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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.

Mesolithic Project on the North Yorkshire Moors

18 Dec

There is a nice little article on the Past Horizons website on the work of my local archaeological group, Tees Archaeology, and their continuing work on the Mesolithic project based in the Tees Valley and North Yorkshire Moors in north eastern England, carried out in conjunction with North York Moors National Park.  The Mesolithic period in this area lasted from to 8000 BC  to roughly 3800 BC, with flint tools used during this period often belonging to the microlithic tradition- specialised mini-tools.  The human population during this time were largely nomadic, often moving from place to place as season/food dictated.  However, it can be hard to make specific claims about this period as the evidence can be so scattered and diffuse.  Projects, such as this one spearheaded by Tees Archaeology, can help to unveil concentrations in Mesolithic flints and tools, and possibly even help to highlight camp sites or hearth sites, whilst also involving the public to become engaged with prehistory and heritage management.

The north east of England is generally unrepresented in the archaeological record compared to later periods (Source: Project Summary), and is certainly lesser known compared to the more well known sites of Star Carr in the Vale of Pickering, or Mesolithic houses of Howick in Northumberland.  Yet the evidence gathered from the many hundreds of flints from the project so far could indicate concentrations of Mesolithic activity on the North York Moors, with nearly 450 flints found near Goldsborough, Whitby, with evidence of burn flints which is often taken as a sign of camp fires or hearths (Source: Past Horizons).  This project helps to highlight the systematic approach to the prehistorical archaeological record, especially taking into consideration the change of environment between now and then.

The Tees Archaeology led project is split into 3 main phases, which include:

Phase 1 (completed 2006):

The collation of existing data, including the work of unpublished and unrecorded material, palaeoenvironmental evidence, and information from private collectors.  The information was entered into a database and graded accordingly to type, and from there 6 types of location were identified for Mesolithic sites.  The sites were then targeted in Phase 2 (Source: project Summary).

Phase 2 (completed 2008-2012):

Targeted fieldwork explored the 6 location types identified from the 1st Phase in order to characterise the different types of activity present, detail the chronology at the site, and provide information for future management.  The 6 location types are termed as Zone 1– low lying areas in the Tees valley, Zone 2– lowland activity in prominent locations, Zone 3– lower lying northern and eastern fringes of present moorland block, Zone 4– upland activity in prominent locations, Zone 5– upper reaches of streams in upland locations, and Zone 6– highland springhead locations (Source: project summary).

Phase 3 (projected 2013)-

The majority of finds from Phase 2 of this project included extensive field walking at a number of sites to find, record and plan flint finds, whilst the 3rd Phase aims to finish trial shoveling, pitting and field walking at specific sites in conjunction with geophysical surveying, whilst testing the methodologies used in Phase 2.  The final section will bring together the lessons learnt from the project, and help produce and inform heritage management planning.  A popular booklet will be produced to help educate and inform the public.

Further Information, Publications and Reports-

A Tees Archaeology produced series of Flint Fact Sheets can be found here.  The detailed fact sheets help to provide information on the importance of flint collections, their value and how knowledge can be attained from them.  It describes the quality and the nature of flint, how to recognise different period production of flint tools (from Mesolithic microliths to Neolithic fabricators), as well as a guide on how to recognise the different functions and type of flint tools and artifacts that can be found in the area, ranging from scrapers, burins, awls to saws, knives and leaf shaped arrow heads.

The Tees Archaeology Phase 1 Final Report, from 2006, can be found here, which describes the objectives and research design in further detail.  On the project homepage further information can be found on the specific sites that have been targeted since 2006, such as Farndale Moor in 2009 or Goldborough in 2012, with yearly reports produced for each site available on the webpage.  This brief report outline both the completed Phase 1 and Phase 2, and the upcoming Phrase 3 in 2013.  A future report is expected within a year times, whilst trial trenching and test pitting on the North York Moors will be carried out in early 2013 (volunteers wanted!).

I sincerely hope I can join in with the project in the coming spring, as this seems like a fantastic opportunity to become involved with a Mesolithic project, a period I am especially interested in.