Dienstag, 4. Dezember 2018

Do Pots and Bones Tell the Same Stories? Research Visit at the University of Bristol – School of Chemistry, November 20-23

A blog post by Sina Lehnig

In order to gain knowledge about the process of food procurement up to certain cooking practices of a cultural group, archaeologists interview the material they recover during their excavations. This includes the analysis of animal bones and plant macro remains, as well as the investigation of certain types of ceramics that were possibly used for transport and the final preparation of food. By doing so they receive information about which animals and plants the inhabitants of a certain region have cultivated or perhaps even imported. However, it is often difficult to assess the actual importance that plants, animals and their products had in people’s everyday lives and diets. The discovery of sheep and goat bones therefore does not yet indicate with certainty whether the animals were kept because of their meat or their secondary products such as milk, cheese and wool. The same applies to cattle, where cows can be used for transport, work, or dairy production. Similar questions arise when it comes to the function of certain vessels in the food preparation process. Due to their shape and characteristics, it is possible to draw conclusions about their use in food storage and preparation, but these conclusions can be regarded as controversial.

In order to get more clarity about the meaning of certain foods and resources in the everyday life of the people who inhabited my research area, the Roman and Byzantine Negev desert, an Organic Residue Analysis (ORA) on ceramics is planned. Since resource exploitation and the acquisition and treatment of food in an arid environment are connected to special challenges (high temperatures, evaporation and low precipitation connected to difficulties for the supply of plants and animals as well as to the storage of food that easily spoils), an analysis that goes beyond the study of bones and plant remains holds additional potential.

Organic residues are often invisible leftovers inside ceramic vessels that come from its original content, from either a single-product use or an accumulation of individual uses. The porous structure of the pottery that can be compared to that of a sponge absorbs organic residues. The most durable and widely occurring among them are lipids. They are the main constitutes of plant and animal cells together with carbohydrates and proteins. Since lipids are hydrophobic they will not readily dissolve in water and therefore survive for long times. The same applies to the durability of the pottery itself: once fired, the material is extremely long-lived. Together, ceramics and lipids form a perfect couple to address archaeological questions regarding diet, resource acquisition/exploitation and vessel use. ORA enables the characterisation of resources including terrestrial animal fats (ruminant and non-ruminant fats, carcass fats and dairy fats can be distinguished), aquatic fats (fish, shellfish, marine mammals), plant oils and waxes, beeswax, as well as resins, tars and bitumens. This information can then be used to clarify whether certain fats only occur in certain vessel forms. Furthermore, they can be compared with the results on animal husbandry and food we have from the archaeozoological analysis.

To evaluate the potential an ORA could have for my research project in the Negev desert, I visited the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol (Fig. 1) where Prof. Richard Evershed developed a highly regarded laboratory (Fig. 2) for the investigation of organic residues from archaeological sites. I had the chance to see the institution with its technical equipment and to receive an in-depth introduction to the whole method from Prof. Evershed himself. After presenting my research design to the scientists on site, we discussed a possible collaboration. To check the potential of an ORA on ceramic material that comes from the Negev desert, a first survey will be carried out on 60 sherds from the ancient settlement Elusa. I am already looking forward to the results of the study and to comparing them with the data from my other research. This will also show how coherent the picture is that the ORA and archaeozoology draw.
Fig.1: Wills Memorial Building at Bristol University (Source: S. Lehnig)

Fig.2: Laboratory at the School of Chemistry where the ORA is carried out (Source: J. Linstädter)

My research stay in Bristol was a great experience and a wonderful opportunity to receive more insight into methods that are a real gain for archaeological research. The contact with the local scientists has shown how important it is that archaeologists and scientists work closely together, network and improve each other’s knowledge about their fields of research.

Mittwoch, 28. November 2018

Islands in Dialogue. A report on the three-day International Postgraduate Conference in the Prehistory and Protohistory of the Mediterranean Islands

A blog post by Mari Yamasaki.

