Sunday, 31 August 2014

Hidden landscapes

It is the time of the year when archaeology is properly on the menu in the newspapers and the current online papers are no exception. This August had more news from the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project in the Daily Mail. The University of Birmingham team headed by Professor Vince Gaffney together with the Austrian Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology have ‘unearthed’ 15 new monuments using geophysical methods.

Visitors in the late 19th century

Vince with his brother is an old hand not only in geophysics but all prospection and surveying methods. Knowing him, it is a great joy that their project has been successful – considering how volatile the position of archaeology at Birmingham has lately been. Now the study of 6 square kilometres has revealed new henges in addition to the more expected late Neolithic pits, barrows and ditches. However, some of the features are so large and relate to the previously known monuments, such as the Cursus, that they must have had special meanings.

Such is a case with a huge pit, laying at the eastern end of the Cursus, that has been interpreted as relating to the rituals at the Solstice. The 4.5-metre-diameter pit also was laying in the path of the rising sun at the Solstice. This pit forms a triangle with another pit, laying on the path of the sun going down below the horizon, and Stonehenge. Naturally, without an excavation the team cannot say what is there in the pits. Were they fire pits or offering sites? It is known that pits were important for Neolithic practices (see Garrow 2006), so they may just have spent time ritually digging large pits.

Nevertheless, the real story is that geophysics were used to draw a new archaeological map. This is not a novelty: Roman Towns project has been doing it for whole millennium near Rome in places like Falerii Novi (Keay et al. 2000) and Portus (Keay et al. 2005). Here the methods used were magnetometer and ground penetrating radar - the latter technology being successfully used at Volterra as well. The Ludvig Noltzmann web site gives an abridged description how the project was run over five years. However, the catch is that these are interpretations. The validation and verification – crucially with dating - comes only with excavation. In any case, awesome results.

  • Garrow, D. 2006. Pits, settlement and deposition during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age in East Anglia (British Archaeological Reports British Series 414). Oxford: John & Erica Hedges.
  • Keay, S., Millett, M., Poppy, S., Robinson, J., Taylor, J. and Terrenato, N. 2000. Falerii Novi: a New Survey of the Walled Area. Papers of the British School at Rome 68: 1–93.
  • Keay, S., Millett, M., Paroli, L. and Strutt, K., eds. 2005. Portus: an archaeological survey of the port of imperial Rome (Archaeological monographs of the British School at Rome 15). London: British School at Rome.
  • Sunday, 24 August 2014

    Diet fit for a king

    The fascination of the whole Richard III find is that here you have a skeleton who belongs to a known individual – with a(n) (in)fame. Nobody would have been interested for Tutankhamen, if he had not come with a treasure, since he was just an almost disappeared footnote in the history. Richard III is something else. With the story of the princes in the Tower, Shakespeare’s lines and Josephine Tey’s detective story, there is an individual all English have heard about and the foreigners have an inkling of.

    Richard III (National Portrait Gallery)

    Now the team from the British Geological Survey in collaboration with the University of Leicester team have studied the bone chemistry of Richard III’s bones and found out that – he ate like a king. Not really the greatest surprise on the planet, but the foods he ate reflect the times he lived in. Different levels of isotopes, such as oxygen, strontium, nitrogen and carbon, revealed that he ate high protein diet that had changed remarkably after he became king in 1483. The news is not without historical data, since the results of scientific test have been compared to the documents, such as the menu of his coronation banquet.

    The oxygen isotopes actually suggested that Richard III had lived in the fartherst south-west of England, an area were London is not known to be located. Different stable isotope markers fitted that area best. The researchers started to wonder if the discrepancy originated from the fact that he was not drinking water, the source of oxygen. The researchers concluded that the king was downing up to a litre of wine every day. The fact that was the main ‘meat’ in the popular news stories in the papers. Instead the real news is that the different drinks and foods skew the interpretation of isotope data. Would a continued San Pellegrino habit result with an interpretation that the person lived in Italy?

    However, the fact that fish and wildfowl were not considered meat is fascinating. During the times when religious observances required fasting – up to a third of the year – the [higher status] people had come up with a way to have some whiter meats on the table. Keeping a king in fish, species such as pike were cultivated in fish tanks – a landscape feature in places such as Braybrooke Castle in Northamptonshire where breeding tanks are part of the earthworks among the buried remains of the Medieval moated manor house. The fowl included heron and egret, not widely eaten today. Richard’s coronation dinner included also rarer delicacies, such as peacock. Naturally, the royal swan was regularly on table as well.

    Sunday, 17 August 2014

    Volterra through lens

    The field school of the Stockholm University in Volterra turned out to be so intensive I had absolutely no time for my blog. Those days I was not teaching, I was planning teaching, having meetings with other teachers and taking care of other research matters. One also has to keep contact with family at home and eat and sleep, so blogging was the thing that had to give.

    One of our sites of photogrammetry

    In this field school I participated in or ran single-handedly teaching of three different elements: photogrammetry with Agisoft, archive and library research and GIS. All are important parts of the archaeological research and give important skills to the students. Since I was in Volterra for this purpose for the first time, the workload was greater if I had been there for the first school ever in 2013. The experience was very giving and the people lovely, so it was an honour to teach such a talented group that consisted of people of different ages and backgrounds from four different institutions of higher education.

    The part I perhaps enjoyed most were the photogrammetry sessions during the first week of the two week course. However, library sessions were also memorable, since we could see some of the treasures of the library, including the miniature portrait that was recently suggested to have been partly created by Leonardo da Vinci, and find out more about the earlier research of the monuments near which our group has carried out studies using georadar. In the future, building stadsGIS will grow in importance, even if now we are just starting.

    Due to the pedagogical focus of the photogrammetry, we could not follow the same schedule as the main groups carrying out georadar studies and related GPS measuments. Due to the time constraints and changing conditions, we had to choose smaller monuments and photograph only in the morning. This meant that we could photograph two of the facades of the main structures at the sites, since the sun was shining directly to the camera or there were too many tourists to concentrate on our work. However, I managed to photograph the sites for the coming week: one in a Sunday afternoon when the lighting was optimal and the other on the Ferragosto morning at 7am when the site was deserted, albeit a priest opening the church door.

    Students carrying out recording duties

    The work I did with the students was directed more towards the visualisation than any other archaeological purpose. I can hardly wait to try to lay a model together with a time slice from the georadar prospection. Nevertheless, the students seemed to get the idea considering the successful independent modelling with some help from my colleague who was available for the task. There were issues, but they were mainly related to the particulars of the programme and how it calculates the models. The models themselves came out fine in the end and the wrong choices just added to the pedagogical experience. With students’ helpful feedback, there is room for improvement and even better classes, if needed!