Friday is actually the day I do the least.

In a typical week, I am shattered by Friday morning. I’ve spent the week staring down a microscope, collected a lot images, and/or passed a couple afternoons staring at a green and white screen of the SEM. I have learned that it’s not good to spend too much time in the microscale. It’s important to remember that while the work I am doing is very detailed and requires a good bit of microanalysis, there also is a wider cultural component that is important on the macroscale. This morning, I have been reading some archaeological theory about the spread of ancient technology, operational chains, and the cultural importance of material production. This is the part I enjoy the least, but, as I’ve been reminded on several occasions, is just as important as the analytical details. In fact, there is little reason to even begin the analysis without a Bigger Picture reason for doing so.


Figure 1. This is my desk in its clean state.  That stack of papers is what I’ve been reading for the last 2 weeks. Usually there is a stone cold half-cup of coffee sitting there as well.




Actually, this is where the real work is done. All of the sample analysis and data collection would mean nothing if I didn’t spend many more hours pouring over the results, trying to tease out some sort of meaning from black and white images and long series of numbers. This is the part where I get to make charts! And data tables! This is the part I enjoy most.

In the afternoon, I was able to escape back to the lab and do some initial prep work for the petrographic work I am planning for next week. Here is the rig I am using:


Figure 2. I’m using a polarizing microscope with an attached video camera. There are four lenses from 4X to 40X, and the homogeneity of the concrete samples and variable particle sizes of the inclusions  mean that all lenses are useful at some point or another.


Before starting a quantitative point count, I take some time to get the know the sample. That involves having a look to see what the components are, if there is anything unusual about the sample, any unexpected components, etc. I take notes on a high resolution scan of the thin section and capture images of what I’m seeing down the eyepiece (you can sort of see an image on the screen there). For these initial examinations I usually work with the 4X objective lens and move up in magnification as needed. When I feel like I have a good idea what I’m dealing with, I set up the parameters I’ll need for the point count.

Figure 3. Here, I’ve mounted a computerized microstepper to the microscope stage, which moves the slide a specific distance. This way, I can be sure that the step distance between each is point is standardized and precise. The microstepper and PETROG software have been generously loaned to me for the duration of my research by the manufacturers.


At each point I identify and record what I am seeing with the 10X objective lens. The software allows me to record the data in a database for subsequent analysis. (I also keep paper records because the computer I am using is rather old and prone to crashes) What I’ve done this afternoon is program in the area of the thin section I want to count, the number of points I am aiming for (500-600), and the step distance (1 mm). Now I’m all set to do the full point count on Monday, which should take me about 6 hours.

When I’m finished with the microscope work, I will have generated a good description of the concrete fabric, recorded the size and nature of voids and cracks, and quantified the types of aggregate. I’ll also have a good idea which areas I want to target with finer detailed analysis with the SEM. All of this will (hopefully!) go a long way toward determining the original mix designs of the concrete, which I will compare across the site.

So that’s a typical Friday for me in the lab. A bit of reading, a bit of playing with data, a bit of exploration, and some planning for the week ahead. I have a few more samples to get through this summer and then I’ll be collecting more samples at the end of the summer. I am hoping to have everything analyzed by this time next year and to have my thesis submitted by the end of next fall. Fingers perpetually crossed.


A Freelance Archaeobotanist’s day

I’m an environmental archaeologist specialising in plant remains.  These are plant macrofossils ( not microfossils like pollen or spores). I look at the larger items -seeds, grains, chaff, wood, some tubers, other surviving plant parts. My lab is my spare room. I don’t need to use chemicals in my work so this is safe to do. The room where I work has the same sort of equipment and manuals I used while was employed by the Museum of London Archaeology Service. What I miss is the experience and guidance of John Giorgi and Anne Davis with whom I worked straight after my MSc in 1996 during my ‘apprentice’ archaeobotanist years.

Now I’m a freelance ‘journeyman’ I make up for lack of colleagues by making use of the Jiscmail Archaeobotany Mailing List (with many experience archaeobotanists on it from all over the world) and attending archaeobotany workgroups.  I have also visited the English Heritage archaeobotanists (Gill Campbell, Ruth Pelling and Dr Zoe Hazell)  atFortCumberlandto use their reference collection and ask advice. They’ve been extremely helpful and have a unique set up that I hope survives the cuts. I’ve also appreciated the advice and support of EH regional science advisor for the South-East, Dr Dominique DeMoulins. As a UCL alumni I’ve been able to arrange to use the seed reference collection built up over the years by many researchers, one being  Prof. Gordon Hillman who I was fortunate enough to be taught by for my MSc in the 1990s. I’ve enjoyed building up my own seed collection and herbarium. I have seed and wood anatomy manuals but nothing is a good as having a modern specimens to compare with an archaeological one.

Today I have ‘flot’s to sort for an assessment. This is good news as I had a three week gap in May/June and not enough money to go on holiday with during the heatwave. But I completed my 2011 tax return and cleaned out Thanet Archaeology’s flotation system during that time with plans to use it.

