Smashing stereotypes – Dr Lisa Briggs

Following on from our blog about how heritage scientists are smashing stereotypes, we are delighted to introduce you to Dr Lisa Briggs, an underwater archaeologist and archaeological scientist at The British Museum. In this blog, she details her career:

For many years I was an underwater archaeologist working on shipwrecks. Armed with an undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Ancient History from the University of Edinburgh, I worked on every project I could, both on land and underwater, but began to specialise in shipwreck sites around the world. When the archaeological excavations I worked on uncovered artefacts of special interest, some were selected to be ‘samples’ destined for the ‘lab.’ The laboratory seemed like a mysterious place where, through spider webs and magic, incredible results and discoveries were achieved that allowed us to learn so much more about the artefacts we had uncovered. After 10 years of wondering what actually happened in these mysterious laboratories, I decided to return to school and have now completed an MPhil in Archaeological Science (Cambridge) and DPhil (PhD) in Archaeological Science (Oxford).  I wish someone had told me earlier how much fun science can be!

My PhD work used DNA and organic residue analysis to study five shipwreck sites in the Mediterranean including finds from the Uluburun, Cape Gelidonya, and Kyrenia shipwrecks. Working on these artefacts was a dream come true. I now work in the Scientific Research Department of the British Museum where I use organic residue analysis to study pottery artefacts from a variety of sites. My favourite thing about my work is being intimately involved in the entire process. My background in archaeology allows me to visit sites and sample in-situ artefacts myself, before exporting these samples to our labs at the British Museum.  This way, I can see exactly how the samples were selected, recovered, handled, stored, and analysed. For example, sunscreen is a common contaminant detected in pottery from archaeological sites in sunny countries because after applying sunscreen archaeologists will sometimes touch the pottery with bare hands when digging it up. When I am allowed to sample artefacts myself I wear powder-free nitrile gloves while digging, sterilise my sampling tools between artefacts, and store the samples in sterilised glass containers while they are awaiting export back to the UK. This way we can eliminate issues of contamination, from the loess to the lab!

My career path may not be the most common one for a heritage scientist, but I think I background in archaeology has allowed me to contextualise the artefacts that I study. In my spare time I enjoy speaking at events that encourage kids, especially girls, to get into STEM subjects by showing them how exciting science can be. At the same time, I advocate for the humanities by showing why archaeology and ancient history are so important for our understanding of what makes us human. Archaeology, I dig it!

Lisa is on Twitter and Instagram as @lisaarchaeology

Archaeology has no relevance….

Archaeologists are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate that their work has impact beyond the discipline. This has prompted some archaeologists — and in particular, environmental archaeologists and palaeoecologists — to argue that an understanding of past environmental changes is essential to model future outcomes in areas such as climate change, land cover change, soil health and food security. However, few archaeological studies have explored how to put research results into practice. 

Film showing the historic intensive agricultural system at Engaruka, Tanzania.

The EU-funded Archaeology of Agricultural Resilience in Eastern Africa (AAREA) project ran from 2014–2018 with the aim of looking at the long-term sustainability of two east African agricultural systems (Engaruka in Tanzania and Konso in Ethiopia). This was undertaken through a combination of archaeological, geoarchaeological, archaeobotanical and modelling techniques with the aim of providing a frank and realistic appraisal of the role archaeology can play in sustainability debates worldwide. The findings on the applicability of archaeological research were published through the generous funding from the NHSF Gold Open Access grant in Internet Archaeology in the article ‘Archaeology has no relevance’.

Figure 1 Konso terraces (1)Archaeological investigation of historic terracing in Konso, Ethiopia reveals the importance of valley-bottom sediment traps (Image: C. Ferro-Vázquez, et al. Journal of Environmental Management 202 (3): 500-513).

