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Ancient Water, Deep Life

18 Dec

I haven’t posted here as much as I have wanted to recently due to a combination of factors.  Firstly my laptop broke, secondly I’ve been busy at work now that the arm has healed up (x-rays of the fracture here), and thirdly I’ve also been conducting an osteoarchaeological side project.  (I’m also expertly, somewhat even academically, ignoring a slew of deadlines which are fast approaching for a few writing projects).  However this is just a quick post to say that there should be a few posts over the next month or so.  A few of these posts have been drafted earlier in the year and are half-finished, but it is hoped they’ll be finished shortly.

In the meantime, and in non-osteo news, I couldn’t help but notice two particularly interesting science articles on the BBC news website earlier today.  Both news articles are probably not new to geologists, oceanographers or geophysicists, but they have certainly piqued my interest.  There is evidence that biological life, in the form of microbes, have been found living at a depth of 2400m beneath the seabed off the coast of Japan.  Although the organisms are single-celled they do seem to manage to survive on a diet of hydrocarbon compounds whilst only expending low amounts of energy.  The microbes have been found in coring samples from an ancient coal bed system, which was drilled by the International Ocean Discovery program in 2012 in the Shimokita Peninsula, Japan.  Amazingly the drill was sent down through 1000m of seawater and through 2446m of rock under the seabed itself.  At such depths there is little water, limited nutrients, no light and no oxygen, yet life still survives.  Tantalizingly research still remains to be conducted on how the microbes came to be at this location and at this great depth.  Read the article here on the BBC.

The other science news article deals with water of a different order.  The world’s oldest deep water is present in a much greater volume than previously estimated.  Located within the Earth’s crust, where some of the oldest rock can also be found, ancient water has been sampled through boreholes and mines and the revised estimate of the volume suggests there is around 11 million cubic kilometres present in the crust.  The world’s oldest dated water has been located in present day Canada in a mine located 2.4km down into the crust, estimates put the water at around 1 billion to 2.5 billion years old (yup billion!).  The fact that the water is so old, and preserved so well, has surprised many and also revises the estimates of hydrogen produced on earth.  Previously it was thought that continental crust produced almost zero hydrogen compared to ocean crusts.  Again, the full article can be found here on the BBC (1).

Both news articles are the result of research coming from the currently ongoing 47th American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco (15th-19th December with a whooping 24,000 delegates!), which covers Earth and space science topics.  I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for further news as this is incredibly interesting as scientific research continues to extend our knowledge of where, and how, life not only survives but seemingly thrives.

Notes

(1).  The scientific literature has not been referenced in this post but I will update once this becomes either available and/or when I have the time.

19/12/15 Update

In other extreme life news the New Scientist magazine has reported the filming of a fish (a possible snailfish) at the depth of 8143m below the surface at the Marianas Trench, in the Pacific Ocean.  The Marianas Trench is the deepest part of the world’s oceans, and the filmed footage of the snailfish at this extreme depth highlights once again how life can survive in hostile environments.  The intense pressure at this depth places severe limitations on the function of muscle and nerve tissues, however snailfish are known to survive in such intense pressure environments with another species, Pseudoliparis amblystomopsis, having been studied and recorded at depths of 7703m before.

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Diggin’ Dinos: Jurassic World

26 Nov

First things first I’m a realist – archaeologists (and bioarchaeologists) do not dig dinosaur bones, that job alone is for palaeontologists.  Palaeontology is the study of life largely prior to the Holocene period, and largely the study of fossils within a geologic context, which mixes the boundaries of geology and biology to inform on the evolution and variety of life.  The study of dinosauria, or dinosaurs as they are largely commonly known as, who became the dominant land clade throughout most of the Triassic to Cretaceous periods (within the Mesozoic geologic era), is but one part of this.

But I would be lying if I did not state that my interest in bones started early and, specifically, that it started with the dinosaurs.  More specifically still it started with Jurassic Park, a film released in 1993 by one Steven Spielberg that saw my 5-year-old self keenly watching in the local cinema.  I was fascinated by the creatures on the screen, these primordial beasts tearing to shreds the Homo sapiens who thought they could control what they had resurrected.  I was intrigued by their form, the variations in the anatomy and the differences in the (admittedly on-screen) behaviour.  Here was a film that didn’t just make the audience scared and excited, it also gave the creatures a semblance of intelligence.  Who were these long extinct creatures?  What was Dr Grant doing in the desert scaring kids with a raptor claw, whilst also overseeing someone shooting shotgun shells into the earth?  Wait, is that is a job? I thought to myself.

