Monday, 19 December 2016

Merry Xmas!

Teaching has finished, marking is done! Time to catch up with a last few bits and pieces before relaxing over the Xmas holidays. Looking at my calendar, my holiday time looks so short. In the second week of January I'm heading off to Belize for 2 weeks for a field training course, then it's straight back into teaching as soon as I get back. January also marks the beginning of my membership of the AHRC Peer Review College, and as part of this I will be undertaking training sometime in January. My new PhD student is also scheduled to start next month, though this may vary depending on how long the visa application process takes, and if our funding application is successful, I will also have a new postdoc joining the Wolfson Lab early in the new year. And the Wellcome Seed Award is scheduled to start in January too, which involves recruiting a new lab technician! It's all good though, I like being busy, and am one of those people who works better when I have several tasks to switch between. I'm also very fortunate to have a very efficient and supportive admin team in the School research office. I don't know what I'd do without Lizzie, Leigh and Claire to keep everything on track. For some festive enjoyment, here is a wonderful diatom Xmas tree:

http://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20151226/p2a/00m/0na/002000c 

Friday, 16 December 2016

The details of giant daisies

Today is the end of the Semester, and I'm definitely ready for a break after an extremely busy few months. Lots of great news this year, with two successful grant applications - the NERC project which I've been posting about, and a new Wellcome seed award which will be starting next year, developing further work at Catalhoyuk in Turkey. I have also had my own assignment deadline this week, for the NERC training course that I am going on in January. Everyone in the group has been assigned a plant family, and we had to do a bit of research on the genera and species that are found in Belize, and write a short information sheet on key characteristics. I think the expedition leader took pity on me as one of the participants without a background in botany, and I was assigned the Asteraecae (Compositae), which happen to be one of the easier families to identify. Or at least, it is one I am familiar with - daisies and sunflowers! Some of the terminology was familiar, ringing bells from my undergraduate biogeography modules. Some of it however was completely new - floral formulas and floral diagrams for example, are something that I have never come across before! I'm not sure I've quite got the hang of them yet, but it was actually really nice getting to do a bit of research and writing on something totally new. It reminded me of how much I enjoyed being a student, and one of the reasons I stayed in academia after finishing my degree.

Something else that struck me was how much I have strayed into interdisciplinary research. I have developed an all round knowledge of many areas of archaeology and geoscience, and even chemistry, and one of my key strengths has always been bringing together diverse information. This particular task though reminded me of how useful it is to work with experts on very specific areas. The details of botany and plant anatomy are fascinating, and it is crazy how much I know about plants at the microscale (phytoliths and pollen), yet there is so much I don't know about them at the macroscale. I could tell you easily what dandelion pollen looks like, but I know very little about the anatomy of an actual dandelion. Though I know more this week that I did before! Did you know for example that each individual 'petal' on a dandelion is actually an individual flower? They all cluster together to form a 'head' or capitulum (botanists love terminology even more than archaeologists do).

I can't wait to go to Belize -  as well as learning some new interesting things about plant identification, the field skills will be invaluable in helping to build reference collections of microfossils for my various research projects, and developing further research on phytolith morphology and taphonomy.

Podachaenium eminens - Giant Tree Daisy! (images from Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Adventures in medium sized mammal bone preparation

I think the zooarchaeology short course at Sheffield really inspired me, as now I think about animal bones as well as soils and plants in all situations. I'm currently working in central Oregon doing some preliminary work for the NERC project. As I continue to work in this region, we will need to build reference collections to work with. This is built into the NERC project, in terms of a plant microfossil reference collection. Animal skeletons in general are not so easy to get a hold of as plant specimens. Being the resourceful, perhaps slightly strange academic that I am, I noticed a few carcasses by the side of the road and figured why let them go to waste? The landscapes of the USA are so different to the UK, and something that is very noticeable is the amount of roadkill. In the UK I think animals that are hit by cars are cleared up pretty quickly. In the US the roads are much bigger, and animals that are hit just stay there. Or get removed by scavengers. This week I noticed what looked like a racoon at the side of a road. My very patient husband kindly pulled up the truck for me to check it out, and it turned out to be not just one, but two poor racoons. A male and female pair, both must have been hit running over the road, but there was no obvious sign of physical trauma or damage to the carcasses. So, we put them in the back of the truck (the male was noticeably heavier than the female). On the same day we also came across a hawk. He had obviously been there a bit longer than the racoons as there was some degradation of the eyes, and signs of scavenging on the torso. But the skeleton didn't look damaged. I am not 100% sure what species he is, but most likely a Cooper's hawk. Into the truck!

I did a lot of reading about the best way to prepare specimens for bone reference collections when I prepared some fish a while ago. I used a cold water maceration method for the fish, but given that this would involve skinning and gutting two medium sized mammals + plucking a bird of prey, the method is not at all appealing. I thought I'd try the open air decay method instead. As I will be away for about 6 months before I come back to do more fieldwork, this seems the ideal method, to let the organic matter decay naturally. This landscape is perfect for it. We find loads of small mammal bones wandering around the sagebrush, all perfectly defleshed and bright white. We set up an old dog crate and put them inside, to protect them from scavenging. I'm thinking about whether to ask my sister in law to visit it occasionally to take pictures of the decay process. I'm really curious to see how long it takes until only the skeletons are left, and the difference between the hawk and the racoons.


First NERC project meeting in Oregon

The NERC project officially started on the 1st November. Since then we've held interviews for the first PDRA post, and last week I traveled to Oregon for the first project meeting with partners Dr Dennis Jenkins and Dr Tom Stafford, at the Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. It felt very surreal, finally having got the grant that we talked about for so long, and to be honest, did not quite expect to get! Not that we all don't think it's an amazing and worthwhile project, but getting funding for archaeological science is pretty difficult, and the success rate for NERC is really low (11% for the standard grants, new investigator scheme in 2015). I've made this journey many times, as I have family in central Oregon, but I must be getting old or something as the jet lag really kicked in this time. Still, many coffees later we had a productive meeting, going over the schedule for the next three years, planning the first session of fieldwork in the Spring, and going through the sample archive. The journey from where we are staying in central Oregon, to the university in Eugene, is a great example of a shifting landscape. We go from juniper sage brush high desert into the Cascades mountain range, with the number of pine trees gradually increasing until they dominate the landscape. At this time of year there is also the chance of snow the higher you go - I took some amazing pictures literally 10 minutes apart showing how rapidly the shift is from one to the other!


Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Geoarchaeology session at EGU 2017

I am pleased to announce I will be co-convening a session on Geoarchaeology at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2017. Please do consider submitting an abstract to our session - there is funding available to support the participation of early career researchers and researchers from low income countries. The deadline for support applications is December 1st 2016. For further details on our session and how to register see here.




Friday, 4 November 2016

Adventures in fish bone preparation

Cold water maceration
If you follow my Twitter feed you may have noticed a string of posts discussing the best methods for preparing specimens for animal bone reference collections. This all started a while back when I decided to take the Sheffield Zooarchaeology short course. Having had little training in bones I thought it would be a good idea to get some basic skills, as I am responsible for the reference collections at Newcastle. However the majority of our existing collection is large domesticates, and being an environmental archaeologist, I figured we needed some microfauna. I already have a lecture in my Environmental Archaeology module that covers animal remains as environmental indicators, and wanted to expand this to include a practical. Being a second year undergraduate module this is very much an introduction to the subject, and the learning outcomes focus more on understanding the implications of recovery and taphonomic issues, rather than developing expertise in species identifications.

