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Bones of Contention: A Personal Reflection on Animal Relations

3 Sep

There was something comforting about a strangers dog looking up at me with unadorned glee at my open car door, waiting to be either patted on the head or to be fed a treat (perhaps both if they are lucky) I thought, as the car seemed to drag me into the parking space at work.  Earlier in the day I had stopped at a nearby nature reserve to break the journey in half in order to get some fresh air before the back shift started at the office.  To see the leaves dancing in the wind, to feel the sun on my skin; to know that there is beauty in the scenes where we are not the main actors but merely the passive observers.  I took out my notebook and scratched a few words into its carefully kept pages.  Today was going to be a good day.

Once parked up at work, and upon opening the door a fraction, my eyes spotted a fragment of bone on the tarmac.  One, two, perhaps three pieces?  One solid chunk and two small slithers of bone, the physical remnant of a body dispersed.  The larger chunk grabbed my more immediate interest and I stood up, leaned over and picked it up and carefully turned it over in my hands.  As I expected it was not human, but it was definitely from a mammal.  I chuckled to myself thinking it was a gift from the osteological gods.

Based on a quick morphological assessment it seemed to be a left distal humerus fragment (or, more simply, the top part of the elbow), as I recognised both the posterior olecranon fossa and the anterior coronoid fossa with their familiar shapes.  I also noted the slight ridge of bone that would have led to the medial epicondyle where it not heavily abraded.  Most of the articular surface of the trochlea survived although there were fragments abraded or chipped off either side of this.  Some of these minor breaks were clearly recent, the largest break had exposed a brilliant white patch of the dense cortical and honeycomb-like trabecular bone in clear contrast to the grayer surface that surrounded the broken area.  Still clearly visible, but largely fused, was the posterior line between the metaphysis and distal epiphysis indicating that the animal had not quite reached full adult growth, or skeletal maturity.  There was also a distinct clear transverse saw cut through the full shaft of the distal metaphysis, which indicated that the animal had likely been butchered or processed in some way.

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The humerus bone of a horse (Equus), cow (Bos), pig (Sus), sheep/goat (Ovis/Capra) and dog (Canis) in comparison to one another. Scale bar in increments of 5cm. Image credit: Boneview via University College London.

Based on size alone it likely belonged to the Ovis or Capra genera, that is either a sheep or a goat.  There is the possibility that it could belong to the Sus genus, a pig perhaps, as they can be awfully similar in shape and size, particularly if they have not reached full skeletal maturity.  Zooarchaeologists, those who study the skeletal remains of animals from archaeological contexts, often pair sheep and goat together as it can be exceptionally tough to differentiate those two species from fragmented or isolated skeletal remains.  I could see immediately that the bone was not fresh, that the ashen tone indicated that it had likely spent time being bleached by the sun in the open air.

I knew that even though the industrial estate seemed nice enough, with the gleaming glass paneled Art Deco offices and funky design logos that adorn the signage boards, that behind the lush bushes and full trees that lined one side of the main avenue there was likely a rubbish tip of some description bordering it.  A dump that gathered all of the waste of modern life together to be compacted and squashed, to be buried beyond sight rather than to be dispersed invisibly into the sea or rivers as effluent is.  I had suspected this and wondered if this is where the bone had come from, carried perhaps in the beak of one of the numerous European herring gulls (Larus argentatus) that frequent the area.  They can be seen at all hours, chasing one another on the air currents or taking part in great aerial feats of imaginary bombardments over the great length of the industrial estate.

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Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography Lady Grey film.

I’d come across bleached bone fragments before in such settings where gulls in particular rested and squawked at one another.  Still, it was interesting to see a few fragments of bone and to be able to identify and side which part of the skeleton they represented.  The material was clearly modern, even if sun bleached, and likely represented the fragments from waste sources, scattered by the combined action of animals and natural processes.  The bones had long ago lost their original context, had long ago lost even the rest of the body in which in life they were once a part of.  They could, though, still tells us something about the age of the individual that they represented, the likely size and the probable butchery of their body too.

Later on in the week, a few days after having discovered the bone fragment at work and when the weather had noticeably taken a turn for the better, I find myself happily sat outside in the back garden at home taking it in turns to read and to write.  But I am not alone out here.  I am joined by feathered friends that we keep in a coop towards the bottom of the garden, the three unnamed domesticated hens (Gallus gallus domesticus) that make their home here as we collect their eggs; they are a subspecies of the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) who range over Southeast Asia and from which each domesticated chicken can trace its origin from.  The chickens in this garden are of the Gingernut Ranger type, a friendly, inquisitive and distinctive breed which are well-noted to be friendly and are always keen to peck, dig and generally explore the garden in search of hidden insects.  They also react quite joyfully to owners bringing scraps of food as daily treats.  The chickens are only unnamed because they are so similar-looking to one another, however we can easily tell them apart by their distinct personalities and social identities.

