Scientific Archaeology Research

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kirstenFrom November 21st -25th 2014 a small team from the University of Reading Archaeology Department took advantage of a low tide to investigate Mesolithic sites in the intertidal zone at Goldcliff, South Wales where many archaeological discoveries have been made over the last 24 years. We found human, bird and deer footprints, Mesolithic flints and charred hazel nuts. The fieldwork was in conjunction with a team from the BBC Horizon Science Series for a programme on the Mesolithic which will be screened in early 2015.

This was the start of a 3 year PhD project by Kirsten Barr who will be looking at Mesolithic, human, animal and bird footprints in the Severn Estuary and elsewhere in order to develop new techniques for the rapid and accurate recording and interpretation of this footprint evidence which is increasingly being found particularly in coastal locations.

Kirsten graduated with a First Class degree in Archaeology from the University of Reading. She started off with a mainly arts focus but discovered an aptitude for science during her kirsten2undergraduate degree. After this she did a MSc in Forensic Archaeology at University College, London and her current PhD project has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Fieldwork with the BBC team provided an early opportunity in the second month of her project to get information about the project out to the public.

Severn Estuary Prehistoric research is led by Professor Martin Bell, who has published 3 monographs on the subject in the last 14 years. The most recent is The Bronze Age in the Severn Estuary published by the Council for British Archaeology in 2013. This monograph includes contributions by several Reading University students including Kirsten who did her undergraduate dissertation on the footprints of animals in Bronze Age sites.

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A long view on the trench

A long view on the trench

Over the last three weeks a joint UK-Polish team have been excavating the Prussian stronghold of Swieta Gora (sacred hill) in Masuria, north-east Poland, within the framework of the Ecology of Crusading project.

Excavations at MasuriaThe main focus of the excavation, now in its third season, has been the embankment at the northern end of the site, which was always assumed to be be early medieval.

It turns out the embankment is 17th century, but underneath there are preserved occupation layers and features from the last phase of Prussian tribal settlement at the site, just before the region was overwhelmed by the Teutonic Order’s crusades in the 13th century.

We’ve recovered a tonne of cultural and environmental data, with evidence for the exploitation of species such as bison and auroch. Last week photographer Magnus Elander was documenting the excavation and surrounding landscape as part of our outreach programme.

Keep up-to-date with the excavations on the team’s Facebook page

Read about Dr Aleks Pluskowski

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Dominik Fleitmann

Dominik Fleitmann on location

The modern vast desert belts of Northern Africa and Arabia are very hostile environments and thus a natural barrier for humans and mammals. A successful dispersal was only possible at times when the desert turned into a savannah-type landscape with abundant lakes.

To date, our knowledge of past climate variability in Arabia is very limited due to a distinct lack of suitable climate archives. Fortunately stalagmites collected from various caves on the Arabian Peninsula can now provide detailed and precisely-dated information on Quaternary climate variability back to several million years ago.

Cross section of a stalagmite from southern Yemen showing growth intervals

Cross section of a stalagmite from southern Yemen showing growth intervals

Based on previous investigations on stalagmites from Yemen and Oman, we know that stalagmite deposition is only possible during wet periods with rainfall above at least 300 mm per year (present-day average rainfall in the desert is generally less than 100 mm year). However, the current limit of the dating method (Uranium-Thorium dating) is 500,000 years, whereas dispersal of hominids took place between approx. 2-1 million years before present.

For this study, funded by NERC, Dominik Fleitmann and Stuart Black will use a fairly new method (Uranium-Lead dating) for dating very old stalagmites covering this crucial time interval in human history. By dating periods of stalagmite deposition precisely we can identify these periods and establish links between dispersals of hominids and mammals.

Read about Dominik Fleitmann

Read about Stuart Black

Read an article on speleothems (stalagmites and stalactites) in Science Magazine

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The CZAP team on location

The CZAP team on location

Staff and students from the University of Reading, as part of the Central Zagros Archaeological Project (CZAP), have returned from a successful six-week field season at Bestansur, in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.  The site lies close to a perennial spring and comprises extensive Early Neolithic occupation and later Neo-Assyrian and Sasanian levels, which form much of the 7.5m high central mound.