Nonetheless, in order to do this, I needed some specimens! Luckily Newcastle is attached to the Hancock Museum who were kind enough to lend us some birds and small mammals. But after doing the Sheffield module what I really wanted to include were fish bones! There is an amazing virtual fish bone resource at Nottingham, but there's nothing like handling the real thing, and I happened to notice the fish counter at Tesco sells whole fish. So following a meal of grilled sea bass, I undertook a cold water maceration preparation method, placing the bones in a soup container with water and a tiny amount of washing powder. I kept the vent open on the lid, and left them on the kitchen windowsill for 3 weeks. After 3 weeks I decanted the water, and the majority of the flesh had dissolved away. Admittedly it smelt terrible, but not actually as bad as I thought it would be. I added fresh water, a bit more washing powder, and left them for another week before decanting again and rinsing about 10 times to get rid of any remaining residue and washing powder. I left them to dry on paper towels overnight and voila, beautiful clean fish bones!

For the class activity I set up the computers with the Archaeological Fish Resource website, and got the students to find the species we were looking at  (Dicentrarchus labrax). Then we tried to identify the skull bones by comparing them with the website reference specimen. It went really well, some of the students even suggested they should get to prepare their own specimens as part of the module! Next on the list is a pigeon that I found on the side of the road. Currently undergoing an initial stage of open air decomposition under a plant pot in the back of the garden, I'll be transferring him to a container in the next week...

One whole sea bass, fully defleshed and drying

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Archaeological Journal

Well this is actually 'old news' in that I've known about it for quite a few months now, but I thought it best to wait until the transition process was well underway. Also, it's on the website now so I guess that means it's official - I will be taking over as editor of the Royal Archaeological Institute's Archaeological Journal in May 2017. I have been shadowing the outgoing editor Prof. Howard Williams for a few months now to get a feel for things, and am in the process of handling my first few submissions, as we transition from an email submission system to an online editorial management system with Taylor and Francis (side note, go and check out Howard's Archaeodeath blog!).

When I saw the position advertised earlier this year I jumped at the chance to apply. Strangely enough I really do enjoy editorial work, and having gained a lot of experience as a guest editor and assistant editor for a number of other journals, figured I could take on this new challenge. Despite the fact that some aspects of this sort of work can be frustrating (finding suitable reviewers, and particularly those who can give a quick turnaround is remarkably difficult), I also like being able to contribute to the dissemination of new archaeological research, and this post in particular, being linked to the Royal Archaeological Institute, will enable me to become more involved in the wider archaeological community in the UK.

Although a lot of my earlier work has been outside the UK, I've always said I'm a thematic person rather than a regional specialist, and this I hope gives me a good overview of the wide remit of The Archaeological Journal, which covers all periods and topics within the British Isles and Europe. My more recent work as part of the Feeding Stonehenge project, and current work at the Ness of Brodgar, is the sort of thing that I am hoping to encourage more of in the journal, namely that multiple proxies within archaeological science be discussed together in the process of interpretation, rather than the short report style papers that we are more used to in pure science journals. The longer submissions that are encouraged in The Archaeological Journal makes it an ideal venue for this sort of work.

Another thing I like about the Archaeological Journal is that it encourages submissions from across the commercial and heritage sectors as well as academia, and this is something else that I will continue to encourage during my tenure.


Monday, 31 October 2016

Is 'Impact' in Archaeology 'Selling out'?

Well October has gone by incredibly quickly! Despite not posting much, there has been a lot happening, so much in fact that I have quite the backlog of things to talk about. For now just a few thoughts on academia and 'impact'. I read this article today that talked about focusing on impact as 'selling out' (for non UK readers, this is the drive towards having some sort of measurable impact beyond academia that is becoming increasingly required for grants and rankings). I get that, as I used to feel the same way. During my PhD I thought very much that the quality of the academic work is all that should matter. I guess this comes about because of the way we are trained as academics - we go from school, where the focus is on doing well, getting good grades, through university, undergrad to postgrad. Again, the focus is very much on your achievements as an individual, and the academic merit of your ideas and your writing.  In my experience, it is not until I started my string of postdocs that the idea of impact started to emerge. It became clear that if you wanted to get a job in this competitive market, then being able to sell 'impact' would make you stand out from all the others who also have outstanding academic achievements.

But when you think about it, the whole question of 'what is the point?' is one that should be fundamental. Otherwise we are just working to satisfy our own curiosity, and how can we expect anyone to give us money to do that? Whilst I still think that knowledge for knowledge's sake is important, and we should never lose sight of that, I also think that we need to think carefully about why we do what we do, in archaeology particularly. I also read an article recently (shared by a US archaeology friend) that really hit home how problematic archaeology can be, as a subject that has roots in colonialism. It really shook me, as my most recent research will see me working in the US. On reflection, there is something uncomfortable about being an outsider, coming in to study someone else's past (we could argue it is world history, everyone's history, but I think it's more complicated than that), particularly if it is something that people do not want. 

At the very least archaeology should be a collaborative process between multiple stakeholders. This is an important aspect of multivocality that I don't think I truly appreciated until recently. And we should always be asking the question of why. What is the wider impact of this work? How does understanding this aspect of the past impact on the present, and can it help inform the future?
I think with the impact agenda we are starting to see some really interesting ares of archaeological research emerging, using the long term records of the past to help understand modern day problems and possible future responses to environmental change. 

At the same time I do hope we don't lose sight of archaeology for it's own sake, the excitement of understanding the human past is in itself an admirable goal. We just need to make sure we are not having negative impacts on others in doing so.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Wolfson Archaeology Lab, Newcastle

When I started at Newcastle one of the first major roles I undertook was taking over as Director of the Wolfson Archaeology Laboratory. This sounds rather grand, but in reality it mostly involves managing room bookings and making sure everyone has all the kit they need for practicals, research and teaching. Part of the job involves looking after a zooarchaeology reference collection, hence the post last month about attending the zooarchaeology short course at Sheffield. I have also made various wonderful purchasing decisions, vastly expanding our suite of microscopes to include a range of Leica DM750P scopes for teaching, and dedicated scopes for research with even fancier specs including reflected light capabilities, image analysis software etc. The next stage will be to transform the side room, currently used mostly for storage, into a dedicated space for research. With a new lab based PhD and PDRA started in January, and possibly a Fellow later in 2017 (if all goes to plan), it is important to make sure there is a quiet space where people can work, and access  all of the reference materials.

As part of the revamp I have also put together a lab website, to give us a virtual home where we can collate the latest research projects, show off our facilities, and centralize the list of current opportunities. Hopefully this will make it easier for potential students and researchers to see what we are getting up to in archaeological science at Newcastle. Check it out here, any comments and suggestions very welcome!


Thursday, 15 September 2016

Zooarchaeology short course at Sheffield

For the past three days I've been doing a short course in Zooarchaeology at Sheffield. The Sheffield lab is one of the best places in the UK, and probably Europe, for animal bone research, and I was amazed at the extent of their reference collections. An absolutely fantastic resource. Although I have spent many years working with zooarchaeologists, and have a basic understanding of the subject, I've never worked directly with this material myself. As I am now responsible for the Wolfson Laboratory at Newcastle, and therefore our animal bone reference collection, I figured I should learn a bit more about them! It was very interesting to hear about a lot of research themes that I am interested in from the perspective another specialism. Taphonomy for example is something that I deal with myself a lot in the analysis of environmental samples, and it was very informative to hear how other people approach this topic.

