My name is Eva Fernandez-Dominguez, I am an Associate Professor in ancient DNA in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, and manager of the ancient and modern DNA laboratories. These labs were designed before my appointment in 2015, but they were finished in early 2016, and I was tasked with equipping them, implementing regulations of access and laboratory protocols and training students and technicians that wanted to make use of the facilities. The labs have been fully functioning since the summer of 2016 and have hosted several MSc, PhD and visiting students during these years. I am mainly interested in the analysis of prehistoric human DNA to decipher population movements, population admixture and assessing the role of kinship in funerary arrangements, so most of the projects we run in the lab deal with human DNA. However, we have also worked with other animal species like flies, cattle and sheep in collaboration with (colleagues from the department and other institutions) other members of the Department and external colleagues.
Managing the two DNA labs is not an easy task, and I receive great support from our Senior Archaeology Technician Dr Beth Upex and our recently appointed Bioarchaeology technician Dr Tina Jakob. The laboratory facilities and specialised equipment require regular inspection checks and the labs need to be fully decontaminated on a regular basis. Moreover, many things can go wrong, and in recent years we have had to deal, for example, with the effect of power cuts and water leaks. Despite this, I find this aspect of my job extremely rewarding, as it makes it possible for others to use the labs and produce results that can be trusted. This is the case of Emily, who is currently working in our DNA laboratories for her MSc dissertation.
My name is Emily Moise, and I am currently undertaking an MSc in Bioarchaeology (Biomolecular Archaeology strand), examining ancient human DNA from the Roman period. My undergraduate degree was in modern DNA, so I had quite a shock when I first entered the ancient DNA labs! Although the methods are very similar to what I am used to, ancient DNA requires much more gear. Contamination is a big issue we need to combat, so all our lab work is carried out in full suits, boot covers, 2 layers of gloves, hairnets, goggles and masks.
The lab has different rooms, each of them dedicated to one part of the process. The rooms have an air -flow system that ensures no particles enter when you move from the lobby into the labs. We also use UV light to sterilize our outfits and materials. These factors are somewhat challenging but working with ancient DNA offers some amazing opportunities. As bioarcheologists, we have the unique honour of diving into our cultural and migratory history at the most intricate level. In my opinion, DNA is super cool, so I am very happy I am able to combine culture and science every day.
The project I am working on is part of a dual collaboration with the University of Vienna / the Vienna Museum and the University of Ghent in Belgium. The Vienna Museum is organizing an exhibit for individuals buried in a Roman era cemetery in the city-centre of Vienna, and they would like to have a segment explaining the genetic background of these individuals, so residents of Vienna can learn about the past of their city. Due to time constraints, I am only examining a specific portion of the DNA: the HVI segment of the mitochondrial genome. My aim is to sequence this region of the DNA and, after the lab work is finished, I will then compare the DNA sequences to look for possible maternal kinship among individuals and I will classify them in groups (“haplogroups”) to get an indication of the maternal ancestral history of each individual. I will also compare the results obtained with other publicly available samples from the same and nearby geographic regions to learn a bit more about population movements and population admixture at the time.
A challenge of ancient DNA is that…well, it is ancient. DNA degrades over time, so not every sample will be successfully sequenced.
I am very happy I have been able to conduct this research project for my dissertation and get plenty of hands-on experience in the analysis of ancient DNA, especially considering the Covid-19 restrictions that have been in place this year.
A list and description of the labs of the Department of Archaeology at Durham University can be found here:
Hi, My name is Nicky Garland [GNJ1] and I work in the Department of Archaeology as a Postdoctoral Research Associate. Essentially that means most of my work is research focused and on a specific project, which currently is the Leverhulme Trust funded project ‘Monumentality and Landscape: Linear Earthworks in Britain’. Our project investigates the construction of large-scale linear earthworks, such as Offa’s Dyke, which in Britain tend to date to either the Iron Age (800 BC- AD 43) or the Early medieval period (AD 410-1066). This project is a collaboration between Iron Age specialists at Durham University and Early medieval experts at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. You can find out more about our project on our website here.