I was hooked.  I want to dig in the desert!  That looks great I thought.  Those creatures looks awesome!  Clearly I had to learn more.  Safe to say that the following Christmas was taken up with Jurassic Park toys – the triceratops that had a gouged bit of flesh that could come off, and the helicopter that, if I remember correctly, barely appeared in the film.  But I wanted to learn more than just play with the toys and watch the film again and again (could those raptors really open doors!).  I wanted to learn about the creatures that the film was based on, I wanted to know more about their life contexts, their habitats and their geographic span.  Just when did they live and how did they come to die out?  In a word I was curious, and I remain curious to this day about the natural world around me.

It started out with the toys, dinosaur Top Trump cards and other bits and bobs.  I collected the glow in the dark model skeletons that always seemed to flash up on the television, bit by bit I pieced together a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that looked somewhat badly proportioned.  My father subscribed me to a dedicated dinosaur magazine that explored the fossil remains a bit more in-depth, and I collected a few cast fossils of various parts of various creatures from the past.  At the major museums I would clamour around the cases that showed the fossils of dinosaurs and more recent mammals, always thinking about what these creatures must have seen during their own lifetimes, how very different our two worlds were.  In time Jurassic Park: The Lost World was released and I became enraptured all over again.  An early precursor to this blog was created during my primary school days where I put together a mini-book of drawings of Protoceratops, Triceratops, Brachiosaurus, Iguanodon, Ankylosaurus and co. with information boxes supplying the basic data of when and where they lived and what they ate.  I was thrilled when Baryonyx was found and described, a highly specialised fish eater in southern England of all places (though of course plate tectonics have substantially moved the earth’s surface around since the Late Cretaceous days).

I hate to say but this lust for dinosaur knowledge faded somewhat during my late primary school years where I was given to drawing what I thought the inside of my leg may have looked like with the-then new temporary titanium plate that was holding my left femur together (that very plate now rests in one of my draws!).  It was a natural progression from the distant past into an immediate and visceral present, one that gripped me as I learnt that bone is living, changing and dynamic material that responds to the pressures that we place it through.  But still the love for dinosauria flares up from time to time, perhaps no more so than when the BBC released the Walking with Dinosaurs television show in 1999, a real marker in the sand for the intelligent presentation and discussion of the biology and life experience of dinosaurs.  After each episode aired I would spend the next day at school talking with my friends about the episode, excitedly huddled around before the drudgery of school started.  But I did not go on to study palaeontology at any point, although I still maintain a relative interest in the latest discoveries and theories on the biology of dinosaurs and ancient life.

For me there is a certain inherent sadness when looking at the remains of species that have fossilised and have been described and documented.  The question of what lifeforms are we missing from deep geological time periods that did not survive the taphonomic processes, and luck of the draw that has preserved so many skeletons as fossils, often abounds in my head when I view specimens and casts displayed in natural history museums or spread across the pages of books.  In a way, by studying the skeletons of the more recent human past, it perhaps negates in some small way the limited archaeological remains that may, in time, become fossils themselves.  Arguably, of course, we may be destroying that record ourselves.

So no I am not a palaeontologist and I do not dig or study dinosaurs, I am a human osteologist who studies the skeletal remains of humans from archaeological contexts.  It was a close contest, but in the end I adapted to a subject that was close to my heart, that gave me a tangible connection to the past human population instead of the past animal population.  It is a distinction, but it is worth bearing in mind that the Homo sapiens species are just natural animals as well, even though life itself is a wonder.

