I’d arrived a little late. Trying to cause as little disturbance as possible, I still had to shuffle crab-like down a whole row of people who were committed to an involuntary Mexican wave in my wake. This wasn’t the impression I’d wanted to make.
I’d spent the night in Sheffield and, despite having to wait for four friends to assemble at my car before departing we weren’t that late. At least we wouldn’t have been. Although we had at least one Yorkshire native in the vehicle – sat in the passenger seat, in fact – it fell to me to query our progress. I was fairly certain that the best way to York from Sheffield didn’t lie through Bradford but, nevertheless, it took sometime before my misgivings were strong enough to overpower the fug of a late night and it wasn’t before we were some miles out of our way that I sloughed the car around. Direct action taken, I proceeded to ignore the bleating Sat-Nav for the next hour.
Red in the face then, flustered and trying vainly to appear as if I’d been there all along, I sat at the back of the room as Terry O’Connor introduced the next speaker. I’d been in the same room as Terry at least twice before now but I’d never actually spoken to him. I’d emailed him earlier in the week to ask if I might have a chance to talk to him while I was at this event, explaining who I was, my current situation and enquiring plaintively whether there might be any opportunities for me to study for my PhD at York.
As we broke for coffee I made my way back down the aisle of rising humanity as quickly as I could, thinking to grab a much needed cup of coffee and then loiter by the biscuits in the hope of introducing myself to Terry. What would this behemoth of my chosen subject make of me and my disruptive entrance? Somehow I’d managed to get to the front of the queue and, as I filled my cup, I was hailed brusquely but friendlily by someone making their way passed me:
‘Ah, Lee, we must talk.’
Bewildered and more than slightly flattered that I was recognised and that he’d taken the time to come and talk to me first I stumbled out a ‘yes, thanks Terry.’
That day and on two more occasions in the following weeks I was very touched, not to say astounded, by how Terry was so willing to make time for me and talk through my concerns. Eventually, of course, I did move to York and become his PhD student. I’m still amazed at how he can make time for everyone, his incredible memory and breadth of knowledge and perhaps most of all by his unfailing capacity to instantly make people feel at home and that what they have to say is interesting to him.
Around this time last year, not long after hearing from Terry that he intended to retire, I suggested to Clare Rainsford and Eva Farinell that we should try and organise a conference for Terry to mark his retirement. The AEA agreed with us and our call for papers has just been announced. Terry’s impact on so many fields of archaeology, but particularly zooarchaeology and environmental archaeology, cannot be overstated. A long track-record of post-excavation analysis has been mirrored by concerns in questioning the role of environmental archaeology, of teaching archaeology and of practising the subject in the field.
Though I may be a little less in awe of his person today than I was a few years ago I remain awed by both his intellect and his easy-going, gentlemanly personality.
The conference website, including the call for papers, can be found here: http://www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/news-and-events/events/conferences/aea/
— Lee G. Broderick (@LeeGBroderick) November 8, 2014
The above Tweet was made in response to a presentation which explicitly criticised the sweeping generalisations made by climate change models at the recent Association of Environmental Archaeology Conference, held in Plymouth. Billed as ‘The Big Picture’ the conference actually featured a number of papers dealing with Big Data. Some of these research projects were fascinating and its an area of academic enquiry that’s only become available to archaeologists recently, as computers capable of dealing with large amounts of data become widely available and archives of data are accessed.
Being an environmental archaeology conference held in a geography department, it was perhaps inevitable that climate modelling would have been a theme of some papers. It struck me though, that climatologists are coming at the problems from a different direction to many archaeologists. A warning that broad models might mask some stories is superficially fair but also, importantly, misrepresents what a model is for. Climate modellers, in particular, and perhaps some palaeoecologists too, are interested in modelling climate change as a way in which to understand future patterns as much as past ones. This means that they have to understand the differences from one valley to the next if they are to get an accurate grasp of the story. As they get more data, they struggle to redefine their models to accommodate it.
