◊ Dear microburins,
Should this blog carry a safety message? ‘May contain burin spalls’? Meantime, Microburin is in north Northumberland on a commercial stint for a change. Be off with you, altruism!
◊ Dear microburins,
A few folks have asked about the header image on this blog. The background image is a regenerating birch-ringed wetland on the Eston Hills, an outlier of the North York Moors overlooking the Tees estuary. The views extend northwards over industrial Teesport and Middlesbrough, with the petro-chemical industries, controversial gas power plant (and domino cascades of infuriating pylons because subsurface cables were too expensive for the North) that creates supercell plumes of artificial steam clouds which reflect the orange flares—so that it never gets dark on Teesside. The haunting glow can be seen from even the most secret dales.
To the north-east are the now-rescued blast furnaces on the coast near Marske and South Gare, with the offshore wind turbines providing a cocktail stick backdrop. As a kid, and even today, driving past the furnaces when they’re fired up is like witnessing a man-made volcano—hell, fire, molten iron and limestone—with its own esoteric and brutal beauty even if many wish it wasn’t there. Teesside is a 19th-century man-made contrivance. You can smell and taste it too. Farther north, the vista takes in Hartlepool beyond the nuclear power plant, Seal Sands (RSPB) and offshore prehistoric forests, where Heiu’s monastery was established on the headland in the AD 640s before being handed over to St Hilda by Bishop Aidan in 649, target for German shells and Zeppelin raids in WWI. On a clear day the view extends towards Sunderland on the Wear past the post-industrial, post-Scargill-and-Thatcher, limestone coast riven deeply by streams through lush woodland and wild flowers (e.g. Castle Eden Dene, an SSSI and National Nature Reserve).
To the south, the view is dominated by Roseberry Topping and the northern escarpment of the North York Moors and buttresses of the mighty Cleveland Hills. This was a glaciated wilderness down to the River Esk some 12,000 years ago, dotted with ice-locked lakes. It’s only modern pumps that keep lake Seamer, near Stokesley, manageable today. When the pumps break, the wetland returns.
The Eston Hills are effectively a parchment narrative, a peat-covered moorland island, upon which over 10,000 years of human activity are scribed. The hills are undercut with many 19th-century ironstone mines (the last only closed in 1949), industrial heritage, and graffiti. The tops reach their highest point at Eston Nab, once a Napoleonic signal tower set within a Late Bronze Age hillfort. Collared-urn burial mounds with cup-and-ring rock art peek through the heather. Prehistoric lithics, mostly of flint, attest to activity from the Early Mesolithic (Deepcar type) around the 9th millennium BC, Late Mesolithic (narrow blade technology), Early Neolithic (pressure-flaked leaf arrows and later oblique projectile points) through to late Bronze Age (barbed and tanged arrows, and thumbnail scrapers). Iron Age and later activity migrated to the more fertile lands at lower altitude—a testament to a combination of climatic and man-made events that, ultimately, formed the moorland landscapes we know today.
Returning to the header image, the ‘monolith’ is one of the Early Mesolithic microliths found close to where the wetland picture was taken. It’s a broad blade obliquely truncated type with leading-edge retouch. Similar microliths have been recovered from neighbouring fields (now in different museum collections). We also have similar hints on regional promontories and escarpments such as Highcliff Nab above Guisborough and Danby Beacon. These were the first post-glacial re-colonizers of our ice-ravaged landscape.
The Mesolithic deer and hunter image is, I think, from Los Caballos in southern Spain although I do seem to have misplaced the original image.
◊ Dear microburins,
I’m normally a night owl but, having collapsed in bed with a couple of archaeology journals at 10pm last night, here I am awake in the early hours. So I thought I’d do something moderately useful before the sun rises and the day unfolds. This post offers notes on recent experiences in photographing lithic artefacts – efficiently and cost-effectively – in a manner suitable for assemblage characterisation reports (‘grey lit’ and HER¹/PAS²) and archiving. There’s a shopping list at the end and an outreach, as always, for feedback and advice.
¹ Historic Environment Record (HER) | ² Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). OASIS is a publicly accessible portal for submitting archaeological and fieldwork records to the relevant HER, with documents/images uploaded to Archaeology Data Service (ADS) digital archives.
Image | A bit of paraphernalia in the lithics lab for the blogtastic Day of Archaeology 2014.
A recent bout of lithics analysis needed some rapid, efficient and consistent images for the more significant pieces. The excavation-derived collection (not an assemblage per se) was in majority chert rather than flint – one of the fascinating aspects of prehistoric raw material consumption in north-east England related to availability in base and drift geology. The late glacial ice sheet dynamics and subsequent fluvial activity have created a jigsaw of knappable raw material types including limestone-derived cherts from the Pennines and various chalk-derived flint types from beds under the north sea, Scandinavia and farther south beyond the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire wolds. Flint remains readily available in east coast beach gravels, boulder clay deposits and some river gravels. Against this canvass, human mobility, most especially in the Mesolithic, provides for some interesting patterns in terms of what one finds where.
