and lava).

Sancy Massif

Sancy Massif, north of where I am based, showing volcanic formations

It’s possible to make stone tools from these kinds of rocks, but they are often very hard, and can also be coarse. Flint is a sedimentary rock, meaning it forms from the slow accumulation of mineral deposits. Flint is famous for the high quality tools that can be made from it, because of the predictable way it fractures. It’s often associated with Cretaceous chalk deposits, such as the big cliffs in the southern UK, where you can see black bands of flint nodules. So flint forms in marine contexts, but it can also form in other situations such as in lakes.
Although there are few primary sources of flint in the Massif Central (i.e. outcrops of rock containing flint), there are many different secondary sources. These can be eroded outcrops, material washed into river gravels and other kinds of sources. My training will be in identifying these secondary types of sources, based on the way the outer surface of flint cobbles changes during the process of first formation, erosion and later exposure at archaeological sites.

Some of the geological reading I've been getting up to speed on. Volcanoes galore!

Some of the geological reading I’ve been getting up to speed on. Volcanoes galore!

Because there are more than 70 different secondary sources in the region which have been painstakingly identified over more than thirty years (by Paul Fernandes, who will train me), this is too much to try to attempt to learn in two years. So I will be using a source-centred approach, where I look at one flint source, and see how this particular rock has been used by Neandertals. In particular, we are interested in where this rock ends up: which caves or open-air archaeological sites is it found in? And secondly, in what form does it occur: as finished tools, raw blocks, or flakes of stone that have been struck off blocks (cores) but not yet made into tools.

Finding these things out can tell us a huge amount about techno-economics: the way in which Neandertals were choosing to organise their exploitation of resources on landscape scales. For example, working out which types of technology they used to make tools and which stages of tool production occur where can reveal the level of investment of energy: were they making tools quickly, and dropping them soon afterwards? Or were they carefully choosing which kinds of tools to make, and which ones to take with them in toolkits, maintaining them by re-sharpening? Both these strategies can be used as adaptations to different situations, particularly the level of mobility.

A handaxe, one type of tool Neandertals seem to have carried with them as part of mobile toolkits, which could be re-sharpened and used in many tasks. This one is from near Bournemouth, UK

A handaxe, one type of tool Neandertals seem to have carried with them as part of mobile toolkits, which could be re-sharpened and used in many tasks. This one is from near Bournemouth, UK

The question of Neandertal mobility is also a key reason for studying in such detail the different sources of stone used. We want to know where the stone from a flint source was going: which sites is it found in? How far was flint being transported, especially in comparison to other stone types? We can even begin to work out the paths taken through the landscape by Neandertals: did they have to cross rivers, high mountainous areas? Which passes would have been likely to be used? We also plan to excavate at the flint source itself, to see what activities were taking place, and also which tools came from other places in the landscape.

We can then begin, by combining all the geological and techno-economic data, to build up a detailed understanding of the inter-connections between different parts of the landscape that Neandertals were living in. And this is just the stone tools: other parts of the archaeological record, such as animal bones preserved in caves, are studied by other project members. We can use these to determine things like what season people were living at sites, and where they were probably hunting the animals in the landscape.

Gravel bar system, Switzerland- one example of a secondary source of stone. Image used with permission via Creative Commons: " I, Paebi [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons"

Gravel bar system, Switzerland- one example of a secondary source of stone. Image used with permission via Creative Commons: ” I, Paebi CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons”

All this creates a web of the palaeo-landscapes that Neandertals were inhabiting. But the impact of sourcing flint tools goes even further, because if we can map the extent of inhabited landscapes, we can start to think about territories. This is crucial because territories are not just regions full of resources- they probably were also involved in defining social interactions between different Neandertal groups. This is something we are still learning how to measure, but it has huge significance because different kinds of territories and social interactions suggests particular cognitive capacities. This is of course one of the key areas of research in human evolution: how did Neandertals differ from us, and how were they similar? Did they have similar webs of social connections, or were they living local, isolated lives in small groups that did not regularly meet? If this was the case, how did they find mates, and prevent huge in-breeding? All these fundamental questions can be advanced by new data and investigations such as the research I am doing.

Right now, I’ve only been here just over a week, and am only one month into a two year postdoc. So there’s a long way left to go. But it’s very exciting, and I hope to start the petro-archaeology training and looking at the flint collections very soon. Meanwhile, there’s always time on fieldwork to have a day off, check out the local wildlife, cuisine and culture, and enjoy some of the lovely sunsets in this region. Very different landscapes to when Neandertals were living here!

 Sunset at Laussonne

Sunset at Laussonne

I am funded through a European Commission Framework 7 Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship for Career Development, and I work at the PACEA laboratory, UMR-5199, Universite Bordeaux 1.