Either side of the conference, I’ve been working on an assemblage from the Oyo Empire, in modern day Nigeria. The first day back in the lab after the weekend I performed the kind of eye-roll and exasperated, irritated sigh that will be familiar to many zooarchaeologists upon finding human bone in their material.
It’s always a source of potential unwanted problems getting these gangly bipedal mammals in your assemblage and the usual frantic discussion with the site director ensued with the predictable and routine answer of ‘no, there shouldn’t be any humans in it’. Well there are, but why?
Closer inspection of the 3rd metacarpal responsible for my vexation revealed small puncture marks at the distal end consistent with what might be made by a small dog or jackal if it were to pick the bone up and move it (not that I’m implying that small canids might deliberately sabotage future archaeology sites). Here then, is one possible explanation for human bones ending up in a midden. It’s a small part of the story on this site but it’s a part of it, nevertheless – an episode in the life of the site for which we have few other clues.
Archaeologists have got better at combining different types and scales of evidence to understand sites. This is probably driven in part by an acknowledgement of the weaknesses in the archaeological record but its a problem that other disciplines are perhaps only now beginning to worry about. My own presentation at AEA 2014, I hope, epitomised this approach (feel free to criticise me in the comments below!) by combining geomorphological, stable isotopic, zooarchaeological, ethnoarchaeological and landscape archaeology data, complemented by regional palynological studies, to understand the relationship between human settlement and subsistence patterns and the environment through four millennia in Central Mongolia.
The point is though, that whether I’m discussing bone-moving agents in West Africa or shifting settlement patterns in East Asia, there comes a point where some portion of the assembled data doesn’t fit the model. That doesn’t mean you throw the model away and start again – this is precisely what models are made for.
Perhaps modelling climate change is different – our needs for doing so might well be – but in archaeology we do not, or at least should not, seek to create general models which explain everything. If everything fitted it, either that would mean that the world is a very boring place or else that the data are wrong. The point of a model is to highlight inconsistencies. These aberrations in the data are the twists in the plot – the small details that make the big picture interesting.
There is a place for sweeping generalisations and there is a place for fine detailed analysis. Both should exist side by side, testing each other to form a cohesive tale; trying to force both together into a single strand would be like expecting a student’s 500 word summary of War and Peace to be in any way comparable to the original. It misses the subtlety of the little things as well as the sweeping grandeur of the big picture.
The Western Mongolia Archaeology Project team (mainly in our previous guise as the Khanuy Valley Project) hit the 6th SEAA conference, in Ulaanbaatar, in a big way this week. Oula Seitsonen presented a condensed version of our recent Past Mobilities paper as a poster (GIS approaches to movement and mobility in the monumental landscape of the Bronze Age Khanuy Valley) and I delivered a paper focusing on the identification of remains from Mongolian stone circles and their corresponding re-interpretation (Rings of Fire?) as well as one outlining the domestic economy of the Bronze Age and Xiongnu periods in the Khanuy Valley (The Culture Changes but the Herd Stays the Same: Bronze Age and Xiongnu Subsistence). Jean-Luc-Houle, meanwhile, focused on the seasonal movement of families in the Bronze Age and contrasted the situation in Khanuy with that in the Altai, based on data gathered during our first season of the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project (Long‐Term Occupation and Seasonal Mobility in Mongolia).
Other highlights of the conference included the big reveal of the finds from the Gol mod 2 cemetery excavations that took place in 2011, by Erdenebaatar, during the opening ceremony and excellent presentations by Julia Clark and Camilla Kelsoe discussing their recent work in Hovsgol province. Camilla used the ceramics from their excavations as a launching pad for discussing the reasons for adopting, or not, new technologies whilst Julia emphasised the need for us to consider hunter-herder interactions in the north of Mongolia. William Taylor presented a pilot study using 3D morphometrics to argue for ridden horses being present in horse-head mounds, examining them at a population level using several criteria to produce a range. Also working at a regional level were papers examining the spread of bronze metal working in East Asia, using compositional analysis (Gary Hsu) and the spread of starchy crops (Xinyi Liu).