The work of a researcher is quite varied but a typical day for me this summer centres around fieldwork. This is because due to the Covid-19 pandemic we have been unable to get out into the field to investigate specific linear earthworks and so this summer we need to undertake several fieldwork projects across the UK.
We have just come back from three weeks down in Wiltshire where the project team along with some experienced volunteers excavated a section through the East Wansdyke. As part of our excavations we had a specialist from the University of St Andrews come and undertake Optically Stimulated Luminescence Dating on the earthwork. This fascinating process allows us to date when sediments were last exposed to light and so can help us date the material both underneath the earthwork bank, so when it was first built, and in the ditch, telling us when it was started to be infilled.
This week I’m busily preparing for our next stretch of fieldwork, which will take place in September a bit closer to Durham in North Yorkshire. Here we will be investigating the line of the Iron Age linear earthwork called the Scots Dike. The Scots Dike extends from the River Swale in Richmond northwards towards the southern corner of the Stanwick oppidum, a major Late Iron Age settlement in this region. We are planning to undertake geophysical survey in several fields along the line of the earthwork to investigate whether there is an archaeological evidence for occupation in and around this area. We will also survey several upstanding remains of the earthwork as well as some areas where the earthwork has been levelled but were hoping to find the former line.
Today’s tasks include contacting landowners to organise access to specific areas, emailing some of our students who are hoping to come with us and get some experience in geophysical survey and contacting the County Archaeologist to let them know our final plans. Still lots to do before we head out to site but looking forward to being out in the field again soon!
If you’re interested in our project and the results of our fieldwork then follow our twitter account @linearearthwork and the blog on our website for more details soon!
Hello, my name is Anna-Mae and I am a BA Archaeology undergraduate having just finished my second year at Durham. Being an Archaeology undergrad comes with many opportunities and roles, however I will focus on the excavation work done alongside the Auckland Project at Auckland Castle.
As a BA Undergrad Archaeology student, I had to undertake 2 weeks of excavation work, which would be done at Auckland Castle. This was done to provide students on certain archaeology degree paths with a set of skills that would go towards a CIFA (Chartered Institute for Archaeologists) accreditation and better streamline us for future careers. More importantly than this however, it provided many of us students with our first taste of both excavation and post-excavation work. The experience united concepts we’d been taught such as landscapes, the importance of stratigraphy (soil layers), artefact location, and how these artefacts are processed away from the dig, in a real world setting.
Prior to the dig, we learned about the previous history and archaeology of Auckland Castle and its long past in relation to the Prince Bishop, to aid in giving a greater understanding of what we were finding and the significance of the site.
I worked on trench 11 with a variety of partners from within my covid bubble (the entire group on site was split into 4 bubbles). Our section of the trench was interesting in that we found masonry that hadn’t been anticipated by the excavation leaders. Indeed, what these structures were and how they related to the rest of the site was questioned by many on site.
I was lucky in that my section was absolutely filled with finds. We were removing post-medieval topsoil, but quite a lot of earlier (such as medieval) material still made it in. For example, sherds (pieces) of green-glaze pottery, which was a distinctly medieval type of pottery and always delightful to find shining out of the surrounding earth. However, we also found shells of mussel, whelk, clam, and oyster in addition to fish, sheep, and cattle bone which had all accumulated both within the soil and rubble walls separating it. Occasionally finds would be uncovered that warranted particular care and a designated number, for example iron nails, lead pieces, and worked stone (see below).
One feature that stood out to me was a square hole within one of the walls we were clearing. When we cleared it out, we found not only that the hole continued internally into the wall it was found in, but contained a partial chicken skeleton. We had no idea how it got there and the last I asked of the site leaders, they had no idea either.
As well as uncovering and bagging these finds, we had to understand how to process them. Away from site at the Durham Botanic Gardens, we learned how to properly clean each object and categorise them in a way that would be useful to laboratory workers and anyone else who may need to handle them. These days also served as a good way to relax a bit more and take a proper look at what we had found on site.