Images (below) | Top: Late Mesolithic flint microliths (narrow blade), Bottom: Side view of a Mesolithic chert core tablet.
I’m largely self-taught and results-driven when it comes to photographing lithics. I’ve experimented with black backgrounds and lighting configurations with some success. However, depth of field and pronounced shadowing for the more substantial artefacts have provided some challenges. Inevitably, a significant amount of work in image enhancement software is also needed, plus the addition of graphical scales (I use Corel because Adobe is too expensive). There can also be problems with darker coloured materials and especially the edges against a rather brutal black background. The results have been good, I think, but time-consuming. More on dark background specifications »
What I now find is far more efficient and consistent is using an acrylic frosted block, the type you see in museums or retail displays. In diffused natural daylight the block lets sufficient light permeate around the base of an artefact to suppress excessive shadows – the object almost seems to float in a milky ether – and allows for a small enough aperture (high f/stop number) to counter blurring within the frame, or between the top of an object and the scale, such as with deep objects like cores, items with heavy curvature or a deep arête. Lighting can be tuned by raising the block on a clear acrylic stand or placing foil or white card underneath – much cheaper than using a lightbox (not very transportable) or augmenting with artificial lighting. By using a good quality photographic scale I’ve also avoided the need to overlay digital scale images, although this is easy enough to do. And if an object needs support, I actually find that soft silicone earplugs (like bluetack but colourless) work fine.
Having a colour-correction scale has helped to maintain consistent hue/chroma results and I can, pretty much, adjust all images in a sequence using batch mode in photo/paintshop software, including corrections for barrel distortion (depends on your lens). The results feel good enough for archive/grey lit reports and need little extra work for publication-quality, as and when that becomes necessary. You can also combine objects, matched to scale, in a single merged image. You can’t really beat a good lithics line drawing but these remain open to the biases of interpretation – the eye of the penholder – and completeness in terms of what is included, excluded or emphasised. Drawing is subjective.
The beauty of this toolkit is that it can all be carried in a small plastic storage box and set up pretty much anywhere that’s suitably lit, perhaps excepting the lighting equipment which I keep in the lab. Office/fluorescent/tungsten lighting is challenging but can be neutralised/compensated for with camera settings (or manipulating raw file images).
So here’s the set-up I am operating. I’m absolutely open to advice and suggestions too. Supplier information is offered in good faith without any implied endorsement or coercion. It’s just good stuff, well-priced (although the camera and macro lens are relatively expensive – try second-hand if you don’t have one), and it works. I hope the following is pragmatic and useful:
The lithics selected for photography were photographed to display their dorsal and ventral faces, and additionally to give a side or platform view when required. Each image included a metric 50mm scale and true-colour correction panel. The lithic was placed on an opaque (frosted) acrylic display block and photographed in partially diffused natural light with the following equipment and settings:
I’ve not needed artificial lighting yet but assuming gloomy winter days:
Images were uploaded as JPEG files and colour-corrected using Corel PaintShop Pro X5 software against the true-colour panel (batch processing was cross checked). TIFF files are also appropriate and an accepted format for long-term archives. The images included in the written report are compressed at 220dpi resolution, the maximum permissible in Microsoft office applications³. Original unmodified JPEG images have been retained; RAW files were not generated due to their large file size and memory requirements although archive retention is recommended.
³ For MS Word or Powerpoint, go to File > Options > Advanced and click the “do not compress” box before saving to PDF or PDF-A (Archive).
Left: Late Mesolithic quadrangular (rhomboid) chert microlith, dorsal and ventral views | Right: Mesolithic chert core tablet, platform and base views.
After an exquisite summer of digging and fieldwork, I’m landed back at the surrogate home in London W10. Some recent personal events – not pleasant ones – are now likely to fast-track a series life-changing decisions, including committing to the Masters next year with a burning passion to continue Mesolithic research (I now have ten 14C dates for White Gill!), perhaps renting out the London home and moving to the soul’s home in Yorkshire and the north of England. I’ve given notice on the lithics lab too – now too expensive to retain, with enough done to be able to continue “in the sitting room” which doubles as my library and portal on inner-city London life. This has been also a juncture where relations with Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation ended to allow me to focus on commercially viable work. I appreciate their good wishes and value the collaboration during my time there.
In the last week I have been making connections with archaeologists, heritage, museum and related professions on the “professional” social media app LinkedIn.
“I’ve been on LinkedIn, as one of the first million UK users, for over a decade now – it was launched in 2003. It has also been immensely useful in terms of professional visibility, networking, recruitment (both directions) and informed discussions. This is my personal experience and I am certainly not in a sales role here! In essence, people can find you. Doors open, without having to share pet stories, favourite foods, funny walks, or the other miscellany implicit in social media.” | Read more in my post »
I think I am also now in a position, after substantial recent experience, to apply to the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA, and now with a Royal Charter) at the appropriate level, referees required (and primed), peer reviewed and requiring a commitment to ongoing career development. In this sense, the Archaeology Skills Passport developed by David Connolly at BAJR is a key tool.