It has, then, been a full and tiring week. At 4.30am tomorrow though we leave our rooms in Ulaanbaatar and head for Bayan Olgii and the next phase of fieldwork in the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project. We seem to have another good group of students and volunteers joining us, many of whom took the opportunity to attend some of the conference sessions as well as the usual sight-seeing in the city and we’re looking forward to working with them as we gather more data to improve our understanding of the prehistory of the region. We’ll be back, at the earliest, on July 6th.
Apparently Valentine’s Day parties exist. I’m not entirely clear what goes on at these events, nor am I certain that I’d like to know. It seems, though, like a good (OK, tenuous) excuse to publicise some forthcoming events I’m involved with in some capacity or another and which have application deadlines for participants fast approaching.
First: after our successful pilot project in 2012, this year sees the resumption of the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project (where do we get these names from?). This project sees myself and the other members of the successful Khanuy Valley Project team reunite to test our models for prehistoric Mongolian living, developed in Northern Central Mongolia, in the Altai mountain range – famed for its Pazyryk monuments. Working at the very edge of the area we visited in 2012 this marks the beginning of an exciting new multi-year project, with all of the survey work that that promises this year! We’ll be in the field from 8th June to 8th July and we’re accepting applications from students and volunteers now – in fact, the deadline for applications is just two weeks away as I write this, on 28th February 2014. More details of the project and the application process can be found on its website.
Second: just one day after that deadline is the deadline for submissions of papers to sessions at the 2014 ICAZ conference in San Rafael, Argentina. Regular readers of this ‘blog will know that I’m co-organising two sessions at the conference: ‘Zooarchaeology of Pastoralism’ and ‘Bones in Space’. Both sessions are shaping up nicely with some good contributions and we’re looking into publication possibilities for each of them. If you haven’t yet submitted a proposal though and you’re keen to do so don’t worry – we won’t be making any decisions until after the final deadline of March 1st. Applications for all sessions, including numbers 4 (Bones in Space) and 35 (Zooarchaeology of Pastoralism) have to be made through the conference website.
Third: we’re running the ‘Understanding Zooarchaeology I’ short course at the University of Sheffield again from 7th to 9th April. This will be the eighth time that we’ve run the course but the first time since June 2013. As always, places are provided on a first-come, first-served basis and they are filling up fast but there are still some available at the moment, which can be booked through the course website.
If anybody would like to discuss any of the above events and opportunities then they’re more than welcome to email me.
Derivatives: pastoralism (noun); pastorally (adverb)1
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘pastoralism’? A proud Maasai guiding his herds across the savannah? Quechua people escorting their llamas down steep passes in the Puna? A Cornish dairyman tying a gate back on a misty morning so his cows can enter the milking parlour?
Clearly, the word can cover many things. I remember my first geography teacher explaining in a class that there were two basic forms of agriculture (farming): pastoral and arable. One that relied on animals and one that depended on plants. Of course, outside of the modern Western world it’s rare for any subsistence strategy to be completely reliant upon one or the other and it’s perhaps for this reason that the terms have become muddied by archaeologists. ‘Agriculture’ seems to have assumed the role of descriptor for sedentary, plant-dependent, farmers for many; with ‘arable agriculture’ being applied more particularly to cereal crop cultivation. It’s probably no surprise then that ‘pastoralism’ has become almost synonymous with ‘nomadism’ and ‘transhumance’.
Understanding the labels being used is just the first step in navigating the discipline of archaeology though: understanding where they’re being used is just as important. Archaeology is now a huge and occasionally bewildering subject: there is simply too much information and too many new advances to maintain more than a sketchy understanding of many of its facies. It is primarily for this reason that the the discipline fragments with specialist conferences and journals. There is, however, and must be, overlap: without it each sub-discipline, and eventually the discipline as a whole, will become stale.
