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.

Change

In the autumn Dunfermline YAC started to hold one meeting a month in the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther. Anstruther isn’t in Dunfermline, so I suppose that means that Dunfermline YAC isn’t really just Dunfermline YAC any more. To reflect this change we have moved our blog to a new URL: http://yac-fife.org. Hopefully see you there some time.

The Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther
The Scottish Fisheries Museum

A meeting of YAC indoors in the Scottish Fisheries Museum

We met in the relative warmth of the Scottish Fisheries Museum on Saturday. Our task was to continue processing bone fragments from the Dunfermline excavation.

The disturbance and study of human remains is an ethical nightmare for archaeology. Our excavation in the old Dunfermline Burgh graveyard hasn’t disturbed any intact burials and hopefully never will. The bone we find has already well churned and broken up by previous activities; reuse of burial plots and the great rubble laying event of the 1920’s.

Even so, we are obligated to treat human remains with respect and to reinter when we eventually backfill. Whether or not our study of these remains counts as treating with respect I am not completely sure, though it is certainly much less disrespectful than their past treatment within the graveyard.

We split into teams, each with a tray of unsorted, cleaned bone and began to sort. Henry had brought along two life-sized plastic skeletons to help us match fragments up with complete bones.

An evil YAC leader handles human remains with care and respect, but not the camera
An experienced archaeologist handles human remains with care and respect, but not the camera

Even with the help of our plastic and very flexible friends identification proved tricky in some cases. We soon realised that there was animal bone mixed with the human bone, something we had noticed before in the graveyard. We tentatively identified cattle and chicken bone along with various other mystery creatures.

Where did this bit go?
Where did this bit go?

That said, with a bit of practise members were soon picking out the more easily identifiable fragments. That is not to say that certain individuals (especially leaders) got completely fixated with trying to identify a few of the strangest fragments.

Sorting bone by species and broad type
Sorting bone by species and broad type
Picking over the bones
Picking over the bones
Bone selection
Bone selection
Identifying a bone fragment
Hmmmm
Making a new friend
Making a new friend

We spent the second half of the session cleaning bone with toothbrushes and lolly sticks. We learned what it is to clean with luke-warm water and found it to be very good. It’ll to be tough going back to cold water.

Gentle bone scrubbing
Gentle bone brushing …

The key to cleaning is to be gentle with the bone being worked on. Especially where the surface has gone, it is so easy to clean way parts of the bone itself.

Hands that are warm!
… with warm hands and a toothbrush!

The clean bones were placed in trays to be allowed to dry out before they too are sorted and added to the assemblage of bone ready for study.

Plastic Stan, the skeletal man, supervises cleaning
Plastic Stan, the skeleton, supervises cleaning

Meanwhile, the sorted bone was bagged up and labelled, with one or two curiosities still being puzzled over when it was time to pack up and head off.

Still trying to figure out what's that bone
Still trying to figure out what’s that bone

How to get cold in a graveyard: No. 16

To continue our occasional series, we’ll take a look at activities intended to chill the extremities without excessive risk of hypothermia.

Archaeological fieldwork presents many opportunities to get cold. Our own efforts to feel the chill have mostly taken place in the old town graveyard beside Dunfermline Abbey. It’s a great spot; north facing and sheltered from the sun for much of the year. That said, you can try out the ideas described below on almost any dig site in Scotland.

Sieving cold, wet soil

A great activity, almost guaranteed to chill the feet, is sieving. If you forget your gloves, or they get damp from poking about in the wet soil, cold hands are a fairly safe bet too.

Miniature archaeologists instinctively take advantage of high ground
Miniature archaeologists instinctively take advantage of high ground

Ideally you’ll be so absorbed in hunting for bits of bone, rusty nails and the like that you won’t notice the chill gradually extending from the tips of your toes and fingers, till you have achieved the dull ache of the uncomfortably cold.

Happiness is a sieve and a bucket-full of graveyard dirt!
Happiness is a sieve and a bucket-full of graveyard dirt!

If you must wear gloves, remember to keep them thin, ideally made of acrylic and very pervious. All the while, remain as still as you can. Unfortunately one of the “cool” team will have to warm up collecting buckets of soil from the trenches, but the rest of you will be satisfyingly icy in no time.