Admittedly, the title of the article might seem to imply our findings indicated that archaeology doesn’t have a role to play in the global conversation about sustainability, whilst in fact, the insights we gained showed that it was far more complicated than this. Archaeological results were not particularly relevant to policy-makers and NGOs in their raw state, or even in the form of a written-up scientific article, but the insights gained were of interest. In order to progress from, “Oh, that’s interesting” to the point where the insights can be used, a different way of working is needed. A way that is transdisciplinary and requires the ‘flow of knowledge’ to go in every direction, this may ultimately produce changes in the way we work, the methods we use, and the questions we ask. Enacting this way of working was beyond the limits of the AAREA project, but since the publication of ‘Archaeology has no relevance’ a new project, SOIL-SAFE, has been funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts and Humanities Research Council to allow us to develop this idea.

Figure 2 Policy brief image Policy brief exploring the potential role of sediment traps can play in soil conservation practices.

Using one of the original case study areas (Konso, Ethiopia), SOIL-SAFE will build on the relationships created during the AAREA project. It will bring together those working in archaeology, ethnobotany, development studies, NGOs and those who live and work in the landscape to co-create a method with archaeological insights embedded from the beginning. Knowing how an agricultural system was built and operated over time is clearly relevant to an understanding of its current sustainability, but discussions of future sustainability must include everyone that is invested in this future. As archaeologists we can tell people what happened in the past, but the relevance of this information can only be determined through open conservation with the people that may choose to apply it. 

 

The paper ‘Archaeology has no relevance’ is co-authored by Suzi Richer, formerly with National Trust, and Daryl Stump and Rob Marchant of the University of York.

Excavating the Rooswijk … virtually!

The next blog in our British Science Week 2020 series come from MSDS Marine, a Marine and Coastal Contractor specialising in the management, execution and support of archaeological projects in the marine environment. 

The Rooswijk was a Dutch East India Company vessel which sank on the treacherous Goodwin Sands, off Kent, in January 1740. The ship was outward-bound for Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) with trade goods. The site is now protected by the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. The ship’s remains are owned by the Dutch Government; however, the UK government is responsible for managing shipwrecks in British waters, therefore both countries work closely together to manage and protect the wreck site.

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Figure 1. Clockwise from top left: Multibeam image showing the main area of wreckage on the Rooswijk, A diver excavating in 2018. Lead project Conservator Angela Middleton examining a concreted chest from the side. A screenshot of the Rooswijk virtual trail.

A two-year archaeological excavation project was undertaken between 2017 and 2018 due to the site being at high risk of loss through environmental changes and unauthorised diving. Wrecks such as the Rooswijk are part of the shared cultural maritime heritage across Europe and it’s important that cultural heritage agencies are able to work together to ensure that sites like this are protected, researched, understood and appreciated by all. The project involves an international team led by The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) in partnership with Historic England. MSDS Marine are the UK Project Managers for the project.

In 2019 MSDS Marine, working with ArtasMedia, created a virtual tour of the site: https://msdsmarine.com/projects/dive-trails/rooswijk-virtual-trail/. Now the projects archaeologists are working with the μ-VIS X-ray Imaging Centre at the University of Southampton to further excavate the site virtually!

A number of stacks of coins were found during the excavation. Some of these were carefully separated by the conservators from the Investigative Science Team at Historic England (Figure 2). Some could not be separated.

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Figure 2. An MSDS Marine conservator separating coins from the Rooswijk in the Historic England laboratory.

A number of stacks were then sent to the μ-VIS X-ray Imaging Centre (www.muvis.org) at the University of Southampton to be micro-CT scanned. X-ray micro-Computed Tomography (µ-CT) scanning is a volumetric scanning technique, which enables us to virtually cut open materials to look inside with micrometre spatial resolution, while preserving the condition of the object we are scanning. During the scan, the object is rotated 360 degrees as thousands of 2D X-ray projection images are acquired. These 2D images are then reconstructed into a three-dimensional volume, which is made up of cubic pixels with intensities related to the amount of x-ray energy absorbed at that point.

We used the custom walk-in scanner (the Hutch) at the µ-VIS X-ray Imaging Centre to scan the concreted coins, which were stacked in sealed tubes to prevent excessive drying during the scanning process (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Concreted coins mounted for µ-CT scanning within the custom Nikon/X-tek 450/225 kVp Hutch at the µ-VIS X-ray Imaging Centre, University of Southampton

The digital reconstructed volumes were then sent to MSDS Marine, where myVGL software (Volume Graphics GmbH, Germany) was used to manipulate the volume data, so that the individual faces inside the stacks could be seen (Figure 4). These coin faces have not been seen since they were packed into chests for the voyage almost 280 years ago.