Whilst a lot of zooarchaeology focuses on the relationships between people and animals in the past, there are some aspects that are relevant for environmental archaeology. Smaller animals such as amphibians for example can have very narrow ecological tolerances, so their presence at a site can tell us something about the local environment in the past, or the types of environment that people were exploiting. Others such as wild birds may have very seasonal behavior, such as migration, and can be used to infer seasonality at a site. These are topics that we already cover in my second year Environmental Archaeology module, and I am hoping to incorporate the animal bone perspective. Previously I have focused very heavily on plant remains and soil, as that is my main area of expertise. It will be good to include a bit more on animal bones, particularly how we can integrate these different strands of data to get a better picture of the past environment.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Training in Belize!

2016 - the year where the exciting news just keeps on coming! I found out recently that I've been selected to take part in a NERC training course, Fieldwork Skills in the Tropics, run by the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, as part of their MSc in Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants. The course runs over two weeks next year, in Belize! It's been over a decade since I first left the UK on my first fieldwork abroad, but the thought of travelling somewhere new is still as exciting now as it was then. Probably even more so as I have some idea what I'm doing now. This course covers vegetation survey, monitoring and plant identification, with some GIS. Part of the application process involved a statement of why you would like to attend, with priority given to those with NERC funding, ECRs and students. Whilst I now work as an archaeologist, my background is in geosciences/geography, and I've always maintained that perspective in my research and teaching. My long term aim is to assess how we can use the long-term perspectives of environmental archaeology to help inform modern day environmental sustainability. This goal will require dialogue between those of us who study the past, and those who study the present. In reality the relationships between people and the environment are all part of a long term process of environmental change.

This will be a fantastic opportunity for networking and collaboration with scientists in ecology and conservation, and will also help with one of my methodological interests. Yes, phytolith analysis again. Phytolith analysis is very underdeveloped compared to other microfossils such as pollen. I believe a major reason for this is the lack of long term collaboration with botanists, and a poor understanding of how phytolith formation is linked to plant cell structure. The NERC training course will help me develop better skills in taxonomy, and also the skills to build an informed reference collection of specimens from which I can prepare an open access image collection of phytoliths.

Obligatory picture of Belize (Cockscomb basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Wikipedia) 

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

EAA conference, Vilnius 2016

Last week was very busy. I was away in Vilnius, Lithuania for the European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting. The last one I went to was Pilsen in 2013 so it was good to go back and catch up with the latest research. I think I probably overdid it, giving a paper and a poster presentation, and also running the Newcastle University exhibition stand. I wasn't really able to do either effectively, having to jump in and out of sessions to sit at the desk. I ended up missing quite a few talks that I wanted to see. However, my paper presentation did go well, and I got some good questions and discussion. I was talking about Catalhoyuk, and assessing the past 25 years of 'multi-proxy' archaeology and approaches to use of space. Although some aspects were critical, the aim was to try and see what has worked and what hasn't worked, and some of the reasons why this might be. There is such a rich and unique record of the history of  excavation and methodology at Catalhoyuk; I am convinced that one of the projects' major contributions will be about the practice of archaeology and archaeological science, as much as the research questions.  I didn't feel like I got as much discussion as I would have liked though. I think trying to do a review paper in a 15 minute time slot is a bit ambitious, and there are still many issues about 'multi-proxy' research that I want to talk about with the wider geoarchaeological community. I think I will revisit the paper for a smaller scale archaeological science or geoarchaeology conference, where the papers and discussions tend to be a bit longer.

I also did a quick post about the EAA for the Human Seasons blog, which you can read here. Thanks to fellow micromorphologist Barbora Wouters for the action shot!


Friday, 26 August 2016

Bristol visit

I just got back from a great visit to Bristol, to discuss timetables and a plan of action for the NERC grant. My coI is Dr Ian Bull of the OGU, and expert on all things faecal biomarker related. The last time I was in Bristol was in 2014, when I was a research fellow at Edinburgh, doing a whole range of pilot studies on various projects. The first time I went to Bristol was during my PhD, around 2004, to be trained in faecal biomarker analysis. Ian is like the unofficial third supervisor and the guy who showed me how to write a good academic paper. So it's somewhat surreal, but exciting, to be going back there as a PI. I'm always blown away by the amazing laboratory facilities they have -  it has to be one of the best places in the world for organic geochemistry, and there's always some fancy new kit to gawk at. We had a visit to the new radiocarbon AMS lab in archaeology. It's the first time I've seen one of these in person - such a complex bit of kit, it's inspiring to see what humans are capable of. Apparently this one is the 'bench-top' version!


Friday, 12 August 2016

I love middens

We are in the process of updating the School website for History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle. I've been asked to provide some high resolution photos for various sections, and so have been digitally digging through my image archive. I came across this amsuing photo from 2004 - my first ever visit to Catalhoyuk. It was either during my MSc or just after I finished. So long ago that I still dyed my hair black! I remember this midden - I think it was Unit 1668, and probably isn't there anymore. The first midden I worked on, looking at archived micromorphology slides at the University of Reading, and trying to compare the phytolith data from the same units. Although the Masters project had a lot of limitations (working with archive samples is very difficult when trying to compare microstratigraphic data), the lessons I learned formed the basis of the project I went on to do for my PhD. So I still have a soft spot for this particular midden! These were taken using one of my first ever digital cameras as well, back in the day when mobile phones didn't have good cameras. I was so excited that it had a macro function.

Me sat in a midden, Catalhoyuk, South Area 2004

Now there is some microstratigraphy

The story of how I started working in Oregon

If you follow me on twitter you may have seen a series of posts over this year relating to a NERC application I submitted. From writing the thing, >10,000 words (that's a whole undergraduate dissertation!), going through the internal review process, finally submitting it in January. Then anxiously waiting for reviewer feedback, frantically responding to reviewer queries within a very short time frame, then waiting for another couple of months to hear...the amazing news that I was awarded the grant! When the administrative process is complete, I'll write a proper post about the project and what it is we hope to do, but for now I wanted to tell the story of how I ended up working on a project that initially seems far removed from working on Neolithic middens in the Near East, or even Neolithic pottery in Britain. I like this story, as it goes to show how opportunities turn up in strange ways, often when you don't expect them, and that the research process can take you in directions you didn't originally plan for. It also shows how a project can take a while to get off the ground, especially if you are not in a permanent post, or one where you can apply for large grant funding.

Back in 2011 I had a conversation with my mother in law, on the aspect of my PhD work that seems to fascinate people the most - the fact that I spent quite a lot of time analysing prehistoric poop. Not just any poop, but poop that turned out to be (largely) human. Fun story, with interesting implications about neolithic health and attitudes to waste and cleanliness. My MIL volunteers with the Archaeological Society of Central Oregon (ASCO), and she suggested I do a lecture for them about it. She also mentioned the fact that in Oregon, they had some very famous ancient poop. This rang bells, and sure enough, it turned out that a paper I had read recently was on coprolites from Paisley Caves, a site based quite close to where my in-laws lived. She put me in touch with the site director, and that's where it began.