What has been outlined above was my personal experience of working on an excavation, more information on both the Auckland Project and what has been found/done at the site can be found below:
About the Auckland Project
Durham Archaeology Auckland Castle Excavation 2021 Twitter page:
My name is Ellie Rylance and I have just completed my second year of the Archaeology and Ancient Civilisations course. This summer is set to be the most eventful of my degree yet; I have just completed a training excavation at Auckland Castle, and will be on a placement in August with the Durham Museum of Archaeology. I am also beginning to conduct work for my dissertation.
I started this day with an incredibly important activity, greeting my cat Luna. She is shown below for your appreciation.
I then headed out to pick up some things I was going to need; namely some flint and some example stone tools. On the agenda was some flintknapping.
You see, for my dissertation I am planning to determine the likelihood that Neanderthals may have utilised traps to acquire small prey. To do that, I’ve been conducting analysis to determine what small prey Neanderthals exploited and what traps could be used to catch these. My next step is to conduct some experimental archaeology to attempt to create these traps using resources that would have been available to Neanderthals and then ethically test them using proxies for live prey.
To do this as authentically as possible, my aim is to create some basic stone tools with which to make the traps and snares. My plan, then, was to get some practice in and perhaps even produce something I might be able to use for my investigation.
I was supervised by my father, who is qualified in primitive technology. Though they aren’t visible in these pictures, we did have safety equipment such as gloves and goggles available. And yes, that is a replica of the Snettisham torc in the background of the first picture – a little (!) outside the period I’m looking at, but it was there anyway.
Though the flint we were using was not of ideal quality, some of it being quite brittle and having difficult inclusions, we still produced some simple tools. Neanderthals did more complex techniques (including the Levallois technique, which involved the production of a prepared core) but I wanted to keep the tools as simple as possible to make them easier to produce, and to show that these snares and traps can be produced with simple tools.
I produced some small tools like the simple scraper above. You can see the bulb of percussion just under my thumb, which provides a good gripping point when holding the tool and is useful to help archaeologists determine if a piece of flint was worked and refit pieces of flint to reconstruct the knapping process. We also produced some more irregular flakes which could still be used as scrapers, as demonstrated by my dad below – you can see just how sharp it is!
We also found some very interesting inclusions, including what appears to be a fossilised piece of twig!
I learned a lot doing flintknapping – including just how difficult it is and how much planning it takes even without pre-preparing a core. I also managed to produce some quite useful flakes and scrapers to use in my experimental investigations and will surely produce more!
Thank you for joining me in my day in the life, I hope you found it interesting! Please do check out the other days in the life if you haven’t already and stay tuned for the ones that will be following mine.
As a PhD student, rapidly approaching the final stages of my project, a typical day is often spent hibernating in my home office, furiously typing away and desperately attempting to finish data processing. Fortunately for both you, reader, and for my own sanity, I occasionally emerge from the depths of my dreary writing isolation to engage with the real world of archaeology for a little while. At the time of writing, yesterday was one such day where I resurfaced, blinking in the cold light of the “outdoors” to help a fellow PhD student, Beverley Still, with her fieldwork in the North Pennines.
6:30am: An early start, both as I have a little bit of travelling to do this morning and as I feel giddy from the excitement of finally being on a real archaeological site. Due to the pandemic, it’s been nearly 2 years since I last stepped foot on an excavation, so I feel a little bit like it’s my first day of school. I spend some time to check my kit, ensuring I have the essentials (food, boots, camera, and of course, a trowel), then head out.
7:40am: I get on a very quiet bus towards Crook, where I’m being picked up by another colleague, Perry Gardner, to head to site. The drive over is very scenic, and the landscape bursting with archaeology.
9:00am: Arrival on site and I’m introduced to the community archaeology group, Altogether Archaeology, who are working with Beverley on this site. I’m warmly greeted, and my role as “the photogrammetry person” is announced to the group. Photogrammetry is a method for making a 3D model, which takes a series of overlapping images at different angles around an object or feature, then uses software to build the model. Whilst this may sound simple enough, I feel a little nervous about doing this on an active excavation – my previous experience of photogrammetry has been limited to caves (where things like lighting can be easily controlled), and the bright sunny weather is going to pose some challenges. I’m sure this will be a steep learning curve.
