Posts Tagged archaeology

A hadrosaur dinosaur in Mexico and a science conscious Mother Brigid Gallagher Jul 24


Today I had a flash back.  Our 3 year old was having a pout about not seeing any bones at the Auckland Art gallery and that they had not been to the museum.  And our 6 year old was describing her favorite pieces at the Gallery which were the Maori designs and patterns…and I thought… HANG ON A MINUTE!!!


And then I found this, something I had previously written but not got around to posting here…

about a year or so ago when the Wiggles were doing their swan song tour of NZ (before the new Wiggles came into power) I was trying desperately trying to find cool science within the songs and messages.  I was looking for a glimmer of the nuts and bolts stuff that my young ones would suck up and absorb for all eternity…and quite possibly lead them to be Scientist of the Year 2030.

Having danced in the aisles to appropriately role model positive, social behaviour, and sung the songs out loud…I remained unsure that The Wiggles were the answer.

Fruit Salad, yummy yummy…Nutrition and diet?

Hot Potato Hot Potato…Physics and heat transfer?

Toot Toot Chugga Chugga Big Red Car…Mechanics, chromatics?

D.O.R.O.T.H.Y (My Favourite Dinosaur)…Palaentology?  Horticulture??

Can We Dig It?…. Archaeology and Sport Science?  Had I found a previously undiscovered archaeological anthem in all its  technicolour glory?

“Digging up the dirt in a line….

Digging in the sun, having lots of fun….

Digging with a shovel, or a trowel….

Digging is what we love to do.”

So then I looked for alternatives and came very naturally and quickly to Dora the Explorer.  She is an obvious contender as she tears about the Mexican country side visiting temples, jungles and lakes on cars, trains and animals.  She knows trolls and unicorns, and visits castles which obviously sit in the the world of archaeology?!!??!?!!!!

Then there is Diego, Doras cousin.  He rescues and looks after animals in need.  He has cool gadgets and modes of transport like parachutes in packs and skateboards, and he and his sister Alicia provide preschoolers with a good grounding in animal types, the noises and actions they make, and the equipment needed to help them when they are hurt or want to study them (see the photo below where Dora, Alicia and Diego are in the ‘lab’ with a computer and camera with tripod).  Not only are kids learning about nature and their environment, but the programme also helps them become accustomed to technology and its uses.  I actually might be getting somewhere in this search!?

And then across to the Bubble Guppies!  Which I have to confess I am strangely drawn to because…well I am not going to dwell on the because!  But they have an episode which is my personal favorite  AND another Mexican based story.  The Bubble Guppies go on a treasure hunt (which our eldest would happily do every day if a favourite treat was at the end!) and they come across the pretzelcoatl dragon that lives in a stone Aztec pyramid ‘The temple of the golden pretzel’ and loves to eat pretzels!  Not only do these under water guppies show us a whole world that I never new existed, but I was reminded about about discovery, the thrill of the search and historic architecture… and how much fun it can be doing it!!

But now today, a year on from my original writing … my girls have got older, but it is still about getting some meaningful brain fodder into them whilst still letting them enjoy the visual stimuli that preschool/early school tv offers them, and they enjoy.


Enter THE Hadrosaur tail discovered in Mexico, this week in the news.   It ticks all the boxes for me in interesting my young children in science, except 1:

It has been found in Mexico by students and paleontologists at the National Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH) and the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

It is the longest, most intact or articulated set of 50 vertebrae bones found in Mexico to date.

Its preservation is unusually good due to its deposition and the burial environment, ie you see the bones, your get that these belonged to BIG creatures, and they have been hidden for 72 million years, like treasure!

The article also states that scientists already know that dinosaurs suffer from tumours and arthritis, meaning that they really needed medical attention (and my kids do like Doc Stuffins these days)… I must look that up…

And the bones were found in a desert that was once on the coast in Northern Mexico (Dora and co go to deserts and both my girls are interested in camels and extreme environments for some reason)

And that paleontologists had to carefully dig to reveal the fossilized bones and that they will be carefully moved away from the  site for cleaning and investigation (mum digs in the dirt for old things, and some times bones…just like Dora the Explorers mum! – what do you know we have gone full circle, and I am forced to compete with an animated character).


But the hadrosaur story is a real discovery, from the real news… which my children might well be able to understand, learn something from and be excited about…



but the Excavation of the duck-billed (hadrosaur) dinosaur video and the media articles do not help in any way, shape or form when it comes to re-affirming knowledge and information I try to pass on, as the the answer to the question I inevitably respond to most when asked by the general public about all the dinosaur bones I have excavated….that archaeologists do not generally excavate dinosaurs.

Archaeologists investigate and care for the evidence of past humans!


But I am taking this real new story by the hand with a firm grip…

I think I will go and make an A1 poster of this story for their bedroom wall!








What in Earth???? Brigid Gallagher Feb 19

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So you are looking to buy or develop a nice piece of land on our beautiful New Zealand coastline?

I can see it now…the long gin and tonic, the slice of lime, the sound of native birds hopping about a canopy of lush green native flora…


Whats that?

There is an archaeological site in your land??!?!

What in earth is an archaeological site anyway?

In the New Zealand Archaeological Associations digital database ArchSite it is a small red dot usually with a large black rectangle attached to it, and a number next to it.

On the New Zealand Historic Places Trust register it is probably not there.