Between November 14 and 16, the Department of Humanities of the University of Turin, in collaboration with the University of Manchester hosted the first edition of “Islands in Dialogue – International Postgraduate Conference in the Prehistory and Protohistory of Mediterranean Islands.” The beautiful city of Turin (fig. 1) and the stunning Palazzo del Rettorato (fig. 2) provided the backdrop for three days of talks – or better, of dialogues – over current issues concerning the archaeology of islands. 
Fig. 1: Top: view of Turin; Bottom: Palazzo Madama;
Right: Mole Antonelliana, Torino. (Photos: M. Yamasaki)

Fig. 2: Universitá degli Studi di Torino, Palazzo del Rettorato (Photo: M. Yamasaki)

Before getting to the themes of the conference, I would like to say a few words about its unorthodox organization and the emphasis that the organizers put on communication. Instead of sessions, the conference was divided into nine thematic dialogues during which three to four speakers would present their papers one after the other, without the customary individual Q&A. An “open dialogue”, during which the main themes highlighted by each speaker would be addressed, would close each session. This proved especially effective to stimulate a lively discussion with the audience and between the speakers themselves, who had to confront each other over different approaches to common themes.

Keynote speaker of the event was Helen Dawson (TOPOI, Freie Universität Berlin), with the lecture titled “Island ‘netscapes’: navigating issues of insularity.” With her talk, Helen Dawson effectively introduced some of the main themes the conference would be tackling in the following days especially in regard to analytical approaches, the applicability of certain geographical categories, and the necessity for clarity of definitions in the study of islands. Concerning a necessity for new approaches, H. Dawson proposed a shift from a categorical to a relational analysis: following the principle that “things exist because they are connected,” this approach redirects the attention from the individual elements in the network (islands) to the network itself.

Networks were also addressed by Panos Tzovaras (University of Southampton) through the use of GIS to record and highlight the mutual relationship between all evidences of long-distance connectivity and exchange. Another take on the complexity of seascapes was expressed by Zoran Čučović (Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté) with a case study on protohistoric Dalmatian island fortresses. The unique location of these monumental constructions prompted him to try an experiential approach to the study of landscape which imply an attention for the trajectories through time and space, moving the focus to the diverse storylines that overlap onto a given landscape.

Perception and an emic definition of insularity were the object of an interesting debate – or dialogue, as intended by the organisers of the conference. Frerich Schön (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen) illustrated how the application of an emic approach can highlight new ways of reading regional interactions in the Iron Age Sicilian Channel. Christopher Nuttal (University of Uppsala), addressing phenomenology and material engagement theory, showed how our contemporary geographical categories – such as that of islands – may lead to a misinterpretation of the data, bringing some case study of non-maritime communities from the pre- and protohistoric Aegean islands. On the same note, my own paper “Concepts of insularity and maritime identities” proposed Bronze Age Cyprus as an almost paradoxical case for non-insularity. The study brought together evidence for consumption, symbolization and connectivity to evaluate the relationship between Cypriot cultures with the sea and the mainland. At the beginning of my talk, I explicated my definitions of maritimity and insularity: as already mentioned by H. Dawson, despite their frequent use within the scholarship, a univocal understanding of these terms is still missing.

In addition to the more theoretical/methodological papers, several sessions addressed issues such as monumentality, pottery production and dispersion, and the application of archaeobotanical, isotope and radiocarbon analysis to the understanding of cultural processes with case studies from across the entire Mediterranean ranging from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age.

To conclude, “Islandia” proved to be an excellent ground to bring together a number of young researchers from a variety of backgrounds, under their common interest for island archaeology. The fruitful dialogues highlighted the necessity for such encounters, in order to progress in the research methodology and further elaborate on the consensus over key definitions.

The organisers. From left to right: G. Muti, G. Albertazzi, Prof. L. Bombardieri, A. Saggio
(Photo: M. Yamasaki)