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.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Karen Ruebens' "Regional Behaviour in Late Neandertals" paper published

The paper by my colleague Karen Ruebens on regionality in biface traditions among late Neandertals has now been published in Journal of Human Evolution.
Full title is : "Regional behaviour among late Neandertal groups in Western Europe: A comparative assessment of late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial tool variability".

This paper got a lot of mainstream press attention, much of which was actually very good in quality and testament to Karen's efforts to get the press release correct to avoid confusion and poor terminology. As a subject, it's close to some of the things I've been interested in too, in fact we have a paper that's under review on a related topic in another journal.
It's not open access, but I think she is planning to put a manuscript version on her Academia page soon, so if you can't get it via the link above, you can search there too.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Adventures in Silcrete: "It's flint Jim, but not as you know it!"

Something that everyone who works in the archaeology of deep prehistory has to get to grips with is the technology of stone tools, or lithics. This includes thinking about the ways in which people made their tools, which techniques they chose to use, etc. It also means that Palaeolithic archaeologists, alongside needing to know stuff about climatology, palaeontology, and ecology, need to delve into the science of geology. People in prehistory might not have understood the origins of different kinds of rocks, but they certainly appreciated the diversity in stone qualities, not only between very different rock types but also within geological/mineral categories.

These two Neandertal tools that I studied for my PhD, called handaxes, are both very finely worked, but made from completely different rocks. The one on the left (Castle Lane, Bournemouth) is made from Cretaceous flint found in the south and east of Britain, and the one on the right (Coygan Cave) from rhyolite, a volcanic stone from Wales. The material I'm working on in France is made from a rock that is related to flint, but a rather different beast. Read on to find out more about the strange stuff that is silcrete!

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Neandertals, Handaxe Traditions, Social Landscapes

Just a quick post as my good friend and colleague Karen Ruebens has been hitting the headlines with the publication of her PhD research, which I've mentioned in previous blog-posts. Amazingly the Daily Mail has managed to cover her work with some very restrained and mostly accurate reporting (bar a strange map that says Middle Pleistocene instead of Middle Palaeolithic, and spelling Karen's surname wrong).

Her paper, in the Journal of Human Evolution (not open access), covers the main results of her thesis, which attempted to examine the apparent divide between West and Central/East Europe in the types of handaxes, or bifaces (tools worked on two sides, with sharp cutting edges extending around the perimeter), made by Neandertals. Karen's work is excellent and thorough, and does support what the different research traditions in Europe had previously suggested: Neandertals had clear regional diversity in the way they produced handaxes, which were major parts of their toolkits (although not everywhere). Furthermore, the morphological differences are not explicable through "practical" considerations, such as the influence of using different stone types or what the handaxes were used for.
This suggests that the different ways of making and re-sharpening these handaxes were instead involved with the social side of tool production- in other words, aesthetics are part of the cultural norms of making things. Because the regional variation in the handaxes continues over a long period, it is likely that these different styles of tool were passed on generationally within groups that were part of a larger population, but which also had cultural barriers between themselves and populations in other regions. This is something I've written about myself in a consideration of the emergence of Neandertal cultural diversity and social landscapes (pdf of this paper) and also the distinctive nature of the handaxes found in Britain (pdf here).

So congratulations to Karen... and fingers crossed for the paper we have written together to be as well received!