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Figure 4. A Rider coin from 1739 that has been virtually separated from a large coin stack.

The coin face slice images will be sent to Jan Pelsdonk, the projects numismatist, for identification and will contribute to the understanding of the wreck.

The application of scientific techniques like CT scanning and digital model processing have contributed hugely to the understanding of underwater heritage, and continue to offer new and exciting ways of investigating these important cultural sites.

Phoebe Ronn, MSDS Marine Phoebe@MSDSMarine.co.uk

www.MSDSMarine.co.uk

Katy Rankin, µ-VIS X-ray Imaging Centre, University of Southampton, k.rankin@soton.ac.uk

www.southampton.ac.uk/muvis

HEAD HUNTING IN THE HIGHLANDS – Using archaeological science to understand extraordinary medieval burials from St Colman’s Church, Portmahomack, Tarbatness, Highlands

The next post in our British Science Week 2020 series is about a project supported by funding from Historic Environment Scotland, a NHSF member. 

Written by Cecily Spall, FAS Heritage

Image 1 - 3-D scans - credit Visualising Heritage, UoB
Image 1: 3-D colours scans of the skull of Chieftain A (right) showing blade cut and Chieftain B (Credit: Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford)

Image 2 - Chieftain A and skulls - credit FAS Heritage
Image 2: Chieftain A with the four extra skulls set at his head (Credit: FAS Heritage)

Image 3 - Chieftain B reconstruction - credit FaceLab LJMU
Image 3: 2-D computer-based facial reconstruction of Chieftain B (Credit: FaceLab, Liverpool John Moores University)

The Tarbat Discovery Centre, Portmahomack, opened in 1999 in the former medieval church of St Colman.  It displays the results of 20 years of archaeological research excavation focussed around this important church.  Along with National Museums Scotland, the Centre cares for the collection of burials, dating from the 7th to the 16th century, excavated from in and around the church building.

St Colman’s Church was built in the 12th century in the abandoned burial ground of an 8th-century Pictish monastery. Burials continued from the 13th to the 16th century. Over 80 medieval burials were excavated and include a small group of burials which were highly unusual, displaying burial rites never before seen.  The central burial was that of an older man – ‘Chieftain A’ – who had died aged 46 to 59 years from a horrendous facial injury caused by a blade (Image 1). On his death he was interred in a large coffin which included four extra skulls set at his head (Image 2). About a generation later his grave was reopened and the body of a second man – ‘Chieftain B’ – was laid on top with the skulls now set around his head.

A Historic Environment Scotland funded programme of archaeological scientific analysis is now underway, designed to better understand these extraordinary burials. This includes radiocarbon dating and ‘Bayesian’ (statistical) modelling of the dating brackets to refine them. The results suggest that Chieftain A died between AD1290 and 1410 and Chieftain B between AD 1380 and 1450; three of the skulls buried with them died between AD1250 and 1400 and the fourth belonged to a Pictish monk who died between AD770 and 900. These extraordinary burials belong to the period when the clan system was becoming established and so represents an important part of understanding Highland heritage and the history of the community of Portmahomack.

Multi-isotope analysis measuring strontium and oxygen preserved in tooth enamel has also provided information on region of birth with Chieftain A having grown up on or around the Tarbatness peninsula, and Chieftain B growing up elsewhere, perhaps in the Western or Northern Isles, moving to Portmahomack later in life.

Computer-based reconstruction of the face of Chieftain B has been undertaken using European datasets to model his likely appearance (Image 3), work which was generously funded by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Ancient DNA analysis is also underway at Harvard University and it is hoped that it will provide information on possible family connections between the burials, as well as likely skin tone, and eye and hair colour, and perhaps even his deeper shared ancestry.

The Tarbat Discovery Centre is currently hosting a temporary exhibition on the burials project. For more information visit: http://www.tarbat-discovery.co.uk.