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Conference Review: Day of the Dead Conference at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, 17th-19th October 2014

31 Jul

As highlighted in an earlier blog post (alright, this post is quite late!) on this site Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), in Northern Ireland, recently played organizer and host to the Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology conference on the 17th to the 19th October 2014.  Yours truly went along on a propeller plane departing from Newcastle across the Irish Sea to Belfast to what turned out to be one of the best conferences that I have thus far had the pleasure of attending.  It was a conference that aptly and ably mixed funerary archaeology with human osteoarchaeology into a delicious few days that demonstrated the strength and wealth of ongoing research.  Of particular interest was the current human osteoarchaeological research on-going in Ireland itself, but we’ll come back to that shortly.  This brief post will cover a few of the research highlights of the event itself, and I hope it is a conference that will be repeated in the not-too-distant future.


The 19th century Lanyon building, at the centre of the Queen’s University Belfast campus in the south of the city, a fine host building for the conference. Home to some more than 17,000 students and 3500 staff, the university and it’s School of Archaeology, Geography and Palaeoecology boasts the facilities of a radiocarbon laboratory with AMS facilities. Photograph credit: QUB.

Spearheaded by Catriona McKenzie and her able assistants (the fantastic Deirdre Drain, Jeanna Loyer, and Roisin O’Reilly) from the Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology department (GAP) at Queen’s University Belfast, the Day of the Dead 3-day conference attracted delegates from around Ireland, Europe, and the wider world to present poster and podium papers on a smorgasbord of bioarchaeological topics.

Archaeothanatology Workshop

The conference kicked off with a workshop on the archaeothanatology methodology on the first day, which was spearheaded by Stéphane Rottier, Christopher Knüsel and Jeanna Loyer.  Archaeothanatology, or the similar anthropologie de terrain, is a method of recording the in-situ position of the body in the grave as proposed by the French archaeologist and anthropologist Henri Duday.  Unfortunately I did not get to attend the workshop itself as I arrived in the city mid-way through the first day, whilst the workshop itself was in mid-session.  However, I heard from friends that did manage to attend it that much was learnt regarding the importance of understanding the context of the body in-situ.  Of particular importance are the differences between coffin and non-coffin burials, where the position and rotational axis of certain skeletal elements, such as the humerus, radius and ulna, can indicate funerary and post-burial taphonomic body positions.

I managed to have a quick word with Chris Knüsel, who helps to advocate the use of the methodology, and he gave me a quick break down of what the methodology hopes to achieve. Archaeothanatology, Chris stated, ‘links bioarchaeology with funerary archaeology in a way that has never previously been considered.  It has the potential to distinguish natural phenomena from human agency and to reveal behavioural details of much more variable patterning of human remains than anticipated from burial types.  The methodology does require sound field recording of the archaeological and bioarchaeological contexts however for the full implementation and usefulness of the methodology to become apparent.

For further information and a good introduction to archaeothanatology, whose majority of publications have been written in French, I highly recommend Bradley’s 2010 open access article ‘Les Tomes Belle: The Use of ‘Anthropologie de Terrain in Prehistoric Archaeology‘, published in the University of York’s student journal The Post Hole.  I also recommend Katy Emery Meyer’s Bones Don’t Lie blog article on the inference of perishable grave goods in a prehistoric Bronze Age and Iron Age cemeteries in Ban Lum Khao and Ban Non Wat, Thailand, respectively, on Harris & Tayles 2012 research using archaeothanatology.  For a recent look at how archaothanatology, when used in conjunction with taphonomy, scanning electron microscopy, histological analysis, and Micro-CT scanning, is unraveling social practices in prehistory I highly recommend reading Smith’s et al. 2016 (paywalled) article on the British evidence for mummification and retention of the dead around a Chalcolithic and Bronze Age monument at Cranborne Chase, Dorset.

It should also be stated here that anthropologie de terrain underpins archaeothanatology, however there is some confusion on my part as to whether the methodologies are analogous due to translation intricacies or whether archaeothanatology is the natural progression of anthropologie de terrain.

Conference Sessions & Related Papers

The papers were presented over 8 sessions over the weekend of the 18th and 19th October, and dealt with a number of different themes relating to human osteoarchaeology in general.  I won’t go into detail regarding the papers presented but I will pick out a presentation or two to indicate the range of the topics.  I have to say I was quite impressed at the standard of the research presented and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the conference as a whole.

day of the dead

The really rather lovely logo for the Day of the Dead  conference. Image credit: QUB.

It was also a real credit to the organizers of the conference that such a wide number of European and international countries were represented.  Of course one of the best things for any conference attendee who has to pay their own fees is the realization that a conference that is affordable is also filled with some of the best researchers in the field.  But anyway, enough of my praise and let me introduce a talk or two…

Osteoarchaeology in Ireland

After a welcome talk by Catriona McKenzie and Eileen Murphy the first session got underway and focused on the topic at hand within Ireland.  The chronological period covered here largely focused on the medieval and post-medieval history of Ireland, but Catriona McKenzie did present recent research  on the health and disease status in adults from a population analysis of the Gaelic Irish cemetery site of Ballyhanna, County Donnegal.  The cemetery was in use from the 7th century AD to the 17th century AD and has so far revealed the skeletal remains of over 1300 adult and non-adult individuals, making it one of the largest native medieval collections in Ireland.

On the other end of the spectrum Jonny Geber introduced the bioarchaeology of childhood during the Great Irish famine (AD 1845-1852), with a particular focus on the ‘experienced realities and institutional care of children in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse‘.  This was a hard-hitting talk focusing on the origins, impacts and repercussions of the Great Famine through the non-adults of the workhouse and the remains uncovered within a number of mass graves at the site.  Importantly the talk presented ‘a “dialogue of evidence”, the story of the often invisible disenfranchised and socioeconomically marginalized populace of Ireland during a period of severe suffering’ (Gerber 2014, presentation abstract).  This is the human experience as recognized through osteological and documentary evidence, and stands as a testament to one of the most profound events in Irish history.

Grave Concerns

The next session focused on the graves of the dead and introduced a wider range of topics from prehistoric Europe, with a strong focus on Hungarian archaeology.  One of my favourite presentations in this session was the evidence for physical aggression and a possible putative leprosy case from a Copper Age mass grave at Abony, Hungary, dated to 3800-3600 BC belonging to the Proto boleráz phase, as presented by Kitti Köhler.  I was quite impressed by the inclusion of a 3D model which really highlighted the importance of visual understanding of archaeological contexts and palaeopathological features.  Also discussed in this session was a presentation by my good friend Jennifer Crangle on English medieval post-burial funerary practices, which should be no surprise to blog readers here due to my posts on the charnel chapel at the Rothwell Holy Trinity church which helped form a key part of Jennifer’s research and talk.

People & Places

This shorter session contained a talk given by Thomas Khador focused on Carrowkeel, a truly remarkable Neoltihic passage tomb complex located in County Sligo, where his team analysed 39 individuals found at the site.  Interestingly the remains of the individuals were excavated from the Carrowkeel complex in 1911 but subsequently disappeared for nearly a century before being rediscovered again.  Osteological and stable isotopic analysis indicated that the individuals may have had selective access to the passage tombs (certainly in death but possibly in life as well), which raises questions for the social mobility and social networks during the Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods for Ireland and Atlantic Europe.  There was also a keynote talk by Barra O’Donnabhain titled Anglo-Saxons and Celts: Race, Science and the Irish which was thoroughly thought-provoking, discussing as it did the legitimization of history, identity and selective narration.  This was tied in with the discipline of bioarchaeology and the resilience of some of the older narratives within it.

The Archaeology of Death

Another broad ranging session, from ancient Egyptian body manipulation to Far Eastern Neolithic shell middens in island archaeology.  Also introduced were two talks on the archaeothanatology methodology, with a talk by Emma Green on the application of the principles to identify funerary processes, in this case the use of coffins in burials.  Her research, presented in conjunction with Elizabeth Craig-Atkins at the University of Sheffield, focused on the middle to late Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Sedgeford, in Norfolk, England.  She emphasized the important of accurately recording the archaeology in the field as it is uncovered, using not just context sheets and drawings, but also film and digital photography to ensure each details can be accurately recreated within the analysis and investigation of the research.

