Archive | June, 2011

News: Amazonian Archaeology & Oldest AMH In SE Europe (Ukraine)

23 Jun

Amazonian Archaeology

Recently there has been a fantastic series on British Television called Unnatural Histories.  One episode in particular focuses on the Amazon rainforest and its past.  If you live inside Britain you can watch it here on BBC Iplayer.  If not, its called Unnatural Histories Episode 3: Amazon, please let me know if you find it elsewhere.

It details the history of the Amazon rainforest from 3 particular angles; the modern environmentalist perspective, the modern day people who live there and it also includes recent Pre-Columbian archaeological findings from ancient sites situated along the Amazon river.  Of particular interest are the massive amounts of earthenwork Geoglyphs being found alongside the Amazon river, and beyond in the forest.  Roughly dating from around AD 100 up until AD 1300, these monuments range in size, from the small to the sublime.  Sadly, these are often uncovered after the effects of deforestation.  The geogylphs are often found without many clues as to their function with little material remains associated with the sites, although they are most likely socio-religious meeting points.  Very interestingly, archaeologists have found numerous ‘roads’ which link up various sites.  At other sites alongside the river, mounds had been built up in which Pre-Columbian peoples lived atop of during the flooding seasons.

Brazilian Geoglyphs In The Amazon Rainforest

This is particularly exciting to me, as during my undergraduate degree course, very little archaeologically was said on the vast expanse of land that the Amazon extends over in South America.  This was in direct contrast to the vast tracts of archaeology that litter the dry, mountainous western side of that continent (Tinwanaku, Huari, & Inca civilizations etc).  The last 15 minutes of the show are fascinating as the sites found recently keep piling up, and as it also juxtapositions the past populations onto a map of the modern populations.  It is well worth a watch.

Oldest SE European Anatomically Modern Humans Found In The Ukraine

In other news, a recent PLoS ONE article discusses human and faunal remains from a Middle and Upper Palaeolithic site located in the Crimea, Ukraine.  This site has the earliest evidence of AMS dated modern Homo Sapiens, and also includes some very interesting mortuary practices.  The site is perfect as it has securely dated stratigraphy, distinct geological boundaries, alongside an impressive use of the multidisciplinary approach in its investigations and conclusions.

I will shortly write up a proper review on this entry.  In the meantime, the article can be found here:

Prat et al. 2011. The Oldest Anatomically Modern Humans from Far Southeast Europe: Direct Dating, Culture and Behavior’

‘Rip! A Remix Manifesto’

22 Jun

This documentary entitled ‘Rip! A Remix Manifesto‘ on copyright and content creation in the digital age, is definitely worth a look.  However you feel about copyright and its numerous problems in the modern age, this documentary help shows the viewer a little often seen look into various subcultures of both music and documentary music.  It also helps to highlight some of the pitfalls and legal troubles that people have unwittingly (or otherwise) landed themselves in.  I’d recommend you join in and watch film maker Brett Gaylor and the artist Girl Talk on a fascinating and interesting journey…



As a blogger, I understand that when I write an article or new blog out, it could easily be stole or misused.  However, I feel confident that the people who browse my blog merely want to learn and be informed (and entertained- I try!).  As such I always try and source my information or include a bibliography on the Human Osteology entries.  However, you can’t stop good ideas or patent thoughts or views.

I’ll shortly be updating the Skeletal Series next entry, in the meantime enjoy the video!

‘The Domestication of Britain’- Dating the Early Neolithic (4000 – 3500BC) in Britain

19 Jun

The Early Domestication of Britain

In the latest edition of the British Archaeology magazine (July August 2011), there is an exciting article on new research that is helping to shed light on new perspectives of the early neolithic in Britain.  The article, by Alasdair WhittleFrances Healy & Alex Bayliss, details how the team have commissioned new radiocarbon dates from various monuments of the early neolithic in Britain.  This has helped to  produce a detailed and clearer chronology of  how farming and new associated technologies & monuments (in this case causewayed enclosures) first spread throughout these isles.  For the first time in British archaeology the results have shown in depth how prehistoric events can be discerned at the generational level in the archaeological record.

