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A Brief Photo Essay: The Lithic Lab at the University of Bradford

4 Dec

As you can probably tell from a previous post I recently spent a day in Bradford catching up my good friend Natalie Atkinson, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford.  Natalie is currently researching microwear on lithics, investigating new ways in which to quantify and record data as a part of the Fragmented Heritage project (more on that below).  Whilst I was there I managed to take a few brief photographs of the lithic lab with my trusted Pentax s1a camera loaded with black and white 35mm film, which will be the focus of this entry with Natalie kindly modelling.  Although this post won’t be focused on bioarchaeology, it is pertinent to briefly mention it here as Bradford has, and continues, to play a vital role in the research and teaching of bioarchaelogy in the UK.

Initially there was a course that ran every 2 years at UCL during the 1980s that covered the study of archaeological human remains, taught by Don Brothwell, and a course at the University of Sheffield, run by Dr Judson Chesterman (the former is now the MSc in Skeletal and Dental Bioarchaeology run by Professors Simon Hillson and Tony Waldron).  In 1990 the universities of Bradford and Sheffield started to run a joint course (MSc Osteology, Palaeopathology and Funerary Archaeology).  This was initiated and taught by Professor Keith Manchester, alongside Professor Charlotte Roberts, the latter now at Durham University and running an MSc in Palaeopathology.  The course ran from 1990-1999, with Bradford now running the MSc in Osteology and Palaeopathology, and Sheffield running a course in Osteology and Funerary Archaeology.  The joint course has formed the basis for the development of many UK university masters courses on archaeological human remains.

I should perhaps also admit to a twinge of osteology envy here as the technical facilities and osteological reference collections at Bradford is perhaps one of the best in the UK, ranging, as they do, from the ability to analyse stable light isotopes on-site in a dedicated lab, 3D scan using a FARO laser, stock an extensive traditional and digital radiography equipment and x-ray library, and have the facilities for the carrying out of microscopy research, histological sampling and analysis.  Alongside this the department also hosts a human skeletal reference collection spanning from the 19th century to the Neolithic period.  (For further information on the history of bioarchaeology in the UK see Roberts 2006 & Roberts 2012 below).

But I digress!  This post is not about bones, it is about stones, about the physical artefacts produced and crafted by Homo sapiens and our ancestral hominins over hundreds of thousands of years, indeed millions of years.  It is also about a department of archaeology that specialises in the scientific study of the archaeological record.  Indeed it was this department that first introduced me to the joys of archaeology as a post-college but pre-university archaeology student-to-be.  It was here on the many itinerant trips to visit friends from home that I became aware of the great breadth and depth of the archaeological world.  Returning to it again reminded me of the sheer size of the department and of the many specialisms, and specialists, within archaeological science that the department is home to.

But this is a brief introduction of the lithics laboratory at the university rather than the department or of lithics themselves (although see some of the core texts such as Andrefsky 2005 & Keeley 1980 for detailed introductions to studying lithics).  It is pertinent to point out here that physical objects can also be considered to have lifespans, where, with the increased age of an object, comes the increased possibility of a extrinsic mishap and intrinsic fragility, i.e. accidents and/or breakages due to the deteriotation of the material used to construct the object.  As Crews (2003) mentions in his book on human senescence objects do not age biologically as plants or animals do, but they do age with use and wear.  This is highlighted when Crews (2003: 34) discusses this in reference to the lifespan of glass test tubes as researched in Medawar’s 1946 wear-and-tear theory, where it is possible to understand likely lifespans of objects based on observation and material studies.  This is an important point as artefacts in the archaeological record likely had a finite life, much as objects do today, such as T.V’s which can become quickly out of date or obsolete as digital technology changes and improves.

