So you met the field team when we were on site, and I know you are dying to meet our specialists: The really geeky ones that sit in the office hunched over a microscope, conducting baffling analysis, creating endless excel spreadsheets, mumbling whilst pushing their glasses up off the end of their nose.
Well we don’t have any of those here! Our specialists are all highly tuned machines: extremely skilled and knowledgeable, capable of processing and analysing, erm, a lot of stuff in a day. And then to cap it all off they are kind enough to make their results understandable to the field team!
The first of the specialists we are going to meet is Karen, our archaeobotanist. For those keen-eyed amongst you, you may have spotted Karen in site gear digging away in the mud last year.
A lot of our specialists are diggers first before developing an unnatural interest in bugs/soil/bones/pot etc. Karen developed her skills as an archaeobotanist after spending several years at university doing a degree and Masters in Environmental Archaeology (apparently there is no such thing as an archaeobotany masters). In her own words though, she was ahead of her field as one of the few trained archaeobotanists at the time and found it easy to get her first job. Although perhaps MoLA just has a soft spot for the Irish.
So what does she do all day? Well, apparently mainly the same tasks. In Karen’s words “if you don’t think you can spend days on end sorting thousands of cereal grains into piles and counting them, it’s not the job for you.”
Karen spends most of her time at her microscope or computer. “My main job is assessing and analysing botanical material from the flots and residues produced by flotation processing and reporting on the results. What that means is that most of my time is spent at the microscope, scanning and recording plant material, insects and ostracods from samples. “ (FYI an ostracod is a very, very, very small crustacean. I didn’t have to Google that at all.) She will also highlight any further work to other specialists. Karen has a side-line job in identifying wood artefacts and timbers to species. Of course we also let her outside now and again to play in the mud.
The title of specialist is not just for show, they really are special. Not only does Karen have a computer on her desk, but also has a low powered microscope (up to x 40) and a high powered microscope (x 400) and an extensive reference collection of modern plant material for comparison (although I think the latter must be in a cabinet somewhere). Additionally archaeobotanists from around the country have a support group where they can go and discuss their issues.
So what’s the point of all this then? Why is it so important to know what creepy crawlies were around thousands of years ago? Well mainly it is to provide as much information as possible about the excavated archaeological deposits. Karen is trained to identify many different species, and has the knowledge and experience to interpret what this can tell us about the past. That can be information about the natural environment around the site as deposition occurred, what foods people were growing and eating, how plants were processed, and what plants were being imported. But what Karen particularly likes is looking at old food waste and cess material and working out how often people eat and poo! And in her expert opinion that’s pretty regularly.
Apart from the poo, one of the best parts of the job is finding cool new stuff that hasn’t been seen before… pretty much like all archaeologists then! Recently Karen has been overwhelmed with excitement when she found cockroaches, coriander and pepper, and this time they weren’t in her lunch.