But let me post what the blog title promises.  My interest has been piqued and, finally, the 3rd much talked about sequel is happening.  (I almost conveniently forgot about the 3rd film whilst writing this, although Spinosaurus still rocks).  Here is the just released trailer for the new 2015 movie Jurassic World*:

* I’m crossing my fingers that this is a beast of a film…

Further Information

  • Check out the palaeontologist Jon Tennant’s fantastic and informative blog Green Tea and Velociraptors for some of the latest updates in palaeontology.
  • Take a read of Neil Shubin’s fascinating book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into a 3.5 Billion year History of the Human Body.  I managed to get a copy a few years ago and it is an invigorating read on the hardships of palaeontological fieldwork that also gives an interesting account of the lab work that goes hand in hand with field explorations.  More importantly this book highlights the evolution of the human body via various parts of both extinct and extant life forms.
  • With fantastic timing a new paper by Hone et al. (2014) discusses a case study of a mass mortality event of juvenile Proterceratops discovered in Mongolia and size-segregated aggregated behaviour in this specimen of dinosaur.  There is the suggestion of sociality but the authors are rightly conservative in their observations.  There is an intriguing remark on the estimation on the age of ceratopisan dinosaurs – “Furthermore, at least some non-avian dinosaurs apparently reached sexual maturity long before reaching terminal body size or somatic maturity [36][38]. The result is a quagmire of varying definitions for ontogenetic stages and ontogenetic assignments across different publications even for single specimens” (Hone et al. 2014).  The taphonomic interpretations of this mass mortality sample is also particularly interesting and I’d recommend reading the accessible paper.

Bibliography

Hone, D. W. E., Farke, A. A., Watabe, M., Shigeru, S. & Tsogtbaatar. 2014. A New Mass Mortality of Juvenile Protoceratops and Size-Segregated Aggregation Behaviour in Juvenile Non-Avian Dinosaurs. PLoS. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113306. (Open Access).

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.

nonparamet

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).

MScdatabase

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.

MScdatabase22

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.

Notes:

(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).

Bibliography:

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: ‘TrowelBlazers’ by Alison Atkin

30 Sep

Alison Atkin is currently a doctoral researcher in osteoarchaeology at the University of Sheffield, where she is studying the demographic characterization of mass fatality incidents in the past and the present.  Her blog, Deathsplanation, details her on-going research and her general fascination with death and the sciences.  Alison also runs the Penny University, a site where she interviews upcoming researchers on their specialist topics.  If you are a researcher and interested in engaging the public via the Penny University, please contact Alison here.


It never bothered me growing up that I didn’t know about women like Frederica de Laguna, Mary Chubb, and Adela Catherine Breton.  It didn’t stop me from becoming an archaeologist.  The seeming lack of females in the field had no impact whatsoever on my decision to attend university for a degree in the subject for which I am most passionate.  It never crossed my mind.  I never questioned it.  Perhaps I should have.  For it bothers me now.  It staggers my mind that for years, as an individual with an interest in archaeology and related subjects, I never came across these women.  They were never pointed in my direction.  It seems an unlikely impossibility.  And yet, I am not the only one.

Enter TrowelBlazers.

A few short months ago, four individuals decided to do something about this historical void of female individuals in archaeology, palaeontology, and geology.  Because it isn’t a void at all – it’s a remarkable web of women that span the existence, origin, and expansion of these fields, inevitably impacting their current (and some would say future) place in the history of science – and, if I may be so bold, the world.

Victoria Herridge (Palaeobiologist), Suzanne Pilaar-Birch (Zooarchaeologist), Rebecca Wragg-Sykes (Archaeologist), and Brenna Hassett (Dental Anthropologist) created the tumblr TrowelBlazers.  In their own words, “This tumblr is a celebration of women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists who have been doing awesome work for far longer, and in far greater numbers, than most people realise.  Because we think these women are awesome.  We think you’ll think these women are awesome.  And we want to keep on discovering more awesome trowel-wielding women.”  I also quite agree with the sentiment that in addition to all of the above, they also created this site because “so many of the pictures are, quite frankly, a-MAZ-ing.”  I defy anyone to resist the site for lure of the photos alone.

When I heard about TrowelBlazers I immediately recognised it as something I wanted to support.  I wanted to know about the women who has helped blaze a trail for people like me to enter these fields… often without giving them a second thought (or as in my case, even a first thought).  I wanted to be an active part of the amazing community that exists between scientists in these fields, which fosters an even deeper admiration for the subject with which I have spent my entire life becoming acquainted. I started researching these women.  Within the first week of Trowelblazers launching I had wrote a post for the site about a woman I had not heard of before their endeavour.  I only found her because they pushed me to be curious.  Am I ever glad they did.  Meet Jane.