Lithics, or stone chipped tools, are often produced using flint or chert material and are knapped from source material (such as naturally occuring flint nodules or mines) to produce a wide variety of tools.  Perhaps some of the most immediate visual tools that are recognisible include the mighty handaxes seen in the Upper and Lower Paloaelithic periods down to the specialised microlithics of the Mesolithic and beyond.  These can of course have a range of different applications depending on the context of their use.  Lithics can also be retouched and reused as necessary, can be the product of mass produce or can be singular one-off productions (Andrefsky Jr 2005).  Use-wear analysis is a major academic and commercial focus today in understanding the role that lithics have played over their lifespans, from original use to final deposition within the archaeological record.  As such this mini photo essay presents the lithic lab at Bradford, home to this literal cutting edge technology.

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Remains of the day. Archaeologists can largely be found at one of three places: excavating in the field, typing in front of a computer or analysing in the laboratory. This is the lithics laboratory at the Department of Archaeological Science at the University of Bradford. It is a place where time spans hundreds of thousands of years as Neolithic flints mix with Palaeolithic handaxes, where the debitage of modern reconstructions lay in buckets beneath the technical knapping manuals.  Lithic analysis involves being able to recognise, re-piece and understand the production of lithic flakes from flint or chert nodules. The material produced can be as varied as projectile points, scrapers, burins or handaxes, depending on the aim of the original knapper. Lithics, as in the above photograph, are often stored securely and safely in archives accessible to specialists , museums and researchers, sometimes heading out for public display. Lithics survive particularly well in the archaeological and palaeontological record due to the robust material and natural composition.

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Analysing the physical artefacts of the past. Natalie takes a look at the fracture patterns and use  wear on one of the many lithics that the lab at Bradford holds in its store. It is important that, as well as the original lithics spanning many different period sites, that the researchers can carry out experimental work by knapping their own flint examples to replicate the methods that our ancestors used.  As a researcher on the Fragmented Heritage project Natalie will be investigating the tool use, production and object manipulation using imaging and analysing techniques.  This will involve the use of  the latest technology such as Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), laser scanning, CT scanning and 3D microscopy to help quantify use-wear analysis amongst other aims.  The doctoral project is partly experimental, but will also possibly use existing lithic assemblages from Spain, England, Kenya and Jordan from the Palaeolithic periods to investigate new methodologies in identifying and quantifying use wear.

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Projecting the past.  Natalie’s part in the Fragmented Heritage project is just one facet in this international research project. A second doctoral position will be looking at the post-depositional movement of archaeological remains, helping to implement new and existing methodologies in understanding the lithic microwear involved in identifying post-depositional signatures.  The Fragmented Heritage project is looking to improve the recording the scale and nature of fragmented remains in archaeological contexts, involving the use of new landscape survey technology to help highlight new hominid sites.  The partners of the project also include the Home Office (for forensic applications), Citizen Science Alliance , the National Physical Laboratory (measurement and materials science laboratory), Science Museum Group, and Historic Scotland.  The core project staff, from the University of Bradford, are Dr Randolph Donahue (lithic microwear), Dr Adrian Evans (quantification in lithic functional studies), and Dr Andrew Wilson (digitisation technology).

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An important part of any scientific research is the ability to document, describe and understand the implications of your research.  However you also have to be able to defend your research and accept or challenge new interpretations as necessary.  Archaeology may be stuck in the past but revolutions, both in the methods and use of new technology, and in the actual archaeological, or palaeoanthropological, records are coming thick and fast.  Researchers will come and go, but the artefacts and contextual information will, if stored correctly and safely, always be available to analyse and interpret using innovative methods to maximize the information  that archaeological sites artefacts hold.

This has been a brief foray into the world of lithic research at the University of Bradford but it has been eye-opening journey for me.  As an osteoarchaeologist I admit that I can sometimes become too biased towards the skeletal remains found in the archaeologically record, that I wonder what that person saw, felt and did in their lifetimes, that I can forget we have such a vast catalogue of physical artefacts stored at universities, institutions, museums and units across the world.

