Student Blog: ‘Taking the deepest core in Ireland’

As your new student representative I thought I would kick things off by telling you a little about some recent fieldwork undertaken as part of my PhD research ‘People, Land-use and Time’ which is investigating prehistoric human-environment interactions in western Ireland. I am carrying out pollen analysis (which is nearly complete!), chironomid analysis and lake sediment geochemistry on two sediment cores extracted from lakes within County Clare. In this short piece I am going to tell you about the process of extracting a 10.59m long core from Lough Inchiquin. The lough, being around 30m at its deepest part, would push the equipment (and us to be quite honest!) to its limits in order to extract the sediment core.

One of the great things about being involved with the Palaeoenvironmental Research Unit at NUI Galway is the access to the Usinger piston corer and associated platform that has the ability to work at depths of up to 40m (thankfully!). This was going to be the first lake core that I had ever extracted and was the deepest lake that any of the researchers involved had attempted. For those of you that don’t know what this Usinger piston corer looks like – it looks like this..

The first day on site at Lough Inchiquin near Corofin, Co. Clare, was spent putting together the equipment which results in essentially a metal raft which has a hole located in the centre through which the sediment core is taken. This requires quite a lot of organisation and consultation with the manual as to which order things have to be assembled. This kind of fieldwork on large lakes is generally only undertaken in the summer and everyone needs a recap as to what is involved.

For the process of extraction all of the equipment and people needed has to be on the raft which is anchored in place on the lake. We wanted to take the sediment core from the deepest part of the lake and so a quick foray with a small boat and depth sounder was required. The deepest part of the lake was actually located quite close to the northern shore of the lake and the ruins of Inchiquin Castle.  This was measured at 30m and with a resulting 10.59m of sediment eventually taken resulted in, we think, the deepest core ever extracted in Ireland!

Once the location the raft needed to be in had been identified it was a matter of floating the corer and platform out using the boat and attempting to anchor it in position using both anchor bags and ropes to the shore. The equipment is generally not used in windy or wet conditions and so trying to plan ahead for this fieldwork in the west of Ireland, albeit in June, was quite tricky. Despite a good forecast the conditions were less than ideal with strong winds making the anchoring of the raft highly problematic. It floated around for quite some time before we eventually gave up at 10.30pm and decided to try again tomorrow.

The next day we were more successful and got the platform into the correct position. We then began the process of extraction with a team of seven on the raft and two on the lakeshore. Throughout the day we managed five drives – the first three of which resulted in a full 2m segment of sediment. The final two drives were much harder, however, and we couldn’t seem to get the corer through the sediment. Had we hit glacial clay already?! No, no – that would be far too easy! We instead, swapped to a thinner coring tube and managed to extract a further 2m of sediment.

I should really give a breakdown of how the sediment is actually extracted using this equipment. The first stage of the extraction is to lower down metal casing from the raft to the lake floor which will guide the coring tube when making the drive. The coring tube itself is then filled with water and the piston head inserted into it. What is called a transition rod is then attached to this and lowered down the hole using a rope. Extension rods are then attached in succession to get the coring tube down to the required depth. So, after every 2m drive, a further 2m of extension rods have to be attached. What is called a driving rod is then attached last of all. A drive is made by pushing the driving rod down which in turn pushes the coring tube into the sediment – and the end of each drive the driving rod has been pushed down by 2m and a core of sediment has filled the coring tube.

The next (fun) stage is to bring UP the coring tube which is aided by a lever, some rope and a couple of strong individuals! As the coring tube is being pulled up, the extension rods have to be successively removed at quite a quick pace (my job!). The coring tube will then be the last to come up and has to be laid in a horizontal position to ensure the sediment remains inside. The transition rod has to be detached and the piston head removed which can be quite amusing to watch as the piston head inevitably gets a little stuck and has to wiggled free within the confines of a small metal raft floating on a lake…

The coring tube is then sent over to the lakeside, delivered by boat, and the raft team start to take the next drive while the sediment is removed from the tube at the lakeside. The extruder, which consist of a ratchetting mechanism, pulls the coring tube backwards and deposits the sediment itself into plastic half-tubing. The sediment is cut to produce 1m segments and also has to be split longitudinally using another half-tube and a guitar string. This produces an A segment (containing the most/best sediment) and a B segment which will later both be described in the lab. The sediment is then packaged and labelled.