On your local district plan it might be a green dot with, a number  next to it.

A LINZ or PINZ report will show it as a small mark, like a dot, too.  With a larger shape attached encapsulating a larger area.

My dot, oh I meant point, is that archaeological sites are typically not as small as a single dot when seen in reality.  Very often you cant see them when driving your car for the hundredth time past your perfect bit of land… Very often they are invisible from the surface,

Archaeological sites are literally IN the earth.

They have the potential to be lurking anywhere just under the ground surface.  And reason they are in the earth… is because they were here before any of us.  They are the physical remains of peoples ancestors…real people, real New Zealanders.

Just like people today, when a family or a community decides to put down roots and build a house, or a village, or a swimming pool complex,

they spread out, some mess is made and sometimes that mess and rubbish is left behind after the building, or playing, or living is done….

well the same happened with people who left their mark in the earth many many moons ago.

In the scenario in my head…perhaps out came the tools, then came the wood, in went the windows, somebody cooked the lunch, and over there is where the rubbish went every day after lunch.  And no, like you, I don’t like sitting next to rotting rubbish while I eat my lunch…and I can’t imagine many others do either?

So, lets put that rubbish a few meters away in this hot summer sun, and then it doesn’t matter much if the birds come and help themselves to the left overs, the ants wont become bothersome, and my nose can retain the sweet smell of our beautiful nature and I can still enjoy the sound and vision of the waves gently crashing against the sand.

Ah, space!  The great kiwi outdoors!  Wide open spaces, lots of places to roam, many places to explore!  The best campground ever!  It has always been the same…

Our past heritage is more than just a drop in the ocean of time…sorry a dot in the landscape,

Archaeological sites make way more sense when you connect the dots and understand that nobody makes a single piece of mess in a lifetime, loose their possessions in one small defined place or has a house that they never leave; we and our ‘things’ have the potential to spread!  

The conclusion: New Zealands human past took place in one large camp site…across wide open spaces, with lots of places to roam.  But all of them connected in some way.

Moral: When the campground needs to develop and make additions, it is quite likely that the physical remains of earlier camp dwellers will be found in the earth, and not just where the council, the NZAA or the NZHPT have put their dot. This is no nasty trick, this is just what happens.

And that folks is archaeology.  More than just a dot in space and time….its a hidden landscape in the earth.

cin cin!

(the author is not responsible for the quality of her content…she has diminished responsibility on account of repetitive questioning regarding the existence and size of archaeological sites :)

(note: I am not referring to a real campground, this is a metaphor ;)



Baldrick’s Cunning Plan? Brigid Gallagher Feb 12


For all the archaeologists, history buffs, enthusiasts and Time Team (Tony Robinson) fans out there – Baahahaahahahahaha!


Richard III – A Right Royal Scientific Synthesis Recipe Brigid Gallagher Feb 11


My text and email has been alive the past weeks.  ”You must be really fascinated”, ” WOW, is it cool!”, “Have you been watching news”.

What has it all been about?  Richard the III of course!

The coolest thing about this?

Is that the use of a well know person or family can drag archaeology and heritage out of the past and into the future, and todays  reality.  The biggest curse of heritage is that people cant see the point of doing it, hearing about it, accommodating it in today’s society.  A story like Richard III cuts through all of that.

A story about a royal immediately gives flesh to the subject.  You see the paintings, read the text (even Shakespeare’s version), can visit the castles, the churches, and the carpark if you fancy it.  It is tangible.  On the outside it feels as though anybody, anytime, can make a discovery like this!

Most skeletons excavated in the UK never have a name.  The report reads “‘Joe or Jane Doe’, lived a long time ago…probably this time based on the ‘other’ information/features found during the excavation (he style of the pottery, the method and imagery on the painted glass windows, the direction of the burial etc).  Most of the time their statistics are recorded along with their probable age range, gender and any evidence of disease of lifestyle on the bone, and reburied.  In the past they were probably put in a box and taken to a storeroom for later study, maybe.

This story, with the science DNA analysis brings gives credibility to a story that really is just about people at the end of the day…ok a rich and powerful one, who may or may not have been really evil and murderous, with the appearance of a hunchback…but a story that connects many NZers back to the ‘motherland’ and its royal associations, and is all about the celebs or ‘it’ people of the past.  What girl has not wanted to marry a Prince, and be a Princess at some point?

This story at its heart is about a lot of people, all producing layers of information that can be brought together to tell a whole story, that society can relate to.  And like most projects there was probably a whole lot of leg work done by enthusiasts well before the archaeologists, University and tv companies got involved.

But once they did get involved…well this is my interpretation of the Royal scientific synthesis recipe used in the finding of King Rich:

Before you start the mixing:

Do your reading, know the story, further the research, then locate a skeleton from under a car park in Leicester;


1. record the size, profile and position of the grave cut

2. draw the position of the skeleton and any other burial elements (coffin nails, shrouds etc)

3. discuss the fit of the skeleton in the grave cut, and the condition (even neatness) of the grave itself

4. conclude on who did it and how the body would have been buried.