For instance, one of the chickens is remarkably independent and unrelentingly curious about the garden and any unusual sights or sounds therein.  She will be one of the first to peck and prod each section if we allow them into the garden or into an enclosure that we sometimes extend onto the grass via the use of spare chicken wire.  Furthermore, if she has the chance to, she’ll be the first to crouch down and take a flying jump out of said enclosure to scurry around in the undergrowth that lies temptingly out of the reach of the makeshift pen.  (I can only imagine the terror the bugs must feel on seeing this incessant eater appear in their midst).

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The three inquisitive ladies. Photograph by the author using a Pentax ME Super camera and Lomography colour film.

The other two often keep together, but invariably follow the more independent chicken once it has taken flight. As they push their heads repeatedly through the wire to see where their fellow hen has gone their soft fleshy combs ping back and forth, a harbinger of their impending flight for freedom.  Truly it is a joy to look after these beasts, to watch them rake into the freshly upturned soil with their tyrannosaur-like claws, methodically working the soil searching for sustenance and then move forward once they have cleaned the section of life.  I wonder, briefly, if this is perhaps a new approach to tackling trowelling back on archaeological digs.  Again I chuckle at this flight of fancy and gently my thoughts return back to the fragment of bone found at work, wondering where the animal had originated from.

It was in this environment, watching the chickens explore the delights that the garden had to offer and intermittently reading Philip Hoare’s delightful 2013 memoir The Sea Inside, that I remembered the odds and sods collection of non-human skeletal material that I kept from various random chance occurrences.  Within this small collection were the skeletal remains of a shoulder of mutton meal that my family had eaten one Sunday afternoon.  The remains, cleaned of any surviving muscles, ligaments and tendons by knife, were slowly boiled in water over the course of an afternoon to further remove any remaining soft tissue.  It isn’t a perfect bone cleaning method though, and I’d recommend you read the blogs mentioned below for better tips on animal skeletal preparation.  What remained after a number of hours though were gleaming white bones; the complete humerus, radius and ulna bones of a sheep which could perfectly articulate together.  Perfect and whole examples to use as comparative osteological material in order to compare the distal humerus fragment against for both size and morphological differences and similarities.

I also remembered that in one of these pots outside I had buried the skeletal remains of an ox tail, again the leftovers of a family meal that had taken place some time ago.  This was, I think, a number of years ago now and I really should go and dig them out at some point, to see the state of preservation of the caudal vertebrae and identify which bones remain intact.  But, to return to the present line of inquiry, I rummaged around the metal box which held the small collection of animal bones I had collected over the years and found a match for the distal humeral fragment, that I had found at work, with the cleaned bones parsed from the remains of the shoulder of mutton meal.  And so, through the analysis of the morphological features present, combined with my previous handling experience of animal remains and the use of comparative modern examples, my hunch at the species identification had proved correct in this instance.  I felt a sense of satisfaction in my positive and appropriate analysis of this random fragment.

Oh I patted that dog (Canis familiaris) in the car park on the head by the way, watched its chocolate coloured eyes lock briefly and keenly with my own before it decided to wander back over to its owner on the other side of the small car park, perhaps knowing I had no treats to give it that day.  Next time I return to the nature park I hope I shall see it again, and perhaps then will be able to give it a treat in return.

Sometimes it is the little things in life that make you realize that we do not share this world just with one another but with a wide variety of life forms, each within their own lives.

Further Information

  • Check out Zygoma, a regularly updated blog by Paolo Viscardi that highlights non-human skeletal remains and discusses the differences in skeletal morphology between species.  Paolo is a natural history curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London.  His Friday mystery objects series of entries are fantastic to note the differences in skeletal morphology between species, ages and sexes of non-human animals.
  • Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SV-POW!) is a fantastic blog that focuses on ancient animal species, including dinosaurs, and their fossils and general anatomical variation.  Ran by palaeontologists Matt Wedel, Mike Taylor and Daren Naish, SV-POW! also covers a broad arrange of topics related to academia, research and scientific publishing, particularly in relation to copyright and public access to scientific literature.
  • Read Jake’s Bones for a fantastic resource on modern animal remains for comparative osteological purposes, ran by the eponymous Jake.  His site is child and family friendly and offers a wide range of comparative material from a whole range of animals and he also introduces the importance of natural history and conservation.  For a great guide on how to clean and process skeletal remains check out his guide here.
  • Bioarchaeologist and human osteologist Jess Beck has a fantastic site called Bone Broke, which introduces readers to the beauty of the human skeleton and the information which is encoded within bone, and to what archaeologists can learn about past individuals and populations in the archaeological record from the study of them and their context.  Check out her useful resources page here, where you can test yourself on the human bone quizzes, learn how to prepare animal skeletons or just to brush up on your anatomy!
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Archaeology Day 2014: A View From Friends