On the third day, we went back onto the raft for one last drive, again having to use the thinner coring tube, which resulted in a final 2m segment taking the total depth of sediment to 10.59m. We had finally hit glacial clay and we had got all that we needed. The raft then had to be pulled back to the lakeside and the process of dismantling the equipment began.

The three days of fieldwork were tough, physically demanding work but aided by great people, attitudes and good pub grub at the end of the day. The sediment we managed to extract is of great quality and has left me with over 3m of prehistoric material to work with. The pollen analysis for this core is now complete and has been done at 4cm intervals resulting in 90 samples. Periods of reduced and increased human activity can be identified in the data and when combined with the archaeological evidence from this region will provide me with a fascinating insight into the prehistoric landscape and human occupation of this area.

Daisy Spencer

—- If you would like to tell the AEA about your own research or fieldwork please email to submit to the student blog. We would love to hear from you! —-

John Evans Prize 2016 Winners Announced

This year’s winners of the John Evans Prize were announced at our annual conference in Rome on 30th September.

The winner of the post-graduate prize was Samantha Louise Presslee, from the University of York, for her dissertation ‘Using ancient proteomics tools to identify the exploitation of birds eggs in archaeological contexts‘.

The undergraduate winner was Nora Battermann, from the University of Leicester, for her dissertation ‘Exotics and Empire. An Investigation into Roman Conceptions of the ‘Wild’‘.

Judging the prize this year was a particularly difficult task, with a lot of very good dissertations entered. We think John would be happy to see the variety of approaches taken to investigating the past human environment and look forward to seeing how the entrants contribute to developing the subject in the future. Both winners have been invited to submit their research for publication in Environmental Archaeology and they and the rest of the entrants should be proud of their work.

Student Blog: ‘Geoarchaeology across the ages – the Bradford Kaims, Northumberland.’

Tom Gardner

Carnegie Trust PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh

Within the north of Northumberland lies a large postglacial fenland, stretching at a low incline for 14km north to south, emptying to the north into Budle Bay near the village of Bamburgh. Immediately upon the deglaciation of the area, forest cover encroached upon the area, with oak and elm dominating the higher and drier glacial sand and gravel deposits, or ‘Kaims’, that flank the fenland. Lower down the slopes, alder and hazel grew from the early Mesolithic, and sedges and grasses propagated upon the mire surface as it periodically flooded and dried (Paterson et al, 2015). The formation of peat began soon after the propagation of woodland, and now the extant depths of peat in the lowest basins of the fenland reach above 10m (Boomer, 2007). They were once greater, but land improvement in the Victorian and Georgian period drained this niche environment for pasture, leading to the desiccation of all peat formed after the early Bronze Age (Dixon et al, 2015).

Figure 1: Site Location

Figure 1: Site Location

Into this lush and damp wetland environment, is dropped a massive series of prehistoric activity, beginning in the early Holocene, with tangible evidence reaching into the Iron Age (Young et al, 2014; Gething et al, forthcoming). The focus of the archaeology appears to respect the changing waterlines of the fenland, moving higher upslope as time carried on and the peat formed higher and higher. The Bradford Kaims Project (BKP) has been working at the site since 2010, and has excavated 16 trenches, 80 test pits, and has mapped the geomorphology of the landscape through numerous coring transects. Dr, Richard Tipping of the University of Stirling has reconstructed the palaeoenvironment of the area (Paterson et al, 2015), allowing the archaeologists to focus upon the prehistoric activity on site. The peaks in activity appear to be the early Neolithic and the late Bronze Age, and represent themselves through a series of burnt mound deposits, structures, and middens in and around the bottleneck of the fenland at Hoppenwood Bank.

