Mines, Mudflats and Manure

Careers in environmental science are entirely unpredictable. You can make grand plans about where you might go and what you might do but the reality of life is that you have to respond to the opportunities that present themselves and do whatever seems exciting at the time. You may end up exactly where you started, but the journey can be simply sublime.

Devon Great Consols former copper and arsenic mine

Devon Great Consols former copper and arsenic mine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I did my PhD at the University of Reading where I spent almost four years looking at the effect earthworms had on metals in contaminated soils. Experiments basically entailed taking metal contaminated soil and comparing the chemistry of the soil before it gets eaten by the earthworm with the chemistry of what comes out the other end. During the first meeting I had with my PhD supervisor I was informed that he had been successful in securing ‘beamtime’ on a super-expensive instrument called a synchrotron in about a month’s time and that we needed to turn up with some contaminated worm poo in order to avoid major embarrassment. My first challenge was to find some contaminated soil. I was pointed in the direction of Devon Great Consols, a huge copper and arsenic mine on the banks of the river Tamar that was abandoned at the beginning of the 20th century. Upon arrival, the site looked like a moonscape with bumpy terrain consisting of various plies of pale yellow soil and a huge unvegetated spoil heap. The trick was to collect some soil that wasn’t so inhospitable that my earthworms would kick the bucket at a mere whiff but soil that would contain enough metals so that the synchrotron could detect it in the worm poo. This was a fine balance to strike but successfully achieved by hunting around for soils adjacent to the mine that already contained earthworms. If those earthworms could handle the elevated arsenic concentrations then surely the worms we had back in the lab would too. Fortunately the experiment was a success (perhaps more by luck than judgement) and that initial assessment made on my first day at Devon Great Consols served as a blueprint for subsequent field trips. I returned to the same spot on several occasions and adopted the same approach to sampling soils at other contaminated sites that I visited over the course of my years as a PhD student.

The mudflats of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada

The mudflats of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After my PhD I took the opportunity to spend a year in Nova Scotia, on the eastern coast of Canada. Why? Because the opportunity presented itself and it sounded like a fantastic place to spend a year. I was right. Nova Scotia is beautiful, everyone I met was ‘super awesome’ and the science was really exciting. Sandwiched between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick is the Bay of Fundy. The Bay of Fundy is home to the highest tidal amplitude in the world which gives rise to expansive mudflats that can stretch for more than a mile between the high and low tide mark. The bay is designated as internationally important due to its significance as feeding areas for long-distance migratory shorebirds. Every year the majority of the global population of one bird species (the Semipalmated Sandpiper: Calidris Pusilla) use the Bay of Fundy as a pit stop to eat shrimps and polychaete worms and build fat reserves before continuing their migration to South America. Because previous work had shown that some of the mudflats were contaminated with mercury and that the sandpipers were arriving in South America with elevated mercury loadings, we wanted to see if their Nova Scotian diet was contaminated. My task was to trudge out onto (or should I say into) the mudflats, collect sediment cores and extract invertebrates from the cores back at the lab. Sounds easy but the mudflats have the consistency of yesterday’s custard so just walking on (or should I say in) them is exhausting. This may seem like I’m stating the obvious but working on a mudflat results in you getting very muddy. Simple tasks like labelling samples or scratching your nose can result in getting mud in places that you never thought possible. The effort was worthwhile because we discovered that the polychaete worms contained much higher concentrations of mercury than the mud shrimp. We then went on to discover that the feeding ecology of the polychaete worms had a major impact on their mercury uptake.

The Manure Incorporation experiment at Rothamsted Research

The Manure Incorporation experiment at Rothamsted Research

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following my year in Nova Scotia (and a year in the US state of Iowa where I didn’t do any field work, so won’t go into it here), I had the fantastic opportunity to conduct fieldwork at what is probably the most famous and revered agricultural research station in the world: Rothamsted Research. Rothamsted is steeped in history and is most famous for the Broadbalk Experiment: the oldest continually running agricultural experiment in the world (which started in 1843). I was employed to look after a new suite of field experiments where we added various types of manure to plots of soil. The purpose was to see which type of manure, or which straw/ manure combinations were the best food for the organisms that live in the soil. The hope was that by adding the manure to the soil, the abundance of beneficial organisms such as earthworms and fungi would increase. We hypothesised that these organisms would then re-organise and improve the structure of the soil, reducing its strength. The improved soil would then be easier for plant roots to penetrate and we would see an increase in crop yield – and we did! Despite UK agriculture boasting some of the most technically advanced machinery in the world and Rothamsted being at the forefront of Agri-Environment research, it became quickly apparent that when an accurate quantity of manure needs to be applied to a precise plot of land, a man with a shovel is still be best tool for the job. For this reason, I spent my Septembers with a team from the farm engaging in the back-breaking pursuit of shovelling approximately sixty tonnes of manure into neat little piles on the back of a trailer and then applying them in buckets to the surface of more than 300 plots in the field. The experiments are still going and have already yielded some bumper data but I am happy to say that I have handed the shovel over to my successor.

Now that I have come full circle and am back at the University of Reading, a stone’s throw from the lab where I produced my first contaminated worm poo, I have one piece of advice: Don’t try to plan a career as an environmental scientist. Take the opportunities that present themselves, however mad or scary they may seem. The journey is much more important than the destination.

A bit about today’s blogger: Tom Sizmur

Tom_Sizmur_wDr Tom Sizmur is a Lecturer in Environmental Chemistry at the University of Reading. His research interest spans soil biogeochemistry in contaminated and agricultural systems with an emphasis on the interactions between organisms and their environment. His current research is on the use of biochar in environmental remediation and on the improvement of soils by applying organic amendments. Prior to this appointment Tom worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Rothamsted Research (UK), Iowa State University (USA) and Acadia University (Canada) and gained his PhD from the University of Reading.
Email: t.sizmur@reading.ac.uk

Life-changing fieldwork in pre-war Syria

The reason I stayed in archaeology is my first fieldwork season in Syria. Halfway through my undergraduate degree, I found archaeology certainly very interesting and enjoyable, but I had started wondering how relevant it really was to society. Was it not more a sort of elaborate hobby, fun for a while, but not worth spending my whole life on? I was planning to start taking a few non-archaeological modules after the summer break. First though there were ten weeks of fieldwork in the Middle East that I had already signed up for, an opportunity I did not want to miss in any case. So, off I went to rural northern Syria.