9:30am: I’m shown around the site, and placed in the furthest trench where an interesting feature has emerged from the previous few weeks. Praying that there will be some cloud cover, and half-jokingly suggesting we all perform a rain dance, I set to work cleaning the feature in one half of the trench, as the others continue excavating in the other half. Sweeping loose sediment and removing grass (and the odd bits of sheep poo) are important to ensure the feature looks clear in the 3D model.
11:00am: Coffee break, and it dawns on me that it may take longer than I anticipated to clean. The stones in the feature make it difficult to remove loose sediment – if only there was an archaeological hoover we could bust out!
11:30am: Back to work, and my cleaning has caught the attention of a curious sheep, that comes close to the trench to supervise.
12:00pm: Aha! Some cloud cover! I enthusiastically grab my camera, remove the lens cap and… the sun is out again. No matter, I’m sure more clouds will come soon.
1:00pm: Lunch break, and I get chatting to the group. As with most community archaeology digs, it’s an eclectic group of people, from GPs to farmers. It highlights the joy of archaeology for me; its accessibility brings with it a huge diversity of perspectives on the past.
1:30pm: Back to work again! I seize the opportunity to do a little bit of excavating, whilst I’m waiting for both cloud cover and for the final corner of the trench to be ready for photogrammetry.
3:20pm: No luck with the cloud yet, and we’re running out of time! I mention to Beverley that I should get some photos soon, before the day is over. Everyone cleans up and jumps out, and I set to work taking photos. There’s no joy with the clouds, and nothing to provide adequate shade either, but we decided it’s better to have an imperfect model than none at all. The 3D model will serve as a record for this upper layer of the feature. It’s much quicker than drawing, and can be inspected in 3-dimensions later on.
4:00pm: Around 200 photos later, and I feel I’ve adequately captured all angles and aspects of the trench. Fingers crossed this turns out well in the model!
4:30pm: After packing up, we had back from site. My aching body reminds me of how long it’s been since I did any form of excavating, but it’s making me want to return back to the field soon!
7:00pm: I get back home, and start uploading the photos from today. I filter through to check for quality and select the ones that I feel will be best for the 3D model. Whilst the images need to overlap, I perhaps went a little overboard on site from the fear of missing areas, so I remove any near identical photos. After uploading them into Agisoft Metashape, I set the program to work for the evening, then take a much-needed shower! I’ll check back later on how the model is going... perhaps after food and some rest.
[FIND OUT MORE ABOUT IZZY'S RESEARCH HERE:
Hi! My name is Dr. Michelle de Gruchy. I work in the archaeology department as a postdoctoral researcher on the Climate, Landscape, Settlement and Society (CLaSS) Project funded by the EU. Within the team, my primary role is to oversee the large settlement database we are constructing, but my skills in GIS, databases, remote sensing, programming, and data visualisation are all put to work on a regular basis to help the project team achieve interim goals.
I often do multiple tasks simultaneously to meet various deadlines. Today is no exception.
9:00 I log onto my home office computer and then remotely onto my computer in the department. The computer in the department acts like my assistant – completing one set of tasks while I work on others. For the last few weeks, the computer in the department has been helping me produce a land use map that shows how every 30-meter square piece of land across the entirety of Southwest Asia was used 6000 years ago. This work is part of a global effort called Landcover6K to produce a coherent global map of land use over time. These maps will help climate modellers increase the precision of their models for forecasting future climate change.
The first step of the mapping process, a land use classification system, was already completed by the larger, global team of researchers before I joined. Since then, the regional team the CLaSS project is part of has worked out which variables we need to consider to assess the potential land use of a space. Afterall, you can’t plant an orchard or a vineyard just anywhere. The same goes for other land uses: sheep pastures, agricultural fields, etc. Certain combinations of conditions need to be met: the right rainfall, soil conditions, slope, and so on. Mapping this information allows us to see potential land use. Later we will add more traditional archaeological data (sites, features) to model actual land use 6000 years ago. But one step at a time…
Months ago, I produced a sketch map of the potential land use using GIS. In the process of making that map, we refined our workflow and classification processes. Now I am scripting that workflow in R so that it is repeatable and reproducible. The spatial scale of the work and the resolution of the data is challenging to work with. It has been a constant process of finding ways to use the computing resources I have more efficiently, getting further through the script, then discovering the method is either warping the data or the script isn’t efficient enough and trying again.
