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

4 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

Further Information

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

Brief Updates: Archaeological Desks & Palaeoanthropology

17 May

The archaeologist Robert M Chapple has recently done something a bit special to celebrate his 100th post over at his blog.  In a thoughtful and entertaining entry Robert discusses the writing and thinking space of the humble desk, that much maligned friend of the archaeologist.  Indeed when a person thinks of an archaeologist the first thing that pops into a person’s head is the excitement of fieldwork in far-flung countries, a trowel perhaps, maybe some bones or Indiana Jones cracking his whip.  It is rarely the vital tool that is the desk, a space in which to hunker down, study site reports, books and process the archaeological record properly over a hot cup of tea, that pops into the minds of people asked to think about archaeology.

Yet the desk is where the action happens!  This is where the hard work of the amalgamation of knowledge happens, where the fieldwork is fleshed with the existing archive and the site is put within a larger context.  Interpretations are made and broken on the humble desk.  So Robert, recognising this vital space of thought and action, also saw it as a deeply personal space for the individual.  As such he asked a wide variety of his archaeological friends to send their own photographs of their desks for his 100th blog entry.  And it is a lovely entry, displaying both academic desks and personal spaces.  I was also asked to join in and you can see my little bedside table from which I am writing this now!  Although my work area is pretty bare compared to the desks (and fantastic 2 or 3 screen adapted computers) on show here, I got a serious longing for the university library where I carried out the majority of my dissertation research.

In other news I have produced a small article for the Teesside Archaeology Society TEESCAPES magazine.  I was kindly asked to write for them by my good friend Spencer Carter, who is the edited of the magazine and a specialist in studying and understanding the context of prehistoric microlithics.  Spencer is currently researching the Mesolithic period of northern England and his fantastic Microburin site, which documents his research and outreach work, can be found here.  My article, which was published in the 2014 Spring Edition of TEESSCAPES, focuses on the amazing palaeoanthropological highlights of 2013 and specifically mentions the Georgian site of the Homo erectus finds at Dmanisi (1), the Spanish site of Sima de la Huesos, and the Rising Star South African project.  It is an informal look back on year of research and excavations that bought much to the table in terms of our of knowledge of understanding human evolution.  (I may also have sneaked in an Alan Partridge joke).

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A great Spring 2014 edition of TEESSCAPES by the Teesside Archaeological Society with articles on a variety of topics including, but not limited to, history and archaeology in the national curriculum, the Mesolithic forests of the coast of NE England, museum reviews, Streethouse before the Saxons and human evolution. There are also field notes and books reviews. Read more about the editor’s views, Spencer Carter, in his enlightening blog on post on publishing and editing archaeology journals and open access in archaeology over at Microburin here.

I’ve tried to frame the article within a basic introduction to palaeoanthropology, some of the major new techniques being used in the study of past populations and some of the problems in trying to understand the fossil record and of human evolution in general.  It is a short article but I have to say I am very impressed by the presentation of the article, so a big thank you Spence!  I hope to start producing articles for TAS as and when I can, but this aside I would urge any reader to check it out and to check out any local archaeology societies or companies near to you.  They really are a wealth of original research and really help you get to grips with what is going on in your region and further abroad.  My own article also includes a cheeky photography of me in a lab coat which is sadly, at the moment, a rare occasion.  If you are an archaeologist, a student archaeologist or someone who just manages to engage in their passion between sleep and work then I heartily recommend jumping in and writing for your local society!

Notes

(1).   The article is a review of the amazing palaeoanthropological finds and research of 2013 and as such is likely to become out of touch with the passing of years, as new research highlights new evidence or different perspectives are investigated, hypothesized and studied in-depth.  A good example of this is the fairly recent claim that the Dmanisi individuals, discussed in my article, could possibly (but unlikely) represent different lineages of hominin species (check out Jamie Kendrick’s site The Human Story for more information on this issue and for in-depth entries on human evolution in general).

Further Information

  • Learn about the Teesside Archaeology Society here.
  • Current and past editions of TEESSCAPES can be found here.
  • Robert M Chapple’s awesome blog can be found and read here.
  • Spencer Carter’s fantastic Microburin site can be read here.

Links of Interest!

5 Nov

A quick post whilst I prepare the next entry!  There are some pretty good blogs out there that focus on bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology that have started up within the past few months or so, so I’d thought I’d highlight a few here:

  • Bone Broke, ran by bioarchaeology PhD student Jess Beck, has some awesome posts on identifying and siding bone fragments.  It also has a great vein of humor running through the blog as well as being wonderfully informative and knowledgeable on human osteology and anatomy.
  • Cakes and Ceramics, a brand new blog ran by Loretta Kilroe, details the adventures of a post-masters pre-PhD Egyptologist living in London.  With a research focus on ancient ceramics and excavation experience at the Post-New Kingdom site of Amara West, Sudan, under her belt you can expect some interesting upcoming posts from this blog.
  • All Things AAFS (archaeology, anthropology and forensic sciences), ran by Rosemary Helen, has some excellent posts split into useful subjects.  The Quick Tips series is particularly useful for learning about how to age a human skeleton and identify fracture types.  Expect it to be updated with various topics as the site grows.
  • Lawn Chair Anthropology, by the biological anthropology assistant professor Zachary Cofran, is an excellent site for updates on bio-anth, evolution and palaeontology.  In particular it is great to see Cofran discuss his own research in human evolution, offer his statistical code for free and regularly highlight free databases.  It is not new site by any means having previously been hosted on the Blogger format for a number of years, but it is new to the WordPress format.