1. Record the detail in the bones (were missing body parts contemporary with the life of the person or occur post burial, aging and gender evidence etc)

2. Record evidence of physical stress and disease/illness on the bone, like scoliosis

3. Compare the historic documents/images of potential candidates with the information from the skeleton

4. Discuss, discuss, discuss

5. Conclude on the person/family the skeleton is most likely to originate from


1. Sample the skeleton, in this case the teeth and femur

2. Trace possible direct descendants, using peerage information, and the female lines (for the mitochondrial DNA)

3. Sample the DNA of the possible descendant

4. DNA analysis……

….Months later


1. Report the findings….

2. Give a face to the person (through facial reconstruction techniques for example)

3. Allow time for critique, positive and negative to occur

4. Wait to see if there is an increase in funding available for DNA analysis to connect with people today, an increase in media attention given to archaeology and an increase in tourist visitors to the associated places.

….Months later


Report the findings in a peer reviewed journal – confirmation to critics and peers the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed.


Use the information and the story to maintain PART 4, point 4 above into the future.

If the story of Richard the III invigorates the interest of society, funders, institutions and next LOTTO winner in heritage projects then that makes for a very tasty outcome to me!

You can hear some of my thoughts on this on Radio NZ <iframe src=”″ width=”100%” frameborder=”0″ height=”62px”></iframe> 

3-D X-Ray is Big News for Archaeological Research Brigid Gallagher Sep 13

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ArtInfo has released an article today which has me very excited, and thinking of ways it could be used in New Zealand archaeology.  

Instead of having to consolidate (or glue together) a fragile pot, urn, vessel, or block of loose soil,  with low concentrate adhesives, co-polymers, acrylics and the like,

And then slowly micro-excavate the contents inside by hand (with really small tools, a delicate hand and meticulous recording) with a 2-D x-ray image or CT-Scan at your side to guide the operation.

This extremely cool piece of kit designed by Nikon to check the condition of turbine blades for Rolls Royce airplane engines is now being used by archaeologists at the University of Southampton to blast not one, but multiple rays  at an object, subject or material from different angles….before it has been excavated. 

Image above: Courtesy of University of Southampton

The reason this is so great? 

A 3-D image is produced giving multitude amounts of new information on one photographic image.  It gives the person about to excavate or  conserve the vessel and its contents maximum information before going in. Information like;

  1. What is in the soil block, urn, pot, basket, gourd, or skin?
  2. How have the contents been arranged?  Have they been dumped randomly, perhaps quickly?  Or have they been methodically placed, with time available for their arrangement?
  3. Is there more than one type of object, subject or material preserved?  Were they put in at the same time, or different times?  Are they in layers that show the order they were placed in the vessel? 
  4. Is the excavation and conservation or restoration strategy being proposed the right one?  Will the contents fit through the mouth of the vessel, or will the side need to come down forst, and then be rebuilt?
  5. Is this a genuine archaeological artefact, or a fake or a hoax?

The archaeologist or conservator can immediately see the true form of the contents,  its survival and condition…and in the case of this story the writing is on the wall…sorry, coins. The words and faces found on the Roman coins tell the date of the object…which gives the terminus post quem, or the date after which the object could have buried, hidden, or lost.


Above: Image of Coins 3-D X-rayed by the Nikon technology. Image courtesy of Southampton.

The use of these kinds of technologies are a great time and money saver, as well as allowing the experts to work out whether a vessel is worth opening…and this decision can take into account;

  • the value or rareity of the contents,
  • the cost for its conservation,
  • the long term use, display or storage of the contents,
  • the research potential the contents have (will they push forward our knowledge of past people and practises) and
  • often most importantly consider the respect and dignity that should be given to the vessel and its contents.  

And super importantly;

Because the multiple rays create an image that non-specialists can actually see and often immediately recognise, the value of the artefact can also sky rocket.  Managers, funders or the public for instance can visualise and understand what they are looking at without heavy explanations and a series of photos that require piecing back together in their head.  Its the same reason I also love 3-D laser scanning. 

It makes the past way more accessible.

The Problem with CT Scans and Conventional X-ray?

Nothing at all….but

CT scans produce a highly informative 2-dimensional visual cross section through archaeological material or objects at high resolution.   

The problem can be that to build up the true and accurate picture of the object or subject, a single slice is not enough.  You need numerous slices to see the story in front of you in its entirety. Much like when we get put through the scan for medical reasons.   This also makes it expensive and sometimes more difficult to manipulate the data during the analysis phase of an archaeological investigation.

X-radiography (my favourite trade tool) also produces a 2- dimensional image which can be very informative, but you need to rely on the experience of the operator to set the right parameters to get the information required. 

Depending on the strength and exposure time of the x-ray information is seen, or not.  This is partially determined by the density or molecular structure of the material being x-rayed.  Too many kv’s, for too long often mean the rays go right through an object missing it altogether showing a very black image.  

It has the same effect of setting the depth of field on a photographic camera. An x-ray image is really a compression of 3-dimensional information into a 2-dimensional format, not a single slice of true data coming from a CT Scan.  The good thing is that with the advent of digital x-ray units, it is alot easier to try out different exposures in one session. Better than going off to the dark room to develop your film, and then find out there is no picture! And probably most importantly it is quite economical.

Why am I so excited about this?

I can’t remember the amount of times I have come away from an x-ray session and wished for just one more image from a slightly different angle, or a slightly different exposure,

And then looked at CT Scans and thought agh, too many cross sections!  My head hurts putting this altogether again. 

Technologies that make an object and their contents visible at high resolution mean maximum information to make more informed decisions and greater appreciation value…and that means there is lowered risk of damage, and heightened appreciation of archaeology in the future.