Life Before Death

Osteoarchaeologists, dealing with the bones of individuals who may have died hundreds, sometimes thousands of years before analyze them, can sometimes forget that what we view is the culmination of a life lived and all that entails.  This session introduced the study of the individual and the population, with presentations on Roman York by Lauren McIntyre which provided evidence on the demographic composition of the city.  (For those interested in Lauren’s work, and the life of a human osteologist in general, can also read a previous interview with her on my site here).  Ylva Bäckström presented the osteological analysis of a 16th century cemetery from the Sala Silver Mine in central Sweden, highlighting the social composition and differing treatment given in funerary contexts.  The analysis indicated a prevalence of fractures among the burials in earthen graves compared to the burials of individuals within coffins, suggesting one special social category as discussed in written documents; those known as war prisoners.

Population Health

I was particularly intrigued by a few talks in this session, specifically the talk led by Abigail Ash and Ron Pinhasi entitled Difference in Uniformity: Health and Stress in Early Farming Communities, which focused on the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik culture (LBK) and their geographic spread.  Their investigation into the geographic spread of the LBK and use of five representative skeletal populations (for a total of 516 individuals) highlighted palaeopathological changes (non-specific indicators of stress) indicative of differing behaviour between population stress levels within one cultural group.  You can read the open access 2016 article on the results here.  I should state here that my MSc research investigated mobility and social stratification (particularly evidence for the practice of patrilocality) within the LBK of central Europe, so I took a great deal of interest in this talk.

Open Session

This session introduced a number of really interesting talks ranging from analyzing markers of occupational stress by Roisin O’ Reilly, one of the conference organizers, to a multivariate approach to sex determination in ancient and modern pelvis by Samuel Rennie and James Ohman (pleasantly titled ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, which made me chuckle).  The multivariate approach bamboozled me a little at first as the module I did in statistics for my MSc was hard-won, but Samuel quickly demonstrated the importance of the research presented, both for palaeoanthropological and archaeological contexts but also for forensic contexts in the ability to determine the sex of an individual with a 95.65% without a priori knowledge of sex in some instances.  This is definitely one to watch and I am excited as to where this research is heading.

Ethics, Legislation & Reburial

The conference ended with a session on the ethics, legislation and reburial aspects of osteoarchaeology, with talks from Caroline Bennett on the changes of excavation human remains, from once living breathing individuals to archival objects and documents of a past long gone.  This was a thoughtful talk and I really enjoyed being able to think morally and ethically the value of human remains, especially in consideration of the previous talks of the conference as a whole.  In essence this was considered breathing space in order to understand what we do and why we do, the impacts of the job and the value of it.

Catching Up & Saying Goodbye

Whilst I was in Belfast I also made sure that I met up with a fellow (and prolific) blogger Robert M. Chapple, an Irish archaeologist (now retired and happily working in IT) of some repute.  It was with great pleasure that I got to chat to him about Ireland’s archaeology, history and the general state of academia over a delightful meal with the man himself.  (And I must say I owe a debt of gratitude for the free meal, and I aim to pay it forward to the younger generation of archaeologists at my next conference, if I can!).  If you have haven’t already I heartily recommend that you take a look at Robert’s own site, pull up a seat and have a good read – it really is an awesome place to become acquainted with the richness of Ireland’s archaeology and history, complete with personal touches and exciting first hand experiences.  Robert also keeps a downloadable database record of Irish Radiocarbon and Dendrochronological Dates (IRDD), click the link to the website to delve into more than 8000 radiocarbon determinations and more than 300 dendrochronological dates.

As well as catching up with old friends at the conference I also got to meet a host of new friends, including Laura van der Sluis, a doctoral candidate at GAP at QUB who is currently researching 6000 years of subsistence of human populations at Limfjord, Denmark, from the Mesolithic period to the Viking period utilizing stable isotope analysis.  Laura’s research will also analyse the evidence for palaeomobility and changes in palaeodiet in an effort to determine if the availability of marine resources helped to drive cultural changes as recorded in the coastal archaeological record.  I had the joy of talking about the above methods and the laboratory facilities at QUB with Laura whilst taking in the ambient cool October night around the campus and surrounding streets.  Of interest to readers of this site is Laura’s latest co-written research article presenting the results of a palaeodietary analysis of a multi-period (AD 9th to AD 18th centuries) churchyard in Stavanger, Norway, using carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulphur isotopic analysis which indicated a change in diet due to changing religious beliefs and related dietary restrictions.

So all in all I am very glad that I made the short hop across from England to Northern Ireland to attend this rather beautiful conference in Belfast, as I was struck by the very real wealth of Ireland’s history of bioarchaeological investigation and research.  I hope that certain sites and skeletal populations become wider known within British archaeology as a whole as I felt I was discovering it anew.

Lose Yourself (In Mud): An Annotated Guide to the Archaeologists Rap

9 Feb

The following post presents a hopefully humorous lyrical remix of Eminem’s hit Lose Yourself, a rap song released in 2002 on the soundtrack of the film 8 Mile.  8 Mile is an autobiographical film based on the early life of the rapper Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers III), who also plays the lead character in 8 Mile.  The film chronicles the early struggles he had to break into the world of rapping, alongside the growth and development of his unique style among the underground ‘rap battles’ where reputations are forged and broken.  A significant character in the film is the setting itself, the old economic powerhouse city of Detroit, in Michigan, USA, which, following the collapse of some of its major motor industry, helps forge the identity and background of the characters in the film.  The ‘8 Mile’ of the film title refers to the 8 Mile Road (part of the M-102 highway) in Detroit, which bisects different suburbs of Detroit and is home to the main character, and is used in this instance to typically refer to the split between the economic and racial divide on each side of the road.  The original song is linked via a Youtube video below, so please do familiarize yourself with the flow of the original rap and then take a read through my light-hearted lyrical remix.  Although an attempt at archaeological humour, this post none-the-less raises some pertinent issues facing the archaeological researcher and excavator.

Source Material

Eminem’s song Lose Yourself can be found on the soundtrack to his autobiographical film 8 Mile, both of which were released in 2002.  No copyright infringement is intended and the original lyrics remain the property and copyright of their owners.  The basis for the lyrics of the original song used below have been taken from the AZLyrics website, see the version I used here.  This remix is only intended for educational purposes on the life of the archaeologist.  The video to the song can be found below (please be aware that there is some strong language in the song):

Lose Yourself (In Mud): A Rap Remix

– Intro –

‘Look, if you had, one trowel and one context sheet,
To record everything you ever wanted in one excavation or stratigraphy (1),
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?

Verse 1

‘His palms are sweaty, knees weak, diggers arms heavy (2),
There’s vomit on his hi-vis already (3): mom’s spaghetti,
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready,
To drop GPS points but he keeps on forgetting,
What he wrote down, the whole road crew goes so loud,
He opens his mouth but the words won’t come out,
He’s choking, how? Everybody’s joking now (4),
The digger’s getting closer, time’s up, over – diesel wow!
Snap back to reality, oh, there goes the ground,
Oh, there goes safety helmet, he choked, he’s so mad but he won’t,
Give up that easy nope, he won’t have it, he knows
His whole back’s to these trenches, it don’t matter, he’s gonna cope,
He knows that, but he’s bone broke (5), he’s so stagnant, he knows
When he goes back to this temporary site home, that’s when it’s
Back to the field again, yo, this whole rhapsody,
He better go record this context and hope it don’t pass him.’


‘You better lose yourself in the field, the moment,
You dig it, you better never let it go (go)
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to record,
This context comes once in a lifetime (yo)
‘You better lose yourself in the field, the moment,
You dig it, you better never let it go (go),
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to sketch the trench,
This context comes once in a lifetime (yo).
(You better).’