 

1.View from the main archaeological site to a smaller adjacent site, the cotton fields, and the village where we stayed. Photo by Ben van den Bercken

1. View from the main archaeological site to a smaller adjacent site, the cotton fields, and the village where we stayed. Photo by Ben van den Bercken

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The archaeological site I went to was a small Neolithic tell (Arabic for artificial mound) with an Middle Assyrian (about 13th century BC) fortress on top. Its name is Tell Sabi Abyad, which translates as ‘mound of the white boy’ – the place is believed to be haunted, although an attempt by some of my fellow students to spot the ghost one night was not successful. The site is located in what currently is a steppe zone, or an area with a limited amount of rainfall. However, extensive irrigation makes the landscape look rather greener than the Sahara desert many people back home appear to think all of the Middle East looks like! On the photos you can see the green cotton fields surrounding the site.

 

2.Early morning hot, sweet tea with my team. Later in the season, in October, the very early mornings could be chilly. The site and village are currently in IS area - I very much hope everyone in the village is all right!

2. Early morning hot, sweet tea with my team. Later in the season, in October, the very early mornings could be chilly. The site and village are currently in IS area – I very much hope everyone in the village is all right!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We arrived in the middle of August, and temperatures were up to a scorching high 40s in the shade. The sort of covering, lightweight clothing Kevin wrote about (http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/sages-advice-fieldwork-gender-careers/page/2/) was certainly essential! We stayed in a traditional mud brick house in the nearby village – very lovely, although also very dusty, as was the archaeological site. In the mornings, the raspy voice of the imam coming from the mosque would wake us around 4 o’clock. This was the signal it was almost time to get up, in order to be on the site before sunrise, so we could do some work before the worst heat would set in. In the afternoons we would mostly work in the slightly cooler excavation house. Not used to the heat and the food, everyone fell ill almost immediately. So, heat, hard work, and sickness. But I loved it. The archaeology was amazing, 8500 year old mud walls, still preserved. In the buildings we found some of the earliest pottery in the Middle East, and many beautiful (as well as less beautiful) artefacts of daily life, like grinding stones, and figurines. The local people were extremely friendly, especially considering they were dealing with inexperienced students who could not speak their language but yet were commandeering them around (or well, trying to). On an almost daily basis we were invited for strong, sweet tea at people’s houses. The other students and archaeologists were also great. While dinnertime political discussions were frequent, in our ‘bubble’ we did not really worry about the global news; generally, we just focused on our daily work and survival.

 

3.From sunrise… (photo: Ben van den Bercken)

3. From sunrise… (photo: Ben van den Bercken)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.… to sunset (photo: Willem Londeman)

4. … to sunset (photo: Willem Londeman)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I decided that I did not care if archaeology was not that important to society: I simply loved it and would continue to do it. But more gradually I also realised something else: that in fact archaeology is all about society. We do not just want to find some fancy things (right?), but we want to figure out what it was like for people to live back then. What did they do? How did they do the things they did? And, mainly, why did they do them? Of course, this is something that I had already learned in my university courses. But, and Duncan also referred to this in his blog (posted on the 5th December 2014), it is the actual digging that can lead to new ideas, or in this case, that can make us really understand the ideas that until then we just knew in theory.

5.Drawing 5 metre high sections. A few days previous, there was a large snake in one of the holes to the top! (photo: Ben van den Bercken)

5. Drawing 5 metre high sections. A few days previous, there was a large snake in one of the holes to the top! (photo: Ben van den Bercken)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About today’s blogger:

PascalFlohr_wPascal Flohr is a post-doctoral research assistant in Middle Eastern Archaeology, working for Professor Dominik Fleitmann. Her main aim is to assess the impact of climatic events on Holocene Near Eastern societies, by compiling and re-analysing existing data using a database and GIS, with a current focus on Early Holocene rapid climate events, such as the 8.2 ka event.

Pascal’s doctoral research focused on reconstructing past water availability by using plant stable isotopic composition, with a main aim of reconstructing past water management practices in the Near East. She was involved in experimental crop growing in Jordan (led by the Water, Life, and Civilisation project in cooperation with NCARE), conducted charring and burial experiments with cereal grains in Jordan and the UK, and applied the method to archaeological plant samples from the Jordan Valley.

Pascal has been involved in several archaeological projects in the Near East, including the experimental building of a replica Neolithic structure based on the site of WF16, Jordan, and documenting and repairing experimental structures at Beidha, also in Jordan. In addition, she has got extensive fieldwork experience in the Near East, at sites like Sabi Abyad in Syria, WF16 and Barqa in Jordan, and Bestansur in Iraq.

Gender and Fieldwork

On my first morning of working in the trench at Silchester I donned my dungarees, dinosaur t-shirt and bright pink wellies, then my best friend Emily and I marched out onto site with our trowels and a feeling of consternation about what on earth we were doing. Within a few days the two of us had settled in to the swing of things and finally given up our futile effort of keeping everything we owned clean. The guys on the dig seemed to take to the dirt a lot quicker than us, but in the end we accepted our muddy fate. By the end of the 4 weeks the two of us were barely recognisable with matted sun-dyed hair, mud-ridden clothes and a lackadaisical desire to sit outside with bottles of cider. The glamorous transformation into archaeologists had begun and we would never be the same again.

Nearly 3 years have now passed since that first day of digging and my experiences as a woman working in archaeology have, on the whole, proven to be extremely positive, with open-minded attitudes and equal opportunities for all; not only with regards to gender but also life-style, interests and personal choices. Everyone is accepted, partly because we all share the same love for digging up old things from the dirt (a love which many of my non-archaeology friends will never comprehend). However as I have found out, this equality is not the case across the whole board of academic excavations, and I am hoping that any gender-driven discrimination is brought to light, because the image of women in archaeology should ultimately mirror that of men.

