Conference Report

Archaeological Sciences ’97 Durham

Contributed by Andrew Millard, Department of Archaeology, University of Durham, South Road, Durham DH1 3LE UK (

Caveat: The editor was brave enough to ask me to write a report on a conference that I had organized. The report may not entirely reflect what the delegates experienced!

The 6th biennial Archaeological Sciences meeting in the UK was held 2-4 September at Durham University, hosted by the Department of Archaeology. About 50 papers were presented, mostly by British workers, but with contributions from Greece, Germany, Italy and Russia. There were 5 oral sessions covering Technology, Materials Analysis and Provenance (4 papers), Biochemical Studies (15 papers), Environmental Studies (10 papers), Geoarchaeology (10 papers), Chronological Studies (4 papers), together with 2 keynote addresses and a poster session (7 papers). The delegates also had the opportunity to enjoy the two major buildings of Durham’s World Heritage Site, through a guided tour of the spectacular Romanesque Cathedral and a conference dinner in the Castle (parts of which are Norman).

In comparison to past conferences in the series there was a remarkable emphasis on biological topics, derived entirely from the subjects of submitted papers, rather than due to any choice of the organizers. Perhaps this reflects trends in research topics and funding, but it may also have something to do with the closeness of the Bradford-Harvard Metals in Antiquity conference (10-13 September), although the proximity of the Association for Environmental Archaeology’s Ethnography, History and Environmental Archaeology conference (6-9 September) appears to have had little effect.

In the space available I cannot possibly do justice to all the excellent papers presented, so I will pick out some of the highlights for me personally, which are biased by my interests and also by the very fact that the organizer has to miss papers in order to organize things!

In the keynote papers, Don Brothwell (York) gave us a fascinating insight into the history of the classification of the sciences and the place that archaeology has had in various schemes, ranging from most fundamental of sciences through to something that is only marginally scientific. He suggested that some current trends in archaeology are by their very non-scientific nature doomed to die out whilst the importance of science in archaeology will grow in the coming century. In contrast to this long timespan, Martin Jones (Cambridge) considered the place of science-based archaeology within more ephemeral structures - the recent and current funding structures of British science. He reminded us that here in the UK we work within a funding framework that now emphasises the "end-user" of research work, and the possible contributions that that work can make to the national economy. For archaeological sciences the end-user is the heritage tourism industry, which now contributes a significant proportion of national income. If we are to maintain and increase funding for our subject, then we have to make the political case which shows how important it is in site interpretation. On the nitty-gritty of grant applications we were reminded that the application to fund a novel technique should keep in mind a second step: how, once established, that technique can be applied to big questions.

In the session on biochemical techniques we were presented with an enormous range of applications of analyses of every sort of ancient biomolecule. Steph Dudd (Bristol) reported on work investigating the possibility of detecting milk fats in pottery. Using measurements of the d13C of individual fatty acids, combined with the triacylglyceride distributions of lipids extracted from pottery, it has proved possible to distinguish adipose and milk fat, despite the similarities in the composition of the degraded forms of both. This raises exciting possibilities in detecting milk economies in areas where bones do not survive.

Christina Cattaneo (Milan) spoke about a comparative study of methods of species identification for bone fragments and artefacts. In the many situations where morphological identification of species cannot be made there has been interest in the use of immunological and genetic methods. By comparing histological, immunological and DNA techniques on a variety of fragmentary and cremated bones, it was possible to show that for a human/non-human distinction, then histology was sufficient for 90% of bones, and that of the biomolecular techniques albumin detection was more successful than mitochondrial DNA. Hi-tech is not always best!

Another application of biomolecular techniques to bone was reported by Angela Child (Newcastle), who has been seeking to detect mycolic acids which are particular to mycobacteria, and in particular trying to identify those specific to Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The results are only preliminary but in a number of burials from the site of a C19th infirmary with a recorded rate of death from TB it has been possible to detect the mycolic acids of M. tuberculosis, and arrive at a rate of infection remarkably close to the recorded one. Given other results which suggest that lipids may survive better than DNA in bone this is an interesting alternative route to palaeopathological information, and in particular, incidence rates of disease.

