A Day in the Palaeolithic

As a Palaeolithic specialist I don’t work for a particular unit rather I am subcontracted by different units as and when my expertise is required. As such my days can be quite varied depending on the project and what stage we are in. Currently I’m working on a well-known Palaeolithic site but I’m writing my DoA post a little early as I will be on a long overdue holiday on the 28th, something of a rarity for someone who is self-employed.

The site is being developed for housing but the proximity to a scheduled monument which produced hundreds of handaxes and other lithic finds in the 1970s makes this a site of high Palaeolithic potential, requiring the presence of a Specialist on site to carry out mitigation trenches and watching briefs.

My day starts on site at 8am where, along with a small team from an archaeology unit, we continue to work on the trench we started earlier in the week. The trenches are all located based on the results of targeted test-pitting we carried out earlier in the year. We are particularly interested in the Pleistocene gravel deposits as this is where the stone tools are coming from. The gravel, along with the artefacts, was deposited by the Thames approximately 475,000 – 425,000 years ago. It would be impossible to sieve all the gravel for finds so during the excavation one of my jobs is to identify samples from areas within the trench and the team set about sieving them.

To say the sieving is hard work would be an understatement. I have spent a lot of time sieving in the past but at 5 and a half months pregnant this is now something I find I cannot join in with. I feel momentarily guilty watching the team sweating already (it isn’t even tea break yet) but I have plenty of other things to be getting on with.

Hours of sieving

Tea break finally arrives and it is at this point I am accosted by the developers who want to know how we are getting on with the dig and how I am getting on with being pregnant whilst digging. There has been quite a lot of discussion about being pregnant in the field lately.  I have worked on this site and two others throughout my pregnancy so far and my experience has been quite varied. Without going into too much detail, it has been hard. In fact, this is my last week in the field before I hang up my trowel for a while. I may do the odd day over the next month or two but I can no longer stay away all week. I have mixed emotions about this. Part of me is relieved I have made the decision to stop. I’m tired and this is a very physical job. Climbing in and out of trenches in full safety gear is not easy when you are growing a human. The other part of me feels like a failure for ‘giving up’ now.

When talking about my day it is impossible not to talk about being pregnant. It is the first thing people talk to me about on site. To the team I am working with, it’s no big deal and I am very grateful to them for that. Yes they help carry my heavy kit and jump into the trench to measure or retrieve something to save me doing it but generally life has continued as normal. The other contractors on site however have made it very clear they don’t think I should be there which has made life quite uncomfortable over the past month. Today I have been asked again if I really think I should be here and it has been suggested I shouldn’t be in the trench. Fortunately they cannot stop me and I can get on with my job.

Bump and I having a much needed sit down.

After tea break, whilst the rest of the team get back to the sieving, I go through the tubs of possible finds they have identified. The team are getting very good at identifying the lithics now and we bag up the finds for them to be analysed back at the lab at a later date. Whilst the sieving continues (it really seems never-ending) I record the exposed sections and our day continues in this way until lunch and then onto 4pm when we call it a day. Just before the end of the day we had an exciting discovery in the watching-brief area. I haven’t been over there much today but one of the team found a handaxe. I consider myself a bit of a rarity in the Palaeolithic world as I’m not handaxe obsessed and I don’t spend hours in the pub discussing handaxes but there is something very cool about finding one on site and this is the second in three weeks. This handaxe was knapped over 400,000 years ago… cue a flurry of phone calls and some very happy archaeologists.

Potential finds waiting to be sorted.

At the end of the day I’m back to my nearby B&B to write up my daily report and go through photos etc. I’ve stayed in a variety of places in the past month but this place is pretty good. I have a microwave and a fridge which makes things much easier but sadly means I have to think of a good excuse to have fish and chips for dinner!

A New Day

Morning in York. A new day. A day doing archaeology. Not that many would recognise it as archaeology. I’ll be going through a pile of references on engaging young people in archaeology to help complete a report for the CBA. Do most archaeologists spend most of their time digging? No! We spend most of our time reading.

Just read on the BBC News website that some pot sherds from Xianrendong in China have been dated to 20,000 BP. The oldest pottery yet discovered. That puts British Neolithic pots into perspective.

Also just received a nice photo of an Acheulian hand-axe from Prof. Bae in Korea to help illustrate an article I’ve written for the Young Archaeologist magazine. The hand-axes at the Jeongok-ri site are made of quartzite. It’s very hard and tough to knap – I tried when I was out there last month. I have my poor attempt at a my very own hand-axe on my desk as a paperweight.

Another kind of human: researching Neanderthal archaeology

As I described in my first post, my research is on the last Neanderthals, a field I find fascinating through the ‘alternate universe’ of hunter-gatherer adaptations and lifeways they represent as a different kind of human. I’m a lithics geek, which means I study, in loving detail, the stone tools that Neanderthals made and which were fundamental to their everyday lives. My PhD involved looking at the evidence from Britain of the re-occupation by Neanderthals of this landscape around 55,000 years ago, after they had been absent for about a hundred thousand years. This meant in practice spending a year visiting a LOT of museums, to record information from over 1000 stone tools. This might sound like a big number, but in fact it’s a very small sample when you’re talking about sites which probably span over 10,000 years in time. Big French cave sites of the same period can have ten times that amount of lithics from a single occupation layer.

After this recording phase was another year (or two…) of data crunching to find out what the stones were telling me. The results showed that Neanderthals moving into Britain during a very unstable climatic period (termed Marine Isotope Stage 3; we’re now at Stage 1, and the last proper ice age was Stage 2) were living very mobile lives, with a highly organized technological strategy that promoted flexibility in their tool production and maintenance.  So where am I now two years later, on 29th July in 2011?

At the moment I have several different projects, and multi-tasking is definitely something as a researcher you need to get to grips with. I’ve just got back from three-weeks of fieldwork in Jersey, as part of a really exciting project called the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey, which will be featured in the first episode of the new Digging for Britain tv series. Although Jersey is a small island, it has a fantastically rich archaeological record.  We’re interested in the hunter-gatherers who lived there from the Neanderthals right up to the people who lived in the forested landscapes after the last ice age. My part in the project is to study the lithics (stone tools) from the upper layers of one of the most important Neanderthal sites in the world, a collapsed cave/ravine called La Cotte de St Brelade.

La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey. The original excavations were underneath and behind the rock arch, originally thought to be a cave until the roof of sediment collapsed in the early 20th century.