Category Archives: Archaeology

Integrating Phytoliths within Use-Wear/Residue Studies of Stone Tools

Archaeological Context:

The obsidian artefacts came from two sites, FRL and FAO, located in West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. These sites are notable for having well-defined stratigraphy and relatively long time depth. The Bitokara Mission Site (FRL) was excavated by Specht (1988). The FAO excavations were part of the larger Garua Island Project (Torrence et al, in press). Both sites have a sequence of volcanic tephras with a well-developed soil in the upper horizon of each. The volcanic events have been dated by radiocarbon. The tephras have been sourced and cross correlated by macroscopic and geochemical techniques.

Stratigraphic units have been divided into four chronological periods:

  • Older than W-K1 tephra (10,000 – 6000 BP)
  • Between W-K1 and W-K2 tephra (5900 – 3600 BP)
  • Between W-K2 and Dk tephras (3600 – 1100 BP)
  • Post-Dk tephra (1100 BP – present)

Organic preservation of macroscopic plant material is poor due to the high acidity of soils and high rainfall, but organic residue on stone artefacts was not unexpected because phytoliths are extremely resistant to decay.


  • 10 artefacts taken haphazardly from each arbitrary unit of 1m x 1m grid during excavation, using a metal trowel so that they were not handled in any way. With adhering soil, artefacts placed into plastic bags, air-dried, sealed and stored.
  • Analysis began with microscopic examination. Use-wear and residues assessed concurrently using high and low magnification.
  • To distinguish from post-depositional contamination, integrated analysis of residues with four main kinds of use wear is required. These are:
    • Scarring
    • Rounding
    • Polish
    • Striations
  • Surface preservation of the obsidian tools and residues present was recorded.
  • Phytoliths identified by comparison with reference collection.
  • Integrity of residue on artefact tested by comparing phytolith assemblage on surface with that of surrounding soil. If residue due to usage then there should be differences.


  • Phytolith assemblages included wide variety of grasses falling mainly within Bambusoideae and Panicoideae sub-families, herbaceous types (Compositae, Marantaceae, Cyperaceae), diverse arboreal types (Palm, Moraceae, Musaceae, Burseraceae, Annonaceae, etc) and unknown Dicotyledon types.
  • The analysis of starch grains, often from plants that do not make phytoliths (e.g. Root crops such as taro and yams), expand our knowledge of plant use. The authors were surprised to note the survival of these given the aggressive techniques of phytolith extraction. The only current explanation is that the grains were silicified in some way.
  • In a number of examples the phytolith data provided additional information on the types of plants which produced the use-wear.
  • The earliest Periods 1 and 2 appear to have been characterised by both multi-functional and single purpose tools primarily for processing starch. Hafting was common, but unretouched flakes were also used on soft, starchy plants.
  • Period 3 is characterised by change to more expedient tool use.
  • By period 4 this trend has progressed further. In the majority of cases the very sharp, unretouched obsidian flakes were grasped with bamboo leaves. There is no evidence for starch processing in this period. This is important as ethnographic accounts only refer to uses such as shaving. Shell not stone tools used in the recent past for processing starchy tubers.


Kealhofer, L, Torrence, R and Fullagar, R. 1999. Integrating Phytoliths within Use-Wear/Residue Studies of Stone Tools. Journal of Archaeological Science 26: 527-546.

Blog Carnival – Four Stone Hearth #43

The latest edition of the archaeology and anthropology blog carnival, Four Stone Hearth, is hosted by Paddy K in his own inimitable style. Check it out.

New Research Refutes Myth Of Pure Scandinavian Race

A team of forensic scientists at the University of Copenhagen has studied human remains found in two ancient Danish burial grounds dating back to the iron age, and discovered a man who appears to be of Arabian origin. The findings suggest that human beings were as genetically diverse 2000 years ago as they are today and indicate greater mobility among iron age populations than was previously thought. The findings also suggest that people in the Danish iron age did not live and die in small, isolated villages but, on the contrary, were in constant contact with the wider world.

On the southern part of the island of Zealand in Denmark, lie two burial grounds known as Bøgebjerggård and Skovgaarde, which date back to the Danish iron age (c. 0-400 BC). Linea Melchior and forensic scientists from the University of Copenhagen analysed the mitocondrial DNA of 18 individuals buried on the sites and found that there was as much genetic variation in their remains as one would expect to find in individuals of the present day. The research team also found DNA from a man, whose genetic characteristics indicate a man of Arabian origin.

Archeologists and anthropologists know today that the concept of a single scandinavian genetic type, a scandinavian race that wandered to Denmark, settled there, and otherwise lived in complete isolation from the rest of the world, is a fallacy.