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Colouring the Past

It’s a gray and rainy day in Reykjavík and I’m thinking of colour. Arrayed before me in the National Museum’s collections storage center are an array of jasper fragments from an excavation at Reykholt, an important regional center in western Iceland. Founded in the late 10th century, Reykholt became the center of a polity forged by Snorri Sturluson, Iceland’s wealthiest and most powerful chieftain of the early 13th century. I was involved in the first years of the Reykholt Project in the late 1980s and was there briefly in its last days, in 2007. Excavations that I undertook at a small, non-elite farm about 10 kilometers away and at the site of one of Snorri’s rivals, a bit farther out, led me through a circuitous route to think about jasper, an iron-rich form of SiO2 that, like flint, chert and obsidian can be easily flaked into stone tools or used with steel to strike sparks for lighting fires. It’s this latter use that attracted the Vikings and their Norse descendants to collect, use and discard jasper at most sites. A quotidian and visually boring class of material culture, jasper fire-starters were, nonetheless, the matches in the pockets of Norse men and women and their distribution, use wear and trace element chemistry can be used to monitor the movement of people over both short and long distances (we’ve used neutron activation analysis to trace Icelandic jasper to the site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, for example).

But arrayed before me today is a puzzle. Due to its high iron content, jasper is most commonly red or ochre-yellow. Far less common are black, blue, or green colours. And yet here, from the ruins of a medieval church built at the site around 1150 and demolished around 1550 is a sea of green and greenish-blue jasper. More to the point, the wear patterns on it indicate that hardly any of these green and blue-green fragments were used for striking fires, although the few red jasper fragments in the assemblage- and all of the obsidian pieces-were used to make sparks. The question is, why were these green pieces brought to the site and why were they treated this way? Or, better, what did it mean to be “thinking green” in medieval Iceland? So far, the answer is looking far more complex, and far more interesting, than I’d expected.

Of these green stones, roughly 10% form a coherent assemblage of desilicified, soft pieces, light blue-green in color, that have been scraped and faceted with files, knives, or abrading stones. The actions taken on them are deliberate but their forms are each different, random and seemingly accidental. Their most likely explanation is that the objects in my hand are end-products of actions taken to obtain blue-green powder, and that was most likely intended for the production of blue-green or green ink, as Reykholt was a center of literary production through the Middle Ages. These humble pieces may, therefore, be our best material evidence for the action of clerics and secular writers at Reykholt, whose products include those of Snorri Sturluson himself, among them Heimskringla (the earliest history of the kings of Norway), the Poetic Edda (a manual of skaldic poetry and one of the main sources on Nordic pagan cosmography), and Egills saga (an important foundation of the Icelandic Family Sagas). Finding illuminated manuscripts in a collection of colored stones was the last thing I expected.

However, the majority of the other stones found in the fill and under the floors of this church are united simply by being green. Many are achingly beautiful jasper, like Song dynasty porcelain in color and texture, but were simply smashed into fragments to reveal the green interior and then discarded without any other traces of use. Another large group consists of small green pebbles, some of jasper and others of white chalcedony with a green surface rind formed from contact with iron-rich basalt in a reducing environment. From their surface contours, it is clear that some of these were collected from river or stream beds, others were obtained from eroded landscapes where they were faceted and worn by Iceland’s strong winds, still others were plucked directly from the roots of ancient volcanoes with basalt still adhering to their outer surfaces. An extensive survey of the region around Reykholt has shown that jasper of any kind is extremely rare there and nearly impossible to find in riverine, terrestrial or bedrock contexts. At Hestfjall, the nearest well-known jasper source, 30 km from Reykholt, red jasper is abundant. Although blue, green, and blue-green are present, obtaining it may require long searches, scrambles up vertical cliffs, or dangerous transects across steep and loose scree slopes. Bringing these simple objects to Reykholt, then, represents a considerable number of separate actions, undertaken in different places and variable settings, over a prolonged period of time, and potentially through a series of dangerous or at least difficult actions. Why? What was important about being green?

The answer may lie in the symbolic meanings of green and of jasper itself within medieval thought. Jasper was one of the twelve stones on the breastplate of Aaron, described in the Old Testament, and was among the foundation stones of the Celestial Jerusalem described in John of Patmos’ Revelation, and formed that metaphysical city’s walls. Numerous sources, from the Venerable Bede in 8th century England to Richard of St. Victor and Bruno of Segni, writing in 12th century France and Italy, make it clear that the term “jasper” itself was used to describe an opaque green or blue-green stone, not the more common red color that we associate with jasper today. Jasper was the symbol of faith and belief during this life, that, like green plants, grows and returns to life after hardship, never truly dying despite the troubles of earthly existence. Jasper was used, at times, as a symbol of Christ and, more frequently, as one of the symbols of Saint Peter…and the church at Reykholt was dedicated to Saint Peter.

An hypothesis starts to form. Are these green and blue-green pieces of jasper, gathered with difficulty from a potentially wide-spread landscape and deposited here in greater numbers than known anywhere else in Iceland, accumulated symbols of personal devotion? Are they materialized prayers to St. Peter, tokens of belief…or perhaps supports for belief under strain and supplication for his believed ability to turn away fever, to cure foot problems, to provide longevity, to aid harvests and harvesters, to provide support for fishermen, or to guide the souls of the deceased into heaven?

Two classes of stone objects, one used for pigment production and the other unused except for its acquisition, intentional destruction and sequestration within a church, are both joined primarily by color. Together, they suggest new approaches for understanding the pragmatics of religious practice in medieval Iceland, on the one hand, and the practice of illumination, on the other, in ways that could not have been expected from such humble remains.

Well, back to it! The rest of the assemblage awaits and with it opportunities to refute this emerging hypothesis or to find additional examples that may support it. Some days archaeology takes place in the field, others in the lab. This is one of those days. This weekend may have me scouring the landscape in search of new jasper sources…