Verse 2

‘The soil’s escaping, through this bucket that is gaping,
This Iron Age world is mine for the taking,
Make me a tribal king, as we move towards a Roman world order (6),
A field life is boring, but superstardom’s close to post-excavation (7),
It only grows harder, co-workers grow rowdier,
He drinks. It’s all over. These back-hoes is all on him,
Coast to coast shows, he’s known as the globetrotter (8),
Lonely digs, God only knows,
He’s grown farther from the department, he’s no researcher,
He goes home and barely knows his own publication record (9),
But hold your nose ’cause here goes the cold water,
His back-hoes (and other associated fieldwork tools) don’t want him no more, he’s ex-excavator
They moved on to the next fully-funded dig,
He nose dove and sold nothing of his previous book,
So the soap opera is told and unfolds,
I suppose it’s old partner, but the troweling goes on,
Da da dum da dum da da da da…’

(Back to Chorus/Hook)

Verse 3

‘No more minimum wage, I’m a change what you call pay raise,
Tear this mothertrucking tarp off like two dogs caged,
I was back-filling in the beginning (10), the mood all changed,
I’ve been chewed up and spit out and booed off site,
But I kept recording and stepped right into the next minivan,
Best believe somebody’s playing the repeat record,
All the pain inside amplified by the,
Fact that I can’t get by with my 7 to 5,
And I can’t provide the right type of life for my family,
‘Cause man, these muddy boots don’t provide no good loots (11),
And it’s no Indiana movie, there’s no Jane Buikstra (12), this is my life
And these times are so hard, and it’s getting even harder
Trying to feed and water my underfunded project, plus
Teeter totter caught up between being a teacher and a part-time researcher,
Baby, student’s drama screaming on at me,
Too much for me to wanna stay in one spot (13),
Another day of digging’s gotten me to the point,
I’m like an arthritic snail,
I’ve got to formulate a theory, a methodology or an application,
Single context recording is my only archaeological option, failure’s not,
Site leader, I love you, but this trailer’s got to go,
I cannot grow old in Parker Pearson’s lot (14),
So here I go it’s my shot.
Feet, fail me not,
This may be the only excavation that I got.’

(Back to Chorus/Hook)


‘You can do anything you set your mind to, archaeologist…’ *raises trowel in solidarity as camera pans away and music fades*

Archaeological Annotations

1.  Archaeological excavation is a fundamentally destructive process, therefore it is of the utmost imperative to record exactly what is uncovered, where and when.  Each stratigraphic horizon within an archaeological dig (the boundaries between different contexts, which can be either man-made or natural) are generally recorded to build up a site activity profile.  Features within the stratigraphic contexts, such as cuts or fills, are also recorded and excavated, with special notice given to structural or material remains found within the discrete horizons.

2.  Commercial field archaeology is not a physically easy job – it is also a demanding, time-consuming and pressurized job due to a number of variables.  These can be, but are not limited, the time allowed in which to excavate as set out by the conditions of construction, the weather, the travel involved to-and-from site, the temperament of the your co-workers, the physical and mental capabilities of your own body, the constant social re-scheduling due to upcoming site unpredictability, the long-term job insecurity, etc.  If you see an archaeologist in the pub, or out excavating, be sure to buy them a pint or a clap them at a job well done.  They’ll love it and remember that the public don’t think that archaeology is all about the gung-ho, ethics destroying, human remains violating, probable national law-breaking, relic selling, macho aggression exploits of Nazi War Diggers (or Battlefield Archaeology, for the UK readers), which shows the profession in a context-obliterating style.

3.  Safety is of paramount importance on-site.  Be aware of your escape routes.  Watch out for heavy machinery.  Wear a hard hat if needed.  Shore up that trench if you are going deep.  Get certified with the Construction Skills Certification Scheme White Card, or comparative scheme, which certifies the basic safety skills for archaeological field technicians.  See the incredibly helpful British Archaeological Jobs Resource guide on the White CSCS card here.

4.  Archaeologists often work side-by-side with the construction industry; it is why archaeology took such a hit both in the localised Celtic Tiger boom and bust in Ireland, for example, and in the global recession of 2008.  If there isn’t any construction going on, there aren’t going to be many excavations going on either.  (Though try telling that to the academic departments who excavate at will).

5.  Bone Broke, by bioarchaeologist PhD candidate Jess Beck, is one heck of a site to learn about the joys of human osteology.  Check it out now.

6.  The pesky rise of the Romans helped spell the end of many Iron Age cultures throughout Europe as the Roman republic (which later mutated into an Empire) battled, amalgamated or integrated their way of life with their barbarian neighbours.

7.  First you freeze in the field, then you freeze in the cold artefact storeroom.

8.  Archaeology, as a profession, offers many, many chances to travel the world and to dig at sites that span the length and breadth of human evolution.  If you are a student, or volunteer archaeologist, you too can check out the many options available to you.

9.  ‘Publish or be damned’ is a normal phrase in archaeology, despite the distinct lack of monetary incentive on behalf of the main academic publishers.  If an archaeological site is excavated, but not published at all, that can lead to the distinct loss of knowledge of that site from the archaeological record (!).  If you care about the archaeological record, get the findings of the dig written up, the specialist material unearthed and analysed properly, and then get it published for the whole world to know about and rejoice in.  You may regret the lack of money in your wallet, but that sense of satisfaction out-weights those empty pockets (hopefully).

10.  The back-filling of a trench is carried out once the archaeological site has been properly excavated and recorded as much as necessary, or is able to be.  Back-filling involves moving the soil from space to another, which is a fine description of archaeological excavation itself.  The tower of backfill is also a place where unlikely, but lucky, finds can be found stripped of their context.

11.  Contrary to the general public perception of archaeology excavations being full of characters in the mould of Dr Indiana Jones this is somewhat gladly not the case.  (Though you will, inevitability, find one or two first year archaeology students ‘ironically’ dressed up as Indiana in the first week or so of the course).  At best though Dr Jones is a looter and archaeologists never loot – we record like our lives depend on it, imagining that if we don’t record the archaeological sites we survey and excavate the giant rolling rock will (rightly) chase us down and flatten us where we stand.

12.  Prof. Jane Buikstra (Arizona State University) is one of the core founders of bioarchaeology (the study of the human skeleton and mummified tissue from archaeological contexts) as a discipline in its own right within the United States.  Buikstra, along with other early bioarchaeology researchers, has helped to set the gold standard for skeletal analysis and she continues to be a dynamic force within the discipline.

13.  Short term adjunct professor contracts in the United States and general short-term teaching contracts in the UK, alongside the general vagabond lifestyle of the field archaeologist, make being a professional archaeologist adept at moving completely at short notice.  Fieldwork is also notoriously underpaid considering how educated the workforce is in comparison to other skilled workforces.  The British Archaeological Jobs Resource is helping to try to curb that by launching the More Than Minima campaign in its advertising of job posts.  See the 15/16 Pay and Conditions document here, which set out a useful recommendation for the companies offering commercial archaeology jobs.

14.  Mike Parker Pearson (University College London) is a well-known prehistoric and funerary archaeologist, perhaps best known for researching and excavating the Wiltshire Neolithic and Bronze Age landscape in England, of which Stonehenge and Durrington Walls are one important part.  His 1999 Archaeology of Death and Burial book is a must for all budding bioarchaeologists.

Interview with Liz Eastlake: Dental Delights and Estonian Escapades

13 Dec

Liz Eastlake is an osteoarchaeologist from Yorkshire and a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology from the University of Sheffield.  With a strong background in fieldwork Liz also regularly engages in public outreach and education on the topics of archaeology practice and human osteology, both in museums and in colleges around Yorkshire.  Her research interests lie in dental bioarchaeology and understanding the implications for markers of occupation in the human skeleton.  In her free time Liz can often be found at the York branch of Dr Sketchy’s anti-art art school.

These Bones of Mine: Hello Liz and thank you very much for joining me here at These Bones of Mine. For those that do not have the pleasure of knowing you, please could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?

Liz:  Hi David, thanks for having me.  I am a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology program from the University of Sheffield and I am currently working for York Archaeological Trust at their archaeology museum DIG.  I also do the occasional spot of digging and skeleton box organisation with the Trust on a volunteer basis.  Further to this I teach human osteology workshops with the Workers’ Educational Association as part of their Digability Project.  To top it all off I also work providing disability support at the local university a few days a week!  Needless to say I have very little free time and run mostly on caffeine.

TBOM: That certainly sounds like you are getting a full experience of living the archaeological life! What sparked the interest in studying human osteology and funerary archaeology, and what was the experience learning about skeletal anatomy like?