Last night the script failed when it ran out of space to store the data it was writing, so today I need to start by clearing as much space as possible from the drive before I try an alternative method. While the computer deletes and transfers files off the drive for the next hour or so, I switch computers, check my email and login into the CLaSS Twitter account to see if there is anything to like or retweet.
9:30 Meeting! During the summer, second year undergraduate students in the department gain practical experience through work placements on research projects. We have a placement student working jointly with CLaSS and the EAMENA project to locate, map, and document sites in Syria. Yesterday, she started to examine the sites with Corona satellite imagery. Corona imagery is really useful for archaeologists because it is sufficiently high resolution to see even small buildings and walls, but it dates to the Cold War, so it allows us to see the landscape as it was decades ago. It is a bit like time travel: exploring a landscape that no longer exists and sometimes seeing archaeology that is no longer present. In this case, using the Corona imagery, our placement student has been able to see and locate sites that are now underwater in the Tabqa Dam reservoir.
9:45 Back-to-back meeting! Two of us stay on the call after the last meeting. We are finalizing a paper about urbanism and need to discuss some details about the figures.
10:15 One of the figures I am making for the urbanism paper shows multiple cities from across Southwest Asia at the same scale, so readers will be able to see and compare the extent of the different cities. I could make this figure using software like Adobe Illustrator, but I am using GIS software. This way the city plans will store geographic information and can be used in future maps.
12:00 The drive on the department computer is cleared, so I open the R script for mapping land use, make some modifications that I hope will resolve the issues from yesterday and start running the first sections. Then, I switch computers and continue working on the figure by drawing another city plan.
1:00 Lunch break!
2:00 Back at my desk, I quickly the computer in the department, then start drawing the next city plan. After lunch, this sort of digitization work goes well with a podcast. Thin Edge of the Wedge is a new podcast that started during the pandemic about Mesopotamian archaeology.
3:30 The computer mapping land use has run out of space again… I call the university’s IT department to discuss various solutions and we agree that it might be time to switch from my (very good) workstation computer in the informatics lab of the department to the university’s supercomputer.
4:00 Prof. Dr. Dominik Bonatz from Freie Universität Berlin is giving a talk on Late Bronze Age and Iron Age settlement dynamics in Jordan as part of ARWA’s ongoing webinar series. ARWA is an archaeological organisation that focusses on Western and Central Asia. If you are interested, ARWA record the talks are recorded and uploaded to their YouTube Channel. The talk by Dominik Bonatz should be uploaded soon.
5:30 I read the documentation on using the university’s supercomputer. There is a dedicated section on R that recommends running numerically intensive functions in Fortran or C and only accessing them in R. I have never used Fortran or C before, but it looks like Fortran might be related to BASIC. I have used BASIC before so I might try that first. PostGIS might be another solution. I definitely cannot run my land use script as-is on the supercomputer. I’ll look into this more tomorrow and decide which is best to learn/try next.
This is going to be a bit different from other offerings in this series, in that I'm not actually employed by or studying at Durham University. I am an independent consultant operating my own consultancy, ORACLE Heritage Services. Through this, I am currently contacted to work with David Petts to help deliver the Belief in the North East (BitNE) project, focusing on the archaeology of religion throughout the north-east, by the end of 2022. Although this project will be my main work over the next 18 months, and detailed planning is now well underway, delays due mainly to covid mean that it is still to get properly up and running and realistically most project fieldwork is now likely to take place in 2022. I've been involved with BitNE from the early planning stages and I am very excited about the potential it has to deliver important results, though I am still slightly daunted as to how we will cope if all 1,400 registered volunteers decide they want to do the same thing at the same time!