We sieve and we sieve
We sieve and we sieve

Excavation

Some of you will have to excavate in order to generate the raw material for sieving. Try to avoid any unnecessary mattocking or shovelling, you will stand little chance of achieving a sustainable, cold temperature. If you really must, then you could try wearing far-too-warm clothes. Build up an unhealthy sweat that you can exploit to achieve rapid chilling. Just strip off a layer or two once done shovelling and switch to sieving. The problem comes in trying to limit the inevitable temperature drop to your hands and feet.

Even when trowelling, there is a natural and regrettable tendency to settle into a work rate sufficiently vigorous to prevent cooling of the hands. We are also encouraged to kneel on protective and, alas, insulating mats. You will really have to keep to a slow trowelling rhythm with frequent pauses, perhaps with the palms of your hands pressed against the cold earth.

Widened trench with root
Widened trench with root

As trenches get deep enough to enter you will encounter a further obstacle to achieving a decent drop in temperature, as you become increasingly sheltered from the chilling wind.

Notice in the next photo how the experienced leader crouches on her mat, maximising surface area exposed to the cold wind. The posture stretches the knees of her trousers tight against her legs, so minimising their insulating properties. To balance, her bare fingers are pressed against a cold, damp gravestone. By contrast the inexperienced YAC member is unnecessarily well sheltered and relies on remaining as still as possible and the advantage of small size.

Do you think some of those finds might be stones?
Do you think some of those finds might be stones?

Below the group is joined by another YAC member. She has already learned to keep her head above trench height and to remove her hood.

A lesson in trowelling technique
A lesson in trowelling technique

Our next photograph demonstrates mixed success. True the YAC’ers have bare heads above the tench sides, but they are far too close to each other to lose heat effectively and they were working far more quickly than they needed.

A test pit made for two
A test pit made for two

Finally, we observe two members keeping out of the trench and so exposed to the chill breeze. Both have bare heads and one has given up a kneeling posture in order to maximise cooling to the feet.

Where did you put that headstone?
Where did you put that headstone? Carry on to the end of the post to find out!

Planning

An activity that could have been purpose-designed to make hands cold! It allows the planners to stand quite still for long periods, it is easier to draw without gloves, the ranging rod is metal, so fingers tend to get cold even with gloves on and the more people involved, the less each has to do and the more standing around in the cold there is! Finally, every mistake can end in remeasuring and drawing, so rewarding sloppy work and careful checking.

Planning on the Plane Table
Planning on the Plane Table

The Building Site Strategy

Lastly lets take a look at a technique borrowed, like so much in archaeological fieldwork, from the building industry. Studies have conclusively demonstrated that a thing archaeologists enjoy even better than actually doing fieldwork is to stand around discussing it. We at YAC have a huge advantage over the grownups here: we can’t stand around for hours at a time in the archaeologist’s natural habitat, the pub across the road.

This strategy works well with bare hands; ideally out of pockets and used gently to add emphasis, or to point at things. Try to stand in as chilly a spot as you can, ideally in a cold puddle, without unnecessary toe movement.

You will probably be wondering how the old chap on the left expects to get cold hands while holding what looks like a hot, takeaway coffee. What you can’t see is that the coffee has been left to stand long enough to go quite cold. This experienced old codger is exploiting extreme feelings of guilt that force him to finish the icy beverage, thoughtfully purchased as it was by an esteemed colleague.

Pretending to be on a building site
Pretending to be on a building site

In Conclusion

I can’t over-emphasise enough just how incredibly important it is to be as tiny, small as you can manage, for these and all other cold inducing activities. Poor circulation is also a great boon and simply achieved by the over-committed.

Photo Credits

Our photos this week were taken mostly by Olivia and Aisling. Not only did they do a fantastic job, but they achieved impressively cold hands, especially Olivia, who held the camera with a metal body.

Here are a few of the portrait shots they took of certain leaders, included here as a warning to us all.

