Final meeting of 2017

Final meeting of 2017

We met one last time on the 23rd at the Scottish Fisheries Museum. Just a few members made it so close to Christmas: Andrew, Campbell, Daniel, Elspeth, Fraser and Keziah.

We sorted and cleaned bone excavated in Dunfermline Abbey Graveyard, helped again by Skelly and Stan.

Stan looking a bit tired
Stan looking a bit tired

It’s fine for Skelly, he lies on his back the whole time, but poor Stan hangs around, standing for the entire two hours, being poked about by YAC members.

We sorted trays of clean, dry bone fragment by type and then bagged them up. Inevitably we were left with a small number of unidentified specimens, some of which are likely to turn out to be animal. We were pretty sure that there were at least bits of chicken and pig bone to add to a growing assemblage of non-human bone.

About to bag sorted bone
About to bag sorted bone
Bagging up the sorted bone
Bagging up the sorted bone
Niamh being cheerful
Niamh being cheerful, while Stan rests the top of his head on the table
Not quite sure what's going on here
A demonstration of how not to sit on a chair

At the other end of the table a group of cleaners got on with that. We have excavated a lot of broken glass over the months, much of it thick, bottle glass. Some is just plain, but other pieces are coated in a gold paint of some sort.

Cleaners cleaning
Cleaners cleaning

This tends to come away very easily, especially when the glass is wet, so we cleaned gently with damp toothbrushes.

Cleaning and sorting glass
Cleaning and sorting glass
Carefully cleaning glass
Carefully cleaning glass

We also got on with cleaning some of the smaller bone fragments that we have excavated over the last few months. Some of these pieces will be too fragmented and damaged to identify, but there are likely to be more teeth, smaller human bones such as distal phalanges, and animal bones amongst them.

Cleaning bone fragments
Cleaning bone fragments

 

Archaeologists in captivity: state-of-the-art conservation or animal cruelty?

We released our herd of archaeologists into a small reserve in Dunfermline Abbey Graveyard (Fig. 1) on Saturday, really just to get an idea of just how well they will settle into a purpose built facility. Aisling took all of the photographs you see below.

The enclosure is small, but carefully designed to keep archaeologists of all ages engaged and interested, encouraging them to behave as they would in the wild. While this approach to conservation remains controversial, it does allow members of the public to observe natural behaviour at close quarters and perhaps come to appreciate and better-understand these colourful creatures before it is too late.

Keeping Archaeologists behind very thin bars
Fig. 1 Keeping Archaeologists behind very thin bars

In common with other species dependent on a largely beer-based diet, adult archaeologists spend much of their time resting. Even so, some inquisitive individuals took an interest in the camera (Fig. 2) and even seemed to perform to it on occasion.

The group is at ease.
Fig. 2 The herd spends most of the time resting.

A real test of the purpose-built environment came when we added a new individual into the group (Fig. 3). With plenty of room to excavate quietly, the newcomer was soon joined by both adult and juvenile archaeologists, and accepted as a  member of herd.

Nifty trowel work, only just caught by the camera.
Fig. 3 Nifty trowel work, only just caught by the camera.

In Figure 4 we see an example of how members of the herd began to modify elements of the environment to make it more to their liking. This adult is extending a trench, probably in the hope of exposing more of a wall-like feature that could be seen in the trench edge.

Extending a trench.
Fig. 4 Extending a trench.

The archaeological young are generally more active and playful than the adults, perhaps in part thanks to a sugar-rich diet. At this age, whilst they are keen to explore, the spoil heap seems to have a special attraction (Fig. 5).

Attempting to achieve optimal sieving altitude.
Fig. 5 Young archaeologists learning to achieve optimal sieving altitude.

Figures 6 and 7 illustrate a common archaeological parenting strategy. Supervised by one or more of the adults, these vulnerable juvenile archaeologists remain safely concealed in small test pits about 1.5m square. Here they develop the trowelling skills they will come to rely on when fully grown.

Two young archaeologists practise trowelling in the safety of their test pit.
Fig. 6 Two young archaeologists practise trowelling in the safety of their test pit.
Young archaeologists like to keep their trench edges tidy.
Fig. 7 Young archaeologists like to keep their trench edges straight and tidy.

The herd takes communal responsibility for the young, allowing parents to leave the group to go on extended foraging trips. In Figure 8 an adult, probably a male, has adopted the “crouched pose”; showing to the herd that he is watching over one of the youngsters.

Note how the adult has removed a glove and displays his bare hand. We believe this is intended to reassure the young archaeologist, perhaps indicating that the adult is not a threat and will not steal any finds.