Liz:  I went on a rescue excavation in the grave yard of my village (Sheriff Hutton) church when I was 15 years old.  The church itself supposedly contains the remains of Richard III’s son, although I never really considered how blessed I was growing up in such a historic environment until much later, especially with recent events.  It was the discovery of the different elements of commingled human remains we were uncovering that fascinated me the most.

A number of skulls from the site still had small amounts of hair surviving due to the environment created by contact with copper shroud pins.  It really stuck with me that something so fragile could survive for so long beneath our feet.  Skeletal anatomy itself is a fascinating subject.  Most people are completely unaware of what goes on within their own bodies and so this aspect of archaeological study is pretty relevant and interesting to everyone.

TBOM: The rescue excavation must have been an informative introduction to the human skeleton in an archaeological context, especially considering the level of preservation present.  Your current job with York Archaeological Trust involves helping to present archaeology to the public, how have you found this and has it made you change the way you think about archaeology itself?

Liz:  Working with children in general is pretty hilarious, I love the way the mind works without any of the barriers that adults would normally put up.  In the context of archaeology a kid can really make you think about things in a different way with the answers they come up with, which is great as it is all so open to interpretation.  Often, I meet kids who are so excited to tell me all about what they have found in their own back garden or can’t wait to go home and dig up their parents flower beds after a visit (sorry parents!).  It’s so important to be inquisitive and that transfers to other aspects of life, including the process of growing up.


‘I think it may be a bit late to help this person’. The chance to draw a in-situ skeleton is one of the many interactive exhibitions on offer at the DIG museum of archaeology in York. Image credit: Liz Eastlake.

What’s also great is that parents or grandparents come along thinking perhaps its a couple of hours to kill with the kids on a weekend or during the holidays, and they end up enjoying it more than the children do!  Few people realise they have an interest in something until you present the information and let it grow from there.  Archaeology is all about people – everyone has an interest in how we got to where we are today.  Most people I meet are at least amateur archaeologists in some way!

For me personally the job has given me a broader knowledge of archaeological periods, which is always beneficial when looking at specific burials.  Human osteology can be such a narrow field of study, for example when I look at teeth, which is such a tiny area, you even begin to ignore the rest of that same skeleton because there is so much to focus on when studying teeth alone.  Context is everything.  Before starting with the York Archaeological Trust I knew embarrassingly little about the archaeology of York itself.  It is easy to take things you have seen so often for granted, especially when you grow up with all this old stuff around you as you think nothing of it.  I definitely appreciate York more now than I ever have before and have the best time doing what I do.

TBOM: That is fascinating to hear about how interested children and adults become when presented with what archaeology actually is and how their experiences differ.  As previously mentioned you’ve also been working with the Workers’ Educational Association in South Yorkshire, helping to lead and present classes on human skeletal anatomy.  How have you found the audience’s reaction and participation in such activities?   

Liz:  The reactions are quite mixed.  Most participants are fascinated with how the body works.  Physical demonstrations of how bony articulations work and comparing them to the movements they can make in their own bodies helps bridge the gap between us and pile of bones.  It can be hard to think of a skeleton as a once living, fully fleshed person like ourselves.

A few participants have felt uneasy about the bones, despite the knowledge that the skeleton I bring is just an accurate plastic copy.  I think this mostly comes from the portrayal of bones and death in the media.  I saw a really interesting talk by Campbell Price at Manchester Museum a while ago that talked about how skeletons and mummies especially are portrayed alongside werewolves and vampires and it is not surprising that people, especially children (but not always), ask ‘is it real?’ when faced with a preserved Egyptian mummy in a museum.  A feeling of unease might also come from a fear of death itself and the uncertainty it brings.  This is a completely understandable feeling but I think it is important to try to break this fear down in an educational setting and challenge misconceptions about what happens to our bodies after we die.

TBOM: As well as helping to de-mystify the human skeleton for the public, you’ve also presented your MSc dissertation research on the study of the dentition of two 18th and 19th century populations from northern England at a recent Elmet Archaeology talk.  What was your research about and how did you come to focus on teeth specifically?

Liz:  I seem to have focused on teeth since I first became interested in human osteology.  I find them fascinating because they look pretty much the same in death as they do in life.  There is such a wealth of information you can gain about people’s lives in the past by studying dentition.  I have focused on what they can tell me about the general health of the population I’m studying and also whether they can give an indication of individual occupation.  At some point everyone has grasped something between their teeth, like house keys for example, when your hands are full.  Repeated use of the teeth as a third hand can leave tell-tale marks on the tooth surface, for example basketry weaving or even sewing; snapping a thread between the incisors.

My dissertation topic focused on identifying occupation from the teeth of two Victorian era cemetery populations, one of high status individuals from the St Bride’s assemblage in London and the other of low status people from Coronation Street assemblage in South Shields, northern England.  Social status for these two sites was known from written records, but the difference was also apparent from the teeth.  A number of individuals from the high status group had solid gold dentures and fillings, as well as other evidence for dental intervention and aid.  Those from the low status site had no clear evidence for dental work by a professional and would have likely extracted a troublesome tooth themselves or had a similarly untrained acquaintance do it for them.  These individuals also had some quite extreme dental wear patterns indicative of use of the teeth for grasping and pulling materials within their mouths. Unlike the high status site which had only one example of an older adult female with grooved patterns of wear in her anterior dentition, perhaps from snapping threads whilst sewing.

To most people it can be quite unsettling to envisage the pain a large abscess or gross caries would have caused a living person hundreds of years ago.  However, the information that can be gained through the study of teeth is so extensive and informative about past populations, that it is a fascinating area of osteological analysis, which I hope to pick up again by completing a PhD in the future.

TBOM:  That sounds like a fascinating comparative study on Victorian populations.  So as well educating the public on the value of archaeology and human osteology and as well as conducting original research, you have also recently been excavating an Iron Age site in Estonia.  How did that come about and what were your experiences there like?

Liz:  A friend of mine from my masters course at Sheffield, Anu Kivirüüt, invited me along to the excavation she was running with her department at the University of Tartu.  It was a fantastic couple of weeks of perfect hot weather and digging in the shade.  I particularly enjoyed the excavation methods employed in Estonia which are so different to the strict regulations in the U, although I discuss this more at Anu’s site here.

The excavation was on the Aakre Kivivare tarand-grave site, which are Iron Age in date.  This type of grave sites are communal burial places with rectangular above-ground stone wall enclosures, which are often labelled and described as  tarands-graves.  When these graves first appeared on the landscape in the Pre-Roman Iron Age (around 500 BC – AD 50), they contained only inhumation burials and one rectangular enclosure was assigned for one body.  However, over time, cremation became a more frequently recorded way of disposing of the dead and the subsequent cremated bones and most of the artefacts were scattered in the tarand-area, mostly inside but also outside of the walls (see more information here on this ongoing project).

The entire site was recorded using digital photography, in a technique called photogrammetry, and converted into a 3D model after each layer of soil and stones was removed.  This was a great time-saving method and the 3D model really helped visualize the site layers.  Unfortunately, very little bone, cremated or otherwise was recovered from the site.  However, there were numerous beautifully preserved brooches of different typologies, a selection of which can be viewed here.

As well as a fantastic excavation there was also opportunities to explore other nearby archaeological and cultural sites, taste the great food, swim in the lakes and enjoy a sauna (including being whipped with birch bark – it is good for you!)

TBOM:  Swimming in the lake sounds quite beautiful, but if I ever head to Estonia I think I’ll avoid the birch whipping!  The use of technology to quickly record the site at Aakre Kivivare certainly sounds innovative and extremely useful, please do let me know how the excavations and research turn out.  In conclusion, though, it is clear you have managed to gain a lot of experience in the various aspects that archaeological life has to offer.  Do you have any advice to the next crop of archaeologists and, finally, what are your plans for the future?

Liz:  I would say volunteer, volunteer, volunteer!  Getting involved with excavations as well as post-ex stuff before starting at University, during your course and over summer holidays shows you are keen and can make you lots of useful connections for the future.  Then when you are qualified, especially in a specialised area of the profession, try to never work for free again (chuckle)!


One happy skeleton. Drawing bones in-situ at YAT’s DIG museum helps children (and adults) understand the importance of context in archaeology. Image Credit: Liz Eastlake.

