Big Pictures are Made of Small Details

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.

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All at SEAA

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.

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Publication, Publication, Publication

The recent launch of two new open access archaeology journals, Open Quaternary and the Journal of Lithic Studies, has seen me uncharacteristically enter into debate on Twiiter, regarding the merits of journal access models. My arguments were particularly inspired by Open Quaternary – although I never mentioned it by name I suspect that anyone who knows me would have guessed that anyway, so it would seem churlish to pretend otherwise. One of the founding editors of Open Quaternary is one of my oldest friends; Matthew Law and I were at school together and we have, over the years, developed a deep mutual respect for each other’s ideas and opinions (or so I hope!). With that in mind, it’s probably fair to explain the genesis of the journal in Matt’s own words:

“I wasn’t attached to any university at all, which made keeping up with research – too often locked away in expensive to access journals – a pain. Things have improved, more and more researchers are self-archiving their work online for example through services like, but I made it my mission back [then] to try to help make research more widely available. Late last year, I published a paper on bryozoans in archaeology, and when I was looking for [a] venue to submit it [in], I realised that Quaternary science and environmental archaeology are quite poorly served for so-called open access journals.” – Matt’s full blog post can be found here.

I couldn’t agree with Matt’s feelings more and they echo the sentiments of a number of researchers, indeed, a lengthy debate on this issue was held on the ZOOARCH jisc mailing list last year. Most academic journals charge exorbitant fees for access. Some associations, such as the Association for Environmental Archaeology, include their journal in membership packages which are quite reasonable. Some don’t even do this though and even if they did, researchers certainly couldn’t afford to subscribe to all of the journals which might occasionally publish articles relevant to their research. Individual article access is no better (currently £15 for Antiquity and $35.95 for the Journal of Archaeological Science, for example) and so institutional affiliation, and associated journal subscriptions, are really the only legal option.

File:Open Access logo PLoS white.svgIn practice, of course, there’s a pretty free ‘illegal’ trade in journal articles. Digital printing has made a mockery of the ‘off-print’ once distributed by an author among his or her peers. These days a pdf is emailed. Once out there, that pdf can be pretty freely circulated among still more people. An author is, of course, entitled to distribute a certain number of copies of their articles and often an email request for such to an author will be favourably received. Now though, other people are often happy to freely distribute articles not their own on email discussion lists and to post their own papers for free download on websites. These technically go against contracts but many researchers are happy to engage in this in the spirit of cooperation and I’m unaware of publishers taking action to stop it. Yet.

It’s big business though. The journals are published and marketed and, for that, there ought to be recompense. Yet they’re often edited on a voluntary basis. Peer-reviews are almost by definition carried out on a voluntary basis. Authors, too, receive no recompense and the research that they describe may have been publicly funded. The internet, clearly, could provide a medium for the free dissemination of research among scholars from less developed countries and less wealthy universities (whose libraries cannot afford to pay many subscription fees) and among researchers unaffiliated with any institution – of which there are many in archaeology. Peer-review, though, despite some criticism, is a model of academic credibility which is still desired by most scholars.

Open Access, then, is a good thing, right? Well, not necessarily. It’s that issue of recompense again. Even a digital platform requires some money to keep it going. The most common form of open access journal (and open access models within traditional journals) has simply shifted the income source. Instead of the reader, the author now pays to have their work published (perhaps we should begin to refer to traditional journals as ‘open access publishing’? Just a thought). I’ll leave aside for now any questions of how this model could be open to abuse and posit my main objection: this model restricts publishing options from those who need them most.

The Journal of Lithic Studies, amazingly, is exempt from this, but Open Quaternary will charge £250 for publication of an article. PLoS ONE, arguably the most prestigious open access journal open to archaeologists, currently charges $500 to researchers from developed nations. Some universities now have a fund set up to help cover some of these costs for their staff. Not all do though and many of those that exist are quite small. For the most part then, the same people that can access journals under the old model can now publish in them under the new model. People that were restricted from reading those older journals though are now blocked from publishing in the newer ones. An independent researcher, or a recently graduated PhD researcher, will very probably not be able to afford these fees.

There’s no easy answer to this debate, which will probably run for many years, but at worst, this model places a value judgement on research before it has even gone through the peer-review system: if you can’t afford to pay these fees, your research is not worthy of publication.

