Student blog – Life as an Archaeobotanist at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey

This month’s student blog post is inspired by the ‘Day of Archaeology’, which took place recently (24th July 2015), where hundreds of participants posted online entries describing their individual days working in the world of archaeology. Here I will present some of my own perspectives as a PhD student working in the field of archaeobotany, by describing my recent fieldwork in Turkey.

I spent two weeks working at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Çatalhöyük, a substantial Neolithic settlement located near Konya in central Turkey. This is one of the main archaeological sites for my PhD research, in which I am investigating the specific methods used in early farming practices in western Asia. This was my fourth visit to the site, and as an archaeobotanist I spent most of my time working inside one of the on-site laboratories. Çatalhöyük is one of the largest research excavations that I have worked on, with over 100 participants working there at once at its peak, and a good proportion of the team are specialists such as myself. I specialise in plant macro-remains, the charred seeds recovered from archaeological deposits by machine flotation, although I also share the lab with other plant specialists working on phytoliths and wood charcoal, as well as the heavy residue team.

A typical day for me consisted of sorting through flotation samples using a light microscope to pick out and identify charred plant seeds. My PhD research focuses on the wild plant species, or ‘weeds’, that accompany dense grain deposits indicative of storage, so I generally work with a lot of very rich and well-preserved samples. Many of these samples were retrieved from burnt buildings, and present some of the best-preserved primary storage evidence for the Neolithic period in the region, so I feel very lucky to be working on them!

Photographing charred 'weed' seeds at Çatalhöyük.

Photographing charred ‘weed’ seeds at Çatalhöyük.

I also spent parts of the day photographing some of the wild taxa that I found, using a special camera that fits onto the microscope, in order for them to be more accurately identified back in the UK. Identifying seeds to species can be very time consuming, particularly for wild taxa, and it often requires a comprehensive modern seed reference collection. Unfortunately this is not something that can be brought along with me, nor did I have enough time this visit, so quality photos of the charred specimens for identification back home are the next best thing. Although an important task, this process can often be quite dull so I made sure that I had plenty of interesting podcasts to listen to (‘TED Radio Hour’ being my favourite) in order to get me through it!

Occasionally I get the opportunity to don my trowel and get stuck into digging. As an archaeobotanist I rarely get to excavate anymore, so I really enjoy the occasional opportunity when I get called onto site. This usually happens when obvious clusters of charred plant material are uncovered, as these need to be taken as separate samples. This year I got to excavate a preserved storage bin feature from a side room area, though once fully excavated the associated pocket of seeds appeared to signify collapsed material rather than its original contents, perhaps representing the remains of a small hanging basket. It is always really exciting to see my samples collected in the field and it helps me to maintain a useful perspective on the varying nature of the contexts where plant remains are recovered.

A more unusual aspect of the fieldwork this year occurred when we were consulted for an Australian TV programme that featured the site. Me and two other archaeobotanists were asked to help prepare examples of Neolithic meals based on what we know from the archaeobotany of the site. It was quite fun to cook and to taste some of the foods that we have studied so closely down the microscope, even if they were not exactly the most delicious of recipes…

Experimenting with Neolithic meals for a TV programme.

Experimenting with Neolithic meals for a TV programme.

Now back in (rainy) Oxford, I am currently processing through the many images taken during my fieldwork and sorting them into different weed types. The lengthy process of identification now begins and I must admit that I am already missing the glorious Turkish sunshine!

Posted in Student blog

Student blog: Interview Geoff Hill

Interview questions Geoff Hill:
Some archaeologists are after Cleopatra, others are more into Coleoptera! This blog entry will host Geoff Hill, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, who has kindly shared some insights from his young career as an environmental archaeologist. In the interview below he gives us a glimpse into the use of beetles as indicators of ancient landscapes, and provides some great advice for young archaeologists looking to develop their career.