I visited the site during the summer to collect some pilot samples, to see whether the methodology I had developed at Catalhoyuk would work at this type of site. The thin section slides turned out to be amazing, and also quite complicated. The sediments are highly variable and full of all sorts of amazing stuff. We knew based on these pilot samples that there was huge potential here, but as a post-doc I had no way of actually getting funding to develop the project. Even when I started a fellowship at Edinburgh in 2013, where I was technically eligible to apply to NERC, I was not allowed to because I only had a two year contract. The drawback of being an archaeological scientist is that you can't just sit and write, you need to do the lab work first, and it can be very expensive. The organic chemistry and micromorphology that I use are particularly expensive, and impossible to do without funding.

As soon as I got my position at Newcastle, I knew that this was the first project I wanted to pursue. Archaeological science is very much a team process -  the site director is an expert in the archaeology of the region and provides the framework for interpretation, whilst my lab collaborators have a level of technical expertise that can only come from having a background in chemistry. I guess I am the facilitator who links the two, having a foot in both worlds. It will be the first major project I've been involved in where I am overseeing the process, rather than carrying out the lab work myself. I'm not yet sure how I feel about that! I love spending time in the field and in the lab, and it will be strange delegating out the different tasks rather than doing it myself. I look forward to writing more about it over the next 3 years, so watch this space...

Monday, 1 August 2016

6 Amazing Archaeological Sites That Lara Croft Hasn’t Visited (But Really Should)

Originally posted on The Archaeology of Tomb Raider. The site was archived for a while so I figured I would share it here (though it appears it may be back up and running last month, do go and have a look!).


1) Pavlopetri – The City Beneath the Waves

In the original Tomb Raider Lara finds herself in the fabled lost city of Atlantis, known only through the written accounts of Plato around 360 BC, where it is said to have vanished beneath the waves some 9000 years earlier. This would make Atlantis around 11,000 years old, pushing its occupation right back to the beginning of the Holocene, or the end of the last Ice Age. In archaeological terms, this date corresponds with the early Neolithic cultures of sites such as Jericho in the Near East, or the hunter-gatherer ‘Clovis’ culture, one of the earliest groups of people to inhabitant North America.

Alas, Atlantis remains a myth but until some lucky person becomes the most famous archaeologist of all time and finds the legendary city, we can make do with Pavlopetri, equally as fascinating and equally underwater. The Bronze Age town of Pavlopetri, located off the south coast of Greece, is 5000 years old. It was submerged around 1000BC as a result of volcanic activity, earning it the nickname ‘City Beneath the Waves’.


The sunken ruins of Pavlopetri (Image credit: Handout via The Guardian)

Friday, 29 July 2016

Social mobility and a sense of (not) belonging

Warning, if you read this blog for the fun archaeology, this post is unlikely to interest you! It's a bit of a personal grump about life and academia. Wasn't even sure whether to post it, but here goes.

I'm having an identity crisis at the moment. It's been brought to the forefront because of Brexit, but it's something that I've always felt in the back of my mind for as long time. I never recognised it at the time, as it has been a process rather than a sudden understanding, but I think it started when my parents (mam in particular) decided that I should go to a private (fee paying) secondary school rather than the state school all my friends were going to. Up until that point, I was the same as everyone else in my family. Grew up in Wallsend, lived in a council house, walked to school which was the local primary. Had never been abroad on holiday, and never expected that I would. We didn't have a lot of money as my dad had lost his job in the shipyards, and that's just the way things were. Just before my 10th birthday, my mam suggested that my sister and I should sit the entrance exam for a private girls' school in Newcastle (La Sagesse, now sadly closed). I didn't think too much about it really, parents didn't make a huge fuss or anything. We passed the exam, and were awarded places on the (ironically, Tory) government's assisted places scheme. The scheme was abolished by the Labour government in 1997 for being elitist. And there began the seeds of my dual identity: poor working class family but from age 10 having friends who on the whole would be regarded as middle class, and certainly with more money than we had. I still accepted that we didn't have a lot of money, and was hugely grateful for getting to attend a great school. Grateful is the right word, as it was what I was taught. My parents always went on about how lucky I was to go to a 'good' school, and that it was better than the state school, that I had to make the most of this opportunity by working hard and doing well. Whether it was better than the state school isn't something I can comment on, never having had experience of the other, but La Sagesse was certainly good in that most of the teachers were great, class sizes were small, and there was a lot of support.

Things changed even more when I went to university. Regular blog readers know I went to Oxford as an undergraduate - even further removed from my experience growing up on a council estate in the north east. I could hardly believe I got offered a place. I know that going to a private school probably helped, at least as much as my own hard work and being academically gifted. I doubt I would even have known how to apply otherwise. All these little things that people don't think about - how would a student be expected to know how to apply to university when no one in their family has gone before? I saw my success as a product of having parents who emphasized how important it was to get a good education if I wanted to get a good job and do well in life. The 'aspiration' was there I guess, the encouragement (sometimes verging on obsessive) from my mam that made all the difference.

Over the years I have gradually moved into a 'middle class' lifestyle, though I am often reminded that I am not quite there. The majority of people I know and spend time with are now middle class rather than working class, rather than people like my family. The conversations I have, the things I care about, are mostly 'middle class' concerns. But I still remember what it was like, and what it is still like for my parents. That is why I understand why they voted Leave in Brexit (don't get me wrong, I am incredibly exasperated by it!). I was angry at first, but I calmed down after a few days. I've had lots of conversations with academic friends, all of whom are Remain like myself, and it is clear that many of them do not have the same understanding of the working class perspective that I do. I can see why they are angry too. There seems to be an undercurrent around the whole debate that if you are educated you are being elitist, and if you're not then you're stupid. I've had it from both sides (not intentionally, just implied). Even my parents who went on and on about the importance of a good education, now tell me that I'm on the other side, with an implied tone of betrayal. I used to think social mobility was something everyone should aspire to. I have no regrets about my own circumstances and wouldn't choose anything else, but it does have a downside that I never considered until now. The feeling that you don't quite belong anywhere, the feeling that you are no longer connected to the place and people you grew up with.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Summer suddenly got very busy!

It's been just over 3 weeks since I got back from fieldwork in Sicily and I'm still missing the sun, and the fun of doing fieldwork. I had hoped to be doing more over the summer and getting on with microscope work for the Ness of Brodgar midden samples, but for various reasons that isn't looking likely. I have a mountain of admin  to get on top of, including sorting out adverts and interviews for a PhD studentship I have been awarded (exciting stuff, I'll post more about it when the advert is live), sorting out adverts for a postdoctoral position I have, related to a successful grant application (even more exciting, more details as soon as the grant details have been confirmed!). As the grant is joint with Bristol's Organic Geochemistry Unit, I also have to make a trip down there in August to sort out details and a work plan. Added to all of this is our website migration to a mobile responsive system. This is very welcome news as the current site is a bit out of date. As the resident social media/website person I am responsible for overseeing the new archaeology content, which is quite the challenge, as it involves rewriting a lot of existing material as well as creating new text and images. All in all, the last 3 weeks have gone from being an expectation of quiet contemplation and writing time, to super busy many things to sort out in the next month. This is good of course; after a year of settling in at Newcastle everything is suddenly gaining momentum, and I look forward to see where the slowly developing Wolfson lab group is in a years time!