Portrait 1
Portrait 1
Portrait 2
Portrait 2
Portrait 3
Portrait 3

 

And Finally …

A fantastic turnout today, plenty of “old hands” and four new members too! Everyone worked wonderfully, rewarding us (alas, not till all the YAC members had gone home) with the revelation of most of the top of the southern gravestone! Well done to everyone who contributed to it’s exposure. Clearly we have another double, with no inscription, at least on the top surface. Invisible ink? Evidence of a secret society in 19th century Dunfermline?

Double Low Marker
Look what we found!

Another Saturday, Same Old Graveyard

“Get up to much last weekend?”

“Oh, had a good time in the graveyard on Saturday thanks. You?”

“You what?”

People who know us well will know what we mean, even if they still think that “a good time” in a graveyard sounds a bit wrong. To strangers and casual acquaintances there follows an explanation that includes some or all of the following elements:

  • Archaeology;
  • Not deep enough for coffins or skeletons;
  • Just fragments of bone;
  • No treasure, mostly rubbish, some gravestones;
  • Yes, gravestones under the ground;
  • Young Archeologists’ Club;
  • Yes, young people, children;
  • Yes, in a graveyard. It’s fun!

It’s probably something that most people would have to try for themselves to really get just how absorbing it is to explore the jumbled and churned last resting place of Dunfermline’s past citizens.

Anyway, enough of that; what did Aisling, Alexander, Brodie, Campbell, Ella, Fraser,  Kathryn, Lee and Olivia actually get up to?

We continued to work in the eastern test pit and will attempt to continue down through the rubble that supports George Watt’s low marker.

Bottom levelling
Bottom levelling

So far we haven’t found anything as exciting as gravestone fragments or porcelain roses, but we do have more clear evidence that at least some stones were reset into the supporting rubble in the 1920’s.

Test Pit, Profile
Test Pit, Profile (again)

We have been working on this site for well over a year now and exposure to the air is allowing moss to colonise the stones exposed by excavation, so we are cleaning them before they get too bad. In future we will need to cover trenches with a water-permeable fabric to keep out the light while we’re not working.

Big Brush, Little Brush Yoga
Big Brush, Little Brush Yoga

As ever, we continue to sieve spoil for missed finds. Small nails and teeth are fairly common finds. We have had more members attending recently and so have put a lot more effort into sieving.

Summit of the spoil heap
Summit of the spoil heap

Some members find the work very calming. Mindful sieving?

While one sieves the other practises "Wingardium Leviosa"
While one sieves the other practises “Wingardium Leviosa

Our late summer surprise gravestone and curb continue to emerge. We are attempting to excavate to the base of the curb stone,

Enthusiasm curbed
Enthusiasm curbed

whilst excavating down onto the headstone at the western end of the monument. I was all for getting through quickly with a mattock, but the wealth of finds and some fierce looks quickly persuaded me otherwise.

Is it a stone?
Is it a stone?

The photographs make very clear just how awkward the curb is to get at.

Low Headstone with Curb
Low Headstone with Curb

The narrow trench over the headstone, full of leaves in the photograph below, is proving difficult too; we’ll have to move part of a spoil heap to improve access. Well, that’ll teach us not to excavate so carefully in future!

Low Headstone with Curb
Low Headstone with Curb

Back in the graveyard

It was back to Dunfermline Abbey Graveyard today, clearing dead leaves, getting on with excavation and sieving. We had a good turnout of members; Aidan, Aisling, Caelan, Chantelle, Katie and Michal all working away like troopers!

Happy leaf clearers
Happy leaf clearers

Progress with our current test pit is going well. Once again we have evidence of a low marker being uplifted and placed back above a layer of hardcore/rubble that has subsequently seemed to prevent any subsidence of the stone.

We will excavate a little deeper to determine the depth of the 1920’s rubble layer beneath the low marker. Interestingly, this is already deeper than the rubble layer exposed in the north and south trench edges, suggesting that the area beneath the gravestone has been deliberately made more substantial. The usual mix of fragmented bone, mortar, masonry fragments and ceramics have been retrieved.

Excavating a test pit
Excavating a test pit
Test Pit, Profile
Test Pit, Profile

Kaitie led work in the trench with the strange mortar topped brick base. We are starting to see what looks like a continuation to north and south, so far represented by bands of mortar showing in the trench sides. We also suspect a stone and clay foundation to the brick base, extending north and south.