– What got you interested in Environmental Archaeology?
It was during my undergraduate degree in Climate Studies at Coventry University, which I undertook as a ‘mature student’ of 26. The combination of being taught climate reconstruction via organic fossils, and being introduced to Ruddiman’s ‘Ploughs, Plagues and Petroleum’ by a really passionate lecturer, Dr Jason Jordan. I wrote my dissertation as a literature review on the spread of agriculture in Britain and any implications for Ruddiman’s ‘Early Anthropocene’ argument, it was amateurish, but it got me hooked.
Following that, I was lucky to secure a place on the Environmental Archaeology and Palaeoenvironment MSc course at the University of Birmingham – lucky, considering I was the only one on the course! Dr Andy Howard kindly took me on and it felt like an apprenticeship, I got a fantastic grounding in many aspects of EA. It was at Birmingham that I was introduced to the use of Coleoptera in EA by Dr David Smith, I prefer the tactile nature of handling the sclerites as opposed to many other organic fossil proxies. I’m not an archaeologist, but I think pulling out the elytra of your first Silphid from the murk of a peaty petri, might be similar to excavating your first Neolithic sherd in the field. Well, maybe.
I also have to thank my older brother, Tom. He’s a Quaternary diatomist and palynologist and loves his field so much, that I think his enthusiasm rubbed off on me.

– How long have you been a member of AEA? How did you hear about us?
I think I first joined during my Masters, and via Andy Howard, but I let it slip over my PhD until recently. Considering it’s such a great price for students and non-students alike, there was no excuse really. It might help if someone from the AEA walks around Archaeology and Palaeoecology departments ringing a bell a reminding us absent-minded types to join.

– What is your current research about?
I’m currently writing up my PhD, at Queens University, Belfast, looking into the effectiveness of using Coleoptera as a proxy for detecting and perhaps measuring the ‘open-ness’ of ancient landscapes. There is still much discussion about this characteristic of the European ‘wildwood’ following Franz Vera’s, hotly contested, publication in 2000 (AD!).
A fantastic ‘property’ of beetles, owing somewhat to the great diversity of their order, is their specificity of habitat, from which we can deduce certain aspects of their host environment, including some anthropogenic activities. Even when they are not so specific they can be lumped together in functional groups which can reflect more general conditions, e.g. woodland, fenland, or drier, open ground, amongst others.

My research involves the analysis of how functional groups differ in their proportions at the present time from a number different landscape types. Finally these modern analogues are compared with palaeo data-sets… the initial results are very promising, but I’ll leave it at that until my initial publications!

Along with my openness project I have been working on the beetle assemblages from a Late Mesolithic site with in-situ brush-wood layers at Lough Kinale. These are intended as one of my palaeo data sets in the ‘open-ness’ project – but has actually turned into a project in its own right. It would seem I have come across a very early ‘house fauna’ which suggests these structures, in amongst a damp fen-like environment, were enclosed spaces kept relatively dry. These findings need to be peer reviewed, but I am incredibly excited by its potential.

– What is the importance of studying the open-ness of ancient landscapes? How does it contribute to our understanding of ancient human lives? Does it relate to modern landscape and environmental issues?

I can think of 3 reasons. Firstly, and harking back to my undergraduate roots, it would play an important role in climate models which incorporate forest cover/density (as a carbon sink) within its algorithm. Secondly, it’s an ongoing concern for conservationists and foresters alike who seek to establish or re-wild ‘natural’ landscapes. Just exactly what is natural with regards to Europe?

Thirdly, and importantly for archaeologists, ‘open-ness’ (or not) of a landscape will affect human relationships with their environment, not only culturally, but also on practical, economically driven terms. It has implications for the Neolithisation of a landscape; how much of the early pasture and arable land was created within a pre-existing open space?
I believe it might also influence our understanding of Mesolithic activity, I’m reminded of this quote by a pioneer of palynology, Johannes Iversen:

“In the Atlantic period … there would scarcely be any natural glades of any size or stability … the comparatively dark character of the forest implied that conditions of living in it were unfavourable for animals, which means man too.”

Maybe life wasn’t so unfavourable in this deep dark Mesolithic ‘Forests-Grimm’?

– How difficult was it to find career opportunities within Environmental Archaeology?

I’m still at the very early stages of my career, so I’m not sure how well I can answer this. I do believe I was fortunate with my PhD; the timing was perfect and it was right up my alley. Following David’s excellent introduction, Dr Nicki Whitehouse has been great in helping me understand our palaeo toolkit and in bringing these and other skills together in a big project such as this. I’ve had great support from so many people at all stages, especially the other PhD students, and I really can’t thank everyone enough. I think this good fortune defines my opportunities thus far.

I was disappointed to see a number of archaeological units and departments close in the UK, in the wake of the austerity and higher education fee’s gamble. I guess this is my main concern for opportunities in Environmental Archaeology at the moment, for all of us.

– What would your advice be for students looking to develop their career in Environmental Archaeology?