It is these artefacts that document the technology of previous populations – of how the individuals and populations adapted, responded and lived in their environments during their lifetime.  The study of these artefacts clearly benefit from new technological approaches, but they also benefit from holistic approaches and multidisciplinary influenced projects.  Perhaps most of all they benefit from researchers coming and going, sitting silently in their storage boxes waiting for their chance to tell their story of their lives, both during active use and deposition into the archaeological record.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr Adrian Evans for the permission to post the photographs here that are of the Lithic Lab at the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford.  Thanks also to Professor Charlotte Roberts for clarification on the history of bioarchaelogy in the UK.

Further Information

  • Further information on the Department for Archaeological Sciences, a part of the Faculty of Life Sciences, at the University of Bradford can be found here.  More detailed information on the two main core research strands (social and biological identities and archaeological sciences) can be found here.
  • Head over to lithic specialist Spencer Carter’s Blog at Microburin to learn about the identification and use of microlithics in the Mesolithic period (particularly in northern England).  Spencer has dedicated a few entries on the blog discussing his amalgamated methodology for processing lithics from archaeological sites and his set up for the photography of lithics to archaeological publication standard, which are very handy.
  • Check out Hazelnut Relations, a blog ran by archaeological researcher Marcel Cornelissen, to learn about studying lithics and use-wear analysis in a laboratory setting, and also to read about the author’s research into the European Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.  Marcel is also particularly keen on fieldwork so the blog entries are particularly interesting as they combine the joy of the field and the lab together.

Bibliography

Andrefsky Jr, W. 2005. Lithics: Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crews, D. E. 2003. Human Senescence: Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keeley, L. H. 1980. Experimental Determination of Stone Tool Uses: A Microwear Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, C.A. 2006. A View from Afar: Bioarchaeology in Britain. In: Buikstra, J. & Beck, L. A. (eds) Bioarchaeology: Contextual Analysis of Human Remains.  London: Elsevier. pp. 417-439. (Open Access).

Roberts, C. 2012. History of the Development of Palaeopathology in the United Kingdom (UK). In: Buikstra, J. & Roberts, C. (eds.) The Global History of Palaeopathology: Pioneers and Prospects. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 568-579. (Open Access).

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Guest Post: ‘Glass & Metal’ by Charles Hay

24 Oct

Charles A. Hay is currently aiming towards his next big adventure.  Prior to this he has worked as a field archaeologist throughout England for units such as Wessex Archaeology, Cambridge Archaeological Unit and the University of Sheffield.  He also holds an MA in Archaeology from the latter.  His writings, including investigations of philosophy and original short stories, can be found at his Human Friendly site alongside his numerous drawings, musings and photographs.  If you find him in a pub, he will be having a pint of Pendle or a good scotch.  If it is a working day, then a black coffee will do instead!  Charles has previously written for These Bones of Mine with a guest post titled Welcome to Commercial Archaeology: A Biased Introduction.


*

On a kind and warm day in the valley, the day after the mid-summer festival, the village children – they called themselves The Valley Pack – wandered lazily down the edge of the gently whispering river.  Their minds were slow under the gentle sun, and their sparse, familiar conversation was carried on the languid breeze.

Violet, the Pack leader, breathed deeply, the aroma of life through her lungs joined her to the world and she smiled, mouth closed, at every one of her friends.  She led because she was the oldest, and because her calm, philosophical and compassionate nature reminded them all so readily of the village leader.  That wizened old oak-tree of a man about whom nobody could bring themselves to speak ill, Noah.  Noah the Very, Very, Very Old, the children called him, his name turning into a chanting song.  The name would always raise the most beneficent, grateful smile in him.  Violet fancied herself as a like mind of his, and anyone who knew her would tend to agree, despite only having lived twelve summers and eleven winters.

Their mission today was simply to wander.  The adults were all hungover and bumbling after the festival.  Nobody needed much food that couldn’t be gathered, after the spectacular feast.  The old ones simply wanted to sit and enjoy their laziness, or their rekindled friendships, or their love.  The children had gathered together at sunrise, as they did on the rest-day, and they had followed Violet.  Their relief had been palpable when she had decided to walk the river rather than the ridge.  Walking the ridge made them feel adult and important, like warriors or drawers of maps, but by The Sun, it was tiring.