Lizzie 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have spent my last three summers working at Silchester, and with such a large influx of students and volunteers, a great range of diversity hit the scene every season. Men and women of differing ages and backgrounds gathered together from all over the UK and beyond with a shared interest in archaeology. The best thing about working at Silchester was that even though there were so many different people, there was never a hint of discrimination, and it only took a few days for a muddy micro-community to take form. Similarly, last summer I excavated on the Isles of Scilly with a mixed group of people of different ages and gender. Although a lot smaller in comparison to Silchester, Scilly was the same in that everyone shared a mixture of tasks, some physically demanding and others less so. The group spirit of the field team was so strong that we all dined and explored together in the evenings and on our days off, and one night we even had a novel beach barbeque in a wheelbarrow. Even in times of crisis -such as when I lost a fight with a Neolithic stone- the group came together to help each other out. To be honest at both Silchester and Scilly gender issues never really crossed my mind, as everyone pulled together to get the work done.

Lizzie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, my experiences elsewhere have not always been so positive. On another excavation undertaken overseas in 2013 I found myself and close archaeology companion Lorna being constantly given tasks such as planning and finds processing, and generally being held back from undertaking any serious physical activity. We were rarely allowed to carry heavy loads or equipment back from site, whilst the men struggled under the weight of it all. Admittedly at the end of the first hot day digging I took this as a blessing, however I soon began to realise that I wanted to play an equal role and that those in charge obviously believed we were less capable of manual labour. As a result the two of us took it upon ourselves to show off our muscles and dig like we’d never dug before. Therefore there is definitely room for improvement in some attitudes, and I wholeheartedly believe that men and women each have their own personal strengths and weaknesses regardless of their gender. Nevertheless my experiences in the field have generally been very positive, and I have met such a fantastic mix of people in every case.

Now that University has sadly ended, I have noticed that a number of my female friends have gone on to do postgraduate study or are pursuing other forms of archaeology or heritage jobs, whilst many of my male friends have entered into the world of commercial field-work. I don’t think that this pattern is a reflection of any type of inequality within the sector, but more a reflection of personal choice and preferred working environment. As for me; I am currently working in Finds Processing but I know that one day soon I will don my steel toe caps once more and be reunited with the ancient soils.

 

Lizzie Raison

Lizzy Raison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lizzy Raison. A bit about today’s blogger – Since finishing my degree in Archaeology and History at Reading I have been all over the shop trying to get heritage and archaeology work under my belt. Last summer I went to work at Silchester as an Environmental and Database Assistant, before taking part in the Neolithic excavation on the Isles of Scilly. I then worked for the National Trust up until Christmas in an unpaid conservation role, which gave me fantastic experience in the day to day running of a historic property. Plus I got to live in a POW hut in the eerie estate woodland for three months, which was an adventure in itself. Since the New Year I have been working as a Finds Processor at Cotswold Archaeology, which has so far proved to be a great job. The people are lovely, there’s tea on tap and most importantly I find myself learning something new every day.

 

Interview with Wendy Matthews and Macarena Cardenas – what does fieldwork mean to you?

Two members of the SAGES Gender and Fieldwork Working Group  – Wendy Matthews (Archaeology) and Macarena Cardenas (GES) answer some questions on what fieldwork means to them:

 

Wendy Matthews (Archaeology)

Wendy Matthews (Archaeology)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Macarena Cardenas (GES)

Macarena Cardenas (GES)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What does fieldwork represent for you?

Wendy:
Fieldwork is fundamental to the disciplines represented within our School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science (SAGES). Staff and students engage in fieldwork activities through research trips and field classes both in the UK and internationally.
Macarena:
Fieldwork is the foundation stone on which we build our research. The success of our scientific findings and academic publications depends on the outcome of our campaigns in the field. Behind any successful fieldwork data set there is, however, much more than simply logistics and data gathering.  When we work in the field we rarely do so in isolated conditions. Often fieldwork includes working/liaising with local organisations/charities, community engagement, and/or impact (both environmental, and in terms of a legacy for the community).

 

 
What skills can be gained from fieldwork?
Wendy
Fieldwork requires and develops a range of key skills and knowledge at all career stages – whether undertaking Undergraduate, Masters or PhD dissertation and thesis research, or Post-doctoral and Staff research, or Professional employment. Fieldwork includes skills, knowledge and experience in:

• Research design – to define research questions, aims, objectives; design fieldwork strategies and methodologies
• Methodologies – to conduct and record fieldwork accurately
• Ethics – to ensure acknowledgement of the contribution and academic, personal and professional rights of all of those    concerned
• Logistics – to plan, organise and manage fieldwork travel, accommodation, resources and supplies, timescales
• Health and Safety – to ensure the well-being of all of those participating
• Cultural and ecological awareness – to respect the social and natural environment in which fieldwork is conducted
• Leadership and teamwork – to ensure the fieldwork is conducted professionally, and that all members are respected and enjoy as well as benefit from the experience

Macarena
It is important to highlight that often fieldwork requires teamwork. Each team member has an important role to play, and this should be valued. I believe that besides the innumerable skills that can be gained from fieldwork, there are also the skills that are required to conduct teamwork. Each team member has an important role to play, and it is good to recognise and value it. During fieldwork you not only apply old and new skills, but you also learn to apply these skills within a team. It is almost as if you are multiplying the skills you are learning – those gained from individual planning and fieldwork, and those gained from being part of a team.

 

 
Gender and Fieldwork is a 12 month School wide project running in SAGES – what does this mean to you?
Wendy
Gender is a theme that is central to any discussion of fieldwork in our respective disciplines, in particular the gender roles and gendered experiences of fieldwork and the associated opportunities and challenges around being in the field and careers in fieldwork.