I would love to do a PhD in some aspect of dental anthropology at some point in the future, as well as getting more experience in the commercial side of archaeology.  I think it is important to see things from start to finish where possible, as context is everything and it can be easy to detach a single skeleton from its surroundings and consider it individually.  However, this does not benefit our view of the past.  Working in the field will also mean a chance to experience all aspects of archaeology and not just bones.

But before I get PhD crazed I am going travelling around the world, admiring old things and rock climbing (but mostly trying not to be an obnoxious cliche for the benefit of people who follow me on social media!).

TBOM: Thanks for the advice Liz and I hope you enjoy your travels!  

Further Information

  • Head to York Archaeological Trust’s portal to learn more about their museums and archaeological here.  If you are an interested member of the public, an archaeological student or simply want to learn about archaeological artefacts YAT always welcome volunteers.
  • Learn more about Elmet Archaeology’s upcoming lectures and annual Dearne Valley Archaeology Day here.  Elmet participate in both commercial and community archaeological projects and are always active in education outreach.  Check out some of their courses for 2015 here.
  • The Workers’ Education Association’s are always actively promoting education outreach in a variety of locations and involving a wide range of subjects.  As a part of the ongoing Show Us Your Research! project by the universities of Coimbra and Algrave, Portugal,  Beauchamp and Thorpe (2014) have produced an assessment of WEA’s ongoing inclusive archaeology education project.  Read the PDF summing up their research on the benefits and outcomes so far of the inclusive archaeology project for free here.
  • Head over to the Aakre Kivivare blog site to learn more about the fascinating finds from this Estonian Iron Age site (site can be translated).  Liz has also produced a post on her experiences from the 2014 summer excavations which can be read here.

Guest Post: The Rise of BAJR Part II by David Connolly

20 Mar

David Connolly is the founder of the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR) website and runs, along with archaeologist Maggie Struckmeier, the Past Horizons website, a web portal specialising in the reporting of archaeological news and projects from around the globe.  Formerly a guitarist and key member of punk band Oi Polloi, David left to pursue a career in archaeology and subsequently worked the British field circuit for a number of years.  He has also excavated and surveyed sites in far-flung places such as Croatia, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Jordan.  His experiences at York helped him form a keystone in his belief of the use of methodologies in archaeological practice.  Currently residing in Scotland, David specialises in archaeological surveys and regularly partakes in community archaeology projects.

Part 1 in this series, detailing David’s background and the inception of BAJR, can be found here.



BAJR was founded on the same campaigning and irreverent principles as that of the Digger newsletter, but with added radical bite.

Alongside advertising job opportunities, it was also an important part of that founding principal that BAJR stood up for field archaeologists whose conditions of employment were at that point pretty dire, with most wages just above the poverty line. This sometimes meant that BAJR had to face an aggressive attitude from various companies, as they tended to perceive they were being forced to change against their will by a somewhat dictatorial individual.


The modern face of BAJR, the first port of call and main site for job advertisements, news and course for archaeologists.

BAJR was and still is prepared to put ethics over income and therefore refuses to accept job adverts that pay below the 9 minima grades. This was set up around 10 years ago to try to institute a fairer system that recognised skills over job titles.

Along with the issue of pay and conditions, BAJR is willing to phone up any company and negotiate a way forward, and to discuss perceived or real issues. BAJR often intervenes informally on behalf of an individual or group in an effort to resolve a situation.

Information Station

BAJR is also an important source of accurate information directories that can be accessed by all. Currently there are details of circa 650 archaeological contractors across Europe, with full contact details, allowing the possibility for anyone to get in touch with a company without having to search through individual websites.

The same is true of the lists of active archaeology societies, Portable Antiquities services, re-enactment groups and archaeological curators. Universities, courses and training are all integrated into a fully searchable or accessible resource.

It is true to say that information is power, and BAJR is always driving to keep that information up to date and as accurate as possible for the benefit of everyone.

Co-operation Ahead

There are many rumours and half-truths about the relationship between BAJR and the IfA, and it is fair to say that we have had our differences in the past. However, we are now developing a more positive attitude towards one another and this new-found spirit of co-operation may enable some very positive future benefits for the industry as a whole, so watch this space.


As well as jobs BAJR offers links and information on university courses and short courses on a fantastic scale, helping you find the courses that you want to do.

One thing for sure is that BAJR is not going anywhere and will always be there for anyone who needs advice on any level along with access to good quality information.

The forum has been strengthened with a Facebook and Twitter presence, so discussion has become even more interesting and far-reaching. What is black and white and read all over? Why BAJR of course…

Read the final entry in this series at Part III here, which details the growth of BAJR and the new Archaeology Skills Passport…

An Introduction to the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik Culture

6 Dec

A recent post of mine discussed the fickle nature of constructing and using databases when conducting archaeological research, however in that post I didn’t much expand upon the culture that I had studied in my dissertation for the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.  So here is a brief introductory post, taken and edited from my own research, of the Linearbandkeramik culture of Central Europe, one of the first major agricultural practicing cultures in the European Neolithic period.  The Linearbandkeramik were named, somewhat imaginatively, after the linear bands found on their pottery and are hereby after referred to as the LBK.

Origins and Expansion of the Linearbandkeramik Culture

The LBK are an early Neolithic Central European culture dating from 5500 BC to 4900 BC, although there are sites dating to just before and after this period (Whittle 1996: 146).  The origin of the LBK culture and the exodus point is thought to be from the Starčevo–Kőrös–Criş cultures from the Hungarian Plain dating to around 5600 BC, which has been primarily identified due to similar incised pottery and similar radiocarbon dates for the location of the earliest LBK sites (Price et al. 2001: 593).  Largely known for their homogeneity in their architectural and material culture, the LBK distribution across the seemingly favoured loess plains was fairly rapid in archaeological terms.  Arching across from the Hungarian Plain in its origin to reaching the Paris Basin and Ukrainian plains at its zenith, two distinct geographic areas having been established for early and late LBK periods (Figure 1 below, Whittle 1996: 146).

The early phase originated from western Hungary and followed the Danube and other river corridors, rapidly reaching the Rhine and Neckar valleys within a few centuries (Jochim 2000: 186).  The second phase often mapped in studies includes the rapid extension into the Paris basin in eastern France, the Netherlands, and Belgium in western Europe, towards the loess boundaries of the northern European plain in Germany and Poland, with extension as far as western Ukraine (Bogucki 2000: 198).  There are slight differences in regional chronologies, with evidence of LBK settlements as late as the middle of the 5th millennium BC in north eastern Europe (Vanmontfort 2008: 157), and evidence of the fragmentation of late LBK sites into different cultural entities in the northern and central European LBK sites (Hofmann & Bickle 2011).


Figure 1. The distribution and spread of LBK in Central Europe, where A is earliest LBK (5500 BC) and B is late LBK expansion (4800 BC) (Bogucki 2000: 198).

In general LBK settlements are found on loess soils, near water in valleys and in low lying situations, typically in woodland at its climax phase of post-glacial growth, although the archaeological evidence suggests that little or limited inroads were made into the surrounding woodlands (Whittle 1996: 149).  It is noted however that a few sites and exceptions lie outside the loess boundaries, particularly in Poland, near Kujavia, although no distinguishing features have been noted at these sites (Whittle 1996: 146).  It has also been pointed out by some that the inland environments the LBK favoured were naturally devoid of hunter-gatherer populations (Price 2000i: 4), although this has been argued against by some, especially in the earlier and middle period of the LBK cultural expansion where it is to be expected that some hunter-gatherer/LBK interaction would have probably occurred (Vanmontfort 2008: 151).

Throughout the distribution and period time frame of the LBK culture the climate was somewhat warmer than it is today, with the temperature sitting a few degrees higher which resulted in a relatively dryer central and eastern European plain (Bogucki 2000: 198).  It is thought that this relative rise in temperature could have a positive effect on agricultural and farming practices, providing an advantageous environment for the growth of plant material (Bogucki 2000).  One of the main points of discussion between researchers of the LBK culture concerns their expansion during the early Neolithic period is the nature of the mode of transmission of both their culture and their expansion into the Central European Plain (Bellwood 2005).  This echoes the expansion of the early Neolithic in Europe and, as the LBK are one of the first major and well documented farming cultures, there has been an increasing amount of research in the relationship between LBK centres, pre-existing hunter-gatherer cultures, and the rate of LBK expansion (Shennan 2011, Tresset & Vigne 2011, Vanmontfort 2008, Vencl 1986).  As such it is important to consider the individual LBK sites within their surrounding context and within the culture as a whole.  By making broad sweeping generalizations, nuances in the archaeological record are generally missed.