“If you look at the geographic position of Denmark, then it becomes clear that the Danes must have been in contact with other peoples,” says scientist, Linea Melchior. “We know from other archeological excavations that there was a good deal of trade and exchange of goods between Denmark and other parts of Scandinavia and Europe. These lines of communication must have extended further south as one of the Danish burial grounds, which dates back to the iron age also contained the remains of a man, who appears to have been of arabian origin.

At the beginning of the Danish iron age, the roman legions were based as far north as the river Elbe (on the border of northern Germany) and it is thought that the man of arabian descent found in the burial grounds in Southern Zealand would have either been a slave or a soldier in the roman army. It is probable that he possessed skills or special knowledge, which the people in Bøgebjerggård or Skovgaard settlements could make use of, or he could have been the descendant of a female of arabian origin, who for reasons unknown, had crossed the river Elbe and settled down with the inhabitants of Zealand.

“This discovery is comparable to the findings of a colleague of mine, who found a person of siberian origin on the Kongemarke site,” continues scientist, Linea Melchior. He was buried on consecrated ground, just as the circumstances of the arab man’s burial was identical to that of the locals. The discovery of the arab man indicates that people from distant parts of the world could be and were absorbed in Danish communities.

“All of our ancestors, no matter when they arrived have contributed to our history and the development of our lifestyle,” explains Linea Melchior. “Indeed, Danish identity is more a definition of where one is physically located and lives today than a question of our past history – since we’re all originally african in origin. That we ended up in Europe was accidental, which is in itself remarkable”.

“Another interesting feature of the approximately 50 graves assessed so far on the two sites and also from other burial sites and time periods in Danish history is that none of the individuals seem to be maternally related to one another”, explains Linea Melchior. “We couldn’t see any large families buried in the same location. This suggests that in the Danish iron age, people didn’t live and die in the villages of their birth, as we had previously imagined”.

The findings have been published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology 135:206-215 (2008.) and PLoS One 3(5): e2214.

Source: Science Daily

Greek Horse Burials

News via Past Horizons of the excavation of 16 horses and a two-wheeled chariot in a grave dating back to the Roman Empire in north-east Greece.

Bandurria may be the oldest Peruvian site

The archaelogical site of Bandurria dating back 3200 BCE (located in the province of Huaura, Lima) is considered the origin of ancient American civilization, said archaeologist Alejandro Chu Barrera, director of the Archaeological Project of Bandurria. “Several radiocarbon datings done in the United states confirmed that Bandurria dates back from 3200 BCE, while Caral dates from 2900”, said the archaeologist.

The expert mentioned that the main reason for the development of highly organized cultures along the Peruvian coast is explained in the availavility of marine resources which allowed to improve the population’s diet of the place.

Bandurria is located 140 kilometres from Lima and received this peculiar name because of a bird which inhabit this area. It was discovered by late 1973 but first excavations took place in 1977. It wasn’t until July 2005 that the site begun to be excavated by a team of archeologists and students from San Marcos National University, led by archeologist Alejandro Chu.

Source: Andina

Blog Carnival – Four Stone Hearth #41

The 41st edition of the Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival, entitled ‘Remote Redux’, is available for viewing now at ‘Remote Central’. All contributions are well worth a read, but I would particularly recommend The Cannibalism Paradigm: Assessing Contact Period Ethnohistorical Discourse by James Q. Jacobs.

Bird-Worshipping Cult in Cornwall

News from the latest edition of Current Archaeology:

Work has begun on the eighth season of excavation at Saveock Water in Cornwall, one of Britain’s most intriguing archaeological sites. Not only does the site, located in a sheltered river valley, have a Mesolithic dwelling platform and two large Neolithic water tanks lined with white quartz (purpose unknown, but probably ritual), there is also the little matter of the mysterious pits filled with swan’s pelts, bird claws, whole magpies, 55 eggs from different birds from bantam size to duck egg, quartz pebbles, human hair and fingernails and part of an iron cauldron.

So far 35 such pits have been excavated and the tops of many more have been recorded. The pits are typically rectangular, 42cm long by 35cm wide and 17cm deep and aligned north-south or east-west. In some cases the contents are clearly intact and complete and in others they have been removed, leaving just a few feathers and stones. A newly excavated egg pit, plotted in 2005 but only examined in detail in April 2008, has revealed the body of a black cat buried amidst a large number of eggs with embryonic chicks inside.

Site Director Jacqui Woods says, “I have spent most of my career in archaeology disproving the ritual tag that some archaeologists put on things they don’t understand. So it is ironic that I should be directing such a site that was so obviously the result of pagan rituals of some sort!”