Macarena
Men and women work together in the field. It is important to recognize that male/female academics, students and research staff may experience very different challenges in the field. We want to ask the question – How has gender influenced your fieldwork experiences?

Beloved and complicated Bolivia 2: Sieving your life and the elements

After arriving from an eight hour car trip to our base site in the city of Cochabamba, we then went to a remote site in the middle of the Andean mountains. This was our first study site, and took a 4 hour drive, plus a 4 hour hike to get to. We found a gorgeous landscape at an elevation of 4,100 meters, hardly visited by humans, and surrounded by grasslands with patches of gorgeous, highly diverse forest (our reason to be there). We were there to work and camp for five days.
The extreme absence of humans, the silence, the wind, the birds, the sound of the branches of woody plants when bending in the wind, were all evident from the moment I left the car. Breathing seemed so evident, not an autonomous action anymore, the air was pure and crisp. An enormous freedom; freedom from pollution, from noise, from commitments, and from normal life. When I go to remote areas for field trips I find my life cleared out from all those things that seem to be like mosquitoes around my head. I clear the clutter. I like to think that these opportunities are like a sieve, I sieve my life, and I hold onto the things that are useful, and matter to me.

Nature. Enjoying one of the best things of this field trip: nature at its maximum expression. Can you believe these flowers growing at an elevation of 4,000m?

Nature. Enjoying one of the best things of this field trip: nature at its maximum expression. Can you believe these flowers growing at an elevation of 4,000m?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is true that in this situation we also had a lot of challenging work to do. We had heavy gear and equipment to both carry and work with. Here is when you find some of the elements in their full expression:

Air/oxygen. How we overlook it, and oh dear, I missed it while I was there! At an elevation of 4,000m you have almost half of the amount of oxygen available compared to when you are at sea level, and I can tell you, it is little. As I mentioned in a previous post, when you walk, you notice it, even when you first talk. Walking is hard! My male colleagues in the field were counting their heart rate, and they found that even in a resting position (lying down in their tents before sleep) they had a heart rate similar to the one they would have when running at a low elevation. That, ladies and gentleman, is hard. You struggle to breathe and your performance is far lower than what you are used to. Even though it was hard there was still a silver lining as we would have to stop quite often to recover a more gentle heart rhythm, and were “obliged” to have a look at that gorgeous landscape. I didn’t complain.

 

Khomer Kocha site. An example of the amazing landscape I had the chance to appreciate every time we stopped to catch our breath. Notice our helpful driver on the left of the photo, he helped us carry our equipment for several hours and then drive himself to his home (taking him another four hour drive).

Khomer Kocha site. An example of the amazing landscape I had the chance to appreciate every time we stopped to catch our breath. Notice our helpful driver on the left of the photo, he helped us carry our equipment for several hours and then drive himself to his home (taking him another four hour drive).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Water. It was not ideal, but there was a reason for us going into the field during the rainy season, but I won’t get into the details of it here. Imagine those abundant and inescapable tropical rain storms, add summer temperatures, and now mix them with high elevation: a recipe for thunderstorms. By the evening of the second night we noticed how the clouds that were under us were now coming closer and we sheltered in our tents. Not much later we noticed the rain start, heavy rain…. Well, not just that, but also an enormous and angry thunderstorm. You would see the light from the inside of your tent like camera flashes shooting at your tent (the paparazzi in the high Andes?). Three seconds later the sound of thunder would follow making my hair vibrate. Coming from an Andean country myself I had experienced this many times, but never so close. The thunderstorm went on like this for the whole night. Although I was restless I was tired enough after the intense working day to fall asleep.
When I woke up at 4.30am, my tent was a pool, and my sleeping bag had soaked up as much water as available (a lot of water!). Everything was wet, including inside my tent. I went out to check on my colleagues. They seemed to be okay, they were all sleeping. Although it was cloudy the storm had stopped. There was snow outside… it was cold. We just managed to change our camp to a higher, more drained area, and a new thunderstorm started. For safety that day we remained in our tents. That was the longest day of my life. I had to stay for the whole day lying down inside a wet sleeping bag and tent (in which I didn’t fit sitting as it was very low). That was a hard day.

 

Striking. The thunderstorm, very, very close. (See the lighter patch in the bottom right? That is the lake next to which we were camping). Photo courtesy of brave Chris Morris

Striking. The thunderstorm, very, very close. (See the lighter patch in the bottom right? That is the lake next to which we were camping). Photo courtesy of brave Chris Morris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Were the elements against us? I don’t think so, it is all a cycle and thanks to the abundant water supply we had plenty of water to drink and to recover after our exhausting hiking days. There is no way we would have been able to carry so much water there… we needed that rain.

 

5

Delicious freshly made. Our very well equipped colleague Chris brought a fabulous water pump that would produce litres of filtered water from wild running streams in just minutes!! Here in action.

Delicious freshly made. Our very well equipped colleague Chris brought a fabulous water pump that would produce litres of filtered water from wild running streams in just minutes!! Here in action.

 

 

Sun/heat/fire (?). When it wasn’t raining, it was hot as a sauna during the day. Imagine the radiation at that elevation? From the international scale of 0-11+ for UV index, considering 11 extreme, we were above the value of 14. I guess it is needless to say how we felt. Our high metabolism trying to pump as much oxygen as possible to our body while we were working did not match well with the heat and the radiation. Of course we used sun cream protection, long sleeves, hats, sunglasses, etc. But that didn’t stop us from experiencing the sun. And although it sounds extreme, I was so grateful when, two nights after my tent got flooded, I saw the sunshine coming up at 5am. I literally took everything out and happily experienced the heat drying everything, aaaahh! Such a blessing.

 Adored by ancient civilizations, and me! the God Sun. Drying up everything, including my feet.