I was a little surprised when I bumped into a friend at a conference not long after my first field season in Mongolia and she said “so you’re a Central Asian archaeologist now, that’s great!”. She seemed a little hurt when I said “no.” Later that same year I bumped into another acquaintance at a different conference who said to me “I didn’t expect to see another Africanist here”.
The truth is, I’m neither. I’m a zooarchaeologist and also an ethnoarchaeologist. Like most archaeologists I have primary areas of research interest but these are not linked to cultures – or, at least, not to Cultures. I have a strong interest in pastoralism, influenced perhaps by a childhood surrounded by cattle farms and African holidays, and many of my research projects are linked to this theme. Steppic culture is fascinating: as is savannah culture. There are, and must be, links between the two at a fundamental level however. Not in the direct sense usually implied by archaeologists but in the way that people interact with their environments – physical and imagined. If not, why not?
As much as I’ve enjoyed engaging in debates about the development of East African and Mongolian pastoralist societies in recent years I’ve also noticed an alarming insularity – not, I’m sure, a conscious one. In Africa, it often seems that the West and North of the continent are studied separately to the East and South: this is largely a colonial legacy which sees French, German and Italian researchers work in the West and North and publish in those languages. English speaking researchers publish elsewhere and the problem persists and perpetuates. Academic fragmentation means something similar for Africanists and Central-Asianists, meanwhile: conferences and publications are frequently organised along geographical lines and so the two never meet.
I couldn’t help but notice this as I moved in two distinct academic circles over the last few years. It also made me wonder what other comparative research I was unaware of: what about those Quechuas? What about the Saami reindeer herders? The Corsican pig herders? Pastoralism takes a variety of forms around the world but one thing is constant: the interaction of people and their animals. This, I think, places zooarchaeologists in a unique position to comment on pastoralist cultures.
Last week, I proudly announced that my session with Richard Madgwick, ‘Bones in Space’, had been approved for next year’s ICAZ conference, in San Rafael, Argentina. I submitted one other session proposal to the conference committee too, with Robin Bendrey, and I’m delighted to let the world know that ‘Zooarchaeology of Pastoralism’ has also been accepted. I’m really looking forward to this session: I think it represents the first time that pastoralism has been treated in this way by zooarchaeologists and I believe it’s important. Like with my last ‘blog post, this should be treated as a first call for papers and I’m including the session outline below.
Zooarchaeology of Pastoralism
Pastoralism is a form of agriculture (food production) which is focused on the raising of livestock. Societies that have chosen to engage in pastoralism as a subsistence strategy may find that it becomes the defining feature of their individual lives and their collective culture – at the very least their livelihoods come to depend upon the successful and regular creation of animal based products (either for direct consumption or for trade) and, thus, they form symbiotic relationships with their herds.
The interdependence of people with particular animals has led to the adoption of a broad spectrum of land-use patterns and labour divisions around the world, ranging from full nomadism, through transhumance to more closely managed pasture exploitation as individuals, families and (occasionally) larger groups of humans direct their herds towards the most abundant and best quality sources of food and water.
Zooarchaeologists, with a de-facto research interest in the relationship between people and animals through time, are uniquely placed to investigate the development of pastoralism and its variations. This session aims to investigate issues such as how much variation in pastoralism is culturally driven and how much it is geographically or climatically driven? To what extent do people directly control their animals and to what extent are they equal partners in their enterprise or else animal-led? To what extent does the type of animal define the type of pastoralism (e.g. is it possible to live in the same way with bovids, suids, cervids and camelids)? How and why do the compositions of herds and human-animal relationships vary? How does pastoralism develop through time?