Journals are, of course. not the only form of publication and archaeology, in particular, has a very strong tradition of publishing research in edited volumes. The rise and ubiquity of the internet poses questions for this form of publishing, too. The implausibly named Doug Rocks-Macqueen and Chris Webster have recently self-published a free ebook on blogging archaeology. Clearly, the big publishing houses have to make a return on their investments, which include staff, printing and marketing costs, but I cannot think of a justification for ebooks being priced the same as hard-copy.

The morning before last I received a copy of the latest volume to which I have contributed, Past Mobilities: Archaeological Approaches to Movement and Mobility, through the post – and a very handsome volume it is too. I am, however, disappointed to see that the ebook versions cost the same as the hardback. Jim Leary has done an excellent job editing (as well as writing a brilliant introduction to) a collection of papers which seeks to move archaeological discussion away from a fixation on apparently static sites and reminds us of the dynamic nature of people’s lives and belongings. My own contribution is as a co-author to ‘GIS approaches to past mobility and accessibility: an example from the Bronze Age Khanuy Valley, Mongolia’ with Oula Seitsonen and Jean-Luc Houle. This seeks to build on the work of Torsten Hägerstrand, and his ideas about time geography, in interpreting seasonal movement patterns in one region of prehistoric Mongolia. As such, this places the experience of past people and their mobility in the landscape as the centre of focus rather than any particular archaeological sites. Oula must take most of the credit, both for his theoretical background and his informed use of GIS approaches to our subject. The book can be found now through the usual place on my website.

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You are cordially invited to… Fieldwork, Conferences or Short Courses (take your pick)

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.


imageSecond: 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.

imageThird: 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.

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Pipeline Through the Past

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.

(c) Gazprom

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.

2007 Russian documentary on the Ukok Plateau –

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.


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Animal Other Than Horse Found in Diet Shock!

With the British currently horrified at having been tricked into breaking one of their most cherished taboos and the associated scandal now spreading to Europe, it’s with peculiar timing that I should learn that my paper (co-authored with Jean-Luc Houle) “More than Just Horse: Dietary Breadth and Subsistence in Bronze Age Central Mongolia” should have recently been published in Mongolian Journal of Anthropology, Archaeology and Ethnology.  Of course, the real issue in the European meat trade scandal is one of labelling and honesty (although I’d question the intelligence of anyone who honestly believed that bargain processed meat was ever anything but suspicious) but the way that it has been reported in Britain serves to remind us of the cultural implications of dietary choice.  Were this a muslim country then it’s safe to assume that the pork that ended up unlabelled in beef meatballs would have been more controversial.

The reasons behind the British taboo on hippophagy remain as obscure as its origins.  The simple truth is that we do not know when the taboo began or why.  I recently read an archaeologist who referred to the consumption of horse-flesh in Mediaeval Winchester but did so without fully explaining that interpretation, which is a great shame when related to such a controversial topic and in a period which sees butchered horse remains more commonly interpreted as dog-food waste in Britain.  Others have suggested that the taboo extends back into at least the Iron Age.  What we do know is that the taboo is not shared by our neighbours across the English Channel: the taboo is a peculiarly British phenomenon not shared by our Europeans cousins.

Given the prevalence of this taboo, largely carried over to other British-settled states such as Canada, Australia, South Africa and the USA, it may seem odd that academics might argue for the existence of a people subsisting on nothing but horse meat.  Nevertheless, that is just what has been suggested in the case of prehistoric Mongolia; a case of the projected ‘barbarous other’?  Our work in Mongolia has revealed a far more complex society than hitherto suggested, with a dietary base already broad in the Bronze Age.  Here’s a copy of the abstract of that article I mentioned that’s just been published:

Our current state of knowledge of subsistence strategies and dietary breadth in Bronze Age Mongolia has been hampered by a monument focused research paradigm, which has largely ignored habitation sites. This approach has skewed our understanding by extrapolating the ordinary from the extraordinary. The Khanuy Valley Project has recently excavated Bronze Age transhumant habitation sites in central Mongolia and recovered the associated faunal remains. Analysis has revealed a complex subsistence strategy focused on the herding of several species of domestic animal, with dietary breadth increased through the minimal exploitation of wild resources.

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