Tuesday, 25 July 2017

DIG2017 Conference data

Registrations for DIG2017 closed over the weekend so I've been collating all the information for preparing information packs and confirming catering etc. I've been playing around with the delegate information and thought I would share some fun figures. All the data is based on the registration details provided by the delegates, with designation of male or female from delegate name. The first figure shows the geographic distribution of delegates (residence rather than nationality). We have around 80 people attending from 20 different countries, making DIG2017 truly international! The highest number attending are from the UK, which makes sense given the location this year, but we also have a good number from north america, and a wide spread from across Europe. Our furthest afield is coming from Australia!


I'm happy to see that we have an almost even split of early career researches/students to established researchers, and a good gender balance of 43% female 31% male. It is interesting that despite the fact geoscience in general tends to be quite male dominated, geoarchaeology seems to have a good balance of women. Whilst the majority of attendees are coming from universities, I'm also really happy to see we have a decent turnout from other sectors including several commercial/CRM companies and government bodies.


Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Experiential experiments

We've spent the past couple of days doing burning experiments in the reconstructed mudbrick house at Catalhoyuk, as part of our Wellcome Trust project. The aim of the experiments is to collect some pilot data relating to smoke emissions when ovens and hearths are in use. We don't have time in the pilot study to conduct a detailed series of controlled experiments - there are a lot of different variables that could be adjusted to test different scenarios - but we do hope to get some basic comparisons of different fuel types and how emissions change over a few hours of burning. I think the most useful part of doing this pilot work has been the practical side of things, the experience of having to find the materials for fuel, finding out how much fuel works best (and at what point there's too much fuel and you get smoked out of the house), observing how different people react differently to smoke levels. We tried using animal dung but it smouldered really badly, which we realised was because it was not fully dried out. All of these observations will help us design better experiments for our future work, which will enable us to build a model of fuel use and smoke exposure under different scenarios. We also realised that we need to think more closely about including ethnographic work in the future study - the people who live at Kuccukoy village near Catalhoyuk have a lot of experience and important insights that have been crucial for collecting usable data in the pilot study. Whilst ethnographic analogues cannot be used as direct comparisons with archaeological cultures, there are definitely practical insights that can help us develop our hypotheses.


Catalhoyuk - Wellcome project

After yesterday's musings I figured I should post about some of the fun archaeological stuff I've been up to at Catalhoyuk this week. The reason we are here this year (we being myself and project postdoc Helen Mackay), is that we were lucky enough to be awarded a grant from the Wellcome Trust. We are collecting archive samples to export for analysis, doing some burning experiments in the reconstructed mudbrick house, and general networking and scouting for collaborators for when we (hopefully!) do the full sale research project.

The focus of the Wellcome project is to investigate the potential relationships between 'biofuel' use and respiratory health in the archaeological record. The materials that people used for fuel in the Neolithic (wood, dung, reeds etc) are being promoted today as sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, however there has been a lot of research showing that these fuels are actually just as bad for respiratory health as fossil fuels. Biomass burning releases a lot of particulate matter as well as things like carbon monoxide and other things that are bad for you.

Day one on site involved settling in then giving a short seminar presentation to discuss the project and get feedback from team members. Everyone was really interested which is great, and we had some useful discussions about the different research strands, and some suggestions for other areas we could possibly include. Day two we set up the first burning experiment in the experimental house - we are so fortunate to have on-site a reconstructed mudbrick building for testing out ideas like this. With a bit of help from one of the Turkish women we managed to get a good fire going, and set up the particle monitors to measure the particulate matter that is released over the course of a typical burning episode. Today we did repeat experiments using various combinations of wood and animal dung to see how variable the different fuel types are.

Although these are only pilot studies, I am really interested to see the data we are collecting. The experience of running the experiments has also been very useful; we learnt very quickly that the amount of fuel used and the way the fire is constructed seems to have a big impact on the amount of smoke released. In some cases there was so much smoke that we literally could not stay inside the house. In the cases where it was possible to stay inside the house during burning, there was still a noticeable amount of particulate matter in the air, and Helen and I both came out covered in a fine layer of microcharcoal and ash particles!

Chatting with Scott Haddow from the human remains team has also been very useful. Scott is doing a review of the Catalhoyuk ostearchaeological material for the Wellcome project, and reassessing some of the suspected evidence of anthracosis. Although it looks like there are very few individuals with indicators of respiratory disease, this in itself is actually a very interesting observation as it may tell us something about behaviour of people and levels of exposure to irritants. I can't wait to do the full scale study and compare all of this data properly.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

25 years of Catalhoyuk

Day 2 at Catalhoyuk.

This blog post was supposed to be full of excitement at all the cool samples we've collected and the experiments we have been doing in the reconstructed mudbrick house, but instead I find myself contemplating the institution that is Catalhoyuk. Not Catalhoyuk the Neolithic settlement, but Catalhoyuk the archaeological dig, the community of archaeologists, locals and all the other people who are or have been involved with the project. I don't think I ever fully appreciated what Prof Ian Hodder has achieved here, not until I got my job at Newcastle and realised the time and effort that goes into organising fieldwork, and generating funding for projects. Field seasons that last 2 months, with up to 100 people on site at a time. A dig house with labs and storage. Catering, accommodation, the politics, and of course the archaeology itself.

I always felt like I never quite belonged here; my visits were always timed as the excavation was well underway, and everyone was busy digging in the day, socialising in the evening. Most people spent a great deal longer living and working on site than I did, and it was very hard to jump in and make friends. Everyone else already knew each other and knew the routine, and I felt like I had no clue what was going on. I still owe so much to Shahina Farid, field director  until 2013, who took time out of her busy schedule to help me (and giving me cigarettes in the days before I quit...). The first time I came here was 2004, and by 2012 I was just getting to the point where I felt like I belonged, like I knew what was going on and my research was contributing something. Then the nomadic postdoc years kicked in (including a period where I thought I was going to have to leave academia), and I never had the chance to come back, until this year and the luck of getting Wellcome Trust funding to explore one of the many ideas that I have for this amazing site.

It's a strange feeling being back; at once everything is so familiar yet different. No more shed out the back, the site of themed parties, Efes beer and questionable music. In its place there is a new building that blocks the view of the mound and is a bit too bright inside. It's also very quiet compared to the last time I came here. The atmosphere is more subdued, like everyone is just getting on finishing things, no time or desire for socialising in the evenings. Not that I have ever been great at socialising, but even introvert me was happy sitting in the corner watching the world go by. Now there's not much to watch, though it has been nice to see familiar faces, people who I have become friends with through the shared experience of being a Catalhoyuk team member, and since 2008 consolidating that connection through social media.

Speaking of social media, there is now Wifi on site! In 2012 there was a desktop computer where you could sign up for a timeslot to check emails, very slowly. Back in 2004 there was nothing, not even a mobile phone signal. Yes, I am fully aware I have turned into a middle aged person who is doing the 'back in the old days' cliche. I feel like I've grown up here. Maybe that's another reason it feels strange, being here as a fully fledged academic rather than as a student.

It definitely feels as if things are coming to a close. This is the last year of Prof Ian Hodder's 25 year permit, and everyone knows that we won't be back here next year. I wonder what will happen to all the local people who work in the dig house, or the guy who runs the little shop selling cold drinks and ice cream. And the guards - they always remember me, even when I've been away for 4 years, Mustafa came over to say hello today. 25 years of Catalhoyuk. I'm privileged to have been working here for half that time.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Geoarchaeology and mudbricks

Remains of stone wall base, and a whole lot of roof tiles at Olynthos
Anyone who is familiar with Catalhoyuk, or indeed Near Eastern prehistory in general, will know there has been a lot of focus on mudbricks. What are they made of? What can the raw materials and manufacturing processes tell us about Neolithic society? And also floors - we love floors in the Near East, counting them, describing them, analysing them. I was therefore a little surprised when I was doing some background research on Olynthos, to find that no-one has really looked that much at floors, or mudbricks, in classical archaeology. In fact, I was surprised to find out that the houses were made of mudbricks at all, though this is probably just due to my lack of familiarity with the period. We are so used to seeing the remains of stone walls, and the stone monumental architecture, but the mudbricks don't seem to preserve. The roof tiles on the other hand are everywhere (as can be seen nicely in the image from Olynthos to the right). The lack of preservation of mudbricks is probably due to the fact they were dried in the sun rather than fired, and therefore easily eroded by the elements, whereas the roof tiles are produced through firing, similar to pottery (which is also found in abundance). It is going to be a challenge I suspect, to distinguish between the packed earth floors, decaying collapsed mudbrick, and the collapsed upper storey floors. There has been a lot of work done on mudbrick in other parts of the world which will be a useful comparison. There is so much potential for geoarchaeological approaches, all this earth-based material being used and transformed in different ways. There is a whole PhD in here I'm sure - hopefully I can find a student who is passionate about both ancient Greece and geoarchaeology to take on the challenge!