Over at Spencer Carter’s blog at Microburin he has a great post up which skillfully dissects the recent one day conference held in London on archaeology pay and training.  The conference, held by Prospect and The Diggers Forum (part of the IFA), discussed issues relating to pay and performance, the chartership of archaeology, minimum benchmarks for pay and just where archaeology sits as a skilled profession in the UK, amongst many other topics of note.  It is well worth reading Spence’s blog entry (here) and my next post but one will discuss some of these issues from a field archaeologist’s view point in the latest ‘interview’ guest entry.  In the mean time enjoy these blog links above, many more can also be found in the blog roll on the bottom left of this site so get digging!

A Mesolithic Tsunami & Heavenly Bodies

23 Sep

Over at Spencer Carter’s Microburin blog a recent post has discussed the possible evidence for the Mesolithic Storegga tsunami in the Tees bay in north eastern England.  Although normally concerned with Mesolithic flints Spencer has crafted a wonderfully detailed and engaging post on the archaeological and palaeo-environmental evidence for marine regressions and transgressions in the bay, helping to highlight the rich (and perhaps I’d say overlooked) archaeological record for the north east of England.  In particular this post highlights the value of researching monographs from local archaeological units, and of new vital research into the character of the Mesolithic period in northern England.

The challenging and changing nature of the Tees bay in evaluating the palaeo-environmental changes highlights the necessity to cast a critical eye over the available literature and on-going research projects.  In particular highlighting the effects of long term international events (recline of the last great ice sheets and post-glacial recolonisation) with the regional and national differences in the organisation of societal organisation during the Mesolithic, Neolithic and preceding Bronze ages.  Spencer’s post really integrates the relationship between the physical geography and the impact on the human use of the landscape and of societal organisation: this is a rich area of investigation.  The Storegga slide events, an massive slide of landmass of the Norwegian coastal shelf around 6100 BC, would have had an phenomenal effect of the communities and landscapes affected, and although the palaeo-environmental evidence at Hartlepool and the Tees bay finds no direct evidence for it (as of yet), there are indications of similar ‘surges’ of sea level in similar horizons (Waughman 2005).  This is a fruitful topic, perhaps one of the most interesting in Mesolithic studies, and Spencer’s post helps to put it in context.

Meanwhile I was recently in Sheffield to catch a guest lecture by Los Angeles based art historian and photographer Paul Koudounaris at the University’s Archaeology department.  Detailing the findings of his recently released book, ‘Heavenly Bodies’, Koudounaris expertly detailed the majestic bejeweled saints that can be found throughout Central Europe in a captivating and enlightening lecture.  The book itself details the wonderfully decorated ‘saints’ (decorated skeletons) in more detail with a lively and informative text accompanying the highly textured photography, truly bringing the so called ‘saints’ back into the limelight.

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The bejeweled skeleton of St Valerius in Weyarn, Germany. Note the careful attention to detail of the wire gold hair, jeweled mandible, eyes and nose, and extravagant torso decorations. The ‘saints’ were often skeletons picked seemingly at random from the catacombs and given a saints name, although there are many miracles attributed to the skeletons once they were placed in-situ in their church (Source, photograph by Paul Koudounaris).

Various Imperial Roman catacomb burials of Christians (such as Coemeterium Jordanorum & Coemeterium Priscillae) were rediscovered accidentally during the 15th and 16th centuries in and near Rome, at a time of revolt in the Christian world as the Protestant Reformation helped to split the Catholic church in Europe.  The Catholic church, sensing a possible use of the newly discovered skeletons, used the remains as examples of early Christian martyrs despite next to no evidence and only vague documentary evidence in the catacombs themselves.  Having agreed that certain skeletons represented Christians martyred during the Roman period, the church shipped many of the articulated and non-articulated remains to German speaking lands (such as Germany, Austria, Poland and Switzerland, as they represented the heart of the Reformation movement) and had the remains re-enforced with gauze, decorated with jewels and silk and displayed them in prominent positions in churches throughout Central Europe as a method of inspiring and supporting the counter reformation movement (Koudounaris 2013: 32).  Following centuries of displaying the holy relics, many of the ostentatiously decorated individuals were removed from show during the 19th and 20th centuries as they became viewed as being outdated and embarrassing motifs for the Catholic church.