I miss having this view for breakfast!



Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Digitized thin section slides!

I can't remember if I posted about this earlier in the year, but I was lucky enough to be awarded two student work experience placements as part of the Newcastle NWE programme, where students complete flexible paid projects within the university. Two of my Environmental Archaeology students have been working for the past few months, digitizing my entire collection of thin section slides. At some point I hope to make these available online as an open access resource for teaching and research. They did a brilliant job! I've only just had a chance to go through all the scans, having been away on fieldwork, busy with exams, then graduation. Here is one of the scans of a thin section from medieval Riga, that I have been working on as part of the Ecology of Crusading project. Combined with the fact I have just moved the lovely Leica DM750P research microscope into my office (kindly purchased by History, Classics and Archaeology), I can now get working on my mounting backlog of samples on a regular basis. In the pictures below you can see a lot of partially waterlogged wood (the brownish orange looking stuff), some of which is undergoing various stages of microbial decay. As I was browsing I came across these little spherical particles, which are scattered throughout this layer. I suspect these are fungal spores of some sort, though I am not an expert in fungi and will need to do some digging around to see if I can identify them. they look similar to some spores I found in samples from Margat castle, also associated with decaying wood.




Come for the Pokemon, stay for the cool Roman archaeology

Disclaimer: I was a huge Pokemon fan in the late 90s and played it religiously on my Gameboy. So I was always going to love Pokemon Go just from a nostalgia perspective. So I've been a bit surprised at all the moaning about it on social media - seriously, why be all grumpy about a free game that gets people outside and walking about? It's not like we haven't all been playing odd games on our phones for years. Candy Crush anyone? I think Pokemon Go is a brilliant idea, you literally have to leave the house and get some exercise to play it. We all lament so much that 'kids these days' spend all day sat down playing computer games instead of going outside, what could be better than combining the two? Something I did not expect was that I would learn so much playing it. Whereas the original game was set in a fantasy world, this one is set in the real world. The whole thing is based on a location based tourist app, that gives you little snippets of information on various cultural and heritage attractions as you walk around an area. Each of the little stops that you walk to on the Pokemon map is connected to a building, memorial, or some other point of interest, and in order to collect your items from it, you have to read a little box that tells you about it. It's fantastic! I grew up in Wallsend, lived there for 18 years, and it is only through playing Pokemon Go for the past week that I have realized how much there is to see, that I just hadn't paid attention to before. All those memorials that were just part of the scenery - now I actually know what they are and what they represent. It turns out there's a Masonic Hall in Wallsend, who knew! And there's a Pokemon Go gym at Segedunum - surely encouraging people to visit this museum, which is otherwise slightly out of the way, is a good thing? Come for the Pokemon, stay for the cool Roman archaeology. It's possibly one of the best potential outreach ideas ever - can you imagine the audience you could reach if your excavation was turned into a Pokemon stop?

Pokemon in my office, Pokemon when I go for coffee. Meowth, that's right!

Fancy dress day

The Reading PhD gown is not actually that bad! 
Yesterday I attended my first graduation as an academic, in the procession for graduations at Newcastle. As it is my first year here I did not know many of the students very well, only the handful whose dissertations I supervised. Even so it was a surprisingly emotional occasion. It reminded me of my own graduations and how much I've changed since I first started university. My first graduation I was still in the midst of being a shy reclusive northerner in a very traditional and competitive Oxford, and I didn't really enjoy the whole experience of graduation, aside from my parents being there and being proud. It probably didn't help that the whole thing was in Latin, though now I'd probably find that quite fun. And in the Sheldonian Theatre - an absolutely amazing building. It's sad to reflect on how much more I could have gained out of my undergraduate experience, if I'd not felt so isolated. I hope that I can use my own experience to make sure students with a similar background to mine don't go though the same thing. I didn't even go to my Masters graduation as I was feeling all rebellious and what's the point of it all. I was still struggling with shyness at that point (my mam will never forgive me for not have a photo to match the other two). My PhD graduation I was beginning to feel better about life, my confidence has increased a tad, and I actually felt like I'd achieved something worth celebrating. Sitting at the front of the hall in fancy dress and watching the audience was a reminder of how incredibly lucky I am to be where I am today, doing the job I always dreamed of. As a parent myself, I now also have a much better appreciation of why these things are so important to family. It's not something I think I could ever explain to my younger self, who never felt like she quite belonged. Unfortunately I had to leave the drinks reception almost as soon as it started after I nearly fainted. Wool suit plus robes and hat is not a good combination in warm weather!


Monday, 18 July 2016

DIG2017 conference - call for papers

Back in February I announced that Newcastle would be hosting the 7th Developing International Geoarchaeology conference in 2017. Plans are slowly coming along and I am happy to say the conference website is now up and running, which you can view here. There is all sorts of information about travel and whatnot, and we will be updating it regularly, so keep checking. We have also issued the first call for papers, almost a year in advance so plenty of time to make your arrangements! Information on conference accommodation will be available soon and will be bookable at the time of registration, which we hope to have ready by the end of September this year. Student and early career researchers may be interested to know that we are going to have prizes awarded for the best paper and poster submissions, kindly sponsored by the School of History, Classics and Archaeology. We are also making arrangements with Geoarchaeology journal for a potential special issue related to the conference, subject to the usual review procedures. And added to that some amazing field trips to some of the best landscapes in Britain, both natural and archaeological, and it promises to be a very exciting conference indeed!

Field trip to Roman Vindolanda!

Friday, 8 July 2016

Geoarchaeology at Case Bastione

I'm missing the Sicilian weather already. As much as I love Newcastle, I'm very much a fan of hot weather, and the 35 degrees in Sicily suited me nicely. Likewise, I don't think I can ever have ice cream in the UK again after 2 weeks of Italian gelato. And oh how I miss the coffee. I feel very invigorated after the fieldwork. Despite the depressing news we received while were away, the excavation reminded me of everything that originally got me interested in archaeology. Travelling, the excitement of discovery, and the satisfaction of successfully completing hard work. This is my first year of involvement in the project, but I hope to dedicate time to it over the next few years (not just because of the gelato and coffee, though that does help). As I am sure you have guessed, my role in the project is to conduct a series of pilot geoarchaeological studies to investigate the formation processes of some of the more unusual deposits and features on site. The first of these is a series of pits, which were initially thought to be connected to metalworking but don't seem to have any metalworking residues. Perhaps they were related to processing some other product, or maybe for storage? Another focus are various 'burning' deposits. There are also some floors and occupation surfaces, though excavation is not yet at a stage where I can collect samples for these - it's good to be around from the beginning though, so we can mark out plinth areas that will make sampling much easier next year or the year after.

As well as the formation processes and activities within the building, I am interested in the site from an environmental perspective, and looking at the types of fuel resources people were using. The site is much later than a lot of my work on this particular question, and it will be interesting to see how it compares, both in terms of the results, and the applicability of the methodological approach I developed in the Near East. The environments, whilst not identical, are similar in many ways.