I work from home so the first thing I’ve done today is take a mug of triple Expresso to my study and login to my gmail account and switch on the radio.  I’m currently fond of Radio 5 Live -for the talk rather than the sport. The radio and gmail  will stay on all day unless I’m writing up a report.  BBC Player has become a good friend too. I do drop in on facebook. It makes up for some of the laughs and chat I miss from my employee days. It also reminds me what a unique thing I’m doing for a living today.

Today I’m assessing some English ‘flots’. ‘Flots’ are the light material that float into a fine mesh sieve when and environmental bulk sample is processed. These come to me in plastic sample bags in a box by post.  I very rarely get asked on site while samples are being taken. I would like to be as it would be good to see the preservation conditions and chat with the field team about the features and their sampling strategy. I’m also rarely the one processing my samples but I’m ready , willing and equipped to make site visits, take and process samples myself.  If I were on site or in the processing shed I could double-check labelling and record keeping. A hard dug sample is useless if the labels fall off  bucket or the bags split. I could also see evidence of bioturbation on site that I can only infer from the flot contents at present.

Assessment is the first stage of analysis of the plant remains in a sample.  I’m looking for abundance, species diversity and quality and type of preservation. This information will help me recommend which samples should be studied in more detail at analysis stage and estimate time and costs for that.

When I open a bag of flot I pour it into a measuring jar and if it’s very large and diverse I’ll sub-sample it through a riffle box. Whole or sub-samples of flot I pour through a stack of geological sieves. This makes it easier to see the plant remains. Sometimes I can just pour the flot from the measuring jug onto my petri dish. I use glass jars and dishes because plastic creates static electricity and items then to ‘stick’. I won’t have to sub-sample the flots I have today as many are too small to need sieving and a detailed count isn’t necessary for assessment.

First archbot-related email of today is from the Archbot Mailing List. It’s a message sharing an article about flora in the Near East. I’ll save it to read later. TheNear Eastisn’t my area but I can learn something from methodologies and you never know I may get the chance to go there and staff a flotation tank there one day.

What I’m seeing in these flots are fragments of roots, flecks of charcoal, terrestrial snails  and the occasional charred or uncharred seed or cereal grain. I’m recording these onto paper record sheets using a black biro ( I’ve heard the ink lasts longer on paper than pencil but I’ll look into that as there’s the plastic waste problem) while listening to Radio 4’s ‘Cabin Pressure’.  I don’t know much more about these samples yet as I’m waiting for strat and phasing info. This doesn’t always come at the same time as the flots but I’ll need them to write up the report next week.

11.55am -Yes! Some bread wheat grains in one of a series of pretty sterile flots so far. Negative evidence is as useful as positive evidence but it feels good to report back with some archbot finds – I hope it encourages the diggers to feel their sampling efforts were worth it. I’m starting to get samples from the area of England that my paternal ancestors came from – all agricultural workers so I have a kind of stakeholder link with these plant remains.

12.00 noon- nipping out for fresh air, daylight, human interaction and a quick lunch

1.05 pm -had a quick lunch at the Moonlight cafe reading the ‘I’ paper. Back home to hang up my shortie wetsuit (pool training for Sports Diver with Canterbury BSAC- I’ve dreams of taking my archaeobotanical skills to submerged cultural landscapes and shipwrecks via NAS and love aquatic wildlife anyway). Radio 4 ‘World at One’ and another flot to scan and record.

1.55pm -Just told a cold caller to leave me alone I’m working. Glanced at my emails – one from the IFA MAG group about the draft planning framework -will have to get my head round that soon- lots of worries there – developer funded arch hasn’t been perfect but has given me a job on and off for 14 years. Something a about assessments of arch from offshore windfarms (my ears prick up) and a wonderful PhD  with funding…in Orkney though (ears droop). Another from my Google search set-up telling me there’s something on ‘submerged prehistoric’ I could look up. But back to the flots for now. Radio 5 Live – the Murdoch empire.

2.37pm – Radio 5 – President Obama talking about the US debt crisis- I’ve just realised that this time last year I’d have done my archaeobotany for kids ‘pongs and potions’ Archaeological Detectives outreach with AMTeC co-op Ltd for Medway Children’s University.  It was cut.  My study should be smelling of remnants of pomander bead ingredients now.

4.00pm – cuppa tea …. Flot sorting’s going well. Next job will be data entry. I’m stopping at 5pm to go to a Kungfu class at Fighting Lions Martial Arts Academy in Whitstable. As I do a sedentary, solitary job I need to exercise regularly and it’s fun to do it with other people. Swinging a Chinese broadsword keeps my mattock muscles ready should I get the chance to go and dig.

So, that’s my day. When I first heard about the Day of Archaeology I wasn’t sure I’d be doing any archaeology on this day. I’ve no idea where I’ll be this time next year. I’ve no idea how I’ll be earning a living this September! I may go back on the supply teaching list for a bit if they’ll have me back. While I have work I’m looking for ways of keeping going in archaeology if I have gaps between projects of more than a couple of weeks – maybe funding to write a few papers in my own name and to help out in community archaeology projects. As it is you can’t preserve archaeologists in situ – but, to keep solvent I may have to put dust covers my microscopes and earn a living another way for a while. I hope not.