11 Jul

Friday the 11th of July marks Archaeology Day 2014, a tremendous initiative designed to showcase the diversity of research and work that is found in the archaeological sector and industry across the world.  But rather than have this blog entry focus on me specifically, I wanted to present the view of a few of my friends that are involved in the archaeology community worldwide, whether they are a volunteer, a student or an academic, be they in it for the fun or employed in the commercial sector.  So without further ado here are a few of my friends and what they will be up to on the Day of Archaeology 2014!

So firstly we meet up with my friend Jennifer in Belgium, who has some skeletons that need examining:

“I am a graduate in Prehistoric archaeology, and in funerary archaeology and human osteology.  On archaeology day I will be conducting an osteological study on a skeletal collection.  Firstly there is a need to assess the completeness of the bones that were excavated in the Belgian town of Rebecq.  This excavation by the SPW (Public Service of Wallonia) is one of the fieldworks I took part as a volunteer in 2012.  The cemetery is early medieval, and the individuals seem to show a lot of pathological lesions.  The sex and age at death of the individuals is estimated based on metrical and morphological features expressed in the remains.  Understanding the health conditions and the demographic profile of the people buried in this cemetery will help understand how they lived in Rebecq in the Middle Ages.
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Jennifer Gonissen excavating an early medieval cemetery at Rebecq in Belgium. Photo credit D. Bosquet-SPW.

Besides that, I have also been helping at the lab for the Palaeoanthropology course led at the University of Brussels this academic semester.  I am also working on publishing my two master thesis.  Everything is done on a volunteering basis as there are very few paid opportunity for osteoarchaeologists in Belgium.  This does not mean that there is nothing to work on, as Belgium is rich in skeletal material excavated in numerous fieldworks across the country, a large part of which still has to be properly studied.”

– Jennifer Gonissen, an osteoarchaeologist based in Brussels.

Keeping with the skeletal theme we now turn towards Cheshire, England, where we find Alison helping archaeological students:

“While I often spend a lot of time at a desk for archaeology, this summer I am back in the field: from June to September at the Poulton Research Project field school in Cheshire. As there is a cemetery on site it is my role to oversee any excavation involving human remains. In addition to this, I also to teach students (from all subject backgrounds and levels of experience) how to identify, excavate, record, lift, and clean skeletal material.

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Students record a burial on site, before the skeleton is lifted. Photo credit Alison Atkin, with permission.

While it’s my job, I consider it a privilege to be involved in their introduction to osteoarchaeology – and thus far I’ve been nothing less than impressed with their enthusiasm for and insights into the subject.”

– Alison Atkin, a Doctoral Researcher at University of Sheffield, osteoarchaeologist at the Poulton Research Project and blogger at Deathsplanation.

After which we join David in Haddington, Scotland, as he balances his community and commercial archaeological work:

Currently the world of my archaeology revolves around 5 major suns, all equally bright and demanding.  The Skills passport is printed and being packed, with the final text added to the website,  BAJR is campaigning for more than minima, the preparations for fieldschools and training with Rampart Scotland are at warp factor 7 (days to go)  and of course Past Horizons articles never end.   Finally, and slipped into the mix is my commercial sun, three reports to be completed, two tenders to submit and a rather complex negotiation to tiptoe through.   Also helping to organise a medieval conference in Haddington in September and a new social enterprise archaeology group.   So all in all a fairly busy, but exciting time!”

– David Connolly, owner of BAJR, co-writer at Past Horizons and creator of the Archaeology Skills  Passport.

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David Connolly horsing about on an archaeology project – business as usual!

What is it like to work in the field as an archaeologist and what can it involve?  Kevin provides a breakdown of what he gets up to in the fields and offices of England:

“I am currently working with Wardell Armstrong Archaeology, as a casual field archaeologist out of their Carlisle office.  They have me doing a little bit of everything in terms of work, though mostly within the early stages of pre-planning on sites due for development, including surveys (mostly geophysics) and evaluations.