- OED, accessed 2/10/13, http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/pastoral?q=pastoralism#pastoral__12
It’s an exciting time to be a zooarchaeologist: we’re winning prizes. Who’d have thought us humble, bone-fixated weirdoes would ever be feted scientists? I’m certainly not about to argue with the judges though, after Brian Crandall and Peter Stahl’s 1995 Journal of Archaeological Science paper, ‘Human Digestive Effects on a Micromammalian Skeleton’, won an Ig Nobel prize last week.
It’s a brave man who offers to serve his friends and colleagues parboiled shrew. It’s a braver man still who accepts. Yet bravest of all is he who looks for it afterwards.
Such taphonomic studies are nothing new in bioarchaeology – off the top of my head I recall Rebecca Nicholson doing something similar with fish bones and Alan Hall with some plant seeds. Archaeology can be a famously dirty profession but this probably isn’t the image most people have in mind of us. These studies are important though – as the man of the moment, Brian Crandall, said on receiving his award:
“I don’t know why it has taken 18 years to recognise the greatness of the work, but that’s ok. The paper has been cited almost 50 times. It is not just important in archaeology, but also palaeontology. People find these bones all over the place. How you interpret them is tricky.”
That’s the rub of it – how do we interpret all those bones presented to us by kindly excavators? Well, by analogy with other stuff – stuff we’re pretty sure we know the causes of. Sometimes these analogies can be observed ethnographically, sometimes they can be drawn from the historic record and sometimes experiments like this one can be devised with which to test hypotheses. Using uniformitarian assumptions (shrews and people are biologically unchanged for the last few thousand years) we can record what shrew bones are present on a site and compare them with what we might expect to survive human digestion thanks to Crandall & Stahl’s experiment – if some bones are present which don’t usually survive the digestive process then it’s safe to assume that people weren’t eating shrews. If they’re missing however…
These studies fall within the remit of a discipline which, as the quote above points out, sits somewhere between archaeology and palaeontology. Taphonomy is, literally, the study of burial processes. More hermeneutically, for archaeologists, taphonomy is the study of bias – of everything that alters a record which might disguise what we want to know (usually, for an archaeologist, just as for a palaeontologist, what has happening before an organism died). For zooarchaeologists, then, ‘taphonomic factors’ is a broad term covering everything from the moment an organism died to the moment it was recorded – butchery, deposition, scavenging; even excavation and recording introduce biases of different sorts which are important to understand.
Sometimes taphonomic factors, in themselves, can tell you a lot about the past history of a site. This, in fact, is the focus of my PhD and it’s also the focus of a session I’ll be running at next years ICAZ conference, in San Rafael, Argentina, with Richard Madgwick. Specifically, we’re interested in gathering a number of researchers together to look at new ways in which we can understand the movement of bones in space and what this can tell us about past human behaviours on archaeological sites. As such, this should be considered as a first call for papers and a full abstract is provided below.
Bones in Space: Taphonomy and the Pre- and Post-depositional movement of bones
Taphonomic analysis has come to the forefront of zooarchaeological research in recent decades, as its immense potential for reconstructing the history of faunal assemblages has been realised. Research on early prehistory has often focussed on identifying agents of accumulation by characterising deposits in terms of their modification and the bones they comprise. Research on later assemblages has tended to pay closer attention to processes of carcass division, dispersal and to a lesser extent refuse management. This session aims to reconcile these approaches by focusing on the movement of bones in space, bringing together researchers from a broad spectrum of zooarchaeological studies; the pre- and post- depositional movement of bones being equally relevant to all archaeological assemblages. Recent research on the pre- and post-depositional movement of bones covers a wide range of taphonomic processes and this session aims to establish a more holistic and less period-specific means by which to study the accumulation of faunal material.
Non-human (including scavengers and geological/fluvial processes) and accidental (such as trampling by humans or animals) agents can redeposit bones – in what ways does this effect an archaeological assemblage and can it be identified? To what extent can carcass processing and distribution, perhaps for food or for craft activities, be recognised and what can it tell us about the societies studied? Do refuse management practices obliterate other pre-depositional taphonomies or are they still discernible? If the former, is the practice itself identifiable? How useful are specific taphonomic modifications as indices for understanding assemblage accumulation? Papers proposing new approaches to recording or analysing taphonomic data and its relevance these or related questions are particularly welcome.