From the tops of the valley’s ridges, the children could see as far as was possible.  Noah said that the Earth was actually a ball, and that the horizon was not its edge.  When the children challenged him on this he picked up an apple and a seed.  He showed them how the further away from the apple the seed was, the more of the apple that seed could see.  The higher up the mountain you climb, he said, the further you can see over the horizon.  He held the seed at arm’s length from the apple and said that once, Man had seen the whole of Earth, so far away could humans once fly.  Why can’t we fly now, Noah?  At this, he would smile and tell them that sometimes humans lived in times when impossible things happened, and sometimes they didn’t.  This was simply the nature of eternity.  Violet knew, knew humans would fly again.  She had faith.

“Violet! Violet!” Karl splashed towards her from the middle of the shallow river, where he had been fiddling with stones.  She realised she had been watching him without awareness.  It was such a day, where the mind is completely un-preoccupied, makes no knowing straight lines; simply follows its own internal flow.  It took some real effort of will to focus her vision and bring alertness to her face.

“Karl! Karl!” She mocked, with a crooked, sardonic smile that she had been practicing all summer.  Her mother did it when her father attempted to be authoritative and she loved it.  “What is it? Dragonfly bite you too?”

Unusually for Karl, he was unflustered by her ribbing; he did not play up to her role this time.  He simply splashed over to her and slapped something into her waiting hands, the following arc of water made her blink.  It was like a stone but awfully regular.  It was mostly black and rectangular. Its two sides, flat and of equal size, were water-worn, like the fragments of multi-coloured, misty, translucent stone they found that Noah had informed them were made by flying men and called glass.

“It’s man-made,” she said with artificially disinterested certainty to Karl and, passively, to the others.  “It is made of glass, see?” Her blasé attitude however, was a thin veneer, and the longer she inspected the object, the more it tantalised.  Of white, metallic edges.  An indentation at the bottom of one side.  This could not be a tool; what could possibly be crafted with it?  She hit it against a rock.  It felt almost empty.  No; this would break if used for work.  She realised she had been holding it for some time and Karl was looking visibly distressed with impatience to get it back.  “Karl, remind me later, and we’ll take this to Noah, or my mother.”  She handed it back and Karl conspicuously scrutinised the point at which it had impacted the rock.  “What do you think it is, Karl?”

All the children were now staring at them both, fascinated with the object from the river and jealous of Karl’s new-found lieutenancy.

“I think…” he clicked his tongue and looked at the black, rectangular glass thing over and over.  “It could be a jewel? Or part of something else? This could be part of a contraption? A weight or something?”  His eyes implored to Violet, then directly to the object itself.

“I wonder what’s inside it,” said Kyle, who thought in recursive riddles that he often found difficult to communicate.  “It could… do something itself. It might not be a tool. It might be made of tools.”

Violet was patient with Kyle, and her eyes delved into his eyes to let him know that she at least would attempt to comprehend his mind.  He smiled nervously.  The moment was shattered by Dawnlight snorting, “and what would something so small do for anyone Kyle?”

Violet could not resist purpose.  She stood, and marched them back up the valley to home, and the quietly comprehending world of adults.  As they walked along the gently singing stream, the sighs of the breeze through long grass brought to Violet images of people in impeccable grace, regarding their opaque, senseless trinket with total comprehension, and she ached with her whole being to see the world through their eyes and to know it for what it truly was, and what it truly meant.

*

As it happened, Violet’s mother was strolling slowly with Noah.  Violet and her mother exchanged a small smile, their version of a heartfelt hug.  Noah regarded the squadron of children with mock incredulity, ready to launch into a joke-tirade and inquisition of action and intent.  His humour was instantly transformed into warm wonder though, when Karl presented his find.