Unfortunately I have been told I am not allowed to divulge detailed information on current projects for obvious reasons, but I can talk about the projects I’ve been involved with recently that have been made public.  For example, I helped throughout most of the post-ex for the predominantly Roman site at Blackfriars, in Leicester; washing all the finds as they came back, helping to catalogue them, writing small-finds sheets etc., which was great because there were some very interesting finds.  Pretty much everything you would expect from a domestic, urban Roman site, complete with coins, copper brooches, various other types of jewellery, iron tools, hoards of pottery and colourful painted wall plaster.  There was even a couple of roof tiles baked with animal paw prints still in them, which were interesting, giving a very intimate snapshot of Roman life.

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Kevin building a snapshot of every day life by processing the archaeological artefacts.  Notice the regulatory Richard the III mug that can be found in every archaeologists office (click to enlarge!).

However, my primary role these days is with the geophysics team, travelling all over the country, Essex, Wiltshire, Staffordshire, Cumbria, Kent, Lancashire and on Archaeology Day I will theoretically be on the outskirts of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Nice and close to home.  As I said, I can’t go into details about the job other than it is in advance of a housing development.  Doing the geophysics itself is hard work.  I am not going to lie! We shall be walking, I’ve been told, through knee-high sugar-beet, which will make walking with the twin-probed magnetometers awkward at best.

I think I’ve done geophysics through every type of crop and across every type of terrain (and through every weather condition!).  Sometimes it’s quite enjoyable, other times, like I say, it’s bloody hard.  No doubt I will need to buy a new pair of wellies by the end of the second day.  That’s right, we wear wellies!!! Our company won’t supply non-metallic shoes, so we’re all wearing rubber wellies which are uncomfortable to walk in over long distances and very hot and sweaty in the summer heat! Fun fun!  I suppose the odd aspect to my doing geophysics is that I’m not a geophysicist, and I certainly have no formal training in geophysics.  I’m very much an archaeologist who has been pulled in to do the surveying work, learning on the job!”

– Kevin Horsley, a commercial field archaeologist with his hands and feet dipped into all the pots archaeology has to offer.

My undergraduate university friend Emily also enjoys the variety that life in archaeology has to offer:

“If I am not in the field digging evaluations or excavations with my team, I am in the office processing finds and preparing archaeological archives for museum accessioning.  This weekend I’ll be celebrating the Festival of Archaeology by heading down to the nearby Milton Keynes Central Library to talk to the public about archaeology and local finds! 

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Emily and company at Cotswold Archaeology processing and recording archaeological data, ready to archive and store material. Photo credit: Cotswold Archaeology.

I really enjoy both the fieldwork and post-excavation elements of my job, it is nice to have the variety and I feel one improves the other as it gives me a better understanding of the different aspects of commercial archaeology.”

– Emily Evans, field archaeologist for Cotswold Archaeology.

Is field work all there is to archaeology or can you get involved in other ways as well?  Robert provides a different view:

I was forced to leave the archaeological profession in 2011, mostly owing to the difficulties of providing for my family on ever diminishing wages, and the requirement to erode standards to the level that there was no longer a point in doing the job. Three years later I’m still in archaeology, but not in the way I ever expected. Today my ‘day of archaeology’ will involve leaving the house early and going to work in IT. Once I’m home in the evening and the kids are fed, washed, and put to bed do I generally get a chance to sneak off to my study and write.

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Robert Chapple hard at work writing about archaeology.  Read more about Robert, his desk and others (including mine) here!

These days the main drive of my archaeological writing is for my blog, the uninspiringly named ‘Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist’. I write about archaeological and heritage stuff that interests me, from days out with my family at ancient sites, to campaigning on a variety of heritage issues. However, the stuff that brings me the most pleasure right now are various accounts of lectures, conferences, and symposia – either written by myself or fellow conspirators – that I help to bring different aspects of archaeological research to a wide audience. It’s not what I ever imagined I’d be doing, but I’m still here and I’m still enjoying being able to contribute to the field.”

– Robert M. Chapple, whose work and blog can be found at Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist.

Ancient Egypt entices a lot of children and teenagers into studying archaeology but what is it really like?  Loretta presents us with a snapshot of where her research is at:

“I am due to start my PhD on ancient Egyptian and Sudanese ceramics this autumn at the university of Oxford; specifically looking at pilgrim flasks from the New Kingdom to the Roman period. This year, I have been working as an independent researcher and consultant, and a book I have consulted on, ‘Discover More: Ancient Egypt‘ has recently been published. This summer I am busy working on a project analysing infant jar burials, which I am developing into a paper.”

– Loretta Kilroe, an Egyptologist specializing in pottery who is based at the University of Oxford.

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Loretta working on documenting Egyptian pottery from a recent project with the British Museum in Sudan.