To Destroy, or Preserve? That is the Question on the Effects of Volcanism in Archaeology Brigid Gallagher Aug 16

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In front of me a volcano is erupting. 

This is a slight exaggeration…but from my window last Friday, I could see a long low trail of ash from White Island spread above the horizon, and small billows of white changing form where another burst of steam spews forth.

I have been fighting the urge to go and buy a stronger set of binoculars in case I miss something. 

I have always been fascinated by volcanoes.  It started in earnest during 5th form geography when my teacher Sally Brodie (I really should thank her!) picked up the phone in her office and rang eminent geologist Sir Les Kermode.

The conversation went something like this…

“I am with a student who feels that she cannot fulfil the requirements of her project on the Tongariro Volcanic Field because she cannot adequately explain the difference between andesitic and rhyolitic volcanoes”.

Hmmm, maybe I was a little precious?!

And so I was given this lesson over the course of the next minutes, and I went away a well informed school girl who felt able to finish her assignment.

It was an invaluable lesson, and demonstrated early on that asking the right people the right questions was key to my understanding of science.  Especially when understanding physical sciences where I needed, and still do, need to visualise processes.

But back to volcanoes…and leap forward a few years…what on earth is an archaeological bod doing reminiscing about a desire to be a volcanologist?

Volcanoes have had, and continue to have a huge impact on archaeology in term of;

  1.  Site formation,
  2. Site damage and destruction,
  3. Site preservation and,
  4. Site dating.

…And as a conservation specialist, which is all about understanding the condition and decay mechanisms at play between materials and the environment, volcanic activity is also really exciting;

One single volcanic event can result in site formation, damage, destruction and preservation to different degrees, with long term implications and management needs. 

Assessing and understanding the complex behaviour between the negative and positive effects of one natural disaster, or moment in time, is for me is really interesting because the myriad of problems and solutions that are generated.

Archaeological Examples

Pompeii in Italy has probably made its fame by the effects caused on the Roman town by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in AD79.  Whilst ash and molten rock formed a covering over the town, its quick cooling resulted in a protective layer to be created taking the form of the object, structure or person it covered.  In many cases this created an air tight capsule in which food stuffs, plaster and paint, human skin and bone, bricks and mortar could be preserved in a relatively pristine manner. Without the preserving qualities of the ash layer, Pompeii it could be argued, would have gone the way of so many other Roman towns, and now be another deteriorating archaeological site in Italy that relies on the tourist dollar, and requires huge amounts of money to help it stay in a state of semi restoration.  Though this has been the very subject of some recent media coverage.

…Luckily for the Romans they built in brick and stone.

New Zealand’s equivalent may well be Te Wairoa in Rotorua. However, buildings and structures of New Zealands prehistoric and historic past have been traditionally made of plant and tree materials such as raupo, punga, kauri and pine.  Placed under the pressures of dense volcanic ash layers, and in combination with the low ignition point of these materials, hot ash and molten rock in many instances has meant fire and destruction, not preservation.

…which has meant loss to the archaeological record.

Though in saying that…should you get a chance to visit The Buried Village at Te Wairoa you would be in for a very nice surprise with some whare that have been carefully excavated and restored, following preservation by volcanic ash. 

This a good example of how volcanic activity has both destroyed and served to keep a site in stasis until rediscovery or excavation. 

A form of time capsule was created.

One of New Zealand’s other big preservation stories as far as archaeology goes is the Sunde site on Motutapu Island. Located in the Hauraki Gulf and joined to Rangitoto Island (Auckland’s youngest volcano, dated at c. 1400) by a land bridge at low tide, Motutapu boasts preserved footprints due to the blanketing effect of Rangitoto’s last volcanic eruption and ash cloud.

Human and dog footprints found side by side are an evocative reminder of real people and animals living in New Zealand some 550 years ago.  Dated at c. 1450AD the foot prints show at least 8 people, 3 of which are children walking with their dogs.  Eruptions and ash fall from Rangitoto sealed the footprints, preserving them like the Laetoli footprints found by palaeontologist Mary Leakey’s team in Tanzania in 1976, and dated to 3.6 million years. 

Discovered in 1981 by archaeologist Reg Nicol, at that time from Auckland University, the ash had a preserving quality for the footprints, but archaeologists believe that it was also responsible for the destruction of settlements, gardens and forests on the Island.  Archaeologist Andy Dodd wrote in his Heritage Assessment “Motutapu Archaeological and Historic Landscapes” for the Department of Conservation (2008);

“The eruption smothered Motutapu in ash and caused widespread deforestation, but also produced friable soils suitable for gardening [and therefore aid regeneration]”.

Once again the destructive and preservative qualities of ash has been recorded by archaeological investigation. 

Its a strange balance that exists between materials and the environment. 

Depending on the perspective or the question there is different degrees of formation, damage, destruction and preservation contained within one volcanic event and ash dispersal.  

And the unfortunate aspect of volcanism is that often scientists don’t know what the ratio will be until the top has blown! Including near Pompeii, where a super volcano has recently been reported.

Never the less, next week we are going on long anticipated family holiday to the Central Plateau.  Hopefully there will be a quiet period of sun and snow… and I will only have to imagine the alternative.  But I think I will pick up a good pair of binoculars on the way…just in case!


