Term ends, research begins?

Kirsty Penkman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of York, UK.  Se is a member of the Editorial Board for Open Quaternary. Her research expertise is in analytical and environmental geochemistry and biomolecular archaeology and she runs the North East Amino Acid Racemization (NEaar) dating facility. As many of us in the academic world are finishing our semesters this week, she shares some of the challenges-and offers some solutions-for staying productive year-round.

The frenzy of the last few weeks of term has passed, the corridors are quieter.  Blank spaces in my diary don’t get immediately filled with meetings.  The list of daily tasks has morphed from short-term fire-fighting urgent deadlines into lovely longer-term projects that I am excited about getting my teeth into.

Being an academic is a joy, not only getting to research a subject you love, but also to teach it, to help others uncover those intriguing mysteries and beautiful solutions.  But the nature of the academic calendar means that the first week after term ends does feel like the calm after the storm.  Long to-do lists are written, great plans are made.  But then the time zooms by….


Looking back at my summer list (inspirationally entitled “long term summer thinking!”), only about half actually got done.  I had been so excited about my summer of research – coming back from maternity leave straight into the start of the academic year (and returning part-time) had meant that I hadn’t focused entirely on research for a long while.  So I had planned to use long summer days to analyse samples, sort out a backlog of data, write grants, write papers, re-jig teaching materials…the list goes on!  When I added up the number of full working days (not including conferences, etc.) that I had to achieve this in, I was horrified to discover I only had 17 free days over the 3 months.  Only 17 days!!

This meant that when I started back at the beginning of the Autumn term, I knew I had to make a change.  Something had to give – I couldn’t just keep putting my long-term research off until the vacations.  It was just the right time for me to take on board useful advice, and it happened to be the book “How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing” by Paul Silva.  I romped through this in a couple of hours on a train-trip back from a meeting in October, and it was the wake-up call I needed.


So the secret?  A very simple message – stop procrastinating!  I am one of those people who would say “I’ll write the paper / grant when I can find a clear day / week / month”; a “binge writer”.  Well, that never happens!  Silvia’s key message is self-admittedly obvious: you just need to:

  • set regular writing slots in your schedule
  • set goals for your writing
  • track your progress.

The philosophy is that the very action of writing has been shown to increase the frequency of your creative ideas, so writing breeds writing.  With the added bonus that if a nice long slot for writing does come along, you’ll be in a better state to take full advantage of it.  Never a fan of writing, one aspect which helped persuade me to give this a go was Silvia’s broadening of  the definition of “writing” – anything that contributes towards writing counts, so it could be sorting out data for a paper (as long as the data is also written up!).  For me, it was the right message at the right time.  I needed to change my writing mindset; instead of putting writing off for moments of inspiration or isolation, I needed to make time for it as part of my weekly routine.

I blocked out short periods of time in my diary to write; it was quite hard to find slots given I was in the middle of a heavy-teaching term, but I did manage to squeeze in 3 slots every week.  I have to admit I haven’t succeeded in keeping all of them (machine breakdowns, students who need to get data by a deadline, etc.), but my log shows me I’ve written for over 90% of the time I put aside.  Looking back at my diary for the previous term, much of that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t specifically set aside time.  As a consequence of starting this half way through a term (and therefore having to shoe-horn time into an already packed schedule), I have also discovered which periods of time aren’t productive for me, so I can organise my schedule for the future based on that valuable information.

I am definitely not the perfect finished article yet, but writing regularly has definitely worked for me.  It is often difficult to prioritise longer-term research when short-term externally-imposed deadlines abound, but it is one of the most important parts of our jobs, so I shall continue to keep my precious writing time sacrosanct.  I have learnt this lesson a bit late – one of the tips for grad students in the book is to start this type of writing schedule as early as possible, as it will make that goliath thesis more manageable.  And if you think you don’t have enough to write about now, go along to your supervisor and see if they have anything you can dust off and work on; I am sure you won’t be disappointed!

So now that I’m writing a lot (or at least a lot more than I used to), hopefully the division between “term ends and research begins” will be less evident.  Now I just have to learn to write good – sorry – better!


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The Summer Fieldwork Season II – The wilds of the Knersvlakte, Western Cape, South Africa

Teresa Steele is an Associate Professor in Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis, currently on sabbatical in the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. She is a member of the Editorial Board for Open Quaternary. She has research interests in modern human origins and zooarchaeology and field projects in France, Morocco, and South Africa. In this week’s post, she provides insights into her archaeological fieldwork in South Africa in 2014. This is her first ever blog post.