Linearbandkeramik Society

Gimbutas (1991) was one of the many early prehistorians who have argued that the Neolithic represented the continuation of the matriarchal society from the Upper Palaeolithic, as represented by one idea of the Venus figurines as symbols of matriarchy throughout European prehistory (Scarre 2005: 395).  Recent archaeological and genetic investigations have displaced this theory, particularly those regarding early Neolithic communities (Bentley et. al. 2012).  Evidence from the varying disciplines of linguistics (Fortunato 2011: 108), spatial models (Rasteiro et al. 2012) and biomolecular evidence (Lacan et al. 2011: 18255), amongst others, have highlighted the general trend of patrilocal kinship based societies amongst the Neolithic societies in Europe.  The continued use of isotopes in archaeological studies, including strontium as a marker of migration (Bentley et al. 2012), and carbon and nitrogen as dietary markers (Durrwachter et al. 2006, Oelze 2012), in the understanding of kinship and community differentiation in the LBK culture, in particular, is having a sustained impact on the perceptions of the society in the Neolithic period (Bentley et al. 2012: 1).

In Bentley et al.’s (2012: 4) study of over 300 individuals from 7 well known LBK sites (Vedrovice, Aiterhofen, Schwetzingen, Nitra, Kleinhadersdorf, Souffelweyersheim and Ensisheim) across the LBK distribution compelling evidence was uncovered that suggests that the LBK society, as whole, was patrilocal in nature.  Evidence gathered from the strontium isotope program highlighted significantly less variance in the geographic signature amongst males than amongst the females tested, and with less variance amongst burials with ground stone shoe last adzes than those without (Bentley et al. 2012: 1).  Durwachter et al. (2006: 41) and Oelze et al. (2011: 276) studies indicate no substantial difference between male and female diets at LBK sites or any preferential access to differing foodstuffs.  Bentley et al. (2012: 4) however do suggest that males, particularly those with an adze present in their grave, represent individuals who have preferential access to preferred loess soils.  Bentley et al. (2012: 4) go on to state that, generally speaking, the results indicate that ‘male inheritance of land means that males tend to live where they were born, while females marry and moved elsewhere’.  Bentley et al (2012: 4) conclude that ‘unequal and inherited land access developed over time among the early farmers of central Europe’, with evidence of differential access to goods being able to be traced back to the early Neolithic.

Linearbandkeramik Material and Mortuary Culture

The architectural and material culture of the LBK was fairly standardised and remarkably consistent throughout their cultural lifespan although regional variations did exist, especially towards the end of the LBK chronology (Bogucki 2000: 205).  Often clustered into villages, the LBK people practised agriculture in a subsistence economy, cultivating cereals and legumes such as barley, emmer, einkorn, pea, lentil and flax, using intensely cultivated garden sized plots to grow the produce.  Animals, such as cattle and pigs, were also kept, as well as hunting animals which were locally available (Bogaard 2004).  Many LBK settlements were open, without any defined or bounded perimeter, and consisted of 8-10m long timber built longhouses spaced apart by 2-3m from each other, which were often orientated in the same way (Bradley 2001).  The size and numbers of longhouse dwellings at LBK sites varied from just a few to a more than 40 (Hofmann & Bickle 2011).  No LBK longhouses have been found with the floor intact, limiting exact evidence and, with the de-calcification of the loess soils since LBK times, much organic material and evidence has been further lost from the archaeological record (Whittle 1996: 160).  In the late LBK period (5000 BC onwards) there was a proliferation of ditched enclosures, varied in shape and form, though most occupying a space no more than 2 ha. in size, throughout the geographic spread of the LBK (Whittle 1996: 174).

Typical artefacts such as shoe last adzes, stone axes, flints, stone hammers, polished adzes, incised pottery decorations, spondylus shells shaped into beads and necklaces, are found at sites throughout the distribution of the culture (John 2011: 41, Whittle 1996: 171).  Material culture is also the social inward and outward expression of a culture, with goods often in daily use and in circulation between families, friends and communities throughout the LBK settlements.  Pottery throughout the LBK period was incised with linear bands, which may have been imbued with some meaning or statement as regional styles proliferated throughout (Whittle 1996: 173).  Whittle (1996: 173) further suggests that although adzes are and have been seen as status indicators (Bentley et al. 2012), the key question is the ownership of such objects.  That a male or female may be buried with an adze, does not necessarily mean that they owned the artefact during life (John 2011).    It seems increasingly likely, however, that during their working lifetime adzes were worth acquiring, even by forager communities associated around the LBK periphery, such ‘as seen at (the) Skateholm II’ site in Scania, southern Sweden (Whittle 1996: 174).  The spondylus shells are also indicators of trade and circulation of goods with areas such as the Adriatic and north Aegean (Bentley et al. 2012: 1), which are often taken as indicators of status and community differentiation, which is often correlated with reproductive advantages (Bocquet-Appel et al. 2012: 335).

The mortuary culture of the LBK has been evidenced by the excavation and evaluation of several large cemeteries, such as the early LBK Vedrovice site and late LBK sit of Aiterhofen (as discussed in my dissertation thesis), and by the less well investigated cremations at various other sites (Hofmann & Bickle et al. 2011: 185).  Inhumations are typically single crouched burials, with the individual placed on their left side (Figure 2 below, Bickle et al. 2011).  Inhumation and cremation are not mutually exclusive as both have been found at several sites together, obstinately having been practiced at the same time as each other (Whittle 1996: 168).


Figure 2. A ‘typical’ LBK crouched inhumation burial from the mid period LBK site of Aiterhofen, Germany.  Notice the stone tool behind the skull of the individual and the spondylus shells draped around the head (Bickle et al. 2011: 1247).

Whilst the majority of burials from the LBK period have come from cemetery sites, inhumations are also sometimes found under settlement structures with the majority of these belonging to female or juvenile individuals.  Added to this are other inhumations which have been found inside settlements, pits, or in ditches outside settlements (Bentley et al. 2012).  Polished shoe last adzes, incised pottery, lithics, spondylus shells and beads, are just some of the artefacts found at LBK sites and in inhumations throughout the LBK cultural lifespan.  Both Bentley (2012ii) and Bentley et al. (2012: 4) studies have shown a positive correlation between the presence of shoe last adzes and male burials, whilst their 87Sr/86Sr studies have shown a pattern of a patrilocality society amongst the populations considered in the studies.  Empty burial plots (of either body or funerary goods) have also been discovered at numerous LBK cemeteries, with the possibility that the grave sites were meant to remain empty as a symbolic act (Lenneis 2010i: 164).

Late period LBK ‘death pits’, such as at Talheim and Herxheim in southern Germany and Asparn Schletz in Austria, represent something altogether more different, possibly massacre sites although this is heavily debated (Bentley et al. 2008, Bishop & Knusel 2005, Wahl & Konig 1986: 150).  Evidence of violence is not uncommon in the preceding Mesolithic and Neolithic periods in Europe (Duday 2006, Lillie 2004, Schulting 2006), however Whittle (1996: 171) states that at Talheim in particular the ‘scale of violence (here) is unexpected’.  The above three sites have been explained as possibly symptomatic of the LBK world towards its end.  Whittle states that the most general inference to be drawn is that it is consistent with the rest of the LBK evidence, that the massacre sites size and their victims represent the strong norms of ‘communally sanctioned behaviour’ (1996: 171).

  • The abstract for my dissertation, focusing on patrilocality and the use of isotopes, can be found here.
  • Previous posts discussing the Linearbandkeramik culture can be found here.
  • If you would like a copy of the dissertation thesis please email me (address is in the about me tab).


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Whittle, A. 1996. Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press. pp. 144-211.

Databse Fun: Of Databases, Statistics and Isotopes

25 Nov

I know what you are thinking – what sort of misspelled title is that for a blog post? The answer is below dear reader (1)!