Te Wairoa – The Buried Village

Motutapu archaeological and historic landscapes heritage assessment, DoC, 2008

The Motutapu Restoration Trust – Sunde Site

Pompeii online

 Note – this is a huge subject of which only a small portion has been considered here…and may be returned to in the future… 


New Evidence of Controlled Fire Use by Ancestors, 1 million years ago, at Wonderwerk (Miracle) Cave, South Africa Brigid Gallagher Apr 03

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Ask anybody today what the fundamental requirements of life are, and they will tell you….food, shelter, lighting, warmth, their iphone…

Ask anybody in prehistory what the fundamental requirements of life are, and they may tell you….food, shelter, lighting, warmth…

And for most of this, until recently, that meant fire. 

Fire to protect, Fire to cook, Fire to see, Fire to sustain. And at times, it was Fire to communicate.

Scientists and archaeologists have today released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that humans, or rather hominids, our direct ancestors, were able to harness and control fire approximately 600,000 years before previously accepted dates.

New evidence is pointing to a new date of 1 million years ago (1Ma).

The article, here, goes on that it has generally been accepted that Homo erectus was cooking food at approximately 1.9Ma, however there has been little archaeological evidence to support the controlled use of fires to prepare food prior to consumption at this date.  The earliest confirmed site has been known at Qesem Cave in Israel, and dated at 0.4Ma, 400,000 years ago.

Until now…

In the ongoing academic debate of whose site is oldest, earliest and shows best evidence of, or similarity to, modern humans, Francesco Bernaa, Paul Goldberga, Liora Kolska Horwitz,  James Brink,  Sharon Holt,  Marion Bamford,

and Michael Chazang have offered up the latest method to better understand the inhabitants of the Early Acheulian (or Early Stone Age) period at Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, and their manipulation of fire.

There have been other claims of controlled fires in the early Acheulian period in the recent past such as at Koobi Fora, Gadeb, Chesowanja in East Africa, and Gesher Benot Ya’akov in Israel, but todays authors suggest that the previous studies lack context that can be gained through morphological studies.

Using Fourier Transform Infra-red Micro-spectroscopy (mFTIR) and Micromorphological analysis the researchers have been able to observe and characterise sediments at the microscopic level, that until recently has not been possible. 

The result being that the presence and nature of burnt bone and plant ash in the cave site of Wonderwerk, translated as Miracle Cave, has enabled this staggering shift back in time.

The control and manipulation of fire is considered a major evolutionary step for humans, before which it is thought we used fire generated through naturally occurring events, such as lightening, scrub fires, and natural combustion due to chemical reaction, such as with the self ignition of guamo ( bird or bat droppings).

Wonderwerk Cave

Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, seen above, is a natural solution cavity which in 2008 was celebrated as the earliest site in the world to reveal evidence of human occupation in a cave, dated to 2 million years by Professor Michael Chazin, see here.   Stone tools found at the base of the caves archaeological strata supported this and were attributed to the Acheulian period (or early Stone Age), approximately 1.7-0.8 Ma. 

The cave was extensively excavated by Peter Beaumont of McGregor Museum from 1978-1993, and rock art has been recorded at the entrance.


Inside Wonderwerk Cave.  Left,  Credit: Image of Wonderwerk Cave. (Image courtesy of M. Chazan.)


In the article released today, the researchers claim that the combined use of mFTIR and analysis of the micromorphology has revealed deposits from Stratum 10 that contain:

*  charred bone heated to at least 500 degrees C, and

*  angular/sharp edged, complete and incomplete bone that suggest deposits have not moved far

*  exceptionally preserved plant remains suggest deposits have not moved far, and

*  charring  or burning is most likely to have been caused by local combustion



Stratum 10 samples were studied macroscopically as well as microscopically, showing that:

*  in one area of the cave the frequency of burnt bone reached 80%,

* FTIR (Fourier Transform Infra-red spectroscopy) revealed burning occurred between 400 and 700 degrees C,

* artefact analysis supports controlled heating in one area of the cave with banded iron stone artefacts and manuports displaying pot lid fractures (an often thermally induced fracture which creates a shallow bowl shaped depression in the parent rock which occurs at temperatures in excess of 500 degrees C),

* heat affected clays that support localised in situ burning over a wide area within the cave

The Layers of Strata Inside Wonderwerk Cave.  11-17620large3Below, Credit: Image of Wonderwerk Cave. (Image courtesy of M. Chazan.)


In essence the researchers appear to demonstrate undisturbed archaeological contexts and deposits across a widespread area within the cave that contain evidence of ongoing, or repeated cycles of burning or fire making…but with no evidence of a fire surround, hearth structure or pit in which to contain the fire.

What’s to say that Stratum was not blown in by a mighty wind, washed in by a flood or heavy rain, or the product of an ancient ground disturbance which has affected the dates? 

Two reasons, from what the article says:

  1. 1.  The micromorphological evidence, and the way the dateable materials and artefacts were laid down in the earth,
  2. 2.  Crucially, the security of the layers seem to be intact, with Stratum 10 sandwiched between earlier and later Acheulian deposits that display no signs of heating, dispelling a possible counter argument for a later episode of combustion whose heat could have modified this Stratum.



Good Science Practise?

The article released today also highlights the importance of cross examining archaeological evidence, by more than one method of analysis, when attempting to establish dates that require microscopic and molecular level technologies. 