The aim of this study is to refine the early Neolithic period in British prehistory.  The method used involved using 400 new and 1900 existing radiocarbon dates from sites around Britain and refined the results using Bayesian Calibration.  Simply put, the team used radiocarbon dates that have been calibrated alongside other lines of information such as stratigraphy, building design etc, to help inform them of the likely time of construction.

Typical Causewayed Enclosure

Causewayed Enclosures

Whittle (1999: 63) notes that no site in Britain gives a clear picture that covers the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, and that problems still remain in uncovering the exact moment of transition.  It has long been regarded that there were changes but also continuities between the Mesolithic-Neolithic divide; that nothing in the archaeological record is ever clear cut.  The article states that by around 4000BC the neolithic practises that first encroached in Britain had slowly become more widespread.  This is in conjunction with a sightly later expansion of causewayed enclosures that sprung up first in the Thames Estuary, but which then also slowly radiated outwards to slowly cover the full country.

The causewayed enclosures are important monuments in the record of the first few generations of farmers because they have long been recognised as significant places.  This is in terms of and evidence from- construction, labour, ritual feasting and landscape meaning, alongside the use of them as gathering and assembly places for the early Neolithic populations of this country.  This period of enclosure construction in Southern Britain lasted from around early 3700BC up until 3500BC.  The dates have shown that some, such as Hambledon Hill, were in use for 3 centuries whilst others, such as the large enclosure at Maiden Castle, lasted only for a few decades. The causewayed enclosures were soon also joined by the uptake of linear cursus monuments.

Neolithic Package & Back To The Beginning

Further research and elucidations on the nature of the societies, from the outset of the Neolithic, has shown that the rate or tempo changed in Southern Britain from the time of 4000BC to 3500BC.

The wider context changes occurring during this period (of the ‘Neolithic Package’ of cereal cultivation, animal domestication, pottery, leaf flint arrowheads, rectangular timber buildings, flint mines, flat axe heads, monuments) is the changing social dynamic.  It is theorised that small scale colonisation could have been the impetus behind the ‘Neolithic package’, but with much ‘subsequent interaction and fusion with indigenous populations’  (Whittle et al 2011: 20).

Although the causewayed enclosures were a step up in scale and complexity, they were not the first monuments to be widely built in Southern Britain.  Long Barrows and Cairns were first built around 3800BC, but unlike the swift and dramatic introduction of the causewayed enclosures, we do not know whether they were gradual or not.  The authors highlight this as a key and little studied research area (Whittle et al. 2011: 20).  The long barrows themselves though proved to be longer lived with examples of these monuments continuing to be built after 3500BC, perhaps representing long held kin affiliations.

Reconstructed Neolithic Stone Axe

Other examples discussed (or surges in developments) in the article include stone axeheads & pottery.  The circulation of polished stone axeheads throughout the country started just before 3700BC, with sources from the south west peninsula and South Wales being traded and exchanged throughout the country.  At this time the South-Western pottery style also developed. which had the distinctive use of gabbroic clay from the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall, alongside the Decorated Pottery style (Whittle 2011: 20).  These produces also had local and regional variations.  These examples help to show the communication and exchange channels open during the early Neolithic.


The article is well worth a read through, and the monograph of the causewayed enclosure dating will shortly be released alongside the radiocarbon dating project of early neolithic Britain.  The next 10 to 20 years will provide breakthroughs which will help revolutionize how prehistoric sites are dated, and the chronological framework that they fit into.  Patterns of society, and of independent sites will hopefully become clearer.  As the authors note much of the present work is provisional and they suggest that models, such as theirs, can be and should be improved upon.

The article itself will shortly be released online, accessible via the first link in this post.

Update – I’m sorry to say I cannot find an online edition of the article above, it seems CBA haven’t put it online!