The ancestors of everyone living today came from Africa, but “Africa” is a big place, over 30 million square kilometers, so where did these ancestral populations live? How did they make their living? When did some of them leave Africa to populate the rest of the world? How did they support this expansion? And most importantly, WHY? These are the questions that keep me up at night – me and other paleoanthropologists studying modern human origins.

Figure 1. Trees lining the Varsche River, South Africa.  Photo credit: Theresa Steele.

Figure 1. Trees lining the Varsche River, South Africa. Photo credit: SNAP.

I am leading the Southern Namaqualand Archaeological Project (SNAP) with Dr. Alex Mackay (University of Wollongong) in the Western Cape of South Africa. The project is based along the Varsche River in the Knersvlakte [map], the quartz-gravel desert (whose name translates to gnashing, or grinding) is so named (as the story goes) because of the crunching sound carriage wheels made going over it (Figure 1). The region is part of the Succulent Karoo ecoregion, after its tiny succulent plants,  but it also preserves records of the past. Patches of the landscape are littered with stone artifacts, providing evidence of human activity deep in the past, when stone was the primary source of our technology and when the Knersvlakte provided more resources than today.

South Africa has benefited from a long history of archaeological research, and the southern and western coasts are well-known for their Late Pleistocene archaeological deposits including Klasies River, Blombos Cave, and Pinnacle Point. These sites have provided key data and fueled discussions about modern human origins.  The sites include early evidence for advanced technology and symbolism in the form of beads and engraved ochre, some of which is well documented by the TRACSYMBOLS project. Researchers, including Curtis Marean of Arizona State University, have argued that this region provided just the right mix of rich marine resources along with nutritious plant resources (in the form of geophytes) to promote the evolution of modern humans. Others, including Richard Klein of Stanford University, have argued that the record of human behavior from 250,000-50,000 (the Middle Stone Age) is less complex than the more recent Later Stone Age and Upper Paleolithic (which began 50,000–40,000 years ago). To better address these issues, we need a better understanding of the range of variation in Middle Stone Age behavior and especially how technology, subsistence, and demography varied with environmental context. In short, we need more sites from difference environmental contexts so that we can test these models of modern human origins.

Figure 2.  Lithics scattered on the landscape.  Photo credit: Theresa Steele

Figure 2. Middle stone age lithics scattered on the landscape. Photo credit: SNAP

One of the most common questions I am asked as an archaeologist is: “How do you know where to dig?” The decision about where to dig is influenced by research design, local contacts, and luck. Around 2008, I was looking for a new project – ideally, a Middle Stone Age site with faunal preservation outside of the well-studied coastal regions. My colleague Jayson Orton (ASHA Consulting; University of Cape Town; and University of South Africa) from my then current South African project (Ysterfontein 1, map from Klein et al. 2004) was targeting Namaqualand Later Stone Age sites for his dissertation research.  A few years earlier another mutual colleague (Royden Yates) had shown Jayson some shelters along the Varsche River which he had seen while surveying rock art sites.

Figure 3.  Closing up the pit.

Figure 3. Closing up after some great field work, with the team. Photo Credit: SNAP.

In 2008, Jayson and I went to visit the Varshe sites, where it was possible to see Middle Stone Age artifacts scattered on the landscape (Figure 2). In addition to the scattered lithics and surface material, there were three unexplored rock shelters. No matter what, someone was likely to be happy, and we would learn something from a project in the region. In 2009, Jayson, Alex, my graduate student Steve Schwortz, and I spent three weeks in the area testing the three rock shelters and collecting data on surface material. Two of the shelters yielded only Later Stone Age material, Reception Shelter (VR001) and Buzz Shelter (VR005), and the third site, VR003, yielded primarily Middle Stone Age material. We were all happy. Jayson continued to excavate Reception and Buzz, which formed the foundation of his PhD thesis. Alex and I have focused on VR003 with a four-week field season in 2011 (with my one-year-old in tow – fodder for another blog post!) and then again in 2014 (with my four-year-old staying home with daddy).