Jane Dieulafoy TB

Jane Dieulafoy, a Persian pioneer and meticulous recorder, was one of the finest explorers and archaeologists of her age (Source: TrowelBlazers).

Jane (Jeanne) Dieulafoy (1851-1916) was a crossing-dressing, war fighting, horseback adventuring, novel writing, archaeologist – she was, very simply put, amazing.

She is an inspiring human being.

She is not alone.

There are already more than 45 featured posts on Trowelblazers and, with a list of over 100 other women to feature, it already seems a project that will continue for many years to come.  If you haven’t already, you should go and check it out.

If this is a subject that interests you – and you think that more people should be made aware of the influential female individuals in these subjects – then there is a way for you to get involved.  In addition to submitting entries for the tumblr blog, you can participate in the upcoming Wikipedia editathon, which is taking place in London on October 19th at the Natural History Museum.  This event is aiming to improve the visibility of a host of forgotten women in science on the internet, with the TrowelBlazer team focusing on Dorothea Bate, Dorothy Garrod, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Elinor W. Gardner, Etheldred Bennett, Nina Layard, Margaret Murray, Helen Muir-Wood, and Grace Crowfoot.

The event is open both to people new to Wikipedia and to experienced contributors.  There will be practical training in how to edit a Wikipedia page, support and resources on-hand to make editing easier, and they’ve also lined up a team of experts (biographers and historians) to talk about trowelblazing women and to lend their expertise on the day.  There will also be a unique opportunity to see fossils from the NHM collections collected by these pioneering women, which are not normally on display to the general public.

If you interested in the event, but aren’t able to attend, you can follow the activities throughout the day with live-tweets from both the TrowelBlazer and Women’s Room twitter accounts.

While we’re on the subject of improving the visibility of women in the past, there is something that I must mention.  I think this point needs to go hand in hand when promoting endeavours such as TrowelBlazers.  It is, that, when regarding the history of science there can be a tendency to overstate the contributions of women in the past, in order compensate for their lack of opportunity, almost in an attempt to equalise their places in the history books.  I know that I am not alone in this view, as was evidenced by the response to historian Rebekah Higgit  when she stated it ever so well on Twitter a few months ago.  I do think it is important to keep in mind that however unfortunate it is, the past was not equal (let us not broach this matter in the present as that is another post entirely).  While nevertheless some women were defying social conventions and we should indeed celebrate their efforts and their achievements (and huzzah to TrowelBlazers for being at the forefront of this) we should not forget all of the other women who played a role in the history of science (and indeed, all of those who did not).  We should look not only to the women who stood out from the crowd, but also to those who worked behind the scenes.  We should not feel compelled to alter history in an attempt to rectify past wrongs.  We should use it as a reminder to all of us who are interested, involved, and invested in these subjects today of just how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

I recently discovered an example of these women, in Anna and Susanna Lister, who are firmly rooted in the history of the natural sciences.  Their father, Martin Lister, was a medical doctor by profession but he had, in his own words, “the greatest enthusiasm” for natural history and was a collector of insects, spiders, and shells.  He compiled the first organized, systematic publication on shells and in its final edition, the work was illustrated with 1062 plates of shells – all the work of his daughters Anna and Susanna.  Yet, while their contributions to science were remembered, their identities were almost forgotten entirely.  It was not until Martin Lister’s own words were found in which he proudly referenced the plates as “the original drawings of my daughters” that credit was once again given where credit was due.  It seems there is a lot to learn about these women (and their amazing illustrations).  I imagine that there are many more women like them from history to be rediscovered, recognised, and remembered for their own contributions to science.

It makes me very glad to see that TrowelBlazers is not alone in their aim to spread the word on the role of women in the many fields science throughout history.  Since learning about these women it has made me realise that although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was missing out.  It didn’t bother me, because I didn’t know any better.  I may have ended up exactly where I wanted to be, but I cannot help but feel that if I had known about women like Dorothy Garrod, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, or Jane Dieulafoy earlier in my life I may have got here in a slightly different way – and I might have been a slightly different archaeologist because of them.  I aim to redress issue this immediately, starting with TrowelBlazers and ending… well, who yet knows where this will end.