Heading over to Australia now, we have my good friend Lorna explaining a bit about her research and why it’s important:

“My PhD thesis, Towards a Bioarchaeology of Care: A contextualised approach for identifying and interpreting health-related care provision in prehistory, was finalised last year – I’ve included the whole of this cumbersome title because it’s a reasonable summary of my research focus.  Over the next twelve months I’ll be putting my efforts into improving and extending the bioarchaeology of care approach.  This will include refining the Index of Care – a freely available application, launched earlier this year, designed to support the four-stage bioarchaeology of care methodology (user feedback is enthusiastically solicited!); editing my thesis for publication (look out for Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care in 2015); and helping to organise a special session – ‘Building a Bioarchaeology of Care’ – to be held at the Society of American Archaeology 2015 meeting in San Francisco (and at which David Mennear, the creator of this blog, will be speaking). 

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The first case study to apply a ‘bioarchaeology of care’ methodology focused on Man Bac Burial 9, a young man from Neolithic Vietnam who lived with quadriplegia for around a decade (see more here).

As time permits, I’ll also be trialing the Index of Care on new cases of past health-related caregiving; I hope to explore the experience of individuals from historic as well as prehistoric contexts, which will give me the chance to look at how information from archaeology conforms to information on care practice from available texts.” 

– Lorna Tilley, a visitor in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at Australia National University.

From Australia we jump back to Belgium and Héloïse, who introduces us to her research interest in Benin pottery:

My name is Héloïse Meziani, I graduated from a Master’s degree in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, in 2012; and continued on with a Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, in The Arts of Africa, Oceania and The Americas. I decided to enroll in this second MA to wider my opportunities in the “world art and archaeology” field. However, after this successful year in England, I came back to Belgium to unpaid internships as only opportunities. Jobs in our field are few and funded PhD hard to obtain.

On Archaeology Day, I will be continuing my volunteer internship at the Royal Museum for Central Africa of Tervuren, Belgium. I am currently studying pottery sherds brought back in February 2014 from the archaeological habitat site of Kantoro, northern Benin, by the Crossroads of Empire project team. My work consists in the systematic study of 2 Surveys; one of 283 sherds, another of 859 sherds. After inventorying, reassembling and imputing all of those shards in a database (by shape and decor), I am in the process of photographing and studying the diagnostic material to understand its use and its variation through time. We can already see a dichotomy between two types of ceramics: thick and large ones decorated using folded strip roulette or by cord, probably made for storage, and a finer, more polished ceramic, decorated with thinner tools, possibly used for serving food.

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Examples of pottery sherds from the above mentioned project. Pottery sherd survey II, 40-50cm, and second pottery sherd survey II, 80-90cm. Photo credit Héloïse Meziani.

My interests are in African pottery and beads (my UEA’s master’s dissertation was on a collection of archaeological beads from northern Benin), but also in Mochica’s ceramics (Peru). In the future, I am hoping to find a job (research or museum work) in link with one of those fields of studies.

– Héloïse Meziani, an archaeologist.

And from Belgium we jump to Germany, where we find Anna carrying out all sorts of duties for her archaeological company:

Currently I’m working for an archaeological company in Cologne (Archbau Köln) being the handy man – so that means I’m mainly working in the office finishing projects that mainly involve counting sherds of pottery, organising excavations but also being on site. Besides all of this, I am also the main anthropologist of my company – so whenever we dig up some skeletons I’m responsible for their examination.  So basically, I’m always quite busy archaeology wise.”

– Anna Marschner, an osteoarchaeologist.
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Next we find Adam talking about the often unsuspecting and adventurous pathways that archaeology can take you on:
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I finished my M.A. at Sheffield in 2012 and moved to London in April 2013. I was a bit upset that I was not doing anything with my degree so I looked for work, which I found, at the Palestine Exploration Fund. Through a connection there I ended up going on a two and a half month excavation in Sudan of a medieval Nile River fort. It was an amazing site but the living was very rough but that is half the fun of it!
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Adam Fraser relaxes in Sudan after excavating in the heat, and considers relaxing in London before taking part in some Oman archaeological exploits.

While I was in Sudan one of the team members received an email from a friend back in the UK. The email was about potential work in Oman. Nobody on our team was able to accept the invitation so I did. After finishing in Sudan I was in London for a few weeks indulging in the various vices that one misses while on excavation. Before I could settle down I was on another flight to Muscat. Upon arrival I was informed of the enormous task before our small team. We had to excavate and document a very large tract of land which was being developed for a highway. Scattered through the designated landscape were many Bronze-Iron Age tombs. We ended up with a few skeletons to show for it and a good collection of beads and some other jewellery. I did not expect that things would turn out this was when I was looking for work a year ago.

