Whatever Happened to August?

As regular visitors to this website will know, I spent almost the entirety of August in Tanzania as a member of the Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania project team.  As a pilot project, the main aim of the field season was to try and find sites for future further investigation.  Accordingly, I spent most of my time conducting targeted foot IMG_1378survey in the Engaruka and Manyara basins, as well as in the Ufana River Valley.  Some promising sites were found and test excavations and/or shovel pit surveys were used to further explore some of these sites: we await C14 dating results to establish our success (or otherwise)!  A more detailed overview of the current state of play will be given at the AEA conference in Reading, in November, in our presentation entitled “No Flies on Us” (for more details on that see either the last post here or my Academia.edu profile.

From Tanzania, I flew directly (well, indirectly) to Helsinki for this year’s EAA conference.  There I co-presented a paper describing what investigation of ethnographic sites in Mongolia can reveal to us about burnt animal bones in the archaeological record (again, further details can be found on my Academia.edu page).  Our paper was well received and provoked a good deal of discussion throughout the rest of the day.  The day before that, meanwhile, I had co-chaired a session concerning the integration of artefactual and environmental approaches to understanding urban Mediaeval life in Europe.  This, too, was generally well received with some excellent papers provoking a good deal of debate which we were happy to make time for.  We’re currently in discussion with publishers about printing the proceedings of the session: based on what we’ve seen so far Ben, Idoia and I are very excited to see this through.

Finally, I was brought quickly back to “normal life” (whatever that is for an archaeologist) when, one day after arriving home in York, I spent the rest of the week teaching as a part of the Introduction to Zooarchaeology short course at the University of Sheffield.  This course went very well: there was broad agreement that it was the best one yet and we had a terrific group of students.  That was the fifth time we’ve run the course and it will return again in 2013 alongside a new advanced course – watch this space!  Of course, if you happen to live in Yorkshire and are interested in learning more about zooarchaeology, bookings are now open for both the Introduction to Zooarchaeology and Introduction to Ethnoarchaeology courses at the University of York.

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All Quiet?

Things haven’t been quite so quiet around here as my silence would suggest.  We managed to gather some very useful ethnoarchaeological data on the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project, but while I was away my laptop broke: hence the deafening silence here.

In that time I’ve had copies of book reviews published of Living With Herds by Natasha Fijn (in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society) and Food, Craft and Status in Medieval Winchester by Dale Serjeantson and Helen Rees (in Hortulus).  Both are available now via my Academia.edu profile.

In terms of the dissemination of research, I also heard that a paper jointly presented with Mary Prendergast, Oula Seitsonen, Katherine Grillo and Audax Mabulla has been accepted for this year’s AEA conference in Reading, concerning the spread of Pastoralism in East Africa.  A full copy of the abstract for this is given after the break.

On the teaching front, the next Introduction to Zooarchaeology short course at the University of Sheffield has now been fully booked, dates about the next one will be published here when they are settled.  Bookings are now open though for both the Introduction to Zooarchaeology and Introduction to Ethnoarchaeology courses at the University of York.

After such a lightening round up it only remains for me to excuse myself for another absence.  My bag is now packed and I’m about to leave for more fieldwork as part of the Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania project.  Before returning home and teaching in Sheffield I’ll be visiting Helsinki for the EAA conference; I may be able to access the internet and post something from there but otherwise I’ll be out of contact until the second week of September.

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No Flies on Us: The Diffusion of the Neolithic in Africa


The emergence of the Neolithic in Sub-Saharan Africa was not accompanied by a move towards sedentism, as in many other parts of the world, but instead accompanied the diffusion of a nomadic pastoralist lifestyle. Although pastoralist Neolithic sites are known in both East and West Africa as well as in Southern Africa, the precise route, timing and method of this diffusion through a tropical environment which would require acclimatisation to different ecologies and diseases is still the subject of some conjecture but two competing models have gained wide support among archaeologists working in the area. The more favoured model supposes that livestock (and, therefore, pastoralists) could have moved relatively freely through a tse-tse fly free corridor in the eastern side of the continent stretching from modern day Kenya to South Africa.

The Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania project was conceived to identify sites in the northern most part of this corridor in order to test this theory and to examine issues of Neolithic – Hunter-Gatherer interaction. This presentation aims to highlight the on-going work to answer some of these questions through the initial results of the zooarchaeological analysis of the sites identified thus far.

1, Department of Archaeology, University of York, The King’s Manor, York. YO1 7EP. UK. 2, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, St. Louis University in Madrid, Avenida del Valle, 34 28003 Madrid. Spain. 3, Department of Geosciences and Geography, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 64, FI-00014. Finland. 4, Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1114, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899, USA. 5, Archaeology Unit, P.O. Box 35050, University of Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam. Tanzania.

The Tortuous Process of Ritualisation

imageIn the post today I received a copy of “The Ritual Killing and Burial of Animals: European Perspectives”; a glossy hardback volume that should be of some interest to many zooarchaeologists and perhaps others too.  It includes my paper “Ritualisation (or The Four Fully Articulated Ungulates of the Apocalypse)”, based on research carried out in 2008 and first presented at a conference in 2009 (the proceedings of which form the basis of this publication).

Alongside ethnographic work carried out in Ethiopia I discuss a broad range of topics, including Mediaeval European conceptions of famine and disease, in relation to the interpretation of fully articulated animal bone groups (ABGs) in archaeology.  ABGs are often interpreted as ritual deposits by archaeologists but this paper argues that such interpretations are often no more than the poorly considered results of a an undefined prejudice.  It’s several years since the paper was first researched and written and I’d undoubtedly set about it in a different way now, nevertheless it is there for posterity and a copy of the abstract is included after the break.  A link to purchase a copy of the book is also included on the ‘books’ page of my website.

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Ritualisation (or The Four Fully Articulated Ungulates of the Apocalypse)

It is now common practice amongst British and European archaeologists to interpret burials of fully articulated animal skeletons as evidence of ritual activity, particularly on sites from the prehistoric or Roman periods. This interpretation of ritual activity has become an accepted analysis for many archaeologists, despite the full meaning behind such an interpretation remaining obscure. It is sometimes applied as a short-hand for these deposits without full consideration of other potential explanations.

Whilst conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Ethiopia during 2008, many fully and partially articulated bovid skeletons were observed on the ground, and were reported buried. The reasons behind such methods of disposal were discussed with the local people and are here presented with reference to other examples, in the hope that they may aid future interpretation of archaeological sites and zooarchaeological assemblages as an analogue of use in a variety of temporal and climatic situations.

Mongolia 2012

I have felt privileged to have been involved with the Khanuy Valley Project over the duration of the last, most informative phase of the project in recent years.  I am, therefore, delighted to announce that the project will leave a legacy beyond our research output and friendships.  The same core team of researchers that ran the last phase of the Khanuy Valley Project (Jean-Luc Houle, Jamansarav Bayarsakhan, Oula Seitsonen and myself) will be joining together again to run the Western Mongolia Archaeology Project in 2012.

This project will feature a fieldwork component run along similar lines to the Khanuy Valley Project between 21st May and 22nd June.  I’m also pleased that some of our previous students and volunteers have already asked to join us – such requests help to reassure us that we create the space for a fun and supportive element to our fieldwork and campsites, building friendships and nurturing colleagues beyond our core team of staff.  In addition to this core team, the project will collaborate and share resources with the Rock Art and Archaeology: Investigating Ritual Landscapes in the Altai Mountain region of Western Mongolia Project, run by Bill Fitzhugh and Richard Kortum.  Working so closely together in the field, when looking at very different aspects of the same cultures, should provide valuable new insights for both teams, as well as new opportunities for our students and volunteers,

The Western Mongolia Archaeology Project has been added to the Project Gallery on my website, and applications are now open for students and volunteers to join us.  We’re only taking a small team this year and, although applications are not processed on a first come first served basis, those interested would be best advised to apply as soon as they have made that decision.

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“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”

Every year I say I’m not going to TAG.  Last year I ended up running a session there.  This year, I managed to keep to my “not attending” mantra until the end of October.  Then a series of events overtook me and I found that I will be attending, and presenting, again this year after all.