Adored by ancient civilizations, and me! the God Sun. Drying up everything, including my feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the things I learned/reinforced from this fieldtrip were:
• Coming back to basics, sieving your life, all feels good to me
• I can sleep in a wet sleeping bag in the high mountains and I won’t die in the process
• Everything, absolutely everything has their bad AND good aspects
• As my very experienced male colleague Chris said: “women in the field are badass!”
• Fieldwork, it is such hard work, but it is also so worth it; I couldn’t live without it

Do I also have to mention that when the sun appeared in the morning those were the most amazing sunrises I have ever seen?

Sunrise. Glorious moments at 5.30am at our camp site

Sunrise. Glorious moments at 5.30am at our camp site

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Macarena_Lucia_Cardenas__wSee further posts from Macarena on the 7th November 2014 (Fieldwork and Empowerment), 3rd December 2014 (Beloved and Complicated Bolivia 1) and 14th January 2015 (Giving Back in Field Research).

In fieldwork patience is a virtue

One of the valuable lessons from my fieldwork was that progress can be SLOW, and that working in the field can be a test of patience, as much as it is an opportunity to be energetic and resourceful. My PhD fieldwork took place in the south-west Amazon region, in lowland Bolivia. When I tell people this, the first word to come up is usually “exciting”. The excitement of visiting an exotic country, and travelling to its remotest parts for some real Indiana-Jones-style adventuring. While it is true that doing this kind of fieldwork offers unique experiences, I remind people that it’s fieldWORK, not fieldHolidays. What one seldom hears about is the potential for boredom and frustration. Fieldwork often involves a lot of waiting around for things to happen, people to get back to you, for conditions to be right. These are all especially so when you are in a foreign and/or developing country, where bureaucracy, social customs and ideas of urgency and timeliness can be quite different to what you are used to. In these circumstances there are two options: 1) continue to worry and drive yourself crazy or 2) accept that things will take as long as they take (whilst still doing what you can to make sure things don not take any longer than they need to). The following is an example of an occasion when I learned about the advantages of being patient.

 

In summer 2011 we were in a remote town called Bella Vista, near to Bolivia’s north-east border with Brazil. This was all work for a palaeoecological project looking into the historical environmental impact of ancient Amazonian societies, who have left an incredible legacy of monumental earthworks in this region. Our aim was to take sediment cores from a number of target lakes that we had identified as promising, because of their close proximity to archaeological sites of interest. Since being in Bella Vista, we had already successfully cored one small lake close to the town. This was hard work done floating out in the open in conditions so hot it was difficult to do simple mental arithmetic. Still we managed to get a nice deep core and finish in only one day. Now it was on to our next target lake, Laguna Orícore, where I was hoping for a similarly rapid outcome. A juddering speedboat ride up the river took us to our camp, on the edge of a small estancia (cattle ranch), that occupied a wedge of grassland between the river and the lake. That first day after landing, we went to take a look at the lake and its surroundings. It was a big lake, 3.5 km across, but like all of the enigmatic square-shaped lakes in this part of Bolivia, it was shallow, at only about 2 meters deep throughout. Around the edges of the lake there was a thin strip of forest. The girthy buttress roots of the trees intertwined and overhung the water’s edge to make a natural jetty; quite handy for getting into and out of the water. We had arrived reasonably early and much of the day was left. As such, I was eager to get started, but there was a problem. What seemed like only a moderate wind was agitating the water surface and creating some reasonable sized waves. This was a product of the “fetch” or accumulative effect across the surface of such a big lake. These were bad conditions for coring. To get a vertical sediment core it needs to be taken from a stable platform. Trying to take one from a coring rig that was bobbing around on choppy water was not a way to do that. Being impatient, I was keen to press on anyway, but speaking from his position of experience, my supervisor Frank recommended that we wait for things to settle. Waiting around in that grassland did not seem like fun to me. In the town we had left behind the relative comfort of the WWF ranger’s station, which had hammocks, (cold) showers and beds protected by mosquito netting. At the estancia however, we slept in tents, which were no barrier to columns of biting ants on the march, and at night the cows attracted apocalyptic swarms of mosquitoes. They were undeterred by the smoke from our fire and we found that the only thing that would keep them away was spraying ourselves with copious amounts of high potency DEET.

 

It took two days for the weather to calm down enough for coring. In the meantime, we decided that, given how big the lake was and how long it would take to paddle to the middle on our not very hydrodynamic coring rig, it would be useful to move the steel speedboat that we had driven up the river, across to the lake. The boat and its engine were HEAVY, and helping to move it across the c. 500 meters of grassland between river and lake taught me that a 5 ft Bolivian park ranger was worth about 3 of me in terms of carrying strength. Over the two days we also took the chance to wonder around the landscape. I walked through the riverine wood with our botanist colleague Daniel as he surveyed the plant species. A group of us climbed a rocky outcrop, which lined the north-west margin of the lake, to get a better look at the landscape, and to take pictures, like the one above (see picture 1). We noted that the outcrop supported drought-tolerant tree species, which would be significant later on for our interpretation of the lake sediments. We also discovered that the cracks in the rock were filled with colonies of writhing, squeaking bats, hiding from the sun.

Picture 1

Picture 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
After surveying the wider landscape, we went fishing for piranha in the river, using lines with no poles and bits of beef jerky as bait. My first taste of barbecued piranha was a positive experience. One of the most pleasant things was going for a swim during the late afternoon in the bath-warm water of the lake, and washing off the dirt and the DEET.
When the weather finally settled and the lake was still, we constructed our coring rafts, hitched them to the speedboat and cruised easily into position in the centre of the lake. The conditions were ideal for coring. Had we gone straight in on the first day when I wanted to, we would probably have had the added frustration of a failed attempt. We also used the time wisely by scouting out and getting a better feel for the landscape, and by moving the speedboat over to the lake. In the end, that made our work easier and more efficient, and allowed the chance for a great photo opportunity (picture 2 and 3)…

 

Picture 2

Picture 2

 

Picture 3

Picture 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bit about today’s blogger: John Carson

 

JohnCarson_w[1]John’s research interest lies in investigating both human influences on the environment and natural past environmental change over the Holocene period (past ~10,000 years), especially in the Amazonian Neotropics. There is growing evidence for a long history of pre-European (pre-AD 1492) human occupation in Amazonia, by populous societies whose lifestyles were settled. As such, a more complex story of the development of Amazonian ecosystems over the Holocene, which involved the interaction between climate, vegetation and human land use, is emerging. John’s approach is a palaeoecological one (past – ecology), which uses biological proxies to reconstruct how environments have changed over time.

