Wednesday, October 29, 2014

People and Their Worlds | UCD Archaeological Research Seminar | Part I

Part II | Part III >

It all started innocently enough. I received an ostensibly ordinary email from Conor McDermott at UCD to let me know that their Archaeological Research Seminar People and Their Worlds would be happening on May 1st. The brochure was certainly promising:

This year's UCD School of Archaeology Research Seminar will include a range of presentations from staff, researchers and PhD students, showcasing ongoing and new research being carried out at University College Dublin. Topics will include reconstructing health patterns in the early medieval Irish community; Palaeolithic occupation and ancient genomics of early modern humans; Reconstructing living conditions in early medieval Ireland; UCD School of Archaeology’s contributions to Southeast Asian prehistory; Loughmoe Castle and the end of the middle ages; Early medieval Ireland in northwest Europe; and lots more!

I suppose, like most people, I get sent so many of these invitations that it’s impossible to be enthusiastic about them all, let alone have the time, finances, and energy to attend. This one just seemed a little different and something must have clicked in my head as I decided that I was definitely going to be there. I’ll spare you all the details of my preparation … save one. I don’t know the University College Dublin campus at Belfield at all … I think I’ve been there twice in the last two decades … and one of those was in the company of my brother … when a number of pints were had … so it doesn’t really count! To counteract my lack of knowledge, I resolved to find and print out a small collection of maps to bring me safely from Dublin City Centre out to Belfield. In applying the power of Google to my problem, I discovered that there was a free map of the UCD campus to be found on Apple’s App Store. In my haste to embrace technology, I neglected to notice that it was a different UCD … University of California, Davis! I did rather wonder when my map was showing me Interstate 80, rather than where the 39a bus stopped. Thankfully, the campus is not as bewilderingly huge as I had feared and a couple of polite enquiries saw me on my way.

Right … from here on in, I’ve got nothing but the height of praise for the organisers and the presenters. It was an exceptional experience and I came away with a great view of the types of cutting edge research that’s happening right now in UCD. For all that, I’m going to start with a criticism – 15 minutes for a presentation of this type is simply too short! Some may take the opinion that if a presenter is given 15 minutes to deliver a presentation, they are obliged to tailor their material to the time available. I have much sympathy with this position, but on the day, it did seem that most presenters were forced to gallop through their slides. I felt that this was detrimental to the presentation of their research. It was certainly detrimental to the condition of the tendons, ligaments, and whatever else is housed in my hand, wrist, and forearm as I struggled to take notes and keep pace with the presenters. By the end of the day, my wrist was just a dull, pulsating thud and all hope of taking coherent notes was long past. If there are plans to run this event in 2015 (and I sincerely hope there are!), I’d advise giving a little extra time to the presenters … even five minutes would make a huge difference! I’d suggest, perhaps, starting slightly earlier (if I can get from Belfast to Belfield with over an hour to spare, anyone who cares to be there can make it for 10am) or not trying to pack in as many speakers … though I’d be loath to do that one! For these reasons, the following account is somewhat ‘patchy’ … I’ve relied on my hastily scribbled notes where I have them, and shamelessly augmented them with extracts from the official abstracts, where I have not. However, all inaccuracies that remain are mine alone. With all these caveats in mind, we’ll begin …

Omey Island Excavation (Source)
First to the speaker’s podium was Prof Ron Pinhasi, who welcomed all the attendees. He promised that we would witness an interesting combination of papers that adequately reflected the diversity of the research undertaken at UCD. He also underlined the interconnectedness of that research in investigating common questions through shared techniques, including the use of DNA and advanced techniques of genetic sequencing, etc. The first session was to concentrate on Morphological variation, genetics, health and diet and it began with Dr Mario Novak (IRC Fellowship) to talk about Reconstructing health patterns in the early medieval Irish community: osteoarchaeological study of the Omey Island skeletal collection. This presentation is but a small part of his current research project: Analyses of the quality of life in Europe during the Early Middle Ages (AD 500-1100) - Comparisons between human skeletal series from Ireland and Croatia based on bioarchaeological, ancient DNA, and stable isotope data. Within both the Omey Island data and the wider project, the focus is on the archaeological, social, ecological contexts of the populations, and investigated through the use of DNA and stable isotope studies. The Irish portion of this project includes four excavated populations from Augherskea, Co. Meath, Collierstown, Co. Meath, Gracedieu, Co. Dublin, and Omey Island. Of these, the Omey island group is, by far, the largest, with c.500 burials.

Omey lies of the coast of Connemara, Co. Galway and was excavated in 1990, 1992, and 1993 by Prof. Tadhg O’Keeffe. The excavations at the monastic site (traditionally associated with St. Féchín of Fore) revealed evidence for five major phases of occupation, from the Early Bronze Age to the 18th century. Between the Early and Late Medieval graveyards, the remains of some 300 individuals were investigated. Of the 160 individuals so far examined by Novak, 43 are sub-adults, 43 are male, 49 are female, and 25 could not be definitively sexed. In the latter case, this was usually due to the fact that only partial remains survived. Although Novak urges caution about the robustness of the means for aging skeletons, he suggests that the average age at death for adults was 45 years for men and 41 years for women. The youngest set of remains may be aged to 42 lunar weeks old and was probably a neonatal still-born child. Most adults died in the period from 36 to 50 years, though there was a very high sub adult (0-5 years) mortality rate of 25%. In terms of dental health, Novak calculates that there was an average rate of caries decay per tooth of 4.5%. The figure was 27.3% in the adult skeletons, though this it was higher in males over females. Ante mortem tooth loss ran at 15%, though this was again higher in males. To illustrate the point, he showed an image of a mandible from an older male who had lost all of his teeth on the right side and noted that tooth loss was positively correlated with age – the older you got, the more likely you were to lose teeth. Evidence for cribra orbitalia was found on 37.8% of the population (39 of 103 individuals). It was only found to be active at the time of death in two cases, indicating that most individuals recovered and survived. Linear enamel hypoplasia was noted on some 40% of teeth, and on 65% of individuals. Again, incidence was higher in males over females. This condition is commonly associated with weaning and forms around the ages of 2 to 4. Indeed, some 40% of the Omey children suffered severe stress in childhood. Evidence of infectious diseases included such non-specific infectious diseases as periostitis. Two active cases of periostitis were identified (one on a new born (<2 years), along with two cases where it had healed, one on a child of 6-7 years and another on one of 11-13. Evidence of tuberculosis was found on one skeleton, a female who died between 28 and 35 years. She exhibited lytic lesions on several vertebrae that led to severe kyphotic deformity.