I think there are two things which I’ve learnt later on than perhaps I wish I had, for when you apply, or get accepted on to a PhD.
Firstly, ‘stay ahead of the game’. Take the time to consider what other skill or methods you want to learn early on, even before you start, and how you can merge it with your project. Maybe it’s something wholly different to your project but now is a great time to learn – there’s always a course for it! When it comes to applying for postdocs you really want to stand out, hundreds may apply to a post who can count pollen, but can you count pollen and extract and analyse its ancient DNA? I can’t!
Secondly, it’s a bit cliché, but, I think it’s important that whilst you question your findings, try not to question your ability. You’re going to meet some scarily intelligent people along the way, and for many people (myself included) it can be daunting, and you can feel out of place – almost like you’re pretending to be an academic. It’s important to remember that you were accepted for the PhD for a reason, you have the ability, and no one knows your research better than you do.
On a different note, science isn’t a competition, it’s “an exercise in honesty”. So many people have helped me get where I am, so I try to help others when I can – especially with their fieldwork. You can never get enough of it!

I think all of us can benefit from your advice! Thanks a lot for taking your time to share your research experience with us.

Thank you Daniella for the opportunity to talk about my research. If anyone is interested in knowing more, please feel free to email or

Posted in Student blog

2015 AEA conference fund

We are delighted to announce the availability of the AEA Conference Fund to members of the AEA (of at least six months standing) to assist attendance at the York conference (6-8 November 2015). Priority will be given to those with limited alternative sources of funding (particularly postgraduate students and those in the private sector) and those presenting papers or posters. Applications from students must be accompanied by a letter of support from their supervisor. An application form is provided at the end of this Newsletter.

Successful applicants will be required to provide a statement of expenditure and activities undertaken within 3 months after the event has taken place in order to receive reimbursement. Moreover, successful applicants will be requested to provide a report on the conference for the AEA Newsletter or website.

The deadline for applications is 30 September 2015. Any queries should be directed to the AEA Conference Officer: Robin Bendrey (

Conference fund 2015 application form docx

Conference fund 2015 application form pdf

Posted in Uncategorized

John Evans prize 2015

John Evans (1941-2005) was an inspirational environmental archaeologist, responsible for advancing the discipline and fostering many of today’s top researchers in the field.  To honour the memory of John and his achievements within environmental archaeology, the Association for Environmental Archaeology (AEA) has an annual competition for the best undergraduate and Masters dissertations in any aspect of environmental archaeology.

The deadline for submissions is the 31st July.

Posted in Uncategorized

Reminder Annual Conference, 2015 call for papers

The 36th Annual Association for Environmental Archaeology Conference, 2015 will take place in York, UK. This special conference will be a celebration of the career and research of Terry O’Connor. Terry who retired earlier in 2015, has been an influential figure in the field of zooarchaeology and environmental archaeology for more than 30 years, not least as a founding member of the Association of Environmental Archaeology (AEA) and co-editor of its first journal, Circaea.

From Anthrosphere to Lithosphere (and back again): A Celebration of the Career and Research of Terry O’Connor

Friday 6 November, 5.00pm to Sunday 8 November 4.30pm

Abstract deadline 30th April 2015

Conference website

Posted in Uncategorized

AEA session at TRAC 2015

The AEA are supporting a session taking place on the Sunday of the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference this year (Sunday 29th March), on “Integrating Environmental and Theoretical Roman Archaeology”.

TRAC 2015 is taking place at the University of Leicester, and further details can be found here (

In order to allow delegates from the nearby AEA Spring Conference (University of Nottingham, Saturday 28th March) to also attend, the conference organisers have kindly offered a discounted Sunday only rate for AEA members.

The Sunday only price is £18, including conference packs and tea & coffee breaks.

If you would like to register for this offer, please contact Deadline is Friday 27th February.

Posted in Conference

Archaeological Reference Resources Project

The AEA has been invited to collaborate with the Archaeological Reference Resources Project. The aim of the project is to enable English Heritage and the wider archaeological community to gain a better understanding of what Reference Resources are being used in the archaeology sector,  current issues with Reference Resources, and the nature of any major gaps in coverage. Below is further information on the project.


The Archaeological Reference Resources Project will collect information about the Reference Resources used by researchers in the study of artefacts and ecofacts. The project will compile a database, and identify gaps in current provision. The project will engage widely with specialist organisations and individual researchers. The following outline explains the aims of the project, and how the project team propose to engage and collaborate with specialist groups and individual researchers. The project has been commissioned by English Heritage and is being carried out by Rachel Edwards (Arboretum Archaeological Consultancy) and Hal Dalwood (Hal Dalwood Archaeology and Heritage).