  • A Guardian article with comments from Alex Bayliss (‘complete bollocks!’) on the new dates can be found here.


Whittle, A. 1999. ‘The Neolithic Period- 4000-2500/2200 BC’  in Hunter, J. & Ralston, I. The Archaeology Of Britain. Oxon: Routledge.

Whittle et al. 2011. ‘The Domestication of Britain’ feature. British Archaeology Magazine.  2011. July August. York: CBA.

Modes Of Transport

13 Jun

I have to agree with the writer Paul Theroux and his love of the train as the medium for travelling.  Although I have done nothing on his scale (read his books The Great Railway Bazaar or The Old Patagonian Express for a taste of his epic journeys) I, too, feel that the journey matters more then the destination.  I believe it to be a fine metaphor for life itself as well.

I found myself, as every Monday and Tuesday morning, pounding down the rail tracks on the way to York.  Half way through the journey I was joined by a bulky man sitting opposite me with a large camouflaged backpack,  bulging at the sides with this and that.  He flew at midnight tonight he said, six and a half hours to a land of camel spiders and the ever present threat of IEDs.  It was his second tour, six months long.  I wished him luck as he jumped out of the train doors at York station.

Replica Viking skates (credit: Hurstwic).

After a fast and thunderous wheel through the streets, I found myself at the archaeology base ready to start the day properly.  As normal the talk flowed easy and well through a variety of topics.  The big talking point of the day was the fact that Alice Roberts was on site to film for her Digging For Britain TV series.  The topic was Viking age York, and is due to be shown sometime around mid to late Summer on the BBC.  Although we didn’t really get to talk to her it was interesting to see archaeology being filmed for the masses.  Archaeological education and entertainment outreach helping to invigorate the youth of tomorrow, just as the summer season of excavations begin across the country.

After this brief interlude of celebrity archaeological intrusion, we carried on cleaning finds.  One of the more interesting finds today was the finding of a single Viking animal metatarsal skate.  As described on this interesting site, the skates (likely 10th Century AD) were used as a form of transport across ice during winter, and were tied on using leather thongs whilst the user pushed themselves across the ice with the probable help of two wooden poles.

On the example I helped clean, it was clear that the skate probably hadn’t been worn much as the underside was little worn.  Nevertheless it was interesting to see such an artefact in the flesh having only heard of them from other Scandinavian sites, both historic and prehistoric.

Viking skates made from bovine metatarsals in York (Image credit: YAT).

On my journey back to the railway station I passed the modern population of York and thought of those that had gone before.  The current site at Hungate criss crosses many different historic slices; from 3rd to 4th century AD Roman Eboracum, Viking Jorvik, to the later Medieval and Post Medieval city of York.  It is easy to think of past populations as pieces of pottery, discarded brick or tile but this not always the case.  As the quite frankly massive Lloyd Bank Coprolite shows, sometimes even the shit survives the journey through time!

The journey home was as pleasant a train ride as I’ve had.  I was thankful that the train slowed several times during the trip, as I had chance to look at and admire the Medieval agricultural technique of the ridge and furrows.  They are found throughout the North East, the landscape relics of a bygone age.  Today only the cows were happily lying down on them and chewing the grass.

Cows on the ridge and furrows, a feature of the medieval landscape and agricultural practices.

Blog News, Views & Reviews

12 Jun

It has been a pretty busy past week or so since I last updated the blog.  As usual I’ve been volunteering in the wonderful city of York, but I’ve also taken the chance to go back and visit my old university friends back in Hull for a few days.  The next post in the Skeletal Series will be added shortly.

In the meantime I’d thought I’d present what blogs I read around the web concerning archaeology and human osteology.

My first port of call is the always informative Powered By Osteons blog by Kristina Killgrove.  Dr Killgrove is a biological anthropologist over at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, whose PhD dissertation on mobility and migration in ancient Imperial Rome, can be found here.