Excavations in 2012 established that Early Neolithic deposits were preserved across a 100-by-50 metre area, including pisé walls, areas of food preparation, flint-knapping, and a double-burial of a man and woman buried head-to-toe.

The 15m section cut into the north of the mound.

The 15m section cut into the north of the mound.

This season, CZAP excavated five trenches, including cutting a 15-metre section into the north of the mound. This work has yielded the first glimpses into the core of the Neolithic settlement with fine plaster surfaces, layers of dung and ochre, comparable with Neolithic sites across the region, such as Çatalhöyük.

Extensive post-excavation analysis is now under way examining issues of plant and animal domestication, resource usage and cultural networks across the Fertile Crescent.

Further details can be found on:

Read about the project leaders

Read a report from the Archaeology 3D project on their collaboration with CZAP 

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Professor Steven Mithen

Steve Mithen talks to Andrew Graham-Dixon

Professor Steven Mithen contributed prominently to a BBC Two ‘Culture Show Special: Ice Age Art’ which was first screened on Saturday 9th February. It can be watched on the BBC I-Player (see the link below).

The programme introduces a major exhibition at the British Museum on Ice Age Art from 7 February to 26th May 2013.

View on BBC iplayer. The programme is available to view until 6:29pm Saturday, 16 Feb 2013.

Find out more about the exhibition

Read about Professor Steve Mithen

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Severn Estuary

National Geographic photographers with tree stumps of a 8000 year old drowned forest on the foreshore at Goldcliff, Severn Estuary

The December 2012 edition of the National Geographic includes an article on Reading University’s Mesolithic research in the Severn Estuary, South Wales.  In preparation for the article the National Geographic sent two photographers from New York and a journalist from Switzerland to work  with the Reading University team. The article concerns the effects of the sea level rise as ice melted following the last glaciation. Sea level rise drowned Doggerland,  which once connected Britain to continental Europe, and also drowned many coastal areas around Britain leading to the formation of the Severn Estuary. Work here takes place at extreme spring tide  in a narrow tidal window when sites are exposed for about 90 minutes and recording has to be rapid. Ten minutes before the tide came in a well-preserved Mesolithic footprint was discovered; the National Geographic photographers were on hand to record the discovery which features in the article and the Reading team moved in to cast the footprint for eventual museum display with the tide rising around them.  The footprints are 7500 years old and are of great interest in telling the team about patterns of past human movement, relating both to settlements which have been excavated and trails converging on other campsites now lost by erosion.

Many of the footprints were those of children, some as young as four, showing that in the hunter-gatherer communities of the Mesolithic children played an active role in the day to day foraging activities of the community.

Taking Casts

Casts being made of Mesolithic crane prints at Goldcliff during a student field trip in 2012

The iPad version of the National Geographic shows a time lapse sequence with the tide retreating and then returning as the Reading team rush around like ants to record footprints and artefacts exposed by the low tide. The title page  image for the National Geographic article shows a fine reconstruction painting which they commissioned  showing one of the four successive areas of Mesolithic settlement which the Reading team have excavated at Goldcliff. Returning to the site in summer 2012 the Reading team found a new area of Mesolithic activity, a discovery which was filmed for a Channel 4 Time Team special programme to be broadcast in Spring 2013 on a similar Doggerland theme to the National Geographic article.  The National Geographic claims a worldwide readership of 40 million in 34 languages, the inclusion of Reading University work in this article and the Time Team programme takes our research to audiences which are not reached by standard academic publications. Wide public awareness is particularly important at a time when the House of Commons Select Committee on Climate Change is once again considering a Severn Tidal Barrage. Such a scheme would have a major impact on the rich archaeological resource of the Severn Estuary which Reading University has played a key role in identifying.

Read the National Geographic article on-line

See the University of Reading’s Press Release

 

 

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