What's that black stuff?
Do not dig area - a small section of deposits to be left in situ for future micromorphology sampling




Monday, 4 July 2016

Fieldwork in Sicily - Abandoned buildings

Back in the office today after a safe return from Sicily yesterday. I've just about cleared the two week email backlog and am going through all the fieldwork photos. As well as taking lots of photos of the actual excavation, I also took quite a few around the town where we were staying, Villarosa. It's a very small town, with a population of around 6000. A few decades ago it was almost twice this, but the population declined rapidly after the last of the local sulphur mines was closed in the 1980s. A huge number of people moved to Belgium to take up work in the coal mines, leaving a large number of unoccupied buildings in the town. The photos show an example of an abandoned building overgrown with vegetation, located in between two occupied flats. It is such a strange thing to see; we would never get this in the UK, where property (or land to build new property) is so sought after. It got me thinking about the prehistoric urban landscape of places like Catalhoyuk. The population of Catalhoyuk is thought to be similar to that of Villrosa today, and we know that abandoned buildings were located directly adjacent to occupied ones, and often used as midden dumps. It is hard to imagine how this would have looked, but Villarosa gives a good example, how one building can decline whilst another endures, and in other parts of the town newer buildings are constructed.


Sunday, 26 June 2016

We are European Archaeologists

We have just come to the end of our first week of digging here in Casa Bastione. The excavation is going really well, the students are starting to get the hang of things, and we’ve cleared and sieved most of the topsoil, ready to get started on the archaeological layers next week. The great thing about working in this part of Europe is that even the topsoil is full of archaeological material. We’ve already got bags and bags of pottery and bone, and the occasional lithics and some fragments of Byzantine glass. Even though this material is not in its original context, it’s great for helping the students to learn how to spot things, and the feeling that you are actually finding stuff rather than just sieving sterile soil. Of course, the mood on site has shifted noticeably over the past couple of days. I never get into politics in this blog, but it would be impossible not to mention the fact that we are here in Sicily, working with a British (including English and Scottish students!) and Italian team, with a German postgraduate student supervisor. We all see ourselves as European, as well as our individual nationalities. Now we face the prospect that next time we work here, if that even happens, most of us will need a visa, and some of us could lose our jobs and/or have to leave the place we have lived and studied for 10+ years. We can no longer apply for funding with our European colleagues, can no longer bring their students to the UK for training, or send our students to Europe. Things which benefit all of us in so many ways, archaeologist or not. Everyone is so sad and frustrated; we all feel like we are losing a huge part of our identity. Especially here in Sicily, one of the poorest parts of Europe, which has benefitted so much from European funding to improve the infrastructure and quality of life, where the European flag is flown alongside the Sicilian and Italian. It has many parallels with poorer parts of the UK which have received the same funding.

The mood is a little better today after our visit to the wonderful Agrigento (Valley of the Temples), an ancient Greek colony and UNESCO World Heritage Site which dates to the 6th century BC. As we are all archaeology students or teachers, we get to visit the site for free – a wonderful perk of Italian heritage. The scale of ancient Greek monuments is amazing. It never ceases to amaze me what humans have achieved in the past, such a long time ago yet they were building things just as impressive as anything we can build today, and with much less advanced technology. There is something also quite eerie about wandering through this place, a real sense of a vanished civilisation. Not too much to say today related to geoarchaeology, though later this week I will hopefully get to write something about the local geology and the different building materials that were available to people. A lot of it is sandstone, which we also have on site at Casa Bastione – in fact, the sandstone cliffs just behind the site were utilised in prehistory for human burials!

What do archaeologists do on their days off? Visit more archaeology!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Fieldwork in Sicily - Case Bastione

I’m sitting here writing this on my laptop, on the patio of a rustic farm villa, with a lovely view of the mountains and checkerboard fields, sipping an espresso. Actually, I’ll probably be posting it at a later date, given that there is no internet up here in the lovely quiet hills, no sounds apart from the odd bleating goat and chirping swallow. Yes, it’s the best time of the year again; fieldwork time! I’m allowed to gloat at these surroundings, I’ve endured everything from 2 months sleeping on a floor with no mattress to 3 weeks with no electricity or running water. That means getting washed = a bucket of cold water over the head. But not this year! This year I’m working at a site called Case Bastione in central Sicily. I’m here as a geoarchaeology specialist, but also as a supervisor for our students from Newcastle University. The project is run by Italian archaeologist Enrico Giannitrapani, along with Newcastle’s Andrea Dolfini, and dates from the early Copper Age to Bronze Age, with some later Byzantine/Medieval stuff as well. I’ll write more about the site itself in the next few days, as I learn about it myself!

Having spent the best part of 10 years going to hot and dry places every summer, Sicily is more like the ‘fieldwork’ I’m used to, in a way that working in the UK is not. I think what I mean is that there’s ‘fieldwork’, and there’s ‘travel’. Until 2013 I’d always experienced the two as a combination. In contrast, my recent work in Orkney is fieldwork, but doesn’t feel like travelling; the weather, food, culture, the daily routine, are pretty much the same as home. Working in Sicily is very different from working in the UK. I’m definitely the sort of person that likes the heat, though this week we’ve been sitting between 25-30 which is pretty cool for this time of the year. And oh the food! Needless to say, the catering has been pretty amazing. We’re staying in the small town of Villarosa, and our pottery specialist has family connections with a wonderful local restaurant. In terms of digging, it feels very familiar here. In terms of the sediment and environment, it’s quite similar to the near east. There are lots of dry, dusty deposits, and so full of bone and pottery (though to be fair, in terms of UK archaeology, Orkney is about the only place where you’ll get close to this level of finds!).

This is the first time I’ve been on fieldwork where I’ve been independently in charge of a process, rather than just popping in to take samples as is usually the case. It’s funny how one day you wake up and realise that you actually know what you’re talking about.  I can even teach people how to do this thing, and direct groups of people to do this thing more efficiently! For the past few days I’ve been overseeing the sieving of all the topsoil, along with Newcastle PhD student Raphael Hermann. Not the most exciting of tasks in the grand scheme of things, but it’s been surprisingly good fun. It feels so exhilarating being back in the field, and for many of the students here, this is their first ever experience on a real dig. Their enthusiasm is great to see, and even a bit contagious. I can’t remember the last time I got excited about finding badly eroded bone or a random potsherd from a huge mound of topsoil, but hearing the excitement when someone finds said bit of bone and pot, and watching as they begin to see the difference between worked flint and random rocks, you’re reminded that this is actually quite cool. That being said, it would be more cool to get through the topsoil as quickly as possible so we can get onto the really exciting archaeological layers!


Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Jobs before academia

I came across this article ages ago about jobs academics did before they became academics, and have been meaning to write something about it, but the semester has been so very very busy that I haven't had a chance. Having just handed in what I hope is my last lot of marking before I'm off on fieldwork next week, I thought I'd sit down and do some reminiscing.

My early adventures in the world of work. My very first job was as a assistant at an amusement arcade in my hometown of Newcastle. It was so monotonous and very depressing, spending the whole day handing out change to people that they would then just put into slot machines. I always knew I wanted to go to university, but that experience really reminded me that I would never be happy doing something 'normal'. It was the summer before I was about to head off to university, and I worked really hard at that job, saving up enough money to buy myself a desktop computer that I could take with me. I remember it well; it was the cheapest computer in the shop, and it cost my entire summer savings of about £800. I paid for it in cash! Ah, the wonderful Mac laptop that I could (almost) buy for that amount these days.