Figure 2: Site Map

Figure 2: Site Map

Aside from the detailed open-area excavation of the archaeology on site, a suite of geoarchaeological analyses are being conducted in order to bridge the sedimentological gap between the landscape-wide geomorphology and palaeoenvironment as studied by Dr. Tipping, and the archaeology investigated by the field team of the BKP. While this geoarchaeological analyses has assessed a variety of deposits across the site, such as peat deposits, fluvial fans, palaeochannel fills, colluvial sequences, and buried landsurfaces, a central focus has been upon the many burnt mounds on site, with eight of the sixteen confirmed burnt mounds having been sampled.

Figure 3: Micromorphological sampling and sub-sampling of peat deposits in the fenland.

Figure 3: Micromorphological sampling and sub-sampling of peat deposits in the fenland.

These burnt mounds range in dates from between the Early Neolithic and the late Bronze Age, in a range of sizes and morphologies, with some accompanied by impressive structures and trough complex’s. The investigation into the burnt mounds at the Bradford Kaims came as a result of a more widespread lack of knowledge of the formation processes and depositional sequences of these site types across Northern Europe. As the most numerous prehistoric site type across Britain and Ireland, burnt mounds represent a strong facet of the socio-economic underpinnings of Neolithic and Bronze Age societies, yet their artefactual sterility leads to a poor understanding of their function and place within the landscape. The research of the BKP seeks to unpick the minute detail bound up within the sediments and deposits of the many burnt mounds on site, and so far, the results are positive.

Figure 4: Micromorphological sampling of the Early Neolithic Mound 1 and wooden trough fill at the Bradford Kaims.

Figure 4: Micromorphological sampling of the Early Neolithic Mound 1 and wooden trough fill at the Bradford Kaims.

Figure 5: Micromorphological sampling of the Late Bronze Age Mound 2 and trough fill at the Bradford Kaims.

Figure 5: Micromorphological sampling of the Late Bronze Age Mound 2 and trough fill at the Bradford Kaims.

hrough the analyses of micromorphological soil thin sections taken from the burnt mound deposits, trough fills, and buried landsurfaces directly beneath the mounds, clear evidence of internal sequences and depositional episodes has been identified. Micromorphology provides the opportunity to look in-depth at the structure, fabric, taphonomies, and sequence of archaeological sediments which, in the case of the burnt mounds at the Bradford Kaims, shows dense and well-structured sediment matrices of charcoal, alluvial silts, and high quantities of mineralised plant materials. The charcoal content, understandably high due to the highly fired nature of the burnt mound material, is homogenised by large quantities of silicified ash, indicating relatively complete firing events, rather than low-heat intensity and short lived fires. Plant sesiquioxide cast, with identifiable phytolith bodies within them, could evidence the potential for incomplete combustion of other fuels such as grasses and sedges, but may also represent partially fired and mineralised mats of vegetation from potential ‘earth oven’ use.


Figure 6: Heavily fired material and macro-charcoal from within a singular event at burnt mound at Mound 1.

Figure 6: Heavily fired material and macro-charcoal from within a singular event at burnt mound at Mound 1.

These deposits of burnt mound material vary, and between the individual events of burning and deposition lie interleaving flood deposits, soil formation lenses, and evidence of organic growth. While it has long been appreciated that burnt mound deposits, although often given a single context in the field, must comprise of multiple individual events of deposition, it has not been possible to identify these events until this point. Interestingly, this allows us to begin quantifying the number of deposits taking place within individual mounds, and to interpret the spaces between them as potential hiatuses in deposition where floods or organic growth cover the mound before deposition continues. The regular appearance of flood deposits between burnt mound deposits, and the evidence of seasonal flooding of the area from geomorphological reconstructions, suggests that single or multiple year hiatuses interrupted the burnt mound deposition, both in the Neolithic and the Bronze Age at the Bradford Kaims. In-washed and fluvially sorted alluvial silts and sands divide many mounds into separate entities when viewed under the microscope, bringing in microfossils that then translocate through the more porous areas of the burnt mound, sadly contaminating any chances of well-defined plant microfossil stratification within the mound deposits.