Databases are, in my humble opinion, awful, tedious and time consuming beasts to create and are often best tackled head on armed only with a black coffee for sustenance as you try to accurately type a mind-numbing amount of data into an excel spreadsheet at 2am in the university library.  (That may just be my experience though!).  The beauty of a completed database, however, cannot be overestimated.  This is where you get to test out hypotheses based on the data that you have selected and gathered for your research question, where all of the core information lies and where the data can be repeatedly and demonstratively tested again and again.  A completed and ordered database is a thing of beauty and, when looked at 6am in the morning after a tiring night of inputting data, a thing of magnificence!

But let’s start at the beginning.  I recently had cause to look again at the database I had made for my MSc dissertation and, as I scrolled across and down the excel spreadsheet, I could just about remember the hours I had spent producing the spreadsheet, justifying the column titles and entering the data itself.  My data set included strontium isotopic results gathered from 422 individuals across 9 different sites from the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik (LBK, roughly 5500BC to 4800BC) culture of Central Europe, with my sample ranging geographically from the modern countries of Austria, Czech Republic and Germany. The data set used for my study was carefully culled from a literature review and a close reading of a number of journal articles that were available at that time (mid 2012).

My aim was to investigate statistically the claim of patrilocality in the LBK culture as proposed by Bentley et al. (2012) by investigating the specific sex and age differences within the profile group by using strontium isotopes as proxies.  Strontium isotopes samples (specifically 87Sr/86Sr) are often taken from both human and animal skeletal remains (primarily from teeth, specifically the 1st, 2nd and 3rd molars as they reflect Sr values throughout the life of an individual) as it survives well in archaeological contexts and is an informative approach to investigate mobility and local/non-local status of individuals.  Strontium values reflect geochemical signatures in the dietary component of the individuals, which comes from the soils and the underlying geological landscape that the individual lived on.  There are issues with this method (2) (see also this blog’s comments section).  Strontium isotopic investigations in archaeology are often studied in conjunction with oxygen isotopes (18O/16O) sampled from tooth enamel as well (specifically the 2nd molar) which represents water drank in life, but, frustratingly, this has not been the case in the LBK literature.

I knew that I wanted to statistically test the data set using SPSS 19, the standard statistical program widely used in the social sciences, but I first needed to tabulate and code the data so it would be useful when it came to testing the data.  As the study also included comparisons of the funerary grave goods and a basic demographic investigation of each site coding the entries (1=male, 2=female or 1=present 2=absent) allowed for comparisons to be made in the SPSS program and for statistical tests to be carried out.  The strontium itself was, as expected, non-parametric, which meant that the data adhered to no specific characteristic structure or parameter.


The normality test, using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov and Shapiro-Wilk statistical tests, indicates that the strontium data used for this study of the 422 individuals was not distributed normally (the P-value, nominally a significance value, is 0.000 for these tests). This means that tests such Spearman’s Rho correlation (quantity between variation), Mann-Whitney U (2 independent variables) and Kruskal-Wallis (3 or more independent variables) are the most appropriate statistical tests to perform on this data set (Bryman & Cramer 2011: 245).

When building the database I also wanted any relevant information and references easy to hand so I included the skeletal number (as given in the articles), site name, period, sex, sex code, isotope source, body position, funerary artefacts found and reference etc for each individual used in the study (see below).


A screen shot of the database used in my MSc dissertation displaying the revelent information of the 422 individuals from the LBK sites used in the study. The data was entered in a Excel spreadsheet before being transferred to SPSS for statistical investigation. Click to enlarge.

The data was carefully added over a number of days once I had gathered all the required journal articles discussing the sites I had chosen  The sites themselves were largely located in southern Germany, with the 9 sites nicely split into three time periods throughout the chronology of the LBK period.  Perhaps somewhat hastily I added this to the database and assigned the values of the individuals with a Early, Middle and Late ranking for their respective site.


Towards the bottom of the database used for the study. Here we can see the references cited for each site used in the study and the specific coding for funerary items (the two columns before reference column on the right hand side, where 1 depicts present and 0 absent).

During the construction of this database I did encounter problems as I had not built such a large database before, indeed the only time I had really used a database properly was for my undergraduate dissertation some years previous whilst using ArcGIS.  The problems this time included whether I was actually coding the funerary items the right way round or not, reading back through the database and correcting any errors in typing (especially for the strontium values) and making sure I correctly identifying the individuals used in their respective articles.  There are some things inherent in archaeology that cannot be solved.  This includes lacking contextual data or written site reports (which may or may not exist hidden in regional archaeological unit headquarters, not known or available to the public or indexed on any site).

Of course there were problems with my approach, which I expounded on in fuller detail in the thesis itself.  This did include problems interpreting the strontium results and distinguishing between local and non-local individuals at the site when there is no reference data to compare it to and debating my own statistical approach.  Still, as frustrating as building the database was, I did enjoy carrying out my own investigation of it immensely.  On rainy days I often think that my dataset could do with a second look at and investigation, perhaps I could change this approach or that, use this statistical method instead and isolate that clump of individuals etc.

It may be a pipe dream for the moment (I lack a working SPSS program for one!) but this is as much of a key part of archaeology and archaeological research as digging in the mud is.  Research is what drives archaeology and human osteology forward, from new scientific techniques to reviewing old data and finding new patterns.  The past is always present in new technology, you just have to drive it forward sometimes.

I will be introducing the Neolithic LBK culture in further detail in an upcoming post and discussing the merits of my thesis in further detail in another post.  For now I hope you have enjoyed this brief delve into what was the core of that research, the database itself.


(1.) This post was named in honour of a spelling mistake I made in the contents pages of my MSc thesis, spotted only when I proudly showed a friend a copy of the thesis a few weeks after the hand in date.  This, of course, led to gales of laughter from both of us (and to my internal cringing) as my poor editing skills came to light and it still remains a favoured joke to this day.

(2.) A few problems have become apparent with the strontium isotope technique, as with any mature and widespread application of a scientific technique, and it is worth mentioning them here (Bentley et al. 2004: 366).

Firstly is the issue of what a local and non-local signature mean for the prehistoric individual, as technically the 87Sr/86Sr ratio reflects diet over a period of time, and said food could have come from non-local sources.  However, this could be a distinct benefit, as it may be possible to identify individuals whose subsistence activity took place over a diverse range of territories (Bentley et al. 2004: 366, Price et al. 2002: 131).  Secondly, diagenesis affects anything buried and groundwater strontium has a tendency to penetrate the skeleton after burial (Bentley et al. 2004: 366).  In this study only enamel from the permanent dentition (1st or 2nd molars) is used, as this mitigates the effects of diagenesis because enamel is a strong biological material containing large mineral crystals, rendering it much less porous than bone and it is highly resistant to biochemical alteration (Killgrove 2010, Richards et al. 2008).  The third issue concerns the environmental heterogeneity of the strontium isotope signatures, which as Bentley (et al 2004: 366) points out ‘vary in different minerals of a single rock, in the leaves, stems and roots of a plant, or in water sources such as streams and precipitation’.  The measurement of small herbivore bones, or snail shells, at the locality of the archaeological site, preferably from the same chronological age, can obtain a remarkably consistent 87Sr/86Sr ratio, which is representative of the local catchment area (Bentley et al. 2004: 366).  The use of strontium ratio is however just one tool among many that is used to shed light on our ancestors; it should always be used in combination with other techniques of investigation to elucidate the full range of potential data present of archaeological sites and materials (Montgomery 2010, Richards et al. 2001, Van Klinken et al. 2000).


Bentley, R. A., Price, T. D. & Stephan, E. 2004. Determining the ‘local’ 87Sr/88Sr Range for Archaeological Skeletons: A Case Study from Neolithic Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science. 32 (4): 365-375.

Bentley, R. A., Bickle, P., Fibiger, L., Nowell, G. M., Dale C. W., Hedges, R. E. M., Hamiliton,. J., Wahl, J., Francken, M., Grupe, G., Lenneis, E., Teschler-Nicola, M., Arbogast, R-M., Hofmann, D. & Whittle, A. 2012. Community Differentiation and Kinship Among Europe’s First Farmers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113710109. 1-5.

Bryman, A. & Cramer, D. 2011. Quantitative Data Analysis with IBM SPSS 17, 18 & 19: A Guide for Social Scientists. London: Psychology Press.