When I was at university I had two jobs, even though we were told we were not allowed jobs (I'm surprised to see this is still the case at Oxford even today, 'term time employment is not permitted except under exceptional circumstances'). But hey, I was poor and needed the money. I am proud of the fact that I never used a credit card my entire time as an undergraduate thanks to those jobs (that all went quickly downhill when I decided to do postgraduate degrees). My term time job was bar staff/cloakroom assistant at the Zodiac night club (now an O2 Academy). I can still pour a pint of Guinness and draw a shamrock in it. And I can pour shots and wine measures by eye. Valuable skills! I also got to see a lot of bands for free, which was fun. I much preferred being on cloakroom duty. After the initial rush of the evening, I could just sit there and get on with my reading and weekly essay assignments. It wasn't the most pleasant of jobs; I got threw up on once, and being sober around very drunk people all the time did not mesh well with my shyness.

St Hughs College Library (photo from website)
When it wasn't term time, I worked as a library assistant for my college library, which was much more pleasant. That was my favorite job ever. In fact, if I hadn't become an academic, I would have loved to be a librarian. There were hardly any students around as it was the holidays. Just me and the handful of other shy, quiet types who couldn't afford to go home, and stayed and worked in the library instead, under the instruction of then librarian Deborah Quare. Our main task was to do a stock take of the entire library. In the first year before everything was bar-coded, this meant going and checking every single shelf by hand. Later on, we got a barcode scanner which made it a bit quicker. Then there was the daily re-shelving. Running up and down stairs with piles of books, sorting them into subject categories, then re-shelving them, reading snippets here and there. It was bliss. Even the law library, where the books had incredibly dull names, there was something very soothing about putting them away in the right places. One year we had to accession a bequest of hundreds of books. At that point we still wrote out library cards as the library was still in the process of transitioning to a digital system. I got to keep loads of them as there were too many for us to keep. They remain some of my most prized book possessions.


Like the Times article says, one of the most important lessons from these 'other' jobs, is learning what it's like to be someone else, the many people who do these sorts of jobs everyday for their whole lives. Academia is an odd place really when you think about it, not at all like the real world is for most people. That is something that can be easy to forget, or to not realize at all, when you spend your whole life in that environment, transitioning straight from student to academic. I would argue that doing something else for a while, either as an undergraduate or between degrees, is important to enable you to empathize and understand the 'public' that we are so often asked to engage with as academics. It is also useful for experiencing life and gaining experience outside academia, which is important for seeking so called alt ac employment, which is something I'll write more about in a future blog post!

Monday, 6 June 2016

Getting shortlisted - publications

Since joining Newcastle I have been on two shortlisting panels, one for a temporary teaching post and the other for a permanent lectureship. Having been on the other side of things for such a long time, I think I have honed my own application skills considerably, and it has been quite eye-opening to see how the hiring process works, and what other peoples' applications look like. It was really obvious the people who 'knew what they were doing' (i.e. had probably talked to senior colleagues and gotten advice) versus those who just wrote what I would consider a 'first draft' type application. The application is like a piece of work for publication; everything needs to be spot on. It was frustrating to see what were probably good candidates not really sell themselves well, and often not demonstrate how they actually fit the job criteria. There was a tendency I think in many cases to make assumptions, that the reader would just know what the technical skills were, or why a certain area of research was important. Never make assumptions!

One thing that struck me was the huge focus on publications. I think we all know publications are important, but I hadn't realised exactly what this means in practice. I thought I was doing exceptionally well in terms of publications having managed 2 in 2009 (ok but very technical/analytical) and a whopping 5 substantial papers in 2011 (actually, some were submitted much earlier than that they just took ages to come out). Then I also had almost 7 years of postdocs in which to build my publication record. It has been very clear that in order to even be considered now, a candidate needs to be completely 'REF ready'. As an early career researcher in the previous REF, this meant at least 2 high quality published papers in good journals, which is just about doable as a recent PhD if everything goes well. But now it seems that 4 is preferred. That's a lot to ask of a recent PhD, and pretty much ensures you have to have done a postdoc of some sort before you are likely to be considered for a lectureship.

So I may have been lucky soon after finishing the PhD if the panel liked my very technical papers of 2009, but probably would not have been a suitable candidate until at least 2011, 3 years after submitting my PhD. It's possible that a candidate could maybe make up for having fewer papers with truly amazing other areas of the CV, but there was little budging on this. Some of the applicants had amazing CVs with great plans, but without those papers, we could not shortlist them. I understand the reasoning behind it, that's the way things work now whether we like it or not. But it just seems to add yet another dimension of random to the process. What if your research doesn't lend itself to multiple papers? What if your papers have all been sat in review for 6 months?

You need to be really on the ball. If you're doing a PhD with sights set on an academic job, you need to make sure you are publishing, even during your PhD. Collaborate with others, co-author papers (the importance of networking cannot be over-stated). Or at least make sure you apply for fellowships and postdocs in plenty of time, so that you have the job security that will let you publish your PhD as soon as you can. Is this the best way to do things in academia? It certainly favors people who can write quickly. It probably means that some papers get rushed too. There is a careful balance to strike between timely publication and publishing before the work is ready. I feel like the latter is better in some ways; it is better to get your ideas out there rather than falling into the trap of trying to produce the 'perfect' piece of work. Any thoughts from my readers?

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Where did all that time go

I can't believe it's already June, getting close to a year in my job at Newcastle. I can't even call it my new job anymore! It's been an amazing year so far. Even though I have been swamped with designing new modules and getting used to the teaching and admin processes here, I have really enjoyed everything. I even managed to get some research related activities in. I applied for a NERC new investigator grant back in January, which in itself was a learning process. 10,000 words in total for that application, and that wasn't even the hard part; sorting out the finances for an international project split between two institutions (my co-I is at Bristol) was more of a headache that I expected. Then the reviewing process, oh the reviewing process. Despite being told that being interdisciplinary is one of my major strengths, and I do believe that it leads to better, more innovative research, it makes things surprisingly hard when it comes to applying for funding. There's the first problem of ticking the box for which panel you belong to (archaeology? archaeological science? Quaternary science? Soils?). My research is pretty much always a combination of different subject areas and methodologies. Then there is finding people qualified to review the proposal. An expert is the biomolecular methods for example is unlikely to be aware of the archaeological significance, and likewise an expert in the archaeological and Quaternary environment aspects may not be able to comment on the appropriateness of the methodology. I would like to think my case for support was clear enough that even non-experts could understand, but there was a last minute panic where I thought I wasn't going to get enough reviews to even be put forward to the panel! We did manage to get someone in the last week though, so fingers crossed. The reviewer comments were all pretty positive, so I guess I've done the best I can, now it's just a matter of being judged against all the other applications, which is happening imminently.