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The remains of St Albertus, arrived in Burgrain, Germany, in 1723. Note the particularly fine decoration of the golden hair and heavily jeweled torso, which indicate the wealth of heaven awaiting the faithful. Often the skeletons were re-enforced with gauze, silk and sometimes cardboard inside to support the torso. St Albertus clearly has a mandible which probably does not belong to the above crania, note the uneven dental wear (Source, photograph by Paul Koudounaris).

Frankly the saints that Koudounaris has managed to find in the predominantly German speaking countries of Central Europe are first and foremost works of art of a very high standard, many crafted with care and dedication over months and years by small teams of nuns and church members.  Although many are now lost to history, either destroyed, lost or hidden completely, a small platoon still survive and still on view in many churches across Central Europe (Koudounaris 2013: 174).

If you ever happen to be around Sheffield, the University archaeology department often run Tuesday dinnertime guest lectures which are sometimes (I believe mostly) open to department members and the public alike, it is well worth a look in!  Paul Koudounaris is also currently taking in a number of guest lectures with upcoming talks based in north America, further information can be found here.

Bibliography:

Carter, S. 2013. Storegga Mesolithic Tsunami: Is There Evidence in the Tees Area?  Microburin Blog. 24th August 2013.

Koudounaris, P. 2013. Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. London: Thames and Hudson.

Waughman, M. (Ed.) 2005. Archaeology and Environment of Submerged Landscapes in Hartlepool Bay, England. Tees Archaeology Monograph. Vol 1.

Mesolithic Musings and the Howick Home

22 Dec

I ventured up to a dreary and drenched Newcastle today and whilst there I visited the delightful Great North Museum, formerly the Hancock Museum, located near the University of Newcastle.  This a free, engaging and entertaining museum- an ideal place to help soak up an introduction to the natural and historical wonders of northern England.  A proposed near 100% cut in the £2.5 million cultural funds by Newcastle-upon-Tyne city council will likely force a number of cultural institutions (including art galleries, museums, and music centres amongst others) in the city to either close, let go of staff, and/or lose precious objects and artefacts, not to mention a potential loss of knowledge.  Thankfully the Great North Museum receives some funding from the nearby University, but it will remain to be seen what damage across the city the cuts will do.  The Great North Museum houses a number of important collections including over half a million objects from the fields of the natural world, geology, library archives and world cultures.  However it was for the section on archaeology that I was particularly interested to see, especially so the sections on the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods.  It would be fair to say that these sections are not particularly expansive, but they are interesting.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on the Mesolithic in the Tees valley and North Yorkshire Moors, Northumberland has evidence for one of the earliest houses in Britain at Howick, located just on the coast of the North Sea.  On display at the museum were some of the artefacts found from the site including sea shells, burnt hazelnut shells, and microliths.  The site at Howick was discovered and excavated by a team based at the University of Newcastle during the summers of 2000 to 2002.

The Mesolithic hut at Howick, Northumberland, dated to 7800 BC,  overlooking the modern day coastline, (Source).

The Mesolithic hut at Howick, Northumberland, dated to 7800 BC, overlooking the modern day coastline (Source: University of Newcastle Howick Project).

They uncovered 3 distinct phases of a single circular hut building, with construction starting from 7800 BC and in-habitation potentially lasting a century or more, with evidence of post holes and successive lenses of debris.  It is not yet known whether the site was occupied permanently, semi-permanently or seasonally.  A total of 18,000 pieces of flint were recovered from the site, and whilst only a small fraction of these were on show at the Great North, it was nonetheless stimulating to be looking at the evidence and artefacts from one of the earliest domestic sites in the UK.  A large amount of burnt hazelnuts were found with a small number of hearths, indicating that this food group were specifically targeted for food, alongside probable food sources such as seals from along the coastal area.  The site was carefully investigated during the excavation period and subsequent analysis; this included test pitting, sediment coring, soil analysis and geomorphological characterisation, as well as extensive radiocarbon dating of various deposits found in the main extensive open area excavation.

Careful excavations such as this help to add to the picture of Mesolithic life in Britain.  In a recent article written by the project team at Star Carr, a famous waterlogged Mesolithic site in the Vale of Pickering in North Yorkshire, Conneller et al. (2012) suggest that the site was actually quite extensive with evidence of a least one hut, and a significant amount of work had gone into constructing the site.  They also suggest that the long held view of the European Mesolithic as proliferated with ‘small groups’ of people may have had their rationale in the small excavations of archaeologists’ themselves (Conneller et al. 2012: 1004).

These are interesting projects, especially in highlighting the varied archaeological finds of Northern England.  In my hometown alone I have a petrified Upper Palaeolithic/Mesolithic forest located just off the coast, a complex of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British centres spanning nearly a thousand years nearly on my doorstep, an important early Anglo-Saxon centre of Christianity near the coast, not to mention the important Medieval and Post-Medieval trading sites.  It should be remembered that museums are integral to displaying and housing a wide range of collections for the benefit of both the public and the researcher, not to mention commercial construction companies.

Further sources: