Monday, 29 September 2014

2014 Centenary of the Mousterian

I started this post in July, but since then life and work got rather intense, and so it's been delayed... but now it can be added to in a very satisfying way. Back in summer I was lucky enough to be invited to some new work going on at the eponymous site of Le Moustier, Dordogne. This is where the lithic (stone tool) cultural classification accorded to the late Neandertals of much of western Europe was defined- known as the Mousterian. Brad Gravina, a colleague and friend from my lab (PACEA, Uni Bordeaux), has started some new excavations, which at the moment are in their earliest stages, and he generously invited me to visit. Much excitement followed, as well as an obligatory photo at the village road sign.

Fast-forward to now, September, when another absolutely seminal Neandertal site is also receiving renewed attention from my colleagues: Combe Grenal, the type site for the Mousterian sequence (i.e. the order in which different patterning in the tools within layers can be seen), and which has been used as a referent by all major approaches to understanding technological evolution within the region.

Ticked off the list- next, Levallois metro stop in Paris!

 The new Combe Grenal excavations are being directed by another of my lab colleagues Jean-Phillipe Faivre, whose PhD was on some of the layers (I say some, because it is an incredibly rich site, with many layers) and who has been very welcoming since I joined the lab. Brad Gravina and new PhD recruit, M-C Dawson (who has worked for INRAP for several years, the highly regarded French national 'rescue' excavation service) are joining Jean-Phillipe at the site too. There were also further excavations at St Cesaire this summer where I visited last year, not to mention my own very exciting fieldwork from this summer which I have yet to blog about... so really 2014 is the year of the Neandertal here at the PACEA lab in Bordeaux! Very appropriate seeing as one of the Grand Hommes of Mousterian studies, Francois Bordes, was also based here (and has a metro stop named after him outside our building!). Read on for more information, and my photos from the Le Moustier dig in July.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Return to the Massif Central

Just a very quick post to say I'm officially back from maternity leave, and have rolled straight into fieldwork! I'm back in the Haute-Loire region for a month. We will be starting excavations at the Saint-Pierre-Eynac silcrete source, which is exciting. I'm anticipating a LOT of stone to come up, but the question will be how much is humanly-worked, and whether there is any identifiable stratigraphy present. I'm really hoping I can convince the students with us that washing lithics is super-fun, as I don't fancy doing another few thousand like last year...
So until I have some new posts, which should hopefully be soon, here's a nice photo from summer 2013- here's hoping for more magnificent cloud-scapes in 2014!

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Polishing turds: social contexts of Neandertal coprolites

Finally we have something I've been waiting for for a while- Neandertal poo. Aside from providing journalists with various amusing headlines ("What the crap?"; "Poop scoop" etc.), this new research (open access article) is interesting on several levels. The obvious one reported in the paper is the identification of vegetal matter through chemical analysis, which is yet another neat addition to the ever-increasing stack of examples that Neandertals weren't the hyper-carnivores they were believed to be. However I think a couple of other things are equally interesting.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Old things and new things

Just a quick post for any readers looking out for updates on the postdoc project- the first output will be presented at the upcoming SAA (Society for American Archaeology) conference in Austin, USA towards the end of April. We're showing a poster on the Saint-Pierre-Eynac work we've been doing so far (very preliminary), and outlining what we hope to achieve this coming summer in terms of fieldwork. My colleague Vincent Delvigne, one of the co-authors and a specialist in sourcing flints, will be presenting for me as I'm unable to go to the conference (see below for reason!).

The results so far from the surface collection were somewhat disappointing, with a very low percentage of worked material overall, and very little that was technologically, and therefore chronologically, distinctive. It seems that the surface of SPE as a whole does have traces of human action, but this is complicated by the fact that the silcrete fractures naturally very easily in a way that superficially resembles human modification. This is especially the case with thermal fracturing, caused in this case by cold temperatures (even now the region is under snow for months over winter), where flakes naturally 'pop' off, leaving rounded scars that at first glance look like flaking scars.

I think in terms of surface collection, a long-term project would be worth doing, but my postdoc is already many months in. Instead, this summer we are going to examine further the geological context, and do some targetted surface collection and excavation, focusing probably on some of the outcrops and the field where some of the better quality lithics have been previously collected. We'll see if there is any more material to look at, in any kind of spatial pattern, and also determine if there is any stratigraphy at the site which might help in terms of chronologically separating the human activity going on there. Fingers crossed!

So, that's the update about all the Old Things I'm dealing with. I'm also rather busy with a Big New Thing, which is taking up a lot of time and is the reason for slow blog updates: on 18th March I had my daughter, Tallis! So I'm actually on maternity leave until mid June, and then annual leave until early July. Hopefully I'll be able to update the blog a bit more often in the coming weeks once life settles down a bit (although I can't do work for the postdoc directly under my employment contract), maybe with some photos I've been meaning to post for a while.
As always, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Book review: "Lost Animals- Extinction and the photographic record"

Thanks to my lovely editor at Bloomsbury, Jim Martin (now heading up their very exciting new popular science imprint, Sigma), I was sent a copy of a book to review late last year which looked fascinating. Obviously, to declare my interests, Bloomsbury are also publishing my own book, Dawn Chorus in Eden, but my review is from the point of view of someonw with a background in working on an extinct ancient human species.
The volume in question is Lost Animals- Extinction and the photographic record, by Errol Fuller. Read on to see what I thought!

Lost Animals
Image from here

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Toothbrushes & microscopes: tools for studying tools

One of the things that is wonderful about archaeology is the breadth of different fields of enquiry it spans, and the fact it is both a science and humanities subject. Trying to uncover ancient human behaviour and experience is about knowing our predecessors better as well as our present (and future) selves. As an archaeologist I try to follow a scientific approach, thinking carefully about how I collect, analyse and interpret my data. And who can not be excited about all the fabulous techniques we now have to examine and understand our human past through the materials we left behind?

However, even within archaeology there's a little bit of "science snobbery", with certain of those who receive BScs/ MScs degrees (i.e. Bachelor/Masters of Science) holding themselves slightly superior to those with BA/MAs (Bachelor of Arts) like myself. Whether it's only in jest or not, I sometimes wished I'd followed a specialism that's a bit more "white-coat", despite knowing full-well that good science is about your attitude and approach much more than if you wear a lab-coat and get to play with large rooms full of expensive machines.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Saint Pierre-Eynac: studying a silcrete source

It's been a little while since I last wrote about my postdoc project, mainly because of finishing (or almost finishing) fieldwork, and then coming back to Bordeaux to get moved in. Various other complications have meant I've been ridiculously busy the past few weeks.
My last post, all about silcrete, was an introduction to what I'm doing, so this post will give a bit more detail about the site I'm working on: Saint Pierre-Eynac, and the field techniques we are planning.