What else did I get up to this year. I'm 6000 words into a very theory heavy paper. Science is so much easier. You have some questions and a hypothesis, collect samples, do lab analysis, generate data, then sit and work through it in a nice logical fashion, and it either supports your hypothesis, or not. Hopefully you can answer at least some of your questions, and identify what you need to do to improve things next time. Time consuming, but straight forward. For me anyway. The really hard bit is the interpretation - even scientific data needs to be interpreted. You can answer some defined questions, but what about the bigger picture? What does it all mean? How much can we rely on our data and the flawed, incomplete samples that are inevitable in archaeology? How do we even know that these patterns we observe are related to the activities and processes that we assume they are? It leads you down a philosophical path that requires very careful thinking about the actual process of research, every step that we take, and whether we can really make the leap from some analysis to grand statements about the past. I doubt it is going to be my most popular paper, but it's something I need to do, if only to clarify my own thinking, though I do hope others find it useful as well.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Micrograph: Layers within layers

I love this image. It's another one from Catalhoyuk, a nice midden in the South Area (unit 17739). I published a paper on these deposits in Antiquity which included this image, so I'll let you read the paper to find out more about this area and its significance. Here I wanted to show a close up of this image and the beautiful but daunting complexity of archaeological deposits under the microscope. What we are looking at is a tiny fragment of wall plaster mixed in with ashy debris and charcoal. A few years ago I did a post about these plaster deposits, as they are found within buildings at Catalhoyuk, on floors and walls. By counting the layers we can see the frequency with which the inhabitants were re-plastering and 'repainting' their houses - regular cycles of maintenance on an annual and seasonal basis. This layer in the midden shows a fragment which has fallen off a wall, and somehow made its way into the midden, probably through sweeping and dumping of debris, but could potentially also have gotten there through other transport mechanisms, such as on the soles of someone's feet. The unit shows evidence of the deposits having been trampled, so it's a definite possibility. It makes you think about the difficulties in working with microscopic remains such as phytoliths and microcharcoal. The processes of deposition are incredibly complex, and understanding exactly where these materials came from can be difficult. An experimental study by Banerjea et al (2015) showed that geochemical signals can also be the result of material being transported on the soles of feet, often from completely different parts of a site. The signals that are detected archaeologically do not necessarily represent the activity that took place in that area...


Monday, 2 May 2016

The Postdoc and the Professor

The lamp was shining on the desk,
Shining with all its might:
The Postdoc did their best to make
The sentences read right –
This could seem odd because it was
The middle of the night.

The lab was quiet as could be,
The office without a sound.
You could not hear a peep, except
The sampler spinning round:
No conversations could be heard –
No students were around.

The Postdoc and the Professor
Were working close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
The quantities of grading planned:
“If this were only cleared away”,
They said, “it would be grand!”

“If seven staff with seven pens
Graded for half a year.
Do you suppose,” the Postdoc said
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Professor
And shed a bitter tear.

“The time has come,” the Prof she said,
“To talk of other things:
Of papers – grants – and funding apps –
Of seminars – and things –
And if you please reviewer three –
You’ll think that pigs have wings.”

“It seems a shame”, the Postdoc said,
“To play such an evil trick,
After such hard work, analysis
And writing up so quick!”
The Professor said nothing but
“To publish is a trick!”

“The essays,” said the Professor
“We’ve avoided every one!
Shall we now get on with it?”
But answer came there none –
And this was scarcely odd, because,
The Postdoc did a run.


Thursday, 28 April 2016

Not so secret life of an archaeologist

There has been an opinion piece doing the rounds on twitter - The Secret Life of an archaeologist: soil in your sandwiches and sexism. Having been subject to sexism both privately and professionally, I can sympathize with aspects of this, however there is a lot in this piece which made me frown. Enough so that I decided to do my own blog post about it. When I saw the title I thought it was going to focus on the problems of sexism and harassment in the field, something which has received a lot of attention recently, both in archaeology and in other field-based disciplines. But the thing that irked me was its presentation of what 'real' archaeology is like. There seem to be two extremes in the way archaeology is perceived, it's either Indiana Jones and digging up 'treasure' (i.e. pretty objects, preferably precious metal), or there are the pieces like this, which want to tell everyone how boring and hard work it actually is. This reminded me of an excellent post (go read it!) by Colleen Morgan - Stop saying archaeology is actually boring. Yes, stop it! I think everyone knows archaeology is hard work, or can be, physically, if you do a lot of field work. But it is important to remember that archaeology is more than just digging things up. Some of us specialize in the laboratory side of things, where you can avoid the field entirely if you want to.

I find these posts problematic, as it could easily put people off considering archaeology as a career, particularly those who are not physically able, or from 'non-affluent' backgrounds. So this is my not so secret life as an archaeologist. For context, I am a physically fit female from a 'poor' family - all working class northerners. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I went to Oxford. So I have a very good appreciation of how people with non-affluent backgrounds perceive university ('posh', 'not for people like me'), and especially 'weird' subjects like archaeology. Weird as in, what on earth kind of job are you going to do with that ('you're clever, why don't you be a doctor'). So when people write about how you will never get to do the fun stuff like travelling to exotic places, unless you are rich, I find it incredibly frustrating. I chose to do geography as an undergraduate precisely because I wanted to travel and see the world, and it was one of the subjects I knew where you  do field work. There was one occasion where I had to chose digging in Scotland rather than Tenerife because I couldn't afford it (my undergraduate compulsory field course), but there have been many many more opportunities to go further afield, which I took advantage of (Fiji, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, all over Europe...none of which I've had to pay for out of my own pocket).

I think being affluent certainly makes it easier, as you don't have to worry about how much things cost (isn't this true for everything in life?), and yes you have to secure funding. But this is the same for all archaeology, whether it is closer to home or further afield. You can't do fieldwork without funding, full stop (unless you can convince everyone to work for free). Do you need to know the right people? Again, it might help to find out about opportunities and get access to certain projects. But not always. My first ever excavation was in Fiji. I didn't know anyone there, or anyone who had anything to do with the project. I applied for some university travel funding and got it (because I made a good case for it, rather than having magical powers), and sent an unsolicited email to a Professor I found out about through my own research, and asked if I could join his project to do work for my dissertation.

But fieldwork in the UK isn't necessarily 'boring' anyway. I am actually trying my best to steer my research towards the UK. I still love travelling, but there are reasons (i.e. mini me) at this point in my life where it is not as appealing as it was. Archaeology doesn't have to be the pyramids or Pompeii to be exciting; can't we focus on telling people why scatters of stone tools are exciting instead of going on about how boring they are? I think the real story here is that developer funded archaeology can be boring, because often you are digging things where there just isn't much to be found and there are no exciting questions behind it. But at least being outdoors is exciting, and getting to do it as a job is amazing. If you're me, soil is exciting too. Can we stop telling everyone that soil is boring? I also spend a lot of time studying fossilised poo though, so treat my views as you will. The eccentricity thing is probably true. And I'm also very skilled at not getting soil (or fossil poop) in my sandwiches.

As far as the sexism, I have limited experience of the situations this writer is talking about. It is very much focused on UK commercial archaeology, and having not done much of this I can't comment. I do however have extensive experience of fieldwork in an academic context, in all the above mentioned far away places and in the UK. I am happy to say I have never experienced the sorts of comments about women working, getting your nails done etc. I guess it might be different when the team are all archaeologists. But even in countries where you might expect different attitudes towards women, I have never encountered such comments (actually, it's sometimes more like men go out of their way to treat you the same, maybe cause they don't want to be seen as fulfilling a stereotype?). I have experienced similar comments in other situations, at conferences etc. So I am not denying there is a problem, but I would hope that most of the time people will get called out on such poor behavior. The bigger problem in my mind for women is the less obvious discrimination. Unconscious bias, the gender pay gap, the career impacts of having a family. I don't think these problems are unique to archaeology, or even academia.  And I'll leave it there otherwise this will turn into a very long post!