The study of isotopes – chemical signatures preserved in our bones and teeth that shed light on diet and movements during life – are increasingly becoming a major part of archaeology, frequently redefining how we look at different periods and featuring in most post-excavation analyses. But we still have a long way to go in terms of being able to use them to confidently pinpoint a person’s specific origins. At the moment, most isotopic maps are still fairly crude and the science is better at identifying local vs non-local rather than confidently determining exact locations. A new study, recently published in Science Advances, has highlighted the need to make sure these maps are more accurate, bringing up the potential impact that agricultural practices might have in certain regions.
Recent news from post-excavation analysis of the excavations for the A14 Cambridge-to- Huntingdon improvement scheme (see CA 339), which recently won the Current Archaeology Award for Best Rescue Project of 2019, is bringing archaeobotany into the spotlight. Archaeobotanist Lara Gonzalez Carretero has discovered that organic samples taken from the site, dating to the Iron Age, are consistent with the by-product of making beer and may represent the earliest evidence for this process in Britain.
For this month’s ‘Science Notes’, CA’s Deputy Editor Kathryn Krakowka visited the ancient DNA (aDNA) lab at the Natural History Museum in London, to talk to Professor Ian Barnes and Dr Selina Brace about the history of aDNA research, the functions of the lab at the NHM, and what projects they are currently working on.
In the early days of archaeology, human remains were often treated as an afterthought, deemed unable to tell us much about past populations. As we are well aware today, though, this could not be further from the truth, and in more recent decades the study of human bones has become a major component of archaeological research. But, despite this skeletal success, there is another key aspect of burials that remains relatively under-researched: the grave soil.
In the last decade or so we have experienced a revolution in archaeological science, and one of the most exciting aspects of this is the extraordinary level of detail that we can glean from everyday objects. But while we are constantly pushing the boundaries of what we can discover from archaeological remains, we are also constantly reminded of the constraints we still face. This dichotomy is well evidenced in a study, recently published in the journal Analyst, on the detection of opioids in archaeological contexts.
With the remarkable potential of isotopic analysis making recent headlines (see p.18), it seems apt to talk a bit more about this technique. Among the wealth of archaeological questions isotope analysis can help to answer are: where was an individual born and raised, did they migrate during their lifetimes, what did they predominately eat, and when were they weaned? As this is a relatively new and ever-evolving methodology, though, some of the wrinkles are still being ironed out – and one of the biggest questions currently being explored is whether bone is as effective as teeth in reflecting the isotopic values that a person accumulated in life.
In this month’s Science Notes, we turn to one of the most immediately recognisable monuments in the world – Stonehenge – examining how the origin of its bluestones was taken for granted for so long, and how it shows why research is ever evolving, and never absolute.
While we have talked a lot about ancient DNA (aDNA) in ‘Science Notes’, it has mainly been in the context of decoding ancient human genomes. We have not really delved into the other applications of the methodology, including the detection of ancient pathogens. However, this is a quickly emerging area that could have a huge impact on how we are able to study health and disease in the past, and deserves some unpicking.
In today’s era of ‘fake news’, we haven’t been entirely surprised to see recent headlines claiming new research has proven that radiocarbon dating is inaccurate or plain wrong (one even went so far as to say ‘A Crucial Archaeological Dating Tool is Wrong, and It Could Change History as We Know It’). To be fair, once you get past the headlines, the articles mostly provide a bit more of the truth and a little less clickbait. Nonetheless, we thought it pertinent to delve into the actual science of this discovery and offer a more impartial, if less sensationalist, account of the findings.
This month we are doing something a little different, exploring a wider theme rather than a specific technique. A recent public-interest piece in Nature – published in response to their research paper about the Bell Beaker culture (for more on this research, see CA 338) – discusses the ‘sometimes straining’ relationship between archaeologists and geneticists.