Thursday, 20 November 2014

Stonehenge in a global context

English Heritage have just published a time line showing Stonehenge in a global context, and where it fits in with other major archaeological sites and monuments across the world, and also an interactive map showing what was going on in the rest of the world at the same time that Stonehenge was being built. These are the end products that came out of a report that I was commissioned to produce a couple of years ago on the world in 2500 BC, as part of the new Stonehenge visitor centre that launched earlier this year. The way archaeology is often taught, we tend think of sites in an isolated way, or simply in a regional landscape, rather than thinking of what the world as a whole was like, especially in early prehistory. Stonehenge is such an iconic monument in itself, that it is easy to forget that is was part of something bigger.


The English Heritage time line is a great way to visualise world archaeology, and to demonstrate which sites were contemporary with each other. It also highlights that the world was bit more complex than suggested by the traditional model of hunter-gatherers transitioning to settled farmers. Did you know for example that whilst Stonehenge was being constructed, people in central America were beginning to cultivate maize, whilst in north America most cultures are subsisting as nomadic hunter-gatherers, but were also engaged in monument building -  the mound of Watson Brake had already been built and abandoned by this time. In Japan the Jomon culture is flourishing, with people living in paved pit houses, but still subsisting mostly on a 'hunter-gatherer-fisher' basis. In the Indus Valley (a region that covers areas of modern day Afganistan, Pakistan and NW India), the Harappan civilisation is flourishing with full scale agriculture, and an early form of writing is being developed. The great city of Troy in Turkey is at its peak, and Gilgamesh (of Epic fame) is ruling in Mesopotamia.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

World Toilet Day - attitudes to poop in the past

I found out that today is World Toilet Day! What better chance then to have a think about toilets and the disposal of human waste in the past. Regular readers will know (and the blog title perhaps suggests...) that coprolites, or fossilised faeces, are a regular feature of my work. A big part of World Toilet Day is about education and the problems of sanitation that many people face on a daily basis. The campaign highlights the fact that excrement is a bit of a taboo topic for many people, it's something we don't feel comfortable talking about. It's a 'hidden' activity. Has this always been the case in the past? The answer from the archaeological record is no - from prehistory to the famous public latrines of the Romans, there are many examples of a more open or communal approach to defecation.

The study of human waste in archaeology, particularly faecal waste, is however a neglected topic. Coprolites don't really fit neatly into any of the major existing specialisms such as zooarchaeology, archaeobotany or osteoarchaeology. In fact they represent a little bit of everything; lovely little packages of bone fragments, seeds and plant debris, perhaps even the remains of parasites.  There are plenty of studies of ancient faeces that treat these deposits in a very scientific sense, extracting DNA, microfossils and other inclusions to look at ancient migration, health and diet.

But the production of excrement in prehistoric society is not one that we hear much about. There are multiple reasons for this, one being the problem of identification. Unless we have well preserved actual little turds in our deposits (Figure 1), human faeces can be difficult to recognise in the field. If they have been squashed and compressed, they don't bear much resemblance to poop as we know it, and can be mistaken for other types of material. Second could be that, when faced with a lovely settlement site with buildings, pottery and other fascinating objects to study, the investigation of faeces is not on anyone's priority list (except mine!).

Figure 1: How do we recognise faeces in archaeology? Above shows compressed orange layers which are in fact layers of human excrement. Below shows a more recognisable example.

It is coprolites 'in context' that has not  been thought about too much. Where are people defecating? Is this a 'hidden' activity in the past the way it tends to be today? What were the social norms for dealing with this material? These are all ideas that I have been mulling over in my work at the early Neolithic settlement of Catalhoyuk in Turkey. At Catalhoyuk, there are huge midden deposits that are located directly adjacent to the buildings. My early work on coprolites here identified that a lot of the orangey deposits that are seen in middens are in fact human faecal waste, suggesting that this was an activity that was conducted out in the open, in a communal outdoor space.

Figure 2: midden deposits directly adjacent to buildings, and full of faeces!

Although it's largely a private matter it in western societies, 15% of the global population still practice open defecation (worldtoilet.org), which is a big problem when it comes to transmitting diseases. I wonder what link there is between the toilet habits of the Catalhoyuk inhabitants and the general health of the population? Did they have strategies in place for managing this waste? There have been suggestions that the large bonfires seen in middens were a means of dealing with waste (you can see an example in Figure 2, where the large grey layers on top of the cess layers are from a bonfire). Whilst I don't agree that this was the primary purpose of these fires (I suspect they are more likely related to activities such as pottery production), the sanitation control may have been a fortunate unintended outcome. What does this apparent attitude to defecation and waste tell us about Neolithic society?

Perhaps we can learn lessons  from these Neolithic people and their attitudes to defecation. Aside from the health issues, the problem of toilet access has knock on impacts in other parts of people's lives. The World Toilet Organisation for e.g. highlights that lack of access to a toilet is one of the reasons for the poor school attendance rates of girls. If we can get over our embarrassment talking about it, the easier it will be to tackle problems of toilet access and sanitation.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Micrograph of the Month: Bits of Bones


For the past few weeks I have been revisiting some old slides from the TP excavation area at Catalhoyuk. I collected these samples  in 2004, and they were some of the first that I worked on for my PhD. At the time I found them a bit disappointing, as there is a lot of bioturbation and erosion  going on in this part of the site, which means that trying to reconstruct activities using microstratigraphic analysis is difficult. The TP area is located very close to the surface of the mound, so despite the fact that these are the youngest deposits, the preservation is nowhere near as good as the earlier, deeply buried deposits. In the end I focused more on the South and 4040 areas, with the TP samples being used as a brief comparison of how different the taphonomic processes are in different parts of the site. Which brings me on to this month's photos! I was contacted by Kamilla 
Pawłowska who is conducting zooarchaeological analysis in the TP area, and is investigating the taphonomy of the animal bones. We are now working together to see how the data from micromorphology can help understand the taphonomic processes inferred from animal bones. So I am doing a more detailed analysis of these slides, focusing specifically on bone inclusions. Here we can see 3 different bone fragments. At the top is a long 'splinter' of bone about 100mm long and 1mm wide. The surface is very 'cracked', and the ends are rounded and fragmenting. In the middle is a small bone fragment that has been weathered to a sub-rounded shape, less than 1mm at its widest point. These fragments are tiny, and would not be seen during routine recovery of bone. The deposits are full of these tiny, highly weathered fragments. The lowermost image shows a slightly larger fragment of bone, that has less 'cracking' on the surface, but is degrading in other ways. The circular features are called haversian canals, tiny little tubes found within bone. In this example they are highly weathered, and we can see at the end of the bone how it is fragmenting in situ, producing all those tiny fragments that are found throughout the sediment. These examples are just some of the many different taphonomic processes that are impacting the bones in these middens, and highlight how micromorphology can be used to shed light on other lines of evidence in archaeology.