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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.