He also applies palaeoecological data to help answer archaeological questions about pre-European Amazonian societies. Fundamental questions remain regarding these societies in many regions. How large were their populations? How did they manage the landscape? What is the chronology (timescale) of their occupations? What was their subsistence strategy/what crops did they grow?

John received his undergraduate degree in Geology and Archaeology (BSc) from the University of Birmingham in 2008, completed a Masters in Environmental Monitoring, Modelling and Reconstruction (MSc) at the University of Manchester in 2010, and in 2014, gained his PhD in Tropical Palaeoecology at the School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh.

Eddies and Wellies

Fieldwork on the floodplain of the River Severn in Shropshire

Fieldwork on the floodplain of the River Severn in Shropshire

I love being out in the field, rain or shine (or sleet or snow), as long as I’m not being chased by a horse or a cow (some terrifying experiences there). I spent several years working on the floodplain of the River Severn in Shropshire monitoring the water pathways over and through the floodplain sediments. The idea was to use this data for modelling the flooding processes and hyporheic exchange of waters during a flood event. However, instrumenting the floodplain was much more difficult than I had anticipated. I quickly realised that fieldwork was pretty hard and having someone with field experience on the team was the key to success, especially when it came to siting and wiring up equipment. However, even though our transects of tensiometers never worked (possibly because members of the team had played with them as lightsabers) and the cows destroyed one of the main enclosures only minutes after we’d finished building it, we did get some useful data on water pathways in the floodplain and more importantly I had an awful lot of fun in the field. There is something about fresh air and/or beating rain and/or knee deep mud that truly warms the soul. I also spent hours watching the eddies spinning off of some of the best meanders in the country.

Hannah inside an enclosure for monitoring equipment

Hannah inside an enclosure for monitoring equipment

As an environmental modeller fieldwork also plays another function, one of ‘keeping it real’ and I heartily recommend a bit of fieldwork to all modellers out there. The immense complexity of floodplain sediments can only be really appreciated by getting your hands dirty taking soil cores, subsurface radar profiles and most importantly eating your sandwiches under a tree watching the way the microtopography and the vegetation influences the surface runoff in the pouring rain.

In the last few years since my children arrived I’ve had less opportunity to go off on a fieldwork ‘jolly’, as the responsibilities of childcare pickups, even perfectly juggled with my husband, do not lend themselves to any long days that aren’t top priority. Research fieldtrips are so easily crowded out by conferences, workshops and other meetings, which are usually in windowless conference rooms. I do miss those eddies and slinging on my wellies.

 

A bit about today’s blogger:

HannahCloke_wHannah Cloke is a hydrologist and physical geographer specializing in land surface modelling, flood forecasting and catchment hydrology. She works closely with the Environment Agency, the Met Office, the Flood Forecasting Centre and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts as well as a wide range of other national and international partners. She advised government on the Jan/Feb 2014 floods crisis and provided substantial expert commentary in the media.

Hannah obtained a BSc (1999) and PhD (2003) in Geography from the University of Bristol. She then worked as a Research Associate at the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, working on the European Flood Alert System and then from 2004 lectured at in the Department of Geography at King’s College London. In 2012 she moved to the University of Reading; to a joint post between the Department of Geography and Environmental Science and the Department of Meteorology, where she is now Professor of Hydrology and Director Hydrology@Reading

Hannah is currently a member of the of the Environment Agency-DEFRA R&D flood science programme advisory group. She is a member of the NERC Peer Review Panel C, Floods theme coordinator for the International Hydrological Programme (IHP): FRIEND network, and a committee member of the EGU Hydrology section: Catchment hydrology. She is on the editorial board of the journals Meteorological Applications and Hydrology and Earth System Sciences and is guest editor for Hydrological Processes.

Hannah is an active member of the HEPEX project and recently served on the British Hydrological Society committee.

First Fieldwork Experiences – Duncan Garrow

I remember my first two fieldwork experiences well…

The first was being down a 4m deep trench in Covent Garden, on a week’s work experience when I was still at school. The MoLAS team were in a massive rush (it was the last week), and I had very little clue what was going on. It was a Saxon site, and I helped a friendly Canadian do flotation all week. It was a strange experience, but I enjoyed the strangeness, the feeling of being deep down below the real (contemporary) world, of people stopping to stare, asking if we’d found any gold yet.

The second was digging an Iron Age storage pit just outside the ramparts of the hillfort of Wandlebury, on my undergraduate training excavation. At the time it just seemed like normal archaeology to me, but looking back on it now, I was digging an amazing feature containing loads of bone and pottery, full of what might now be called ‘structured deposits’. I suppose that first real digging encounter must have stayed with me, as in my academic work I’ve written a fair bit about ‘ritual’ deposition and pits since then.

Like both Jim (see Oct 28, 2014 post) and Amanda (see Nov 14, 2014 post), I previously spent a few years working for a developer-funded archaeology company, in the late 1990s/early 2000s. My time at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit was, by and large, great fun; immensely rewarding, academically and archaeologically. I learnt a huge amount, not just about digging, but about how to read material culture patterning and interpret archaeology in general. I got to dig all sorts of fantastic sites, from Neolithic pits, to huge Bronze Age landscapes and barrows, Iron Age roundhouses, Roman settlements and Saxon cemeteries. I once even dug up a pickled snake in the Bishop of Ely’s garden!