– Adam Fraser, a field archaeologist and a librarian at the Palestine Exploration Fund.

From Adam to Alex, who explains what it can be like to direct an archaeology company:

“As archaeology director for Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd I have a many varied role and I can be seen with many different hats on. This 2014 Archaeology Day finds me editing a report from a site that we worked on last year, whilst trying to get to grips with the vagaries of ArcMap; the commonly used GIS program for mapping sites.

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Alex in full recruitment mode for a community archaeolgy project looking at the evidence for WWII prisoner of war camps at Hickleton Hall.

I shall also be getting ready for our yearly excavations at Hickleton Hall in Doncaster, beginning in two weeks!”

– Alex Sotheran, director at Elmet Archaeolgical Services Ltd.

 And finally we have Spencer who’s often busy staring at rocks, looking for clues to our past:

I’m an archaeological lithics specialist with a particular passion for the Mesolithic period in north-east England. Somebody has to be! This period, between the last glaciation and the onset of the Neolithic revolution, is a boiling pot of potential in our region – tantalising glimpses of transitions, human reactions to major climate events and natural disasters like tsunamis.

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Spencer Carter hard at work threading the ties of humanity via the lithic analysis of Mesolithic flints from the north of England.

On the Day of Archaeology I will be in the lithics lab in north-west London. The door is always open during the day because people drift in and out wondering what on earth I’m doing with tiny bits of stone in their thousands. I tell them the story because archaeology is about a narrative, about our shared past and lineage. Having been burgled twice, the door is double-bolted each evening (nothing was taken). I’m continuing the detailed cataloguing and photography and awaiting, chewing on fingernails, the final set of radiocarbon dates for an exciting excavated Mesolithic ‘persistent place’ on the North York Moors.

On top of that, I’m helping to organise a CSI Teesside forensics event for the Festival of Archaeology and, as editor for Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire, calling for papers for our annual FORUM YORKSHIRE journal.”

– Spencer Carter, who blogs at Microburin, is a member of the Lithoscapes team and the Teeside Archaeology Society chairman.

So there you have it!  A short selection of what some of my friends involved in the beautiful, but sometimes frustrating, world of archaeology are up to on the Day of Archaeology 2014.  

The question now is what are you going to be doing?  Let me know in the comments below! 

Guest post: ‘Thoughts from Amara West’ by Loretta Kilroe.

19 Nov

Loretta Kilroe holds a research masters and a bachelors degree in Egyptology from the University of Oxford.  Loretta’s specialism is the study of ancient Egyptian ceramics and post new kingdom ceramics specifically.  The main focus of her research is the aim to approach ceramics from a social context with an eye to using changes in form and context to make inferences about society.  Loretta is currently applying for PhD programs and can be found blogging at Cakes and Ceramics.

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Often I find, when I mention working in Sudan, people zip straight to thinking of war or corruption. In the UK, people tend to be surprised when I rave about the wonderful hospitality, the delicious food, the view of stars in the middle of the desert, and particularly the rich archaeological sites, bursting out of the country’s seams.

When I finished my undergrad at Oxford, I was lucky enough to be invited to join the British Museum team in Amara West early this year, as an assistant ceramicist. At Oxford, most people studying Egyptology are linguists, but I found that getting to grips with pottery typologies was like another language in itself, and much more interesting in my opinion!

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Loretta and a selection of the ceramics and pots excavated from the Amara West site in Sudan.  Photography by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

Amara West is located just across the river from Abri, the largest town in the Nubian area, and just upriver from Sai, a famous site which inspired the development of the Kerma pottery typology. It is a late New Kingdom ‘colonial’ town, established by the Egyptians as part of their administration over Nubia, although the extent to which it was populated by Egyptians is debated. The British Museum excavation has been running since 2009, after a survey season from the British School in Rome, which identified key areas of the site. However the British Museum was not the first to discover the sand-coated town. Fairman excavated extensively with the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1920s and uncovered parts of the town and cemeteries as well as the Ramesside temple. The cemetery records are scanty however, especially since a few graves were only excavated to keep the workers occupied while finds were packed up for museums apparently! The BM’s research aims have steered in rather the opposite direction from this early work, and seek to find out what daily life was like in a town like this, instead of monumental architecture. And the dig has thrown up some beautifully touching examples of it: a treasured bracelet dropped on the ground and lost, yellow painted walls, a sealing in a house incredibly matching a scarab amulet found in one of the graves.