“He found it in the river Noah; Mum. Didn’t you Karl?”

“I found it in the river. In the muddy bit beneath the rocks. It doesn’t do anything, we just wanted to… Sorry Violet.”

Violet smiled with affection; said, “it’s your find Karl, you tell them.”

Karl stuttered a bit before asking, “do you know what it is Noah? We wondered if it was a tool of the flying humans you said about, or if it was part of one of their con… con-contraptions. Contraptions.”  His expression flickered between pride and worry that he had used the wrong word.

There was something akin to comprehension on Noah’s face as he looked at the small box.  He murmured, almost totally inaudible, “twice the length of a thumb, made of glass and metal. I wonder if this isn’t some sort of… machine.”  He was talking to himself, in a way that those who knew him were completely accustomed to.  They also knew that to interrupt this vocal thought would result in mild irritation.

“Karl,” Noah said, his expression earnest and honest.  “This is either to fit in a hand or a pocket, but we cannot make use of it. It may have been part of something, as you said, or it may simply have been a good luck charm; a talisman.  It is rather fun simply to look at, isn’t it?  You keep it, young man, it’s yours.”  He gave it back, and Karl clutched it.  The mild disappointment was obvious on his face.

“I’m sorry, young man, you wanted an answer.  Well I’ll tell you this: that little box of yours was somebody’s at sometime.  The things it is made out of are what they made their world out of. Remember, glass and metal.  That’s what that is.  Whilst they kept use of things made of glass and metal, they changed the world for themselves.  They were more powerful than the river or the wind or even the enormous Earth.  With that in your hands, you are one step closer to all that than us.  You hold a fragment of a world in which humans were fearless and infinite.  Treasure it; you are holding history, and hopefully the future as well.”

Karl’s eyes were glassy with wonder now, and his expression did not change even when Noah quietly laughed internally and mussed his wiry hair.  He held the small black rectangle to his heart, not possessively, but as one would a small, tamed animal.

Watching and listening, Violet felt something new within her.  Her gentle fascination gave way to something else. She looked at Karl and his talisman, she felt… Yearning for this thing.  She chided herself for coveting this belonging of her good friend.  She tried to think only kind things, as she had been taught.  She tried to think of Karl’s happiness, and how that increased the happiness of the village.

But she wanted it, she knew.

She needed it.

*

Antiquity Photography Competition

3 Apr

The archaeological journal ‘Antiquity‘ has begun a wonderful photography competition.  The archaeology themed competition (think sites and artefacts) is seeking readers to send in their photographs for each issue of the journal.  In each issue the best two photographs sent in will be printed.  If you are talented behind the lens and make it into an issue, you are then up for ‘photograph of the year’, which if chosen as the overall winner, results in a cash prize of £500.

Photography (including the use of standard black and white film, alongside modern digital technology) is an integral part of the package of archaeology, and is used throughout the discipline in varying forms.  For instance the excavation of an archaeological site and its features (such as trenches, sections and pits) are often recorded by hand and by photography, whereas aerial photography aims to cover large distances relatively quickly, helping to show landscape variation at different times of the day/year.  Photography is also used up close to capture specific details and contours of artefacts, as well as used in surveying to record a landscape at different times of the year to highlight seasonal changes.

This is a great opportunity to show your skills behind the lens and to capture the feeling of a site or an artefact, and to present it to a wider audience.

To read the rules of the competition and submit an entry click here.

My example:

A deserted medieval village, near Hundisburg, Germany.  My archaeology-themed photograph of a site visit, as part of the Grampus Heritage's 2010 project in Magdeburg.

A deserted medieval village, near Hundisburg, Germany. My archaeology-themed photograph of a site visit, as part of the Grampus Heritage‘s 2010 project in Magdeburg.

An example not to follow:

Although a delightful pig, this is definitely not an archaeology-themed photograph.

Although a delightful pig, this is definitely not an archaeology-themed photograph.

I wish any participants the best of luck!