This includes using analytical techniques such as mFTIR, Thermoluminescence, Potassium-Argon (K-Ar) dating, and combining it with, for example:

-          Examination of the stratigraphy at the microscopic scale,

-          Establishing if the deposit is natural or anthropogenic in origin (the product of or affect by humans),

-          Establishing the past environment of the fire

-          Establishing the security of a site or deposit (that is to establish if the deposit has been contaminated or disturbed in some way through natural processes, chemical change and biological influence) is also considered by the authors as crucial, in setting the dates apart from other sites that have generated earlier dates than 0.4ma through other analytical methods.

Whatever the lesson is to be learnt regarding good scientific practise, the results of this latest study has big, and potentially exciting implications for the future.  By knocking 600,000 years off the closest confirmed date for cave dwelling fire users, It both opens up the race to re-examine past sites using different techniques, and holds the door wide open for future dating analysis.  





Auckland Museum Research and Scholarship Medals, and the future Research Centre Brigid Gallagher Feb 29

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During a night of celebration, expectation and promise at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, the Trust Board and key figures at the Museum, including the recently appointed director, Roy Clare, re-instigated the Auckland Museum Medal Awards. 

Lauded as a return to the original intent of museums, to care for and conduct research on its collections, there was a distinct feeling of change for the better amongst the speakers. 

Four eminent New Zealander’s who have dedicated of their lives to excellence in research and scholarship were recognised with all involved in some way in the furthering our understanding of the history and heritage of New Zealand.

Those honoured were:

-          the late Dame Judith Te Tomairangi o Te Aroha Binney, author and historian

-          Professor Russell Stone, historian and professor emeritus at Auckland University

-          the late Professor Roger Neich, ethnologist at the National Museum Wellington and lately of Auckland Museum

-          Dr Nigel Prickett, archaeologist, became an associate emeritus of Auckland War Memorial Museum

Each of these people have been major contributors to New Zealand’s science and humanity sectors, with the relationships, traditions and material manifestations of the Maori world and Pakeha central to their work. 

I was very honoured to be invited to see Dr Nigel Prickett receive his award.  He was the first person to take a punt on me as a 19 year old wannabe archaeologist when he took me on to volunteer in the archaeology department. This ultimately led onto the next 4 years with the collections, and my first job after graduation.  I know first hand from experience the value of working with and handling the museum’s amazing collections, as well as being surrounded by a wealth of knowledge from the different domains of science.  It has been inspirational, and confirmed for me the potential museum collections have with the right guidance and enthusiasm.

Equally fantastic was hearing the stories of the recipients, such as a rousing and passionate speech by Dame Judith Binney’s partner Sebastian Black, Professor Stone who played homage to New Zealand’s participation and loss of life in the World Wars of the 20th century, and the wife of Roger Neich who focused on his love of family, rather than the respected scholar.

Sir Peter Gluckman was the key note speaker demonstrating his usual flare for communicating his vision for the future of science and  museums.  Whilst he continued his theme on the use and value of complex science, he advocated the advancement of science, in all its manifestations, defining it as a high value component to a world class city, to which Auckland should now be striving.

He also caused considerable thought around the inherent risks generated through decision making involved in the presentation of science and knowledge.  Using the concept developed by Funtowicz and Ravetz, his discussion on the principles of post-normal science where evaluation of value, evidence and relevance…including uncertainties…was thought provoking, and a paradigm that allows museums to create exciting research opportunities and best engage with communities through knowledge and display.

This is a recognisable quality of many of the physical sciences, including archaeology, geology and biology, where the assessment and evaluation of risk, probability and value are key components, but has at its foundation knowledge, facts and measured base line information.

Whilst it may appear that post normal science stems away from the notion that science is static with pre-determinable data, Gluckman was under no illusion that excellent research, scholarship and knowledge was at its heart; principles that were on exemplary display by the awardees.

In his final summation, to the effect that museums should be seen as repositories for the future, not the past.  That they are a place of life, not a mausoleum, Gluckman resonated the announcement later in the evening that the Auckland Museum is committed to launching a Research Centre in the near future. 

The Auckland Museum Research Centre has been heralded as a facility to underpin its renewed value placed on science and knowledge.  Once a bastion of research, the collections number into the 3 ½ million mark and Mr Clare was loud and clear in his desire to better utilise the collections available. 

     -   To use the collections to make new discoveries,

     -  Encourage new research such as that conducted at the Kermadec Islands last year to record marine and study its marine life, and Ahuahu in February this year by archaeologists with Auckland University,

     -  Use the collection to engage with Auckland and the global population

The Executive Summary of the Auckland Museums 2012-2013 Draft Annual Plan backs this up, and seen online here:

Establish a Research Centre in Partnership with other Educational and Cultural Institutions, adding strength to the stewardship of out collections and reinforcing the city’s positioning as a ‘learning and innovation cradle’.

Curator of Archaeology Louise Furey has said that ‘In essence it should provide a platform where the museum can work with external collaborators on research and will enhance the reputation of the museum and its collections… the museum and its board is recognising scholarship and research as an important part of the credibility of the museum.’

This is all good stuff, and I just hope it can deliver.

Minimise the Pain! Archaeological field work techniques, Part 2 Brigid Gallagher Feb 17

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In Part 2 of my crib sheet to help the aches and pains of archaeological fieldwork…         

          3.  Hoeing – it is all in the abs!

Forget the gym, this is the ultimate abdominal work out.  Whilst hoeing looks as though it is another shoulder and arm action, to get effective hoeing in anything other than sand, its the abs that need to take the brunt of it.  At the end of a good session of hoeing your arms should be aching from your triceps down to the wrist, and the stomach muscles even worse. 