More news will follow, and thanks for following me in these volatile but positive times. Hey, the fieldwalking, supported by Solstice Heritage, on Teesside “came up with the money” – lowland Late Mesolithic-Early Neolithic lithics presence (we have Early Mesolithic adjacent too) around a micro-wetland area for which English Heritage’s Rapid Assessment Toolkit is also useful. Much to wash and write up with a prospect, thanks to impassioned landowners, for more work next year. PS, by kind permission we are using (and tuning) the excellent fieldwork recording sheets developed by Clive Waddington’s Archaeological Research Services.
Ongoing commitments as Chair of the feisty Teesside Archaeological Society mean that we are also trying to engage on local authority-approved (but not archaeologically supported) planning debacles on Teesside. You can review our engagements and, frankly, frustrations in being an Advocate of Heritage At Risk on our facebook page. Acklam Hall, Middlehaven and increasing Green over Brownfield developments need a community to care about their heritage when due process threatens destroying it.
And, in my final term as CBA Yorkshire’s Editor, I will be focusing on the third volume of FORUM YORKSHIRE – our annual journal – for the final call-for-papers by end of this calendar year. If you are doing archaeology in Yorkshire….you know where to publish.
As if the world isn’t dangerous enough, @microburin is now on video – sounding alarmingly like Prince Harry – at Kirkleatham Museum, Redcar & Cleveland. The video introduces the Street House Before the Saxons exhibition which runs until July 2015. There are a few of my Mesolithic flint images (and text) on the info-boards too. The Street House Farm archaeology project has been running since the 1980s under the directorship of Steve Sherlock, archaeologist extraordinaire and the chap currently responsible for the archaeological oversight of the A1(M) works between Leeming and Barton, including Roman Catterick CATARACTONIUM fort and town.
Street House, near Loftus in East Cleveland, has archaeological remains from at least the Neolithic − an early timber mortuary structure – through numerous Bronze Age burial mounds (and a wossit), an extensive Iron Age farming community who were probably making and selling salt, Romano-British canny folk who were manufacturing Whitby Jet objects like beads, spindle whorls and probably pins, with suggestions of continuity into the early post-Roman ‘dark ages’. There are also hints in the lithics of possible Later/Terminal Mesolithic activity, which is right up my street.
Of course, despite many thousands of years of human activity, Street House is probably best known for the Anglo-Saxon Royal Princess buried in a 7th-century AD cemetery, in her bed, with breathtaking jewels of gold and garnet, on permanent display. Do try visit both exhibitions—and peruse the Street House Roman phallus carving from the 2013 excavations?
Having finished digging at Kiplin Hall, a quick trip south, I’m back in Yorkshire and looking forward to meeting friends – new, old and social mediaries – on Saturday 23 August at the Flixton Island mesolithic party-in-the-peat open day, hopefully arriving around 9am. Sunday is an open day too. Details follow below »
Kiplin, where I was supervising and training volunteers with two lovely colleagues for three weeks, was a splendid, friendly HLF-funded project with fantastic archaeology that spanned several thousand years in finds: Mesolithic chert (and a microlith!) to 17th-century musket balls, WWII bullet cases and a 1964-dated pigeon ring which we can trace. I’ll write more in a future post.
A Mesolithic chert core tablet from Kiplin test pits.
Walk back 12,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age. See the latest excavations and finds, and quiz the expert archaeologists about life in the past.
Come along and learn about excavations of the Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites from 12,000 to 11,000 years ago that once existed on an island in the now vanished Lake Flixton.
FREE site tours will take place on both days at 10.00am, 12.30pm and 3.30pm. Tours will last around 30 minutes.
On the Saturday, Tim Burkinshaw @CarrsWetland from The Carrs Wetland Project will lead tours at 11.00am and 1.30pm around the wetland landscape looking for clues to the shrinking peat and explaining how local farmers are helping to protect the heritage of the floodplain with its wildlife.
There will be opportunities to see some of the recent finds and talk to the experts about what they tell us about life at the end of the Ice Age.
Visit the bookstall where you can buy the small booklet (£2) or the illustrated book (£13) about the famous nearby site of Star Carr and the Mesolithic sites around Lake Flixton. All profits go towards further public events.
Artist Ruth Collett will be on site on Sunday afternoon to talk about her work interpreting the excavation in film and sculpture.
Travelling from York, take the A64 to Staxton, then take the A1039 towards Filey. When you get to the village of Flixton, take the left hand turn down Flixton Carr Lane (if you reach the Foxhound Pub, you’ve travelled too far through Flixton village). Parking is available in a nearby field. For safety reasons, please park there and take the short walk to the site rather than driving up to the site huts.