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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Hunter-Gatherer Interaction and Learning from the Pastoralist Past

This month, a news article in Science focussed on Jeff Leach’s latest research among the Hadza. Jeff’s previous positions, such as in the archaeology department at the University of Leicester might, at first glance, suggest a change of direction when compared with his current position at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine but in truth his research has always focussed on the effects of diet on an individual. Indeed, his research career is based on a very personal story and, however much the ‘palaeodiet’ fad may, to my cynical eyes, appear to be a direct descendent of the noble savage paradigm, his research may turn out to be important.

Part of me wonders at the way in which such projects are typically reported, however. ‘One of the few last remaining hunter-gatherer peoples’ can often be swallowed and spat back out by the media as ‘endangered’. Indeed, the Hadza are themselves often portrayed in this way (I chose that link not because of any exceptional reporting content but because it has some very good photographs!). The truth is probably rather more complex than that, however. The Hadza are, it is true, surrounded by modern life. The thing is, they always have been. Today it’s a disinterested (embarrassed? well-meaning?) government, before that it was farmers, but, before that, it was pastoralists. It’s only the nature of the ‘modern’ that changes in this story and we could perhaps place more emphasis on the cultural resistance of the Hadza.


Long-time readers of this ‘blog will be aware of our catchily named ‘Archaeological Investigation of a “Moving Frontier” of Early Herding in Northern Tanzania’ project, which focuses on identifying the spread of pastoralism in Sub-Saharan Africa. An important contextual area of study for that though is to understand the mechanism for spread and, therefore, herder/hunter-gatherer interactions (an important primary research interest for Mary Prendergast, one of the project’s co-directors). From a zooarchaeological point of view, for example, it’s probably overly simplistic to suggest that an assemblage containing domesticated animals from this period is necessarily produced by pastoralists – trading and raiding undoubtedly took place on both sides, just as they continue to do so today.

That said, the presence of domesticated animals clearly indicates that pastoralists, with their livestock, were in the area if not on the site, which does at least help us to identify the spread of the phenomenon. Understanding the nature of that spread is probably a topic which will continue to be debated for the rest of my lifetime. Following our fieldwork in 2012, we are now able to confidently assert that this spread was occurring in Northern Tanzania at least as early as 1023-846 BC. We published this date as part of an article in Azania last month, discussing the results of one part of our survey work that year. The full abstract for the paper is repeated after the break.

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Pastoral Neolithic sites on the southern Mbulu Plateau, Tanzania

As part of a larger project examining the introduction of herding into northern Tanzania, surveys and excavations were conducted at the southern edge of the Mbulu Plateau, documenting the presence of Narosura ceramics dating to the early third millennium BP, as well as a Later Stone Age occupation dated via ostrich eggshell to the tenth millennium BP. This marks the southernmost extent of the Pastoral Neolithic in eastern Africa. The paucity of sites attributable to early herding in this area may be due to a lack of survey in landscapes likely to have been preferred by livestock owners and to extensive contemporary cultivation in those same areas. Links can be drawn between the study area and previously documented sites with Narosura materials near Lake Eyasi, and between the study area and obsidian sources in the Lake Naivasha area of the Rift Valley, making the plateau and its surroundings a potentially promising area for further research.

What have Zooarchaeologists ever done for Pastoralists?


Pronunciation: /ˈpɑːst(ə)r(ə)l/

  • 1 (of land) used for the keeping or grazing of sheep or cattle

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.

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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?


  1. OED, accessed 2/10/13,

A New Dawn in Taphonomy?

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…

Bones in a petri dish. Source:

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.

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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.

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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