We targeted this region because it is currently located in a winter-rainfall zone desert. Despite the challenging environment today (the region receives only about 150 mm of rain per year), it was likely much wetter during past glacials, which increases the chances of finding traces of human behavior from MIS 6, 4 and/or 2. Human activity is especially poorly documented southern Africa during MIS 6 and 2, which is unfortunate because these stages encompass the establishment of Later Stone Age and early Middle Stone Age behavior, key periods for understanding modern human origins. MIS 4 is particularly interesting because two variants of the Middle Stone Age, the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, are associated with it and may have been influenced by the changing environmental conditions leading up to MIS 4 and during MIS 4. Unique aspects of these two industries have played leading roles in discussions of modern human origins, because they are associated with early beads, engravings, and complex stone tool technologies.

Figure 4.  Lithics

Figure 4. Stone tools from VR003 including both Still Bay (a) and Howiesons Poort (b) variants.  Photo credit: SNAP

At VR003, we have found both the Still Bay (Figure 4a) and Howiesons Poort (Figure 4b) variants within a sequence that extends earlier and later. The stone artifacts show signatures of the region – quartz is the dominant material, which is not surprising given its abundance on the landscape. We find hints of other pre-Still Bay variant, which may link our site to others further south, and as well as some pieces that are unique (Figure 5).

Figure 5.  Unique pieces from VR007.

Figure 5. Two unique pieces from VR003. Photo credit: SNAP

VR003 also preserves vertebrate remains, unlike too many other Middle Stone Age sites. Zebra, wildebeest and hippopotamus support the interpretation of  wetter, and therefore grassier conditions during the cooler Late Pleistocene. One of the most surprising finds in the faunal assemblage is a few marine mollusks, particularly limpets; the site is ~45 km from the current coastline, which would have been even further during glacial times. Transport of marine shells over this distance hasn’t previously been documented during the Middle Stone Age, but it common during the Later Stone Age, including at VR001 and VR005.

We are very happy about one thing that we didn’t find this past season – bedrock, which means that VR003 is likely to continue to reveal clues about human evolution into the deeper past. We look forward to returning in 2015.

More reading

Chase BM and ME Meadows. 2007. Late Quaternary dynamics of southern Africa’s winter rainfall zone. Earth-Science Reviews 84:103-138. [link]

Chase BM. 2010. South African palaeoenvironments during marine oxygen isotope stage 4: a context for the Howiesons Poort and Still Bay industries. Journal of Archaeological Science 37:1359-1366. [link]

Jacobs Z and RG Roberts. 2009. Human History Written in Stone and Blood. American Scientist 97:302-309. [link]

Jacobs Z, RG Roberts, RF Galbraith, HJ Deacon, R Grün, A Mackay, P Mitchell, R Vogelsang and L Wadley. 2008. Ages for the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa: Implications for human behavior and dispersal. Science 322:733-735. [link]

Mackay A, J Orton, S Schwortz and TE Steele. 2010. Soutfontein (SFT)-001: Preliminary report on an open-air site rich in bifacial points, southern Namaqualand, South Africa. South African Archaeological Bulletin 65:84-95. [link]

Orton J, A Mackay, S Schwortz and TE Steele. 2011. Two Holocene rock shelter deposits from the Knersvlakte, southern Namaqualand, South Africa. Southern African Humanities 23:109-150. [link]

Steele TE, A Mackay, J Orton and S Schwortz. 2012. Varsche Rivier 003, a new Middle Stone Age site in southern Namaqualand, South Africa. South African Archaeological Bulletin 67:108-119. [link]

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Mid-Holocene climate adaptation and Neolithic agriculture in the Fayum basin, Egypt

John M. Marston is an Assistant Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology at Boston University. He is a member of the Editorial Board for Open Quaternary and an environmental archaeologist with research concentrations agricultural sustainability, climate-change adaptation, and the environmental impact of empire in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean. In this week’s post, he describes recent research on Mid-Holocene climate adaptation in the Fayum basin of Egypt [map].

The URU (University of California Los Angeles, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, University of Auckland) Fayum Project has explored Holocene environmental change, agricultural adaptation, and human mobility in the desert margin of Egypt since 2003. We study the archaeological remains of several periods, from ephemeral Epipaleolithic (9300-800 cal a BP) and Neolithic (7500-6000 cal a BP) sites and artifact scatters to a major Roman city, Karanis (3rd-6th centuries AD). The URU Fayum Project includes multiple perspectives on human interaction with biological and geological landscapes, from archaeological survey and excavation to the analysis of archaeological animal and plant remains and geomorphological reconstruction. In this post, I highlight recent research on the Mid-Holocene Neolithic period in the Fayum, where we have the earliest evidence for integrated agricultural economies in Africa during a chronologically restricted climatic amelioration in the Sahara.