Brick platform beneath a layer of mortar
Brick platform beneath a layer of mortar
Humour in the trenches
Humour in the trenches
Brick base
Brick base

Excavating Henry at the Helix

Saturday was the day to celebrate equine heritage at the Helix in Falkirk. Whilst there were dozens of live horses knocking about all day long, we offered visitors unprecedented access to the bones of dead horses.

Buried in 20cm of lovely top soil, contained in custom made raised dig-pits, Henry and friends just laid back and waited for excavati

on, on the hour, every hour. They remained calm and relaxed the whole day long, without even a hint of a bite or a kick. I think they relished the attention.

Every YAC member, parent and leader who gave up time to help out worked hard to make visitors welcome and ensure they had a great experience. So thanks to everyone who contributed and to everyone who came to join in the fun.

Henry, relaxing in an earth bath
Henry, relaxing in an earth bath
YAC activity across the water
YAC activity across the water

An assortment of bones

On Saturday September 9th YAC will be running the horse skeleton excavation activity as part of  Horsepower at the Kelpies in Falkirk. We have borrowed several historic skeletons and one came packed in a cardboard box, completely unsorted.

Yesterday, Brodie, Chantelle, Kathryn, Michal, Nicoleta and Ronan came along to the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum for an hour, to pick through the bones and work out what we have and what’s missing.

As you can see, we have quite a bit of a skeleton, with quite a few of the long bones fragmented.

Bones coming out of the box
Bones coming out of the box
The first, rough sorting
The first, rough sorting
Alas, poor Dobbin! I knew him, Horatio
Alas, poor Dobbin! I knew him, Horatio

Cleaning up in the Carnegie Birthplace Museum

Cleaning is fun!

Thanks once more to the wonderful folk at the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum for making us so welcome!

Yet another busy meeting, with Alexander, Algirdas, Archie, Brian, Brodie, Katie, Michal, Nicoleta, Olivia, Ronan and Sienna making it along. Daniel and Andrew Bell tried their best to make it too, but alas, their car broke down en route.

It was a very different meeting to the usual sort. We were joined by Stuart of Youth 1st, who through activity, presentation and brainstorming got us all thinking about leadership in general and youth leadership in particular. Interested members will have the opportunity to join Youth 1st’s programme, with contemporaries from other youth groups, to undertake training and ultimately organise their own events intended to encourage young folk to lead more active lives.

After all that moving around and thinking, we stopped for a wee break and then got down to some therapeutic artefact cleaning. Three trays and a washing up bowl full of bone, pottery and glass (including a marble) were beautifully and carefully washed and laid out to dry, ready for sorting.

Bone identification in progress
Bone identification in progress
Toothbrushes deployed
Toothbrushes deployed
Cleaning is fun!
Cleaning is fun (but don’t tell my mum)!
Mark, look what I found!
Mark, look what I found!

 

Graveyard Dig Day 39

A pair of sievers sieving

I’m very, very late posting this entry. Sorry 🙁

It is at least still just August!

First day working in Dunfermline Abbey Graveyard for a while. We had a really good turn out with Anna, Archie, Brodie, Emily, Keziah, Lee, Michal, Nicoleta and Olivia all working hard.

We have yet another gravestone to investigate, very awkwardly positioned and with a curb, just to make it even more problematic, as you can see below. Archie excavated part of what might have been a coffin handle. Once we have been able to record this stone we will be able to start shunting the fence along towards fresh, unexcavated ground.

Exposing a curb stone as only YC members can
Exposing a curb stone as only YC members can

Rob devoted himself to the passing on of bone knowledge to a much, much younger generation. There was much sorting and identification of fragments of human bone.

The oracle speaketh unto his acolytes
The oracle speaketh unto his disciples
Identification and sorting of bones
Identification and sorting of bones

As usual, sieving of spoil returned a good haul of finds missed during excavation, including bone and clay tobacco pipe fragments.

A pair of sievers sieving
A pair of sievers sieving

Henry took charge of excavating the latest test trench, which is producing a familiar mix of rubbly soil with broken glass, pottery and bone fragments. We are still to high to see if we will come down onto the thick rubble that lies to the south and west of the pit.

Work proceeding in a new test pit
Work proceeding in a new test pit