The dig team live close to the site, on Ernetta island, 20 minutes boat ride downstream from the old town. The experience of living there, I found, significantly informed my understanding of the archaeology of the town. I know anthropologically-informed approaches have been growing in popularity in the archaeological community (with all its usual controversy), but coming from the land of sofas and fridges, it is 100% useful living with people who understand the climate and how to cope with it. Thus mastabas (mud-brick benches against walls) which are outside all the houses in Ernetta, and in the courtyard, covered in a bright throw, are pretty much the same as those in the ancient Amara West houses. To keep water cool, it is kept in huge, porous ceramic pots, pretty similar to those we find in the sand. And the island is surrounded on its outskirts by date palms, which upon stepping out from, instantly leave you to the mercy of the sandy wind. Recent evidence has suggested that Amara was once an island and when the Nile moved course, the inhabitants of the town had to start building barriers before their front doors to keep out the sand.

lorettadighouse

The dig house, with the mastabas visible outside in the courtyard, resemble the buildings that were probably quite a common sight during the Amara West heyday.  Photography by Loretta Kilroe, property belongs to the British Museum.

One of the major questions dig members did keep talking about however, was how ancient inhabitants would have coped with the nimiti. If you work in Sudan, never mind the heat, the lack of electricity or the different food– little black flies known as nimiti will be the bane of your life. When the season gets hot, out they come in swarms, and crawl all over you all day in the sun. They bite, but luckily don’t carry any diseases this far north. It could get very irritating trying to draw a pot with nimiti crawling up into your armpit, and not being able to swipe them because the vessel was just in the right position! My personal theory is the cramped, smokey houses we think most people would have lived in, were perfect refuges against the flies who hate the dark and smoke.

Now I applied for my research masters planning to study grave good groups, particularly ceramics, from the late Old Kingdom, to assess levels of state control in a time they were traditionally assumed to be weakening. So it is quite by accident that I ended up specialising in a period over 2000 years later, the Third Intermediate Period. I never found the later periods of Egyptian history compelling until I started looking at the pottery actually. In Sudan in particular, towards the end of the New Kingdom Egyptian-style pottery tends to get pretty ugly-which is what I absolutely love for some reason!

The pottery in the town levels at Amara currently being excavated, dates through the Ramesside period. Pottery evidence in the villas built at some stage outside the town wall indicates these were built in the later Ramesside period, evidently at a time when there was thought no need for defenses. The problem arises when you approach the graves. Many of them date to the Ramesside and late Ramesside too, like the town; but some date to the Post New Kingdom (Third Intermediate Period in Egypt), a time when there are no occupation levels in the town. This is a conundrum which the research team, and my own research, try to address.

villa (1)

A villa at the Amara West site in Sudan partially uncovered.  Photograph by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

For the two month excavation period, I was responsible for the cemetery ceramics excavated from Cemetery C. The team alternate excavating between the two cemeteries on the site; D is located on an escarpment and was the ideal location for elite burial. The remains of a pyramid tomb was actually found by Fairman in this cemetery, and although all the graves have so far been looted in both cemeteries, enough broken material remains to piece together some idea of the wealth of this little community. The items in the graves also reflect a fascinating hybridisation of identity within the town, with artefacts from both the Nubian and the Egyptian cultural tradition often found side by side. Egyptian scarabs and painted coffin fragments have turned up, as have miraculous remains of woven baskets and eggshell jewellery.

Post New-Kingdom/Third Intermediate Period pottery is understudied partially because this damage to contemporary occupation levels is quite common, so there are a lack of stratified deposits to learn from. However, in the case of Nubia, the decrease in variety as well as quality perceived has led to many interpretations of Nubian society as breaking up after the Egyptians left. The ceramics at this time are certainly very different from the blue-painted vessels and carefully formed jars of the 18th dynasty. Beer jars, one of the most common vessels in both cemetery and occupation levels, become so poorly made, they cannot even stand upright, and the bases are squashed by fingerprints. Red-rimmed bowls no longer have a neat little border, but the red quite literally dribbles everywhere. And by the time we get well into this pre-Napatan phase, pilgrim flask handles are stunted pieces of clay squashed onto the neck, useless for holding.

mydesk

The desk and work station at the excavation, full of ceramics and pots ready to be described and analysed.  Photograph by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

All these features are often dismissed as resulting from potters disinterest in aesthetics or the loss of technical knowledge as society broke down. However when I was in contact with examples of these vessels, I came to the conclusion that this view was distinctly limited. In Egyptology, ceramics are typically focused on in answering chronological questions, but my thesis sought to challenge these boundaries and discuss what social changes these ceramic shifts could indicate. The developments I suggested are too long to go into much detail here, but as a summary, I believe they reflect the changing purposes of these culturally Egyptian vessels when used by an increasingly hybridised society. Nubian pottery focuses much more on decoration than perfect wheel-thrown forms, and thus I believe the dribbly red rims become a deliberate aesthetic feature. A rare hybrid bowl lends support to this theory; hand-made and fired according to Nubian techniques, it was nonetheless shaped and coloured as a standard Egyptian bowl, indicating it was an imitation–and the red rim distinctly dribbles. At another site, Hillat el-Arab, later beer jars are replaced in graves by pilgrim flasks, suggesting that the reason beer jars could no longer stand up was because their use was obsolete.