Figure 1. The hyperarid Western Desert of Egypt was a savanna during the Early and Mid-Holocene. credit: John Marston

Figure 1. The hyperarid Western Desert of Egypt was a savanna during the Early and Mid-Holocene. credit: John Marston

The Western Desert of Egypt, currently a hyperarid region characterized by limited rainfall and marginal vegetation cover was dramatically different during the Mid-Holocene, when the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) moved north of its current position in eastern Africa, bringing increased precipitation to the southern Sahara (Kröpelin et al. 2008); the impact of the ITCZ shift on the northern Sahara, however, has not been well understood. Recent work by the URU Fayum Project has linked the timing of human occupation of the Fayum depression, some 80 km southwest of Cairo and the Nile Valley, to increases in Mediterranean winter rainfall (Phillipps et al. 2012). Neolithic human settlement was restricted to the period prior to 6000 cal a BP, the period when the ITCZ held its more northerly course. Early use of domesticated plants in the Fayum appears to have depended on winter rainfall for a spring and summer growing season, unlike later Predynastic agriculture in the Nile Valley where summer inundation was followed by a winter growing season (Phillipps et al. 2012).

Recent work by project members also highlights surprising patterns of mobility among Neolithic populations in the Fayum, which archaeological evidence suggests were more restricted than previously assumed (Holdaway et al. 2010; Linseele et al. 2014). Zooarchaeological evidence for seasonal procurement of fish, the major source of meat in the Neolithic diet, suggests at least seasonal residence at two sites, Kom K and Kom W, located along the edge of the paleolake Birket Qarun (Linseele et al. 2014). Surprisingly, also present at these sites are bones of pigs, which are not well suited to mobile pastoral strategies due to their high water requirements and inability to digest a high-cellulose diet of grasses. The presence of pigs corresponds with the analysis of lithic artifacts from regional survey that suggest restricted movement within the Fayum basin (Holdaway et al. 2010).

Figure 2. Tamarix nilotica is abundant along the lakeshore of Birket Qarun today and was the primary fuel wood for Neolithic populations in the Fayum. Credit: John Marston

Figure 2. Tamarix nilotica is abundant along the lakeshore of Birket Qarun today and was the primary fuel wood for Neolithic populations in the Fayum. Credit: John Marston

My role in the URU Fayum Project focuses on changes in woodland resources utilized by Early Holocene Epipaleolithic and Mid-Holocene Neolithic inhabitants of the region. Prior study of archaeological wood charcoal from the northern Sahara demonstrates that the Mid-Holocene Sahara had much greater rainfall than today, with scrub forests and savanna landscapes dominating what is today a hyperarid region (Neumann 1989a, b). Preliminary research in the Fayum indicates nearly exclusive use of tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) for fuel wood during both the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic. This suggests a focus on lakeshore resources for fuel and indicates that the inhabitants of Kom K and Kom W had abundant local fuel resources. We also have evidence for the use of sheep and goat dung as fuel, and future work in the Fayum will explore how and why Neolithic populations incorporated this new fuel into their economy.

References Cited

Holdaway S, Wendrich W & Phillipps R. 2010. Identifying Low-Level Food Producers: Detecting Mobility from Lithics. Antiquity 84:185-194.

Kröpelin S, Verschuren D, Lezine A.-M, Eggermont H, Cocquyt C, Francus P, Cazet J-P, Fagot M, Rumes B, Russell JM, Darius F, Conley DJ, Schuster M, Suchodoletz H & Engstrom DR. 2008 Climate-Driven Ecosystem Succession in the Sahara: The Past 6000 Years. Science 320(765):765-768.

Linseele V, van Neer W, Thys S, Phillipps R, Cappers R, Wendrich W & Holdaway S. 2014. New Archaeozoological Data from the Fayum ‘‘Neolithic’’ with a Critical Assessment of the Evidence for Early Stock Keeping in Egypt. PLOS ONE 9(10):22.

Neumann K. 1989a Holocene Vegetation of the Eastern Sahara: Charcoal from Prehistoric Sites. African Archaeological Review 7:97-116.

Neumann K. 1989b. Zur Vegetationsgeschichte der Ostsahara im Holozan Holzkohlen aus Prahistorischen Fundstellen. In Forschungen zur Umweitgeschichte der Ostsahara, edited by Rudolph Kuper, pp. 13-181. Heinrich-Barth-Institut, Köln.