Some 20 individuals exhibited evidence of some form of skeletal trauma. These included 10 males, nine females, and one sub adult. Injuries were confined to long bones, crania, vertebrae, and foot bones, suggesting that most of these were the result of accidents, not intentional violence. Novak’s preliminary conclusions are that the demographic evidence suggests that this is not a typical monastic cemetery, considering the presence of both women and children. The relatively low frequency of dental caries suggests that the diet was partially based on protein, an observation supported by the large numbers of animal bones bearing butchery marks recovered from the excavation. The higher incidence of linear enamel hypoplasia in males is interesting and Novak suggests that it may represent different weaning strategies between the sexes. For the most part, this was a peaceful place and relatively similar to other early medieval sites.

Novak hopes that future work on the Omey Island population (and his larger project generally) will include a raft of radiocarbon dates and the use of Ancient DNA (aDNA). It is hoped that the latter will allow new methods of molecular sexing of skeletons, and the identification of ancient pathologies.

Mezmaiskaya Cave (Source)
Then it was Prof. Ron Pinhasi making a return to the podium to talk about his own work on The palaeolithic occupation and ancient genomics of early modern humans from Western Georgia. This area of the north and south Caucasus – between the Black and Caspian seas – has long been seen as an area of interface between Neanderthals and early modern humans. His current project seeks to refine the chronology of these Neanderthal and early modern humans through getting dates from previously excavated material. One of the developments in recent years has been that Neanderthals are a Eurasian-wide species, not just a European one. Working with a range of collaborators, Pinhasi has secured new dates from modified animal bone from Mezmaiskaya and from Nenaderthal bones. Although an initial examination of the results appears to indicate that the lower material is younger than that above it, the dates have been clarified through Bayesian modeling and show that Neanderthals went extinct in this region around 39k BP. Evidence from Ortuala and Sakazhia indicate that Neanderthals did not survive past 37k BP. There had been a possibility of an overlap between Neanderthals and early modern humans, but the evidence now suggests that humans only came to the area about 4ky after the demise of the Neanderthal population. A reassessment of the sites where evidence of the two species appear to have been found together leads to the conclusion that these are mixed deposits, and do not reflect actual experience. At Satsurblia the team have carried out new excavations, uncovering living surfaces and hearths dating to approximately 15k BP. At the back of the cave they have evidence of occupation going back to 20k BP and have recovered an epi-Gravettian tool, the first one identified from the region. Other work has involved the study of aDNA from two human remains, dating to 13k BP. The results have been plotted against the DNA signatures of the modern populations of the area. Preliminary results indicate that they fall between the Caucasus’ and nearby populations, indicating a remarkable longevity in human settlement in the area.

Example of cribra orbitalia (Source)
Abigail Ash (ERC funded PhD) spoke on Farming and Forging: Living with stress in Neolithic and metal age Central Europe. Ash noted that studies of health in prehistoric populations have tended to focus on the transition from hunting and gathering to largely agricultural subsistence with the adoption of the Neolithic lifestyle in Europe. She argues that there is a growing awareness of diversity between Neolithic communities and, in consequence, there is a need for deeper investigation into the effects of later agricultural intensification on the health of populations, along with those posed by later development of copper, bronze and iron industries. Her research focuses on samples from thirteen Central European populations dating from the Early Neolithic to the Iron Age (from 8k BP to 2k BP), looking for indicators of the health of the populations. She notes that it is difficult to ask the excavated skeletons questions about ‘how they are feeling’ and that ideas of population health can only come through osteoarchaeology. Even still, she was quick to point out that this is an incomplete record, as many diseases do not manifest on the skeleton. Nonetheless, her work on those skeletons has identified evidence for a number of diseases, including cribra orbitalia, porotic hyperostosis, and joint degradation. In a beautiful turn of phrase, Ash sees health as being ‘at the centre of a dynamic equilibrium’ between time and genetics. The underlying expectations are that behavioural change over time is associated with changes in population health. Other expectations include the expectation that evidence of social stratification can be observed in the skeletal record and that social stressors leads to reductions in individual longevity. Initial results from her study populations from Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary etc. from the Neolithic to the Iron Age show no evidence for a decline of health over time. For example, the levels of joint degradation show no significant changes between periods. Other results include the observation that cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis can be observed at relatively high levels in the Neolithic, falling significantly during the Bronze Age, but with a defined spike in the Iron Age. She argues that these and similar results may be correlated with population movements across the region over time.

With the time rapidly approaching midday, the assembled group took time for a brief coffee break … and I think I’ll leave it there too for this post.

Part II | Part III >