I hope to be talking about this development with red-rimmed bowls at the Current Research in Egyptology conference this April at UCL, so come along if you’re interested in finding out some more detail about what can, when summarised, sound like a bit of a crackpot theory!

Nileandmountain

The Nile river, the lifeblood of Egypt and Sudan.  Photograph taken by Loretta Kilroe.

Research at Amara West is due to continue for the foreseeable future –a Collaborative Doctoral Scheme has just been awarded for a scholar to research the use of colour in New Kingdom towns with Amara as a significant case study– and there are still villas and graves to uncover. Together with the early New Kingdom site of Tombos further south, the increasing influx of archaeological projects in Sudan is shedding new light on how we understand New Kingdom expansion and the development of the later Napatan state. Meanwhile, I hope to return to Sudan one day in the near future–it is without a doubt the high point of places I have excavated!

Further Information:

Bibliography:

Aston, D. 1996. Egyptian Pottery of the Late New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period. Tentative Footsteps in a Forbidding Terrain. Studien zur Archáologie und Geshichte Altágyptens 13. Heidelberg: Heidelberger Orientverlag.  (An excellent typology for the Egyptian Third Intermediate Period).

Bader, B. & Ownby, M. (eds.). 2009. Functional Aspects of Egyptian Ceramics in their Archaeological Context: Proceedings of a Conference held at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, July 24th – July 25th, 2009. Leuven: Peeters. (One of the ceramic studies focusing on a social approach).

Binder, M. Spencer, N. & Millet, M. 2010. ‘The New Kingdom Cemetery at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia14: 25-44.

Binder, M. Spencer, N. & Millet, M. 2011. ‘Cemetery D at Amara West: the Ramesside Period and its aftermath’. Sudan & Nubia16: 47-99. (Open Access).

Spencer, N. 2009. ‘Cemeteries and a Ramesside Suburb at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia13: 47–61. (All official British Museum team publications).

Spencer, N. 2010. ‘Nubian architecture in an Egyptian town? Building E12.11 at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia14: 15-24.

Spencer, N., Woodward, J. & Macklin, M. 2012. ‘Re-assessing the Abandonment of Amara West: The Impact of a Changing Nile?‘. Sudan and Nubia16: 37-43.

Spencer, N. 2013. ‘Insights into Life in Occupied Kush during the New Kingdom: New Research at Amara West‘. Antike Sudan. 23: 21–28.

Teesside Archaeology Excavation At Preston Park

18 May

For the past few days I have been on site volunteering for Tees Archaeology on one of their annual excavations at Preston Park Hall & Museum, near Stockton-on-Tees.  The excavation is continuing until a week Friday, so it is only a short two week run.

Preston Park Hall

The excavation is hoping to uncover the  original boundary lines, ditches and the partition distances of the heated greenhouses of the Preston Hall Kitchen Garden dating from 1857.  This information will then be passed on to those who are redesigning the kitchen garden ahead of renovation next year.

Preston hall was built between AD 1820-1825 by David Burton Fowler, and during the latter part of the 19th century ownership passed to Sir Robert Ropner.  Initially the Hall faced South across the River Tees but was later re-fronted to face the North side, possibly due to encroaching views from the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

At the site I am the finds processor; so I’m helping to clean the artefacts from the numerous trenches, mark and bag them for future study.  Its good to be back out in the open, and at the heart of a dig again after a long absence of  nearly 3 years from taking an active part in an excavation.

The material and artefacts themselves are typical of what you would normally find on such a site- clay ceramic pipes, ceramic building material, butchered animal remains, the odd marble, slag waste and numerous brick & slate tiles.  There are also numerous willow pottery fragments being found.  Interestingly the diggers have uncovered an articulated sheep skeleton, with other possible animals underneath near the centre of the garden.  So far the diggers have also uncovered two medieval pottery fragments.

Willow Pottery

There are a number of events still to come in 2011 from Tees Archaeology so if you are in the area or interested please don’t hesitate to come along and join in.  In this day and age it is important that we support our local archaeological units throughout a time of harsh cuts that threaten our shared heritage.