Alongside BitNE, I also do lots of other things. I sometimes describe myself as an archaeological mercenary: if someone wants to pay me then I'll do it! Though increasingly, without the framework of a 'proper' job, I find myself spending far too much time on interesting things that I don't actually get paid anything for! But mustn't grumble. I seem of late to have become classified as a 'community archaeologist', though doing archaeology with local communities is something I've been doing since long before that term was invented. Through nearly three decades working for the Northumberland National Park Authority and the North Pennines AONB, I have had the good fortune to work with some brilliant professional archaeologists (including several based in Durham) and many hundreds of splendid local people to deliver numerous exciting projects. On the day I wrote this bumph, in July 2021, I have been dabbling in all of the following:
Excavations at St Botolph’s Chapel, Frosterley, in 2013/14 included the discovery of fragments of an 8th-century stone cross that go on public display in the Weardale Museum this week.
Altogether Archaeology and St Botolph's Chapel
Of all the projects I've ever worked on, I think Altogether Archaeology must be the most satisfying. It began life as a lottery-funded project based at the North Pennines AONB and has developed into an independent charity, led by a committee of committed volunteers, that continues to do excellent work, often in partnership with Durham University. Back in 2013 and 2014 we undertook excavations of the old chapel of St Botolph in Frosterley, finding, amongst many other fascinating things, an early 8th-century stone cross. These finds are now to be displayed in the Weardale Museum in Ireshopeburn and I'm currently working with museum staff on the new display. It is brilliant that the finds are to stay in Weardale, and made accessible to everyone. If you're in the area, why not pop to the museum and have a look? (But please note the opening times and admission policy shown on the website; these may change in the light of the covid situation so please ring to check before travelling any distance.)
Something else I've been working on today is a Lidar Landscapes survey of Ryedale, part of the lottery-funded Ryevitalise project based at the North Yorks Moors National Park. Lidar is an amazing way of recording archaeological landscapes. Over recent years I've worked with scores of volunteers to record extensive areas including Weardale, Teesdale and (most recently) Redesdale. It's been good work during lockdown, as most of it done by volunteers on home computers - all of whom seem to enjoy spending their evenings staring at fifty shades of grey. This year, four sites recorded during the Redesdale survey will be excavated. You can see my report on the Redesdale survey here.
Frosterley marble: natural exposure in bed of Bollihope Burn, and columns in Durham Cathedral
Another thing I've been working on during lockdown, which has become a bit of an obsession, is the story of Frosterley marble. As a resident of Frosterley, I've found myself increasingly drawn over recent months to the mystery of why this distinctive 'marble' (it isn't really marble, though it looks like it) found its way into so many medieval churches from Arbroath to Kent, in addition to its use in St Peter's Chapel at Auckland Castle and in Durham Cathedral's Chapel of the Nine Altars. Much later, after the railway arrived in the mid 19th century and the quarries around Frosterley were operated on a truly industrial scale, Frosterley marble found its way into numerous churches throughout Britain and even to India and Australia, and was also used to great effect in other public buildings and private houses. I've just returned form a walk round one of the old quarries where great blocks of Frosterley marble lie abandoned; we need to find a use for them! Back in medieval times, long before anyone understood the concept of fossils, the white corals within it must have had some kind of mystical explanation. Why else would Robert the Bruce have chosen it for his own tomb, necessitating the transport of a huge slab all the way to Dunfermline? And why was it, rather than some readily available local stone, used for the manufacture of a huge effigy of King William at Arbroath Abbey? I think perhaps I need to expand this venture from a personal obsession into a community project of some kind!
Above all else, my real archaeological passion is prehistoric rock art, in particular the 'cup-and-ring marks' of the north-east. My passion for rock art took me a few years ago to paradise: the stunningly beautiful island of La Palma in the Canaries. I have returned several times since, usually in November or February, when the North Pennines can be a tad damp and chilly. Best known for its telescopes, and little visited by Brits, it has some of the most stunning rock art to be seen anywhere. Earlier today I began working on a presentation for the 'Postcard from the Past' series currently being produced by Durham staff and students; it is about the rock art of La Palma, and how we might use it to develop some new ideas about our own fabulous rock art. I hope you enjoy it if you get to see it.