 

Me on site at Whittlesey brick pits, Cambridgeshire, 1999

Me on site at Whittlesey brick pits, Cambridgeshire, 1999

In writing this post for the ‘gender and fieldwork’ blog, I’ve obviously had cause to reflect on gender issues, as far as I’ve experienced them. When I was involved with fieldwork full-time, I have to say that the gender of my colleagues and friends was never at the forefront of my mind. I think fieldwork requires such a broad range of skills that gender has little effect in terms of who’s actually good at it. The first two site directors I came across (in Covent Garden and at Wandlebury) were women. In contrast to Amanda’s experience, at the CAU many of the site directors and excavators I worked alongside were women. However, that is not to say that the sorts of broader societal factors which the Athena Swan charter seeks to address within academia are not relevant here. They are.

As Jim Leary said in his Oct 28 post, the world of development that you work in as a commercial archaeologist is often a male-dominated one (of quarrymen, builders, digger-drivers). At times though, I felt quite envious of the women site directors running sites alongside me – many of the digger drivers we spent hours machine-watching alongside were more respectful of them than me, no doubt partly because they were women in the usually-man’s world of construction.

A frosty morning on site at Kilverstone, Thetford, Norfolk, February 2001

A frosty morning on site at Kilverstone, Thetford, Norfolk, February 2001

Looking back at my colleagues who still work in that world, we’ve all aged (sadly). Many of the men and women I worked with have made very good careers for themselves, moving on into management roles and other positions of responsibility. But others, including me, have moved on. Some of the women have perhaps done so feeling that it might be difficult to marry the demands of long days in the field (sometimes away from home) with having a family, etc.; but this is certainly a factor that affects men too. I suspect that age and underlying financial circumstances are also key factors in determining who stays working in the field.

Having left the unit and embarked on my PhD (which didn’t require my own fieldwork), I initially found it hard to get back into digging. I felt that, in the academic sphere, I could never match the scale of excavation (and funding) that I’d witnessed in the commercial sector, and wondered whether maybe I should just leave it to the pros. However, I’ve come to realise that, even on a small scale with relatively little funding, you can do a great deal if you target your efforts effectively. On the Neolithic Stepping Stones project over the past few years, we’ve dug some amazing sites, and spent time in some incredible places. We’ve also found out a lot. If it hadn’t been for our (academic) funding, those sites would never have been dug at all, and may even have been lost to coastal erosion by now.

 

Island digging at An Doirlinn, South Uist, Outer Hebrides, August 2012

Island digging at An Doirlinn, South Uist, Outer Hebrides, August 2012

 

I remember talking to Chris Gosden (Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University) about fieldwork, when I worked with him a few years ago. He told me that he felt it was important to keep digging, despite the writing time is takes out of your busy academic year, as it makes you think about new things, move in unexpected directions, and always surprises you academically. He was right.

DuncanGarrow_w A bit about today’s blogger: Duncan Garrow teaches later European prehistory (with a particular focus on Britain) and archaeological theory. His research interests include the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition; long-term histories of deposition; burial practices; the interpretive potential of radiocarbon dating; the integration of developer-funded and university-based archaeology; archaeological theory; and interdisciplinary approaches to material culture. Duncan worked in the commercial archaeology sector (at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit) from 1996-2002, when he left to undertake his PhD on Neolithic and Early Bronze Age pits in East Anglia. His most recent book (2012), co-authored with Chris Gosden, was entitled ‘Technologies of Enchantment? Exploring Celtic Art 400 BC to AD 100’. He is currently co-directing (with Fraser Sturt) an AHRC-funded project entitled ‘Stepping stones to the Neolithic? Islands, maritime connectivity and the ‘western seaways’ of Britain, 5000-3500 BC’; as a result he has recently directed excavations in the Channel Islands, the Outer Hebrides and the Isles of Scilly. For more information see the Stepping Stones project website. He is currently working on a book exploring ‘ritual’ deposition in British prehistory, from the Palaeolithic through to the Iron Age.

Beloved and complicated Bolivia 1: Field Series by Macarena Cardenas

Following Amanda’s post about the hard reality of fieldwork, I wanted to share the beginning of my journey to Bolivia, which is happening right now. I am writing from a bus and using a tablet, so please be aware that this is far from a master piece.

A British scientist, an American GIS expert and I have all come to Bolivia to extract sediments from high elevation (~3000 – 4000m above sea level) lakes in Bolivia. That means bringing a large amount of equipment and of course, logistics and planning.

Oh dear airline. The first step shouldn’t be hard: leaving England to Bolivia. We arrived at Heathrow airport three hours in advance of our flights in order to make sure we had plenty of time to check everything in. We were flying with AA. When they saw us coming with the boxes of equipment they had a kind of “fried egg eyes” expression, and said to us ” a new embargo policy came out yesterday, you cannot fly with these boxes to tropical South America.” That was the beginning. No information was available when booking the flights, not even when Joe, the British colleague in charge, called the company to ask if we could fly with the boxes (“it’s fine, you just pay excess ” they said at that time). The other option, sending the boxes by cargo, meant (based on previous experience) the equipment would arrive by the time we needed to come back.

Disappointed and laughing - Joe and our equipment at the airport

Disappointed and laughing – Joe and our equipment at the airport

I love how we dealt with the situation, we didn’t give up, we stayed firm, remained open to ideas and kept smiling. We got to speak to the manager who was very helpful, and managed to change us onto two other flights.  Although that meant we had to wait for 10 more hours at the airport (and this involved lots of running around with the boxes between flights) we could still fly.

Old-new country. Our arrival in Bolivia was not easy either: Chris, our American colleague didn’t get his bag, and the equipment almost didn’t make it to the country because of customs. After waiting and dealing with this we got all of the luggage later on.

Do not judge on looks. Our next step was to hire a driver and his car to get both us, and our equipment, to a location 10 hours from the city. Considering that hire firms don’t use the Internet to publicise their services, there is nothing you can do before you get there. Fortunately we had Ulises with us, the most helpful local I have meet so far. We got to the terminal to hire a mini bus. Everyone seemed equally untrustworthy, with everyone offering different things. We decided to go with the one that seemed to have the largest office (which looked to me like an old workshop after a war had taken place).  They even gave us a receipt… Our instinct about their reliability had failed us though since they just took the money and then disappeared. After hours of chasing and waiting (with extremely valuable help from Ulises), we managed to get the money back, and also to get a real driver with a mini bus. (He is now driving us as I write, chewing enormous amounts of “green chicken”, aka coca leaves, that he takes from a little green bag at his right hand side, and which makes him look like a hamster).