The hoe edge should be parallel with the ground, then with a small forceful down ward pressure drag back…clenching the stomach  muscles and triceps to keep the hoe from bouncing up again.  It may only mean a few mm’s are scraped away but the effect should be a clean surface over a larger area very soon. 

Working in lines across the site the waist will also be worked… the more the front stomach muscles hurt, the more you turn sideways onto the hoe to use the waist muscles.  The only minimiser of pain that comes to mind is to spread the feet one in front of the other with the front thigh absorbing some of the pressure being exerted. 

So the conclusion is there is no way to minimise the pain, enjoy it, and know that there will be rewards when you next try on clothes that are slightly too small!  And if you do it enough, one day there will be no pain, and a well cleaned trenched in a short time…ready for an archaeologist with a fab body to investigate the features and produce great photos.

         4.  Brushing – Flick, flick, flick.  Tap, tap, tap…its in the wrist.  

There is nothing worse than looking at an area or structure that has been brushed clean and the features or details are not visible, the colours are dull and there are specks of dirt, mortar, sand etc across it.  For 1. it is a waste of any pain felt, and 2. you just have to do it again.  Double the pain!

Essential during cleaning of many structures and hard surfaces so many people use the whole arm to brush the dirt, moving from the elbow, rotating the shoulder socket.  This action involves the movement of the whole arm causing more strain on the upper back and shoulder than a flick or tap technique.  Dragging the brush along the surface of any archaeology churns up new surface dirt, or redeposits it from another part of the brush. 

To really clean a surface, structure or a vertical section firmly place the bristles (or slap the bristles) on the surface being cleaned, rotate the wrist 90 degrees and flick the wrist up taking the loose dirt with it.  The more you get sprayed with the dirt being removed, the better your technique.  

Flick, flick, flick the horizontal surfaces, and tap, tap, tap the vertical sections or walls…this technique loosens and dislodges the offending dirt and specks and helps them fall to the ground…keeping the colours fresh and the details visible. 

Using the wrist to brush instead of dragging the arm means alot less muscle action and usually means you only have to brush the area once, not go back for dirt that has been reapplied or missed.

But remember on a vertical section to start brushing at the top!  Move the dirt down the surface to the base…once, not over and over again. 

           5.  Cleaning the section – Verticality is the ultimate goal 

Mantra: Not everybody is good at cleaning a section or baulk.  Hands up… I am one of them.  But with practise I should get better. 

Cleaning a vertical section has so many benefits that it is worth going through the physical rigour, and mental pain!  

                              a.  reading the stratigraphy is so much easier

                             b.  dimensions are accurate

                             c.  section photos are so much better, as the lens has the ability to exaggerate any poor excavation.

                             d.  the site looks clean, and if you ever need to go back to an area to check your layers, contexts, profiles or strata it does not generally have to be cleaned up again….except in sand, gravel or other loosely compacted or fine grained sites.

The technique: attack with the cutting edge of a small spade in a diagonal direction from the top of the section, whether there is archaeology at that level or not.  It will all be studied and recorded. Follow up with short jabbing movements with the pointed end of the trowel down the section or continue diagonally.  Finish with the straight edge of the trowel across the face of the vertical section to clean and define if the substrate allows it.

Clean, short, sharp movements with the back side of the spade parallel with the side of the trench will save time and get to the essence of a section – it has to be vertical.  Not bowed, wiggly, wider at the top, sloping to the base…vertical.  The eaiest way to avoid this is to look at the section face diagonally from the top.  Close one eye if need be.  Its very easy to produce a section that slopes in at the base if you are always looking straight on at it.

This is not always comfortable working; the muscles between the shoulder blades generally hurt, but there is some satisfaction in the initial attack at the top edge. The wrist and forearm take the main brunt of section cleaning when working with the pointed end of the trowel to clean around stones and artefacts protruding from the face, and your knuckles can get ripped and bloody.

Changing hands and shaking out the fingers is the best remedy (with some well positioned band aids).  This is one of the main causes of claw hand because of the tension of the muscles between the hand-wrist-forearm, and and a regular change in movement (hence the shake out) is important.  If you have shaky hands at the end of the day…more micro pauses are required.

          6.  Crouching, bending, kneeling – do what is comfortable, but always bend through the knees.

Its an age old story, but bending with your knees is a real saviour in archaeological fieldwork, especially in the long term. 

The other is to watch and learn from cultures that squat.  The skills of squatting are the same as crouching; mastering this means long hours of comfortable archaeology.  The body gets itself into a comfortable position with minimal inpact on the joints and muscles.  It takes practise, but on site squatting competitions can improve skills.  In British archaeology it is a sin to sit while excavating, and kneeling is only just tolerated by some…crouching and squatting is an essential skill. 

Long hours of crouching can lead to stiffness when unfurling the body again, and the top of the back across the shoulders can ache.  Aching shoulders can be helped by releasing the trowel or tool in use and letting your arms go soft on the ground beside or in front while remaining in the crouch position. Gently moving the head from side to side can also help.