The project will create a database of synthetic archaeological Reference Resources used in the study of artefacts and ecofacts, including physical reference collections, published catalogues and corpora, and online catalogues. The findings of the project will be documented in a report to English Heritage and disseminated to the profession. This project is an outcome of the broader English Heritage Strategy for Developing Research Resources led by Dan Miles of English Heritage:

The project started in October 2014. We will be collecting data and information up to April 2015, and compiling the report during May 2015.

The Project Design can be downloaded from the project website (


The aims of the project are to:

1. Identify what reference resources are currently available/being used by the archaeology sector.

2. Create a point-in time database of these reference resources and record basic information on their composition, coverage, date, availability, access, etc.

3. Identify and collate information about any barriers to the use of these reference resources. For example if they are out of print.

4. Identify and collate information on threats to existing reference resources e.g. curation and maintenance of reference collections.

5. Assess the costs and benefits of developing and maintaining an online database of these resources as a tool for use by the sector.

6. Highlight major gaps and weaknesses in coverage and currency of reference resources.

Outputs of the project

A project database will be compiled from an extensive literature search. The draft database will be enhanced and expanded through collaboration with specialist groups. The database will include information on the currency of, and any problems with access to, individual Reference Resources, as well as current issues with their future maintenance. The completed database will be a point of reference for English Heritage. Preliminary consultations indicate that members of ALGAO (England) would find such a database useful in assessing project designs and grey literature reports, and that academic archaeologists would find it a useful resource for teaching students. The specialist sector will be canvassed for opinions about making the database both online and easily updateable.

A project report will provide an overview of the use of Reference Resources by the specialist sector and highlight the gaps and weakness in current provision. The identification of gaps will be undertaken in collaboration with specialist groups. The broader issues of curation and maintenance of Reference Resources will also be considered. The project report will also examine the role of Reference Resources in archaeological resource management, including to what extent the use of Reference Resources is a requirement in project briefs. The project report will consider the potential for such requirements to raise standards in fieldwork and post-excavation. This part of the project will be conducted in liaison with ALGAO England. The project report will assess the cost and benefits of maintaining the project database as an online resource.

The success of this project will depend upon good communications with specialist societies and organisations, as well as individual researchers. In the project design stage we contacted committee members of a number of specialist organisations, who agreed that their society would co-ordinate consultation and liaison. The project team  will be attending the AEA Conference in Plymouth and look forward to meeting colleagues there.

Information on the project and updates on progress will available on the project website and blog ( You can contact the project team directly via the website or at

Posted in Uncategorized

AEA student blog – Interview with Julia Best

AEA student blog. Interview with Julia Best:
As part of this blog’s mission to provide young researchers with a glimpse into current research and career development in the field of Environmental Archaeology, we would like to introduce you to Julia Best. Julia has recently started her post-doc at Bournemouth University after having completed her PhD at Cardiff University. Her main expertise is bird bone analysis, and in the interview below she talks about her experience in the field of Environmental Archaeology so far and offers some great tips on career development.
– What got you interested in Environmental Archaeology?

It all started with a rabbit. Aged about 5 I was taken to Fishbourne Roman Palace. Said rabbit had been burrowing about and unearthed various bits of pottery and some bone fragments. I proudly handed these to the museum people and then promptly cried all the way home because I didn’t want to leave. I think I was doomed from thereon in! Many years later at Cardiff University doing my undergraduate degree I began to realise the staggering array of evidence that can be explored through environmental archaeology and once I started the osteoarchaeology module I was hooked. Zooarchaeology is my specialist area, particularly birds, but I also have a fondness for flotation and have conducted environmental sampling and processing for a variety of archaeological sites. There is something very satisfying about a load of charred grains bobbing out and into your sieve. Not to mention that good sampling and environmental processing are important for recovering some of my smaller bird bones!
– How long have you been a member of AEA? How did you hear about us?

I first joined the AEA at the end of my undergraduate degree in 2008/9. I confess that during my PhD I carelessly let my membership lapse, but I have since re-joined again! I heard of the AEA through their advertisement at various conferences, by using the AEA publications in the library, but most importantly through my supervisor at the time (Dr Jacqui Mulville) and other mentors who encouraged me to join.
– What is your current research about? How about previous research?