Greg Hodgins (Oxford) gave a fascinating talk on his work to establish species specific antibodies for collagen in order to distinguish different sources of glue for art historical objects. Complete specificity is not possible with affinity purification of polyclonal antibodies, but much useful information can be derived. At the end of a long day of presentations the audience were held captive by an account of Paginini’s reputed use of his wife’s gut for violin strings, and the immunological disproof of this story which is now available.

In the environmental studies session topics ranged from bone diagenesis studies with Alistair Pike’s (Oxford) account of how catastrophic dissolution can flood your lab with acid, to the identification of food remains in a charred biscuit (Frances McLaren, London) and, as the warm-up to the coffee break, an account of whipworm infestations in bog bodies from Andrew Jones (York Archaeological Trust).

Seal bones were the subject for Lisa Hodgetts (Durham), who described how age at death of juvenile Harp and Ring Seals has elucidated the seasonal occupation of Younger Stone Age houses in northern Norway. Apparently different houses were occupied at different times of year. Another home player, Alan Outram (Durham), presented a critique of skeletal element utility indexes as currently used and suggested an improved method which allows easier identification of transportation models and direct comparisons with optimal foraging models.

A poster display accompanied by casts of footprints presented by Gordon Roberts (Liverpool John Moores), demonstrated the wealth of ephemeral archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence which can be exposed by coastal erosion of Holocene silts. Direct evidence for humans hunting particular species is available, amongst an enormous number of identified species. These remains are only briefly available for study before they are themselves destroyed by the same erosion that exposed them.

In the geoarchaeology session, David Jenkins (University of Wales, Bangor) reported on an innovative technique for soil chemistry analysis, using a portable XRF spectrometer. An area of several square kilometres on the Great Orme (North Wales) was surveyed for elemental evidence for past mining activities, with useful results including the identification of some possible sites which were not known before.

Clive Waddington and Dave Passmore (Newcastle) described an integrated landscape study which is using established fieldwalking methods combined with a geomorphological analysis of the area to investigate prehistoric activity in the Milfield Basin, Northumberland. By considering how geomorphological processes will distort and conceal lithic scatters a better interpretation of landscape use is achieved.

The contribution of archaeology to the study of sea-level change was the theme of Jane Sidell’s (Museum of London Archaeology Service) presentation. The traditional physical geography approaches to past sea-level are being supplemented in the Thames estuary by the use of the high resolution altitude and chronological data provided by the preserved water fronts of London. Dendrochronological dates and determinations of low tide level within centimetres are orders of magnitude more precise than other methods.

Piglets in Peat - Why? was the intriguing title under which Heather Gill-Robinson (York) discussed a series of experiments burying piglets in peat bogs and exhuming them periodically, to examine the state of soft tissue preservation. The Why? of this gruesome project is to help predict which peat bogs are most likely to preserve ancient human remains and so aid us in finding such remains and protecting likely sites from peatland destruction.

Under the heading of chronology came a variety in a small package, with astronomical dating in Babylon, ESR dating of tooth enamel and luminescence dating. James Steele (Durham) described to us the identification of what is currently the latest known astronomical observation from ancient Babylon. By a process of comparison and elimination it has been possible to identify a large solar eclipse recorded in a cuneiform tablet as that of 30 June AD 10. Here is a precision to which the other papers did not even aspire! Improved precision was, however, the topic for Sarah Barnett (Durham), who reported on studies of thermoluminescence and optically stimulated luminescence dating of pottery. Using a TL multiple aliquot technique to obtain palaeodoses allows a precision of 11%, but a new OSL single aliquot techinique improves the precision to about 5% of the age. This is finding application in the Iron Age of northern Britain, where ceramics are common but undiagnostic, and the radiocarbon calibration curve plateau in the first millenium BC reduces the usefulness of that technique.

In conclusion, it was by all accounts a successful conference with a diverse programme reflecting the variety of applications of scientific techniques within archaeology. The proceedings are to be published in the British Archaeological Reports series, and (if all goes well) should appear in the summer of 1998. The University of Bristol has volunteered to organize a similar conference in 1999.