Our brave and fantastic driver - Coca leaves in his hand and cheek

Our brave and fantastic driver – Coca leaves in his hand and cheek

It’s not the language that makes us different, at least not the only thing. During this trip I have confirmed that it doesn’t matter if you speak the same language (I have felt a little lost already, even though there isn’t even a difference in vocabulary). There are so many codes, and procedures we learn and follow even without realising it. That is beautiful, and we take it for granted. I like being aware of this, and enrich myself by learning about others.

In the main plaza of Santa Cruz - people, culture and heritage

In the main plaza of Santa Cruz – people, culture and heritage

We laugh anyway. My colleagues and I have been quite positive, and are really enjoying the experience. It’s great to know you don’t have to take decisions alone, and as it is said: three brains think better than one.

What I have learned so far:

● Use your smile and insist at the same time if you want to get something done (not very new really)

● Always check for “late changes in legal procedures” before traveling, especially for the not so legal

● Love locals and have one on your side if you can

● And, team work is so much fun, no matter the circumstances

I will hopefully be able to write more soon with news about the pretty hard hiking we will be doing into the mountains to get some samples.

 

The team, from left to right: Chris, Macarena and Joe

The team, from left to right: Chris, Macarena and Joe

Trowelblazing Part 1: A career in the field

Amanda Clarke, our very own trowelblazer

Amanda Clarke, our very own trowelblazer

The Final Context How very rare it is to have the satisfaction of starting something…and then finishing it! I have worked on countless excavations since I began my fieldwork career…many I joined half way through, some I left half way through. Each was memorable in their distinctive way – but nothing quite matches up to my experience on the Silchester Field School. I began this in June 1997 with a JCB and a handful of excavators – and I finished 18 summers later in August 2014, with 130 excavators, a fleet of JCBs and dumpers, a barn full of finds and samples, 16,303 units of stratigraphy recorded – and a tearful Professor. What kind of journey has it been? (scroll down for some photos!)

Childhood ambition? I have always loved being in the field, and my job as Director of the Silchester Field School at the University of Reading has allowed me to combine this passion with a desire to teach the few things I know, and the chance to develop my managerial and organisational skills in ways I never dreamed possible….

Trowelblazing As a woman in fieldwork I have always taken the attitude that there is nothing I cannot do. My early days in commercial archaeology toughened me up quickly – leading an archaeological watching brief on the site of a multi-million pound multi-storey car-park on a cold December morning in the middle of York, surrounded by a team of hardened contractors intent on getting their job done – was a baptism of fire indeed. Women in site supervisory positions were a rarity in the 1990’s when I was leading teams…..there were women running the finds hut, the environmental aspects, the drawing office ….but outside in the crisp York air I was in a male dominated environment. I have always fought against any kind of ‘gender divide’ on my project teams – but that division does still cast a shadow. Sadly it is a self-perpetuating stereotype….trench work is often seen as ‘physical,’ mattock-wielding, trowel twirling work, whereas finds are all about housekeeping ‘pretty things’….still. 18 years of running the Silchester Field School gave me the opportunity to challenge these preconceptions and actually do something about them. And now that I have just finished running the biggest, boldest, brightest excavation on and in British soil (no bias showing here) – I am pleased to say I feel the scales tipping. In the final Silchester season 58% of participants were women, the majority of my Silchester Supervisors have been women, and the Department has an excellent track record of our female graduates working in commercial archaeology. It’s a good feeling.

Team Tactics Running the Silchester Field School has never been hard for me. Yes of course it is challenging in terms of sheer numbers of hours in the field, and on some of those days when nothing goes right…..the portaloo emptying lorry is stuck in the mud, half the students have a crippling summer cold, the site wifi has dissipated, a dozen tents have blown over, the pump for draining the water from a well under excavation has choked and stopped, 125 unbooked in visitors have arrived for a tour, I can’t find my coffee mug and context 14725 is not where I would like it to be stratigraphically…..But I instinctively know how to make it all work…..it is simply about the teams and the working environment you create. And the rest just follows. The archaeology may be a repetitive mix of wafer thin gravel layers – but it is still possible to teach and learn, to inspire and aspire.

Opportunity Knocks I love digging, I love excavations – wherever and whatever they may be – and my desire to communicate this passion can verge on the intimidating! I believe that attending an excavation is a life-altering experience – and everyone should try it at least once. My goal is to demonstrate that regardless of age, gender, skill, ability, aptitude, there are many many different experiences and opportunities an excavation can offer – something for everyone. Never think ‘I can’t’ – always think ‘how can I’.

 

Last day on the Silchester site

The final Silchester site tour

Challenge Amanda!

Challenge Amanda!

Some of our other trowelblazers!

Some of our other trowelblazers!

The Silchester Field School campsite

The Silchester Field School campsite

Working as a team: celebrating 10 seasons on site

Working as a team: celebrating 10 seasons on site

More to come from Amanda next week in Part 2!

Field archaeologist and trowelblazer!

Field archaeologist and trowelblazer!

A bit about today’s blogger: Amanda Clarke is a field archaeologist appointed by Reading University to help train its students in all aspects of field archaeology. She is Site Director for the Department of Archaeologys training excavation at the Roman town of Silchester, and for fieldwork in Pompeii, Italy. When not in the field she is involved in the post-excavation work for these projects. She has spent many years in the field, on sites all over the world including Norway, Beirut, Jamaica, Belize and the northern and western isles of Scotland. She has worked most recently for York Archaeological Trust on many of their large urban sites, as well as directing two seasons of work on the early Christian site of Whithorn in Galloway. She also works as a Teaching Fellow for the Department of Archaeology at Boston University on the student training excavations in Belize, Central America.