I am currently a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ‘Scientific and Cultural Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions’ project which is funded by the AHRC. I am based at Bournemouth University with the project’s leader, Mark Maltby. My zooarchaeological research focuses on investigating the domestication and subsequent spread of chickens across the world, and how they were used for meat and eggs in different periods and regions. As such, part of my work involves collecting data from across Europe for inclusion in a large project database. I am also conducting research into the history of egg production, and working to refine and develop our knowledge of the formation, duration and extent of medullary bone in chickens. The chicken is today our most numerous domestic animal and yet our knowledge of it is surprisingly limited. As such, our project is vital for understanding its origins, and its significance in diet, society and culture.
Prior to this I completed my PhD at Cardiff University (viva December 2013). My thesis explored the use of avian resources within the Scottish and wider North Atlantic Island environment via archaeological bone and eggshell. Birds can provide a range of products including meat, eggs and feathers, however their archaeological investigation in this context had been limited. By collating pre-existing avian data and combining it with new, in-depth analyses the thesis was able to investigate bird use though time and space more fully, exploring a wide range of evidence through their remains.
– How does studying bird remains contribute to our understanding of ancient human lives?

Birds are wonderful things for archaeology since they have the ability to provide evidence for a wide range of topics related to the human past. For example, analysing bird bones and eggshells can develop our understanding of human diet, their exploitation of wild bird resources, seasonal fowling activities, what habitats were present that these birds were sourced from, and human movement around the landscape to acquire them. Through the study of wild birds we can also investigate climate change and human persecution (such as in the case of the infamous great auk’s extinction). Domestic birds present opportunities to investigate animal husbandry, the domestication process, and the spread of these animal resources across the world (and via this we can study human movement and trade). Both wild and domestic birds also have the potential to help explore how these animals were perceived and interacted with, and as such their role in society, economy and culture.
– How difficult was it to find career opportunities within Environmental Archaeology?

I have been very fortunate in that a job position for which I was well suited and could write a strong application was advertised just after I submitted my PhD. As such, I had the opportunity to move swiftly from PhD to Post-Doc. My experience is by no means unique. Two close friends who finished their PhDs around the same time as myself are both now employed in environmental archaeology related areas; one in environmental processing in the field and archive, the other as a Post-Doc on a stable isotope focused project. Other friends (for example) completed Masters degrees and then went on to take major roles and responsibilities in environmental processing with a variety of archaeological units. As an area of archaeology I feel that we possess a strong and varied armoury of transferable skills that we can adapt to suit a wide variety of career opportunities.
– What would your advice be for students looking to develop their career in Environmental Archaeology?

Make the most of the range of opportunities available to you. Attend conferences (and seminars, workshops, courses etc.). Even if you are not speaking they are brilliant for networking and making contacts. People I met at my very first conference are now valued colleagues and it’s a great to meet people at different universities working in similar areas. It is a good way to get your name heard which can be very useful when it comes to applying for jobs or MAs, PhDs etc. They are also great fun and there are usually opportunities for financial aid available from various avenues.

Try to get practical and expand your skill set, explore areas of environmental archaeology that are less familiar to you, whether it’s helping with flotation on an excavation or learning to identify bird bones! Having a broad understanding of the breadth of our discipline will help you develop and expand your work in your own specialist areas, but can also provide vital opportunities for collaborative research.

Look at things from different angles. I very much enjoy public engagement and outreach work and this can be a very rewarding experience. I get the wonderful opportunity to look into the past every day, but I believe that our experiences are limited if we do not share this with the wider world. I recently took the Chicken Project’s work to Glastonbury Festival (in the Green Futures Field’s Science Tent). The level of interest was staggering and the visitors often ask questions and spark areas of discussion that had never occurred to us! Everyone has a past and as such the past belongs to everyone.

Thank you Julia! And with these inspiring words this blog interview ends. If you have any comments or questions about this interview or suggestions for future blogs don’t be shy, let us know!

Posted in Student blog

Environmental Archaeology of European Cities call for papers

We are pleased to announce that the Association is one of the supporters of the up coming conference on the Environmental Archaeology of European Cities. Which will be held at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels, May 27-29th, 2015.

The conference is now accepting abstracts for oral and poster presentations. The deadline for submissions is 18th November 2014.

Conference on the Environmental Archaeology of European Cities 2nd Circular


Posted in Conference

Grants to attend AEA Autumn conference

There are also a limited number of grants for members to attend the AEA conference in Plymouth, 7th-9th November. (Preference given to those with little or no access to other sources of funding. Please apply as soon as possible. 

Application form

Posted in AEA conference