Killgrove, K. 2010. Migration and Mobility in Imperial Rome. PhD Thesis. University of North Carolina. (Open Access).

Montgomery, J. 2010. Passports from the Past: Investigating Human Dispersals Using Strontium Isotope Analysis of Tooth Enamel. Annals of Human Biology. 37: 325–346. (Open Access).

Price, T. D., Burton, J. H. & Bentley, R. A. 2002. The Characterisation of Biologically Available Strontium Isotope Ratios for the Study of Prehistoric Migration. Archaeometry. 44 (1): 117-135.

Richards, M.P., Fuller, B,. T. & Hedges, R. E. M. 2001. Sulphur Isotopic Variation in Ancient Bone Collagen from Europe: Implications for Human Palaeodiet, Residence Mobility, Modern Pollutant Studies. Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 191 (3-4): 185-190.

Richards, M. P., Montgomery, J., Nehlich, O. & Grimes, V. 2008. Isotopic Analysis of Humans and Animals from Vedrovice. Anthropologie. XLVI (2-3): 185-194.

Van Klinken, G., Richards, M. and Hedges, R. 2000. An Overview of Causes for Stable Isotopic Variations in Past European Human Populations: Environmental, Ecophysiological, and Cultural Effects. In S. Ambrose and M. Katzenberg (eds). Biogeochemical Approaches to Palaeodietary Analysis. New York: Kluwer Academic. pp. 39-63.

Guest Post: ‘Grampus Heritage & The EU Leonardo Da Vinci Training Programme’ by Joanne Wilkinson.

8 Aug

Joanne Wilkinson gained an undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham, and has several years experience in commercial archaeology.  Since joining Grampus she has  been involved in a number of archaeological projects around Cumbria, northern England, as well as involvement in Grampus’s EU projects.  Her interests include Roman archaeology, swimming, and she is a board member of a festival committee.

Grampus Heritage and Training Ltd is a non-profit making organisation based in the North West of England. Since 1997 we have been involved in the management and promotion of European projects concerned with culture, heritage, archaeology and the environment. We are promoters of the EU Leonardo Da Vinci Training Programme and provide funded training opportunities through this programme to UK students, recent graduates and young workers to various European countries.

The placements are a chance for participants to experience how sites are run outside the UK. Although they are a training experience, the participants build in confidence as they use what ever they may know about field work as well as being trained in slightly different methods. The placements are not a transfer of UK methods to an EU country, but are a chance for participants to add other skills to their field work experience.

The placements are also a chance for participants to develop and build on their personal skills, as usually the groups live and work together, usually having only met at the airport on the day of departure from the UK. Although not obvious at first, this is also an important part of the placement, as a lot of field work in the UK may mean close quarter living conditions with people that you may not necessarily know.

Students Learning on the 2011 Magdeburg Placement.

Past participants have kept in touch with us and have let us know how they get on. Some Archaeological, Environmental and Traditional Craft participants have informed us that they have since gone back to work with our partners, have chosen to use the sites they have worked on as part of their studies as they continue their education and others have gone into employment after our placements, with one of participants confident that it was her experience on our placement that helped get her the shortlist for interview. In a competitive job market, they are something else to add to CV’s or help towards university quotas of field work for graduation.

The placements are a great chance for undergraduates and graduates to excavate abroad, especially if previously they have not been in a position to do so. We have a variety of periods across our placements from Neolithic to Medieval, allowing us to offer a diverse range of placement opportunities. The placements allow the group to either work together on research excavations or work on rescue excavations. Some allow the group to work with commercial units, others with university research teams, working both in the field and sometimes in the lab.

Undergraduate archaeological opportunities (EASE)

BulgariaRoman site– Roman Baths near the town of Hissarya, in which the Roman occupation is clearly visible. The group works on the baths, helping the archaeologists learn more about this interesting area.

Finland: Stone Age– Kierikki Stone Age Centre. Located near Oulu, the Centre has built up around the Stone Age settlement site and using the evidence found, there are reconstructed buildings, which sometimes our groups help out with during the placement. The Centre is also the location for a Stone Age fair, which our groups take part in every year.

GermanyMedieval Magdeburg- Medieval and other sites which the Unit and university are working on at the time of the placement. As the group work with a commercial unit as well as university, they experience the commercial side to archaeology as well as the research side.

Iceland: Middle Age Period/Field School – The group work on 2 sites during their placement, exposing them to the different methods used at the very different locations. By moving to 2 different sites, they get to see more of Iceland as well.

Portugal: Copper Age – The group work together with other volunteers, being trained on a Copper Age site that sits atop a hill in an area surrounded by significant local archaeological sites, including Palaeolithic open air engravings of the Côa River Valley UNESCO site.

SlovakiaBronze Age– The group continues working on a site that was found during development work and has revealed lots of Hatvan Culture pottery. 2012 saw the group opening and working on a site that was discovered in 2011 through survey which revealed large ditches, which may be the focus of future work.

EASE Slovakia Placement.

Graduate archaeological opportunities (GrEASE):

Bulgaria: Medieval Fortress– The group help the team continue working in the fortress, the past few years having resulted in the discovery of a church and associated grave yard. With the discovery of a castle, fourteen churches, residential areas, craft shops and street networks, Cherven is one of Bulgaria’s more important archaeological centres.

CyprusChristian Basilica – The group continues with work that has been ongoing for the last few years in the areas of the Basilica. The previous groups have helped to uncover intricate mosaic flooring with as many as 16 mosaics designs showing evidence of having origins from all over Cyprus.

IcelandMonastic – The groups have been focusing on a monastery and associated graves, helping the team through their project and assisting with the yearly aims and objectives. The skeletal remains, botanical remains and surgical instruments suggest strongly that the monastery served elderly and sick people.

Italy: Etruscan – The groups assist in the continued research excavations in to the Etruscan period of the area around Marsiliana. The groups have been working on a possible residential building in the hills as well as nearby necropoli.

Romania: Neolithic – New on offer from Grampus the group works with a university team on a Neolithic site. The most recent focus has been on burials of many individuals, whose remains indicate some unusual burial practices.

EASE Bulgaria Placement.

The outcome of our placements are for participants to practice any skills they do have, learn some new skills and methods they may otherwise not encounter in the UK and to see how sites are run outside the UK.  The EASE placements are training experiences, but the placements are not a transfer of UK practices, so the training is something different for participants to experience. We also want participants to put the placement on their CV to highlight the work they have done. We want people to come away from the placement with more enthusiasm towards their studies/career and to feel that they have contributed to research/rescue excavations.

These Bones of Mine Note:

I participated in the 2011 Magdeburg German placement via Grampus Heritage in the UK, and found it a wonderful experience.  It is highly recommended that undergraduates and graduates across the EU access and use programs such as the Leonardi Da Vinci scheme.  For myself, it has given lifelong memories and long lasting friendships.

My Mesolithic-Neolithic Article in The Post Hole!

2 Sep

Unbeknownst to me whilst I’ve been gallivanting  in central Europe an article that I wrote for The Post Hole, a University of York student ran archaeological journal, has finally been published in the magazine and has been let loose online.

The Post Hole is an online magazine set up by the University of York archaeological students, for both students to write articles in and to promote ideas in the wider archaeological community.  Several editions of the magazine are released each academic year, often with a vast range of topics covered in the same edition.  This edition (the 17th) covers the theme of prehistory, and specifically the Mesolithic & Neolithic periods.  My article, ‘Nuances in the Archaeological Record Regarding Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition’, can be found here.

Post Hole Article

My article as it appears on the Post Hole journal site.

Also in this edition of the Post Hole are articles dealing with the media perception of prehistory, assessment and usefulness of radiocarbon dates during colonisation events & an argument for a greater integrated approach in interpreting prehistoric cultures.  Some of you who have been following the blog for a while may recognise my article from an earlier entry but there have been some time lapses between my original submission and availability online (so keep shtum!).  Writing for university student ran journals or papers can be a great way to meet new people, spread new ideas and highlight little researched areas as well as helping to practicing your writing style and presentation.  I’d encourage everyone to have a go!


Mennear, D. 2011. Nuances in the Archaeological Record Regarding the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition. In The Post Hole. 17: 5-9.