Figure 7: Flood deposit material within Mound 3

Figure 7: Flood deposit material within Mound 3

Equally interesting, are the subsoil surfaces onto which the burnt mounds have been deposited. Again, in both the Neolithic and the Bronze Age at the Bradford Kaims, the burnt mounds are laid upon desiccated colluvial clay surfaces at the edge of the fenland. As we know of the seasonal flooding during winters on the site, it stands to reason that the burnt mounds are laid during the drier seasons, or Summer and Autumn. That this trend spans both the Bronze Age and the Neolithic, along with the evidence for hiatuses in site use of more a year or more, then we may be coming to a suggestion of the burnt mounds at the Bradford Kaims being interpreted as seasonal monuments within the landscape. While a far larger dataset is needed to assess this possibility across larger areas, it poses many interesting questions about land use and socio-economics throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Age, if the most numerous prehistoric monument type in Britain and Ireland is effectively seasonal.
Excavations at the Bradford Kaims will continue in the summer of 2017, and the geoarchaeological sampling of other sites across the Orkneys, Wester Ross, and Ireland should add mass to the dataset of burnt mound thin sections. Hopefully in the future we will be able to come to a more informed understanding of the role which burnt mounds play in prehistoric Europe, through an idea of their depositional sequences and microscopic characteristics.

Boomer, I., 2007, ‘Preliminary Report on Coring at Bradford Kaims, May 2007,’ Unpublished report submitted to the University of Birmingham.
Dixon, G., Young, G., Gardner, T., Gething, P., Paterson, D., Pedersen, K. & Tipping, R., 2014, ‘Bradford Kaims Wetland Heritage Project: Interim Archaeological Report No.2,’ Bamburgh Research Project, available at;
Gething, P., Gardner, T., & Lally, T., ‘Bradford Kaims Wetland Heritage Project: Interim Archaeological Report No. 3,’ Bamburgh Research Project (Forthcoming).
Gething, P., Gardner, T., & Lally, T., ‘Bradford Kaims Wetland Heritage Project: Interim Archaeological Report No. 4,’ Bamburgh Research Project (Forthcoming).
Paterson, D., Tipping, R., Young, G., Ross, M., Gething, P. & Pedersen, K., 2014, ‘Environmental Changes at the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition from Embleton’s Bog, near Lucker, Northumberland,’ Archaeologia Aeliana, Vol.43, pp.1-18.
Young, G., Gething, P., Paterson, D., Pedersen, K. & Tipping, R. 2013, ‘Bradford Kaims Wetland Heritage Project: Interim Archaeological Report No. 1,’ Bamburgh Research Project, available at;


If you are a student member of the AEA and would like to write a blog for us, please contact Rhiannon Philp (AEA Student Rep) via

Student Blog: student contributors sought!

Are you a student member of the AEA?

If so, we want to hear from you! The student reps (Laura and Rhiannon) would like to start showcasing our student members through the AEA Student Blog.

The blog provides an informal, friendly platform for you to talk about your research, fieldwork or anything remotely related to environmental archaeology.

Past entries have included overviews of courses, interviews with fellow environmental archaeologists and ‘A Day in the Life of…’ inspired posts.

If you would like to contribute to the blog, please email contributions/queries to

Nominations are open for a 3-year membership prize for a local/community archaeological society

We are delighted to be able to offer a free membership, with hard copy journals, to be awarded to a community/local archaeology society for a period of three years.

We will be administering this award as a prize, with nominations made by AEA members and the winner voted for.

Closing date for nominations is 30th April 2016.

We will open voting through social media later in the year.

Please email your nominations to the AEA Chair (Richard Thomas or post a suggestion on our Facebook page or Twitter feed. Please forward and share this information far and wide.



Student Blog: A Week at the Museum: 2015 NERC Palaeoecology Course

My name is Rhiannon Philp and as your newly elected AEA Student Representative, it now falls to me to maintain the student blog, so I thought I would kick off proceedings with an overview of a fantastic course that I recently had the privilege of taking part in.