One of her latest entries is an edition of Four Stone Hearth.  Four Stone Hearth is a bi-weekly anthropological blog carnival that is hosted on different blog sites each time.  Each edition has links to a number of articles written by various people.  The articles are often interesting, informative and capture the full plethora of all things anthropological.

On the most recent FSH edition, the palaeoanthropologist John Hawks has a weblog entry on his adventures in Rome detailing the relationship between the anthropologist and death.  This entry from Hawks is beautifully wrote and runs the gamut from ancient to modern populations and perceptions how death is remembered and presented.  Hawk’s weblog includes regular updates (I don’t know how he finds the time!) as well as an extensive back catalogue of blog entries, alongside a dedicated database of articles and where to find them on the internet.

Meanwhile over at Bones Don’t Lie, we have Katy Meyers articles on mortuary and bioarchaeology news.  Quite often fascinating and interesting updates, the blog also details her own research interests as she pursues a PhD at Michigan State University.

Anna’s Bones details the thoughts and journeys that the PhD student Anna Barros (at UCL) has gone through, and it is thoroughly recommended.  Her blog entries are vibrant, elegant and are wonderfully evocative.  Although it can be a while between posts, each one is worthy of several re -reads.  In particular her ‘Stripped‘ series discusses her own personal body idiosyncrasies, and her feelings and tribulations through her life.

Lastly we come to a site I have only recently found, as both myself and Confusedious have exchanged various comments and articles when discovering one another’s blogging sites.  The Confusedious science site deals with interesting views and articles on a full range of biological and anthropological subjects.

This, for the moment, brings this entry to a close.  The above are the four main blogs I often read, alongside the mainstream news and archaeological magazines & journals (when the articles are free!).  A full list of websites I frequent, support or am interested in, can be found to the bottom right of this site itself.

Clearly They Are Apes Though...

‘You Are What You Ate’ Bioarchaeology Outreach At The University of Bradford

3 Jun

Today I attended the free osteology workshop ‘You Are What You Ate’ at the University of Bradford.  The short course, and the project itself, is ran by the Universities of Leeds & Bradford, and is supported by both the Wellcome Trust and Wakefield Council.

Project Logo And Some Carious Teeth!

The aim of the short course is to introduce the public to what archaeologists use human remains for. The education outreach has a set of stated aims which are to:

* Engage the lay public in human osteology;

* Show the effects of diet on teeth and jaws;

* Compare patterns of medieval oral health with modern oral health, and to see what lessons can be learned;

* Raise awareness of the ethical treatment of working with human remains.

Medieval Tooth Wear (UCL Website)

Today’s session (the 2nd of 3) focused on teeth, and also on the bones that anchor the teeth, the mandible and maxilla.  The day consisted of a lecture on the importance of healthy teeth, alongside a study of the various diseases and processes that can affect tooth development during their formation and gained from diet & use of teeth.  We learnt about how teeth are formed, their function, what happens when teeth fall out; alongside the various diseases that can affect teeth including caries, dental abscesses, calculusenamel hypoplasia, plaque, periodontal disease, & malformation.  The second part of the day consisted of getting to grips with actual British Medieval human remains, and noting and observing the diseases and wear & tear present on each sample.  The format worked very well as we were allowed to wander around freely, talking to other volunteers and receiving talks from the professionals (Dr Alan Ogden & Dr Jo Buckberry) alongside some PhD students and masters students.

There was a range of volunteers who had decided to take part in this session from all walks of life.  After talking to several of the other volunteers I understood the importance of work such as this, where work and research was brought to public attention.  It was a joy to hear how much the participants had enjoyed the day, how much they had learnt, and the importance of archaeological research with human skeletal material.

The Origins of Tuberculosis & Smallpox

3 Jun

The following articles cited were brought to my attention by the good work of Confusedious: A Science Blog, and his entries on TB and its  possible origin.

