Archive for September, 2011


Radiocarbon dates

Organic materials recovered in archaeological trenches – most typically charred wood – can be dated using radiocarbon (C14) dating. Radiocarbon dating has been around since the 1950s. The method works, simply put, by measuring the levels of the the isotope carbon 14 relative to its lighter, and more run-of-the-mill, cousin carbon 12. Living things absorb  carbon 14 when they’re alive, and cease to do so when they die; and, after they die, the carbon 14 fraction declines at a fixed exponential rate. That therefore constitutes a radiometric clock which can tell us the time elapsed since the organism died. Very clearly useful when you want to suggest at what date J Bloggs cut down and threw onto a fireplace the tree in their yard.

The radiocarbon dates I submitted a short while ago from contexts in our test pits at BLAF have now come back from the lab, and the results are quite surprising. Guesses on a postcard please.


favourite sherd of the day

The analysis of the pottery from our first season is underway and you can look forward to an exciting new feature, ‘Favourite sherd of the day’. Below is today’s.

This sherd is made of four fragments; the breaks are old, so they occurred at some time before or during deposition, rather than post-excavation (e.g. on the plane over to the lab). For analysis purposes they will therefore be treated as four individual sherds, although I’ll make a note that they all in fact used to be part of the same pot (MNI=1).

In terms of decoration, a couple of things are happening here. Someone used a very fine twisted string roulette – one of the finest I’ve ever come across – to make the pattern of sinuous lines which you can see at top and bottom. Then they smoothed a band about 2 cm wide across that roulettes surface and ran some kind of ‘comb’ across it – something with quite wide teeth and few gaps in between, so maybe a collection of flat-sectioned grasses, say. They also made a deeper groove at the top of this band (I say top, but of course orientation is guesswork – it could just as well be the bottom) – probably with a stick.

The inside surface is fairly well smoothed but has been left rather unfinished. The thickness of the sherd varies. All in all not a manically precise job there. However, the firing was very evenly done – the dark core at the centre, which is the part which has not completely oxidised – is even in thickness and spread (as far as I can tell – difficult without a fresh break). Also, the clay was quite finely sorted, featuring small mineral inclusions of pretty consistent size. So either the local clay was already nice and clean or, mroe likely, the potter spent some time soaking it and picking out large inclusions, roots etc.

This sherd was excavated at around 100cm depth in Test pit 1 at site BLaf. Once the rest of the assemblage has been studied, and once the radiocarbon dates are back, we will have a first clue regarding the a possible age of this level and thus indirectly of this sherd. This is always a process of estimates, though, with margins of error at each stage. More on this anon.


babies and research excellence

Some disturbing news from our masters at HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Every 5-6 years, all UK higher education institutions are assessed by HEFCE in a process called the Research Excellence Framework, known to friends as the REF. Each institution has to show how good it has been in producing ground-breaking research, looking after postgraduate students who will produce the ground-breaking research of the future, and making society a better place.

To evaluate their ground-breaking-ness, each academic member of staff has to present up to four ‘outputs’ they produced in the past 5-6 years (book, article, exhibition); these are assessed by a devoted panel of fellow academics, who then grade them, between zero (work that falls  that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work) and four (world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour).  Most people have to produce four such outputs, but people who work part-time or have only just joined the university (early career researchers) are allowed to submit fewer items, given that they are (quite reasonably) assumed to have had less time than their colleagues to research, write and curate exhibits.

So far so good (?) but HEFCE’s latest consultation document throws up some considerable challenges for academics who have the temerity to have children.  It appears to suggest that no allowance will be made for maternity leave in deciding how many items should be submitted by a researcher, unless the leave lasted over 14 months.  See paragraphs 49-56 in the consultation document – especially Para 59 and table 2.
Bearing in mind that very few people are allowed to, want to, or can afford to, take 14 months maternity leave,  women who have had babies in the past 5-6 year REF cycle will have to submit four items like everyone else. The implication here is that they have been able to achieve the same research output as colleagues – which seems pretty ambitious to anyone who has been, or knows someone who has been, pregnant or the parent of infants.

As it stands, the draft proposal would seem to present a seriously discouraging picture to academics, or those who may be thinking of becoming academics. The HEFCE proposal is far out of line with our friends at the ERC, who extend the window of eligibility for their Starter Grants by 18 months per child born; this is thought to reflect the level of disruption to research. It also contrasts dismally with recent efforts made elsewhere, for example to bring in more women onto UK corporate boards, see the 30% club for example. Indeed, the HEFCE proposal is difficult to reconcile with HEFCE’s own aims to “support equality and diversity in research careers” and “encourage institutions to submit all their eligible staff who have produced excellent research” with fewer than four outputs if circumstances “have significantly constrained [staff’s] ability to produce four outputs or to work productively throughout the assessment period” (paragraph 47).

The HEFCE document isn’t, however, entirely clear. It notes (paragraph 62) that an alternative approach could be adopted to take account of pregnancy and maternity: that staff who had periods of maternity leave during the REF assessment period may reduce the number of outputs by one for each discrete period of maternity leave, without penalty in the assessment. “This alternative approach is based on the view that each period of maternity leave, and any associated constraints on work, is generally sufficiently disruptive of an individual’s research work to merit the reduction of an output”. That sounds more like it.

My view is that the fairest way to take into account maternity leave would be to allow those who have taken it during the last REF cycle to submit a reduced number of inputs, in line with the reduction allowed to Early Career Researchers (reduction in inputs is in linear relation to  months away from work).

Let HEFCE know what you think of the proposal and its alternative. The consultation is open until 5 October 2011.

About this blog

This blog has been set up to chart the activities and research findings of two projects led by Anne Haour, an archaeologist from the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom.

The first project, called Crossroads, brings together a team of archaeologists, historians and anthropologists studying the Niger Valley where it borders Niger and Bénin (West Africa). We are hoping to shed more light on the people that inhabited the area in the past 1500 years and to understand how population movements and craft techniques shaped the area's past.

The second project, called Cowries, examines the money cowrie, a shell which served as currency, ritual object and ornament across the world for millennia, and in medieval times most especially in the Maldive Islands of the Indian Ocean and the Sahelian regions of West Africa. We hope to understand how this shell was sourced and used in those two areas.

These investigations are funded by the European Research Council as part of the Starting Independent Researcher Programme (Seventh Framework Programme – FP7) and by the Leverhulme Trust as a Research Project Grant. The opinions posted here are however Anne Haour's own!

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September 2011