That's more than enough waffle for now - it was only meant to be 500 words! If anything here is of interest and you'd like to discuss it then please feel free to contact me via the Belief in the North East project website.
I’m Dr David Petts, an Associate Professor in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University. I’m a specialist in the archaeology of early medieval Britain, with a particular interest in the emergence of the early church and its impact on society in this period. I’m also working increasingly on the archaeology of the contemporary world (20th and 21st century). As I’ve spent a lot of time excavating on Holy Island/Lindisfarne I’m getting particularly interested in the archaeology of coastal landscapes and seascapes of all periods in Britain.
As a lecturer my work can be broadly divided into three broad categories – teaching (undergraduates and post-graduates, including supervising PhD students), research (I’m currently tying up a couple of papers for publication and planning a new book) and broader administrative tasks (I lead the Admissions team for our Department, and I’ve also been coordinating our Festival of Archaeology activity in the Department). You can a sense of the wider range of tasks our job involves in the diagram below.
Obviously, our precise work pattern varies each day and according to the time of year. As term has finished, the bulk of our teaching is done, although we are still supervising our PhD and Masters students. Yesterday I caught up with my PhD supervisee Christina Smith, by Zoom. She is doing some ground-breaking work on early medieval standing stone crosses and tackling the challenges of researching during a period when many museums and resources are shut or have limited access. I also spent time reading through a chapter sent to me by my PhD student Max Ratcliffe, who is just in the final stages of completing his thesis on lead tanks in Roman and early medieval Britain. I still need to catch up with some of my other students in the next couple of days. In the past, this would have been done face-to-face, but this year most of our supervisions have been via Zoom or Teams.
The last couple of days have also been taken up with the Festival of Archaeology. I’ve been organising our Departmental involvement in this annual national event. In practice, this has involved everything from building this website, chasing people for contributions, editing video submissions and uploading them on to Youtube – last night I also chaired a lecture by one of our recent PhD students, Emma Watson. I also spent some time preparing for a walking tour of Durham I’m doing with the Durham Archaeology Explorers club on Saturday. I had to pull together an activity sheet, and make sure our Risk Assessment had reached the relevant places in the University.
As with any job, there are always endless emails. Looking through my inbox from yesterday I can see that I was dealing with correspondence about a meeting with a commercial archaeological unit about how a video they are producing about their fieldwork can best be structured to support university students, liaising with colleagues in Wales about a possible research collaboration, chasing (and being chased) colleagues about changes in our teaching infranet which will need dealing with, arranging a meeting with the Chartered Institute for Archaeologist about professional accreditation of university degrees, and moving forward plans for exploring how our curriculum might be decolonised. There was also some chat with a colleague in Edinburgh about a forthcoming conference and scope for collaboration.
I also found a little time to do some research! We are producing a major interim report for the archaeological excavation we’ve been doing on Lindisfarne with my fantastic collaborators DigVentures, so I read a couple of journal papers on recent work on early medieval monastic sites.
Finally, I pulled together a proposal for a contribution to a book on teaching contemporary archaeology, and I’m psyching myself up to propose a paper at a conference on Mont St Michel – but it needs to be in French, which is an extra challenge! A busy day- but I’ve had busier – like a lot of school children, my son is currently social isolating at home, so there’s been the usual round of domestic chivvying, making sure he was set up for his internet lessons etc. Lots to look forward to in the coming days though- a trip up to Vindolanda next week- and then some leave, before the excitement of A levels results day and lots of work dealing with this.
A Day in the Life of the Palaeoenvironmental Lab: Dr Charlotte O'Brien, Environmental Laboratories Manager
I’m Charlotte OBrien, and I manage the Palaeoenvironmental Section of Archaeological Services, the commercial unit within the Archaeology Department. I’m based in the Palaeoenvironmental Lab on the ground floor, along with two other members of the team, Lorne Elliott and Carrie Armstrong.
The lab is always a hub of activity where both commercial and research projects are undertaken. At one end of the lab is the wet processing area, which has several large sinks for washing finds and soil samples. Today, one of our assistant project archaeologists, Rebecca Hercock, is processing soil from a developer-funded excavation near Bailiffgate in Alnwick. She washes the soil samples over a fine sieve before placing them in the drying ovens. Tomorrow, when dry, they will be carefully sorted for seeds and charcoal, and any additional finds, particularly smaller remains such as fish and bird bones, flint, beads and metal-working residues.