Surprising Origins of Tuberculosis & Smallpox

Recent genetic investigations into the origin of the above diseases, of the chromosomes in TB and the study of smallpox’s ‘biological clock’, has revealed interesting information regarding their origin.   TB and Smallpox were previously thought caused or at least had its early origins during the domestication of animals, and by the dense urbanisation of human populations, first seen during the Mesolithic to Neolithic transition (Tuberculosis- Barnes et al 2011, Larsen 1997, Roberts & Manchester 2010, Smith et al 2009, Smallpox- Li et al 2007, Waldron 2009).

Compression Of Vertebrae As An Effect Of TB

Tuberculosis was originally thought to be spread from bovine at the period of domestication, with the strains M. Tuberculosis and M. Bovis to be considered the main organisms for TB infection in humans.  New genetic research has led to distinguish that M. Tuberculosis did not evolve from M. Bovis at the time of domestication of animals as a direct zoonosis; however it must be remembered that ‘it is probable that a necessary condition for its transference from animal to human is the close association between the two’ (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 184, Smith et al 2009).  I’d imagine the intensification of the Neolithic domestication undoubtedly led to higher rates of cross-species infection.  Research has also shown that the Mycobacterial Tuberculosis strain appeared some 15,300-20,400 years ago, well before the domestication of the earliest animals (Roberts & Manchester 2010: 185).  However there is no doubting the record that during the Neolithic, and up to the present day, that TB has damaged numerous lives.  The effects of TB on the human body can produce results found in osteological remains (Waldron 2009).  This will be discussed in a later blog entry on diseases found in human bones.

The threat of smallpox, a unique infectious disease to humans, was wiped out in AD 1980, but its origins are mysterious.  As Roberts & Manchester (2010: 181) note smallpox (Variola major or minor) ‘would obviously need highly populated urban areas for its success…and it is unlikely it was a problem until urbanization occurred’.  Recent genetic investigations into the origin of the Variola major/minor have discovered that it likely diverged from an ancestral African rodent-borne Variola-like virus either 68,000 to 16,000 BP (Li et al 2007).  However, it is well known that in its most virulent form in humans as smallpox, it has ravaged human urbanised populations for at least 2000 years, and is definitely dated to 10,000 BP.  Curiously, from documentary data and archaeological data, it seems there is a particular lacking of recorded smallpox cases in ancient Greece and ancient Rome (Roberts & Manchester 2010).

The Effects of Smallpox Decimated The Americas When The Europeans Helped Spread the Disease in the 16th Century, As Depicted In This, The Florentine Codex.

New genetic data is providing the backdrop for how infectious diseases spread, and more about their origin.  It is also helping scientists develop past population pathways for infection routes and rates (Jurmain et al 2011).It is apparent that new genetic data has opened up a whole raft of new research potentials into the origins and evolution of tuberculosis, and the relationship before, during and after the domestication of animals.


Barnes, I.Duda, A. Pybus, O. G. Thomas, M. G. 2011. ‘Ancient Urbanization Predicts Genetic Resistance To Tuberculosis’. In Evolution. 65 (3): 842-848. Blackwell Publishing: London.

Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Li, Y. Carroll, D. S. Gardner, S. N. Walsh, M C. Vitalis, E. A. & Damon, I. K. 2007. ‘On The Origin of Smallpox: Correlating Variola Phylogenics with Historical Smallpox Record’. In PNAS. 104 (40). October 2nd.  15,787-15,792.National Academy of Sciences: Wisconsin.

Roberts, C. & Manchester, K. 2010. The Archaeology of Disease Third Edition. The History Press: Stroud.

Smith, N. H. Hewinson, R. G. Kremer, K. Brosch, R. & Gordon, S. V. 2009. ‘Myths and Misconceptions: The Origin and Evolution of Mycobacterium tuberculosis’. In Nature Reviews: Microbiology. Vol 7. 537-544. Macmilan Publishers Limited: London.

Waldron, T. 2009. Palaeopathology: Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.