The paper will feature in Jim Leary’s session on the “Archaeology of Mobility” and will be co-presented with Oula Seitsonen (University of Helsinki) and Jean-Luc Houle (University of West Kentucky), examining the issue of mobility in Bronze Age Mongolia.  A full copy of the abstract is given below.

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The Ritual Round

This paper examines the issue of mobility in the context of Bronze Age Mongolia. Recent fieldwork has identified a pattern of seasonal mobility in the Khanuy Valley which shows considerable similarity to present day patterns. Supportive ethnographic work has shown that the issue of mobility is integral to perceptions of identity in the present day population in the same region, and that this mobility is expressed through daily, annual, decadal and generational cycles. The spatial relationship between domestic habitation sites in the region and large-scale monumental complexes suggest that the themes of mobility and liminality were also an intrinsic part of belief systems in the region in the Bronze Age. The theme of movement through the landscape and through the seasons is explored through the analysis of landscape archaeology, ethnoarchaeology and zooarchaeological evidence. It is suggested that understanding past mobilities in the region is crucial to our interpretation of past lifestyles and cultures.

A Tale of Two Universities

It’s been (and continues to be) a very busy couple of months.  So busy I’ve only just realised that this news page wasn’t updated during September.  The month began with the second lot of French fieldwork for the Ecosal Interreg project.  We were blessed with some very good weather for this.  Analysis of the material collected earlier in the year has continued over the summer and initial results are promising, showing some differences as well as similarities with the British material.

The second half of September saw me change my university affiliation as well as move location.  I am now in the Archaeology Department at the University of York.  This is a very exciting move that promises to help me continue to develop my career and my skills and knowledge.

I’m presently in the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, where I’m a Visiting Researcher in the Africana Studies department.  I’m doing some post-excavation work on material from two sites in Nigeria.  The material is excellent and I’m very much enjoying working with it.  It shows a very high diversity of taxa present and is also yielding some very good taphonomic information which will help in interpreting site-formation processes and butchery practices, as well as the usual economic and ecological information.

Finally, whilst in Charlotte I shall be giving a public lecture entitled “What Can Modern Day Agro-Pastoralist Practices in Ethiopia Tell Us About Past Lifestyles, There and Elsewhere?” in Fretwell 419 at 11am on 14th October.


Xiongnu Subsistence and Mongolian Deer


I received a copy of the glossy hardback to the left in the post this morning.  It’s a weighty tome, comprising over 600 A4 pages of the most up to date research into the Xiongnu with papers from leading scholars outlining our current understanding of a culture that has seen an increasing amount of academic attention in recent years.  It also includes the following article:

Houle, J.-L., Broderick, L.G., 2011. Settlement Patterns and Domestic Economy of the Xiongnu in Khanuy Valley, Mongolia. In Brosseder, U., Miller, B.K., eds. Xiongnu Archaeology – Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the First Steppe Empire in Central Asia. (Bonn Contributions to Asian Archaeology 5). Vor-und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn: Bonn. pp. 137-152

In the last couple of weeks I’ve also heard that I’ve had a poster presentation accepted for the Deer and People: Past, Present and Future conference at the University of Lincoln, beginning September 8th.  I’ve included a copy of the abstract for the poster, below, and have also uploaded a copy of the poster itself to my Academia page.

Deer and People: Past, Present and Future

Deer form a highly significant and visible part of the worldview of prehistoric people within the area of the Mongolian forest steppe. Ecological studies suggest that deer species may only ever have been thinly distributed within this biome and be represented principally by Cervus elaphus and Capreolus capreolus. Recent archaeological studies are also beginning to suggest that deer may only ever have been a minor component of anthropogenic faunal assemblages. The combined ecological and archaeological evidence suggests, then, that the importance of deer to Mongolian people never lay in an economic role but in an ideological one.

Hunting pressures have led to a rapid reduction of deer numbers in the Mongolian forest steppe, with cervids suffering local extinction in several areas. One such area is the Khanuy Valley, where the last sighting of deer is commemorated in the naming of “Deer Mountain”. This poster explores the significance of deer to the local population.