The projects room adjoining this lab is where we do the specialised microscope work. It houses several reference collections, including seeds, charcoal and snails, which we use for detailed identifications and in turn, help us provide information about past landscapes and how people interacted with their environment. Between us, Lorne, Carrie and I have over 35 years of experience in this line of work, covering a full range of archaeological sites from across the UK and beyond.
Today, I’m looking at charcoal fragments from a Roman settlement at Hurworth near Darlington, which was excavated in advance of a housing development. Under the high-powered microscope, it is possible to see that different woods have their own individual patterns of vessel arrangements, which allows me to identify them to species. The charcoal from this site comes from ditches, pits, a corn-drying kiln and cremation burials, so the analysis should show which types of wood were used for structural purposes compared to those used as fuelwoods for cremations or drying crops prior to storage and milling.
Next to me, Lorne is working on samples from a medieval site on South Bailey, in the heart of Durham City, and in particular, he is looking at tiny charred and mineral-replaced plant remains. Interestingly, amongst the nutshell, fruitstone and cereal remains, he is finding small fragments of seaweed. In the past, seaweed had a range of uses including food, fodder, preservative and as a fertiliser. One idea we have now is that these are remains of pig manure, but further research is needed.
Carrie is looking at samples taken from a dig at Upper Mountjoy, located on the site of Durham University’s new Mathematical Sciences and Computer Science building. Although the focus is on a series of enclosures dating to the Iron Age and Roman periods, some of the artefacts indicate there was occupation over 1000 years earlier, during the Bronze Age. Carrie is picking out suitable nutshells, seeds and charcoal for radiocarbon dating, so that we can establish a firm timescale for the site. She will be posting these to the radiocarbon lab in Glasgow and we should have the results in 10 weeks’ time.
Currently working at home in my attic, so the laptop goes on and I patch straight into my PC in the office to access the more specialist software that I use daily.
Tea made, emails checked, what are my priorities for the day?
Finishing off mapping figures for a desk-based assessment (DBA) based in Newcastle. This requires incredibly accurate location of historic OS maps, tithe maps, building plans, and mapping that can date back to the 1500s. Instead of trowels and gloves, my tools are AutoCAD Map 3D, QGIS and Adobe Photoshop. We are constantly evolving with new techniques, new software and new hardware. Any changes required can be done remotely through Teams and marked-up pdfs.
Next job is Geophysics figures. No longer in the UK or in fact Europe. My new job is based in Nepal. An understanding of Geodetics and co-ordinate systems comes in handy when you need to geo-reference all of the work. Newly developed systems allow the geophysicists to hand me their greyscales and interpretations in one program and I take them into another to produce the figures to send to the client. Our work in Archaeological Services is both commercial and research-based. One day the client can be a housing developer, the next day it could be Historic England.
Figures sorted and off to the report writer. It’s all teamwork, we each have specialist areas that combine to produce high quality work.
Another colleague contacts me with connection/software issues. Part of my role is software/IT trouble-shooter. I try and fix issues quickly without the need to escalate them to CIS. A curious mind and love of problem solving means I can often help out and get colleagues back on track without having to wait too long.
A flint and some pottery drawings are required for a publication. The laptop is moved and out come the pencils, ink, profile gauges and other specialist tools. Finds drawing requires a steady hand and a good eye as well as the ability to scale. Once the finds are sorted, I can scan, clean and set them up in their own figures.
A request comes in for a file to be created for the GPS so the Field Staff can start their trenching tomorrow. This is set this up remotely and sent to the office to upload onto the GPS handset.
Last request of the day before I finish at 1pm. Can a new proposed development plan be added to the project? Are any changes required? Yes, the client has moved the development slightly. I can move a trench to the new area, checking that it is nowhere near any utilities and send it directly to field staff who can update their GPS and act immediately.
Teamwork and the right tools are as vital in the office as they are in the field.