On the 30th November I joined 11 other researchers on a week-long NERC funded palaeoecology course hosted at the Natural History Museum. The course aimed to address the need to be able to work with complex palaeoecological datasets, introducing participants to a number of different proxies. It had been designed to fill an identified gap in current NERC-led training initiatives for Post Graduate and Early Career Researchers.


A rare tourist free photo of Dippy

Each of the five days of the course was concerned with a different palaeoecological group. The format of the course was split between lectures in the mornings and hands on practical sessions in the afternoon. The course covered five areas of palaeoecological research: Diatoms, Pollen, Vertebrates, Chironomids and Beetles. Each topic was delivered by an expert Natural History Museum staff member. At this point, I should acknowledge the incredibly enthusiastic and informative teaching that was provided by the team behind the course. Each session was engaging and interesting whether you had some prior knowledge or were completely new to the subject matter.

On day one we were introduced to Diatoms by Dr. Tom Hill. Over the morning we were introduced to the basic morphological traits of Diatoms and their environmental preferences. The afternoon consisted of a practical focussing on identification and then interpretation of diatom data, which allowed us to come into contact with some of the museum’s extensive reference collection.

Diatoms under the microscope…

Diatoms under the microscope…

Pollen was the theme of the second day, again with Tom Hill, assisted by Dr. John Tweddle. Approached in much the same way as the previous day, we covered morphology and environment, along with preservation and distribution in the morning. This was followed up by a practical in identification and interpretation in the afternoon. Enjoyment of this session (or perhaps the competitiveness of the course participants) was clearly demonstrated when many forwent their tea break to make sure they had identified all the specimens!

Course participants getting acquainted with pollen (photo courtesy of Tom Hill)

Course participants getting acquainted with pollen (photo courtesy of Tom Hill)

Day three, led by Prof. Adrian Lister, introduced the reaction of megafaunal populations to climate change, focussing predominantly on Mammoth species. After a morning lecture session exploring the climate change vs the overkill theories, the highlight of the day (possibly even course) for the group was definitely the visit to the NHM Megafauna stores (a small cheer went round the room when the visit was announced). This was followed by a particularly interesting practical exercise comparing faunal remains from two quarry sites in order to infer their relevant environments and ages.

Interpreting faunal assemblages from quarry sites (photo courtesy of Charlotte Clarke)

Interpreting faunal assemblages from quarry sites (photo courtesy of Charlotte Clarke)

A change in scale followed on day four, as we were introduced to chironomids by Dr. Steve Brooks and Dr. Angela Self. Once again the first session covered morphology and environmental preferences and was followed by a split practical, covering picking and mounting of chironomid heads with Angela (incredibly fiddly) and identification and interpretation with Steve.

On the final day, Dr Robert Angus introduced us to beetles. Morphology and environment were explored during the first half of the day and were followed by a visit to the museum collection, which, we were reliably informed by the curator, contains between 8 and 10 million different specimens! The highlight of this visit was the viewing of specimens collected by Darwin and Wallace on their respective expeditions and mounted with cards written in their own handwriting. It was interesting to note that Wallace had focussed on larger, more exotic looking species, as he was apparently using them to fund his future expeditions.

Beetles! (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Clarke)

Beetles! (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Clarke)

The week culminated with a Q & A session, which prompted interesting discussions, amongst other things, on the assumptions made about primary drivers in palaeoecology and the use of transfer functions.

It is always interesting approaching these courses from an archaeological point of view. The majority of participants came from the more traditional palaeoecological background subjects and often examples focussed outside of my (suddenly very small seeming) archaeological timeframe. However we were all able to bring something different to the course and it helped to highlight important cross over areas, with a number of potential collaborations developing over the week.

I would like to thank NERC and the organisers at the NHM for such an insightful and enjoyable course. I would highly recommend it to PGR’s and ECR’s researching any aspect of palaeoecology, should it run again in the future.

The NERC Palaeoecology course 2015 participants at the end of a long, but highly enjoyable week! (Photo courtesy of Tom Hill)

The NERC Palaeoecology course 2015 participants at the end of a long, but highly enjoyable week! (Photo courtesy of Tom Hill)

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!

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

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

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.