Ethnographic example of mudbrick building with stone foundations and tiled roof - from Olynthos site information panel


Saturday, 8 July 2017

Getting to know Olynthos


Today was my last day on site at the classical Greek city of Olynthos in northern Greece. Although I have never studied Greek archaeology, or indeed anything classical, ancient Greece is something I was always fascinated by as a child. If I'd thought to study archaeology as an undergraduate I can imagine that ancient Greece is something I would have gone for. Regular blog readers know I was a geographer before I was an archaeologist, and that background has situated me more in prehistory, with it's greater emphasis on long term environmental change and human-environment interactions. But yet again I find myself being fascinated by themes and comparisons rather than specific time periods, and also the differences in approaches to archaeology in different areas. Ancient Greece is exciting as there is a wealth of documentary evidence and we know so many of the little details compared to prehistory. But like other historic periods I have worked on (e.g. The Ecology of Crusading), the documentary evidence does not tell us everything. And when it comes to understanding the environment, and the daily lives of ordinary people, there is so much that we can't get at from written sources alone.

Although classical archaeology is still archaeology, it turns out that there are very different traditions compared to other areas of archaeology, particularly with researchers based in north America, where there is a definite division between 'anthropological archaeology' and classical archaeology. It seems so strange to me have these divisions, when we are all interested in understanding societies in the past, and we are all using various combinations of material culture and documentary evidence (albeit with greater emphasis on one or the other depending on the time period). As ever, my approach is to ask what the questions are, and which methods or approaches can best address those questions. I'm happy to say Olynthos director Prof. Lisa Nevett has a similar outlook, and has had a long term interest in the possibilities of microstratigraphic analysis for understanding ancient cities such as Olynthos.


I was invited to join the project because of my work at Catalhoyuk, and my recent World Archaeology paper which discussed the challenges and possibilities for integrated multi-proxy approaches to understanding use of space. For me this is an exciting opportunity to apply the methodological approach I have developed over the past decade to a site that is larger and more complex. Although the site is more recent in terms of age than Catalhoyuk, what are the different taphonomic processes and how does these impact the methods we can use? As well as the broader methodological questions, the more immediate aims are to test several hypotheses suggested during excavation, largely related to the presence of floors. I've collected a series of samples from three different trenches in one large building, and will be looking to see whether we can identify different surfaces in thin section. From there we will devise a more comprehensive sampling strategy integrating spatial geochemistry and phytolith analysis, and target more rooms, and more buildings!

Monday, 3 July 2017

Off to Catalhoyuk, via Olynthos

It seems like I only just got back from Oregon and I'm off again, this time to Catalhoyuk in Turkey, via Olynthos in Greece. I am really excited about the Olynthos project. Although I am no expert in ancient Greece, I was always fascinated by the mythology as a child, and it will be great to finally visit Greece. I was invited to join the project as a geoarchaeologist, specifically looking at the micromorphology of floor deposits in collaboration with the archaeobotany and geochemsitry experts. The excavations are co-directed by Lisa Nevett at the University of Michigan in collaboration with the Greek Ministry of Culture & Sports and the British School at Athens. One focus is the excavation of house Bix6 on the North Hill. New data on artefacts and their distribution as well as geochemical testing by fellow geoarchaeologist Carla Lancelotti have indicated broad spatial differences in uses between rooms in the building. I will be applying sediment micromorphology to house Bix6 to examine the differences that have been detected through geochemistry, and hopefully identify the specific activities occurring in each locale how these changed over time. Such an approach has never before been applied to an ancient Greek household, and it will be very interesting from a methodological perspective to compare our analyses with the insights from classical texts about household use of space.

I will be on site at Olynthos for a few days collecting samples for the pilot study, before travelling directly to Turkey for my first visit to Catalhoyuk since 2012. 2012 was an odd year, as my employment situation was a bit up in the air, and I thought it would probably be the last time I'd be able to go to Catalhoyuk, but I collected a whole bunch of samples anyway just in case. When I got my job at Newcastle in 2015 one of the things I was really excited about (apart from the job security, hurrah), was the chance to continue my research at Catalhoyuk. My PhD and postdoc work there opened up so many questions that I've just been dying to answer, and now I finally have some money through a Wellcome seed award to go and work on these questions. It is going to be strange going back; there has been so much change in terms of team members and project directions, and the 25 year excavations have just come to a close. I can hardly believe I have been working there myself for 14 of those years. FOURTEEN. And I only just feel like I know what's going on, and that my research is really just starting. The technology that has become available in recent years, technology that wasn't available when I first started work there, offers so much potential. I wish I could have gone earlier before digging finished this year, but coordinating all my commitments is getting increasingly difficult.

A mosaic floor at Olynthos. Source: Akademie iik, Wikimedia Commons.