Having failed to find any parallels so far, Jacqui has decided the pits might be connected with the Cornish St Bridget or St Bride, the patron saint of brides, who has the swan as her symbol. “My own theory (and it is only a theory),” she says, “is that maybe if you got married and did not get pregnant in the first year, you might make an offering to St Bride of a feather pit. If you finally got pregnant, you had to go back to the pit and take out the contents and burn them and set the spirit of the swan free. If you never got pregnant then the pit remained untouched.”

If so, this was risky business. Recent carbon dating test show that the contents of one of the pits dates from the 1640s, right in the middle of the period when, as anyone who has ever read Christopher Hill’s book, The World Turned Upside Down, will know, zealous puritans were seeking to eradicate superstitious and folkloric practices. The penalty for so-called ‘witchcraft’ was death. Perhaps this is why the ladies of Saveock chose this secluded site for their rituals.

Chickens in Oceania

A recent paper (Storey et al., 2008.) has attempted to synthesise the information on Oceanic chicken (Gallus gallus) distribution in order to develop a clearer picture of this species in Pacific prehistory as previously this information had been rather piecemeal. It is generally accepted that chickens were an important part of the ‘transported landscape’ of Oceanic populations (Storey et al., 2008: 240). This phrase refers to “the purposeful translocation of all or most of the plant and animal stocks required to recreate the range of subsistence items found at a colonist’s home island” (Storey et al, 2008: 240-241). It has been suggested that chicken was one of the first species to be intentionally introduced to Remote Oceanic sites, but data on this species does not feature prominently in site reports or articles. Yet for prehistoric Pacific peoples, chickens were clearly an important part of their diet and/or culture, as demonstrated by their presence on sites from Santa Cruz to Easter Island and Hawaii.

Near Oceania is the most obviously depleted as far as chicken populations are concerned with chicken being reported on only 3 out of 107 sites. The distribution in Remote Oceania is not uniform. Chicken was present at 108 Remote Oceanic sites out of a total of 321 that were analysed. Some areas such as New Caledonia are notable for the complete absence of chicken, whereas others such as Niue have an outstanding abundance. The earliest layers it appears in in this region are dated at c. 3000 BP in the Reef/Santa Cruz, and in Vanuatu and Tonga shortly afterwards. In Micronesia chicken is limited to specific pockets and there is no secure evidence from Polynesian outliers.

Factors that could have influenced the observed distribution are: human choice, taphonomy, extinction, extirpation and and incomplete faunal analysis, and these need further analysis. However, current evidence suggests that chickens were introduced by Lapita colonists into Western Polynesia. They were subsequently introduced into Central and Eastern Polynesia during the Polynesian expansion. In some places they became extinct, but in others they gained great importance, possibly due to the absence of other domesticates. They appear to have been introduced into Micronesia c. 2000 BP.

Reference: Storey, AA, Ladefoged, T, and Matisoo-Smith, EA. 2008. Counting your chickens: density and distribution of chicken remains in archaeological sites of Oceania. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 18: 240-261

Blog Carnival – Four Stone Hearth #40

The fortieth edition of the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is up for folks to read at ‘Remote Central‘ so why not take a moment to peruse what is an interesting assemblage of entries.

Butchery of Fish

Fish, along with other aquatic resources, have played an important role in human biological, social and cultural evolution. Fundamental to our understanding of this role is the way that people have procured, processed and consumed fish, evidence for which manifests itself archaeologically in the form of burning, cut marks, body-part frequency and other patterns. However, despite being relatively common on archaeological mammal and bird bones, cut marks are rare on archaeological fish bones. This may be attributed to a number of factors, including butchery practices, taphonomic processes and fish anatomy, but many of these reasons remain speculative. For this reason the authors of a recent paper (Willis et al, 2008.) set out to perform a series of experiments designed to evaluate whether such practices would leave cut marks or other signatures on fish bones.

Experiments showed that cut marks resulting from butchery were common, both were stone and metal tools. Hand-held stone tools generally resulted in more cut marks than butchery using a metal knife. These cut marks were distributed on a limited number of elements. However, these were mostly the vertebral neural and haemal spines, transverse processes, ribs and pterygiophores. As it is not uncommon for spines and processes to break of vertebral centra post-depositionally, this might explain why they are often over-looked in faunal assemblages. Also, the majority of cut marks tended to be shallow and small; even on fresh, clean bone a magnifying glass was required to identify them. Fish bone, being less robust than mammal bone, could be subject to taphonomic processes than eradicated all evidence of butchery. It is, therefore, suggested by the authors that further experiments to address the influence of post-depositional processes on the preservation of cut marks on fish bone would be of value.

Reference: Willis, LM, Eren, MI, and Rick, TC. 2008. Does butchering fish leave cut marks? Journal of Archaeological Science 35: 1438-1444