Sometimes you just have to kneel.  Aching thighs and calves can be relieved and the tension across shoulders is relieved.  This is best on the knees in sand and other soft soils…but whatever the surface being kneeled on, in time you will get knee callouses if you do not have a kneeling mat.  Kneeling mats are sometimes seem as the soft option, but why have callouses if you don’t have too?

          7.  Conclusions?  I am getting older, my body is getting older…its time to take care of it.  But mostly my mantra regarding archaeological fieldwork is….


At the end of a day, soak in the bath or stand in a hot shower.  Let the water run over you from head to toe….and at the end of an excavation…massages and facials are definitely required.

And do not leap into trenches.  My physio will be able to best say why.

Minimise the Pain! Archaeological field work techniques, Part 1 Brigid Gallagher Feb 16


In December my youngest daughter turned 2.

Whilst this is not so extraordinary, for me it feels we are at a major milestone…a point where she is making the transition from my baby, to my little girl. 

She suddenly says everything at full volume, punctuates her feelings with a very big, growly ‘NOOOO’ and when you try to help her she responds ‘me do it’, with the hint of a whine.

She also loves her time at day care, has a best friend to whose house she is quite happy to play at without mum or dad, and at least knows what the toilet is, and what she ‘should’ be doing on it.

So while she is quite happy to be racing ahead into the next big adventure in her young life, its also forcing me into the next phase of my life (collective sigh please)…and quite basically that means….

Back to work!

…. with new brain matter that needs to be stimulated and old matter that needs a bit of jigging up.

My organisational skills are also getting honed again…though over the past number of weeks this has meant that by evening when I generally write Digging the Dirt, you would have found me cast on the couch wondering how long can I hold out to bed without being labelled the household bore.

But mainly I have discovered,  work means pain!

My once active, outdoorsy body which could dig, trowel, crouch, shovel, leap, push and bend for hours in all weathers,  has a few new muscular aches and groans.  The old claw hand has not returned but the muscles in my lower back, shoulders and knees are letting me know they are alive and kicking….and have been under used lately.  

So after a few weeks of fieldwork,  I have gone back to basics and thought about the physical movements used in archaeological field work, and how best to use the body and reduce stress on my muscles and joints…plus get lovely neat sections and trenches. 

And this is Part 1 of the crib sheet I am creating:

  1. Shovel throwing — its a flick of the wrist, not an arm swing from the shoulder.  

Bring the loaded shovel or spade up and push out from the body, followed by a short jerk of the wrist when the dirt is at the apex of the movement. While the head of the shovel or spade is held up the dirt is released into the air.  This has 2 positive effects.

      -      The bicept and wrist takes much of the load, rather than the upper back, making it a more efficient swing which can be continued for longer through the day.

      -      The deposition of the dirt is more precise.  As the dirt leaves the shovel it maintains itself as a single mass until it drops neatly on to the spoil heap or into the wheel barrow.  The dirt is not sprayed all over the trench surface.  The further the elbow is extended from the body, the further the dirt will travel after the wrist jerk.

Practise makes perfect and it was a common competition on UK archaeological sites to show who could throw further, with the least spill of dirt, and at the chosen target.  The wheelbarrow, for example, would then be moved further and further away, up to 15 m or so at times. One of my good friends and past adverseries, Phil Harding on tv’s Time Team,  sums it it up rather nicely in this youtube clip I found while researching excavation techniques.  He always did pip me at the post…and does love his shovel, as you you will clearly see.

YouTube Preview Image

         2. Trowelling -  take control of the trowel, it is not fragile

The flat edge of the trowel is firmly placed parallel with the ground.  With a small downward movement  the trowel is then brought for a short distance back towards the body, and a slice of dirt can then be flicked off.   

Down, trowel, and flick!  Repeat. 

This is generally a movement in the wrist, with the addition of some broad sweeps of the entire arm.  Trowels should not be dragged through dirt, unless the substrate is sand, then a cutting or slicing action is used. 

This technique creates a clean surface with fresh colours to view, not sprinkled with dirt that has fallen over the trowel edge due to too much dirt being moved at once, or the dragging the dirt over the cleaned layer ‘fuzzying’ up the colours or features.

Trowelling can be painful!  The greater the compaction of the ground, the more downward force you need to put on the trowel, the more it is felt in the wrist.  Muscular pain in the forearm is common, but by using a wrist flicking technique rather than whole arm movements the muscle strain in the upper arm can be minimised.

                  3.  Mattocking – trust the mattock!

Using the forces of gravity, the mattock descends from height with minimal downward force.  As the flat end meets the ground it is ideally at right angles to the ground.  This technique means the mattock should stop when there is a change in resistance in the subsurface strata, primarily due to changes in composition and densities, and therefore define events and cultural layers. 

This theory does not work in sandy sites, and cannot be maximised when the ground is full of stone and rubble

By using a descending pendulum action the body exerts less effort and energy, and is able to find a working rhythm. This technique can be continued for a much longer time than when force is also put into the downward stroke and you actively attack the ground.  There is relief for the body when the mattock head is pushed up to full height and left to fall naturally to the ground for the next strike. 

It is also amazingly accurate, and with experience stops at the next chronological layer in the ground.

This technique also means less pain.  The natural gravity dependant method causes musular pain at the top of the arms, shoulders and upper back.  When the mattock is also forced down into the ground the aches and pains spread into the mid and lower back, plus the buttocks as you absorb the force of the downward strike and impact.

Next time: Hoeing, brushing, section cleaning and crouching, bending and kneeling

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