In recent years, a flurry of archaeological work in the Stonehenge landscape has uncovered a wealth of spectacular new details about this area’s prehistoric use. Above all, these findings clearly show that our knowledge of the past is constantly evolving. When it comes to archaeological analysis, there are very few certainties, and re-examining earlier evidence in light of either new finds or the development of new technologies is essential to get nearer to the truth.
Previously, large-scale changes in population were quite difficult, if not impossible, to discern from the archaeological record. But while there are still many biases and pitfalls, new statistical techniques are starting to provide innovative ways to determine movement and migration patterns. In this month’s ‘Science Notes’, we explore some of these new techniques, and examine recent research that has utilised them to assess population fluctuations in Ireland.
In CA 338, we discussed proteomics – the study of proteins – and how it is quickly growing as a new way of analysing archaeological remains. That month’s ‘Science Notes’ explored how it had been applied to dental calculus, or plaque build-up, to assess an individual’s diet and health. Now research has used proteomics to help with the identification and diagnosis of ancient diseases, further proving its potential to revolutionise our understanding of health through history.
Facial reconstructions have become an increasingly common output of archaeological analysis. From the dark-skinned Cheddar Man (see CA 337) to the battle-scarred men from the Mary Rose, these life-like models put a face (literally) on the past in a way that artefacts cannot. Now, a reconstruction has been created from the skull of a Neolithic dog, opening up new possibilities for the ways in which this forensic technique may be used in the future. But how are these models created, and how accurate are they? In this month’s ’Science Notes‘, we explore the details of this technique and how it was applied to a canine from Orkney.
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.