Review of AEA conference – Julia Meen

Review of AEA conference – Julia Meen

I’m hoping to bring a dual perspective to the student blog today – my view of the recent AEA conference in Leicester, from my vantage point as both a student and a commercial archaeologist. I’m currently completing an MRes at the University of Reading, but my day job is as an Archaeobotanist at Oxford Archaeology South. The academic and commercial worlds are in many ways quite different, but I’m finding that having one foot in each of them gives me the best of both worlds. At the moment I’m deep into writing my dissertation, which is a study of archaeobotanical approaches to identifying brewing. This is a topic which I’ve been fascinated with for several years, and being back at University has given me the chance to throw myself into researching it fully, as well as giving me the opportunity to explore some of the wider issues in archaeobotany which my study touches upon.

However, on the last Saturday in April I put aside my dissertation and headed up to Leicester to hear all about “New Directions in Data Visualisation in Environmental Archaeology”. The theme of AEA’s spring conference was well summed up by Carol Lang’s presentation shortly after lunch. Addressing specifically her experiences with soil micromorphology, the issues it raised are relevant across environmental archaeology, and she neatly expressed many of the concerns covered by the day’s speakers. Soil micromorphology, she points out, is full of technical jargon which can be impenetrable to non-specialists and, in particular, to the public.  Her paper explored how different approaches can be used to address different audiences: technical, process heavy explanations for an academic audience, and explanations making use of analogy and assuming no prior knowledge for the public. This is such an important topic, and one that I’m really invested in as a commercial archaeologist. There’s great public interest in archaeology, and we need to work to make our work more accessible to everyone.

David Smith gave an equally thought provoking paper, discussing use of multivariate statistics and visual presentations of data, specifically archaeoentomological data. The data sets that can be generated when examining insect remains from archaeological contexts can be large and complex and there can be a temptation to overcomplicate the way they are presented, with patterns obscured behind inappropriate figures and analyses. David Smith demonstrated a range of effective statistical techniques he has applied to his data. I’m currently picking through a vast amount of data for my dissertation, and David Smith’s paper has really got me thinking about the best ways I can present it.

With my commercial hat on, I was really interested to hear about Jonathan Baines’ experiences at Dere Street, in North Yorkshire. This is a rescue excavation being carried out by Northern Archaeological Associates which has so far produced a massive 4400 bulk samples, which means that as the archaeobotanist, Jonathan has his work cut out to make sense of the plant remains they contain! Jonathan discussed the approaches he is taking to interpret this huge data set, and how best to extract useful information under the constraints of commercial archaeology. Jonathan’s talk felt very timely. With big infrastructure projects such as HS2 on the horizon, it’s a good time for commercial environmental archaeologists to review their approaches, to see what does and does not work, and consider how specialists can communicate with fieldstaff about effective sample taking.

Of course, there were many more excellent presentations which I don’t have space to cover here. I thought the ‘Ignite’ 5-minute papers worked really well, and there were some very good posters. I came away from the day feeling encouraged to think about which areas of my own research I might be able to present at a future conference, having been especially inspired by the number of commercial archaeologists represented this time.