Archaeologists in captivity are now a common site in British towns
Fig. 8 Archaeologists in captivity are becoming a common site in British towns

The classic behaviour that everyone hopes to witness is the excavation of a find, followed by excited examination and sharing. Research has exposed as myth the old idea that archaeologists will only respond to centuries old artefacts. Whilst it is true that individuals often show clear preferences, we now know that any old tat will do, even old crisp packets or juice cans, just so long as artefacts are recovered by excavation.

The hypnotic effect of a find on the bearded archaeologist. He is now at his most vulnerable.
Fig. 9 The hypnotic effect of a find on the bearded archaeologist. He is now at his most vulnerable to predation.

In this sequence of photos we observe several find-related behaviours. First, the almost ecstatic response of an individual to even a small and quite rubbishy find (Fig. 9).

Next, comes the  “putting it back together” behaviour (Fig. 10). This can sometimes occupy small groups of specialist archaeologists for months or even years.

Suddenly the pieces fall into place
Fig. 10 Suddenly the pieces fall into place

Finally we see evidence of the first stage of finds hoarding (Fig. 11), with artefacts brought together in protective, tray-like receptacles. This preliminary stage is often followed by cleaning, sorting and bagging of related finds together.  Eventually most finds are deposited in large boxes and hoarded for many years. As with many aspects of archaeologist behaviour, we still have  no idea what lies behind these complex, almost ritualistic, behaviours.

This ulna was carefully excavated by a young archaeologist.
Fig. 11 This ulna was carefully excavated by a young archaeologist.

Along side the exposure of old bits of structure and the recovery of artefacts, archaeologists like to draw the things they find. To this end they have developed complex, symbiotic relationships with otherwise inanimate species such as the plane table, alidade and tripod (Fig. 12 and 13).

This elderly, one-eyed archaeologist kneels and offers his shiny tooth to the holy alidade, completely ignored by the young archaeologist.
Fig. 12 This elderly, one-eyed archaeologist kneels and seems to show his shiny tooth to the “holy” alidade, while the young archaeologist reverently averts his gaze .

Again, these little studied behaviours have an almost ritualistic quality to them, but presumably provided some evolutionary advantage in the past, before much of these creatures’ habitat was lost.

The ritual of the tape and pole, never before captured on camera.
Fig. 13 The “ritual” of the tape and pole, never before captured on camera.

It would be misleading to suggest that our experiment in Dunfermline was an unqualified success. We observed some aggressive behaviour in the bearded archeologist (Fig. 14). Perhaps with a little more space and access to a confectioner who stocks chewing gum, this outburst might have been avoided. Fortunately none of the young were injured.

The alpha archaeologist asserts his authority and demands chewing gum.
Fig. 14 The alpha archaeologist asserts his authority and demands chewing gum.

A less obvious negative behaviour was observed in a young member of the herd (Fig. 15). His dance-like moves have only been observed in archaeologists in captivity. They are thought to indicate rising stress, here caused by a lack of spoil-filled buckets to sieve. A slight adjustment to the environment might be all that is needed to restore balance.

The young archaeologist has learnt to dance for passers-by.
Fig. 15 The young archaeologist has learnt to dance for passers-by.

There were miscalculations setting up the spoil heap area of the enclosure. The young archaeologist in Figure 16 spent an extended time at the summit. Descending too quickly,  she suffered the archaeological equivalent of the bends and spent several minutes in painful spasm. She recovered quickly and is none the worse for her experience, but we will need to knock a few centimetres from the spoil heap to avoid a repetition.

The physiological effects of high altitude sieving can be extreme.
Fig. 16 The physiological effects of high altitude sieving can be disturbing to witness.

The most surprising behaviour was witnessed in one of the adults. At first glance the archaeologist in Figure 17 seems to be excavating quite contentedly. In reality she is digging an escape tunnel, demonstrating a hitherto unexpected intelligence.

Working on escape tunnel number two.
Fig. 17 Excavating or working on an escape tunnel?

All in all, the brief trial proved to be a useful exercise. We were able to observe some characteristic archaeological behaviours at close quarters. Most of the herd took well to their temporary home, despite the exceptions outlined above. With lessons learnt and a deeper appreciation of these remarkable creatures gained, the next step is to make a few adjustments to the enclosure and then to reintroduce the archaeologists for a more extended period, perhaps overnight.

Has this archaeologist noticed his captivity?
Fig. 18 Is the moving expression on this archaeologist’s face a realisation of captivity?

It is premature to claim that our brief experiment has answered the many criticisms of members of those who claim that it is simply not possible to devise an archaeological environment both humane and confined (Fig. 18). However, it is difficult to deny the promise shown by the Dunfermline experience.