The proposed Sino-Russian pipeline across the Ukok plateau has generated controversy (although, arguably, not much publicity) since it was first announced back in 2011. The bald facts of the matter are that Russia, in the shape of Gazprom, have immense oil and gas reserves and China represents a large and growing market for those products. The two countries share two borders, either side of Mongolia, which they enclose. The westernmost of the borders is the most direct and, therefore, cheapest way to move the product from the producer to the consumer so, naturally, Gazprom wants to build a pipeline across it (above ground, in case you were wondering). The thing is, this 54km international border also marks the northern boundary of China’s Kanas Nature Reserve, which marks the southernmost portion of the Ukok plateau, most of which is in Russia.
The Kanas reserve is ecologically important in that it’s one of the few remaining truly wild places in China. It abuts the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, in Mongolia, the Katun State Nature Preserve, in Russia, and the Katon-Karagay National Park, in Kazakhstan. Together they form probably the largest (supposedly) protected area in Central Asia; crucial for the free movements and migrations of its wildlife. Moreover, the convergence of the modern borders of China, Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan in this area is illustrative of its probable long-standing marginality. These days it is an incredibly sparsely populated region that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998: it is a critically important habitat for several globally endangered species and is probably the homeland of the early Iron Age Pazyryk culture. Historically, the free movement of the people in the region has also been important and, regardless of modern borders, it’s presently principally inhabited by Kazakhs.
Today, the first assessment of the archaeological impact of the pipeline has been released by the Altai State University and, predictably, it highlights the kurgans that will be destroyed by the pipe construction. These Scythian and Pazyryk monuments are internationally famous and important – ‘Princess Ukok’ remains the subject of a repatriation suit and re-examination of the kurgans continues to fuel debate and shed new light on areas such as the development of human-animal relationships, ideology, cosmology and social structure. Any report which helps to throw light on this subject and bring it to the world’s attention is a good thing.
I am, however, a little disappointed but not at all surprised by the focus of this report on the region’s large and obvious monuments. Monumental archaeology has long been a focus of Russian prehistoric research; with a bit more effort, though, we can find out so much more about the lives of past inhabitants in the region by looking for different kinds of sites and this too, like the natural environment, could be of global significance. Regular visitors to this website will know that last year I was involved in a one-year pilot project to look for habitation sites, contemporary with those kurgans (or khirigsuurs as they’re known locally) in the Mongolian Altai – just 30km east of China. We found enough evidence there to suggest that this tough, rugged region may have always been liminal – occupied and deserted by a succession of peoples pulling and pushing from outside regions through the Altai.
Now, the Central Asian steppe and mountain ranges are threatened by climate change, just as elsewhere in the world. It’s important for us to research possible reactions to these changes and it has long been my opinion that there is no better way for us to learn than from the past. We hope to carry out more work in the Altai in the future – work which becomes more important with the threat to the Ukok. Previously, the same team worked for several years in the Arkhangai mountains, east of the Altai. There, too, we discovered several Bronze and Iron Age habitation sites (Xiongnu there, rather than Pazyryk) and we established that cultural changes occurred within a stable environment but that other changes, arguably more drastic, occurred at the end of the Xiongnu period, when the climate changed. By studying past responses to climate change – and, as far as possible, the causes of those changes – we can learn what might work or not work in the future. By studying those changes on a local basis we can suggest local responses. There’s much that we could learn from the Ukok as well as preserve.
I’ll be co-presenting a paper with Oula Seitsonen and Jean-Luc Houle on the Arkhangai research mentioned above (carried out in the Khanuy valley) at the AEA conference in Kiel later this year, using zooarchaeological and palynological evidence to explore cultural responses to environmental conditions.