Phillipps R, Holdaway S, Wendrich W & Cappers R. 2012. Mid-Holocene Occupation of Egypt and Global Climatic Change. Quaternary International 251:64-76.

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Geoarchaeology’s role in climate adaptation.

This week’s post is contributed by Matthew Pope, a member of the Open Quaternary Editorial Board and researcher at University College London where he studies the ways in which humans have adapted to north European environments during the Quaternary.

The publication of the IPCC synthesis report on the 1st November 2014 gave a warning we’d heard before but in starker terms that even the best efforts by lobbying groups couldn’t blunt:

“Many aspects of climate change and its impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped. The risks of abrupt or irreversible changes increase as the magnitude of the warming increases…. Global mean sea-level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100 (virtually certain).”

– IPCC Synthesis Report [PDF], Section 2.4

The apparent inevitability of substantial climate change and environmental impact even with a dramatic reduction in carbon consumption puts us on notice that this century’s challenge will not only be the engineering of carbon-neutral global economy, but the significant reengineering of human settlement in vulnerable coastal areas. The World Ocean review report Living with the Oceans states that currently 200 million people worldwide live within 5m of sea level, that by 2100 this is estimated to rise to 500 million, and the continued growth of urbanism in Asia and it’s knock on effects with groundwater subsistence in coastal cities will exacerbate the threat to human populations.

From my own perspective I find these reports unsettling. First as a father of three children, two of them born in the late 1990’s and so perhaps part of first tricentennial generation, they will be the ones to finally make the call on our current predictions and historically judge our responses. As a researcher interested in long term climate change across northwestern Europe, it is unnerving to see the possibility of climate and sea level changes beyond those observed during a record extending back over a half a million years. Indeed from an evolutionary perspective, seeing C02 levels exceed those which have been observed during the entire history of the genus Homo (Bartoli et al., 2011), we should be on guard that we are changing the fundamental conditions which have given rise to our species.

Figure 1.   Humans have responded to rising sea levels before, and it wasn't easy.  Credit: Wikipedia user notuncurious.

Figure 1. Humans have responded to rising sea levels before, and it wasn’t easy. Credit: Wikipedia user notuncurious.

But it’s in my other role as part of commercial archaeology that I feel that we as a discipline might be able to play a part in responding to the challenges of global change. Geoarchaeology, in Europe and across many parts of the world, is firmly embedded in the construction industry and as such a large volume of work takes place close to sea level. Not only does this work involve assessing sites ahead of residential, industrial or infrastructure projects in coastal areas but, increasingly, as part of engineering projects designed to protect communities and infrastructure from the sea. Globally we can expect to see, if the IPCC predictions are correct, an ever increasing investment in coastal protection as we pass through the 21st century. Generally our work is framed in terms of heritage protection, assessing the record of landscape and environmental change to augment or enhance cultural archaeological work being undertaken by our colleagues.  Generally the work is well provided for but sometimes it feels as if the geoarchaeological component is a welcome add on or enhancement, scientific support to the front line of rescue archaeology.

Figure 2.  The sediment may be sound, but how long will it be around?  Credit: Michael Medina-Latorre

Figure 2. The sediment may be sound, but how long will it be around? An understanding of geoarchaelogy can improve future risk analysis and aid in climate adaptation by providing historical baselines.  Credit: Michael Medina-Latorre

But perhaps we are looking at it the role geoarchaeology plays in the wrong way, and perhaps we are missing an opportunity to play a localised, constructive role in helping to direct how coastal communities develop in the coming century.  Ultimately the resource we are tasked and paid to look at provides an archive of coastal geomorphological processes and their intersection with wider sediment systems and human habitation. The records I might deal with on the south coast of Britain not only bracket long term sea level change through the Pleistocene but have the ability to document recent Holocene change: infilling of coastal inlets, formation of gravel bars, the timing and incidence of flood events/storm surges.  It strikes me that while geotechnical studies are at pains to test the solidity and suitability of a sediment body for foundation design, there appears little explicit consideration in design of time depth; which can state when that sediment body formed, how prone has it been in the past to flooding/erosion, and what wider sedimentary systems have an overall control on its existence. While national agencies may be best placed to deal with these issues regionally, our discipline has the ability not only to feed precise data on a given location into these considerations but also to develop risk assessments with temporal depth for much wider areas.

Major coastal flooding in the North Sea/  "Watersnoodramp 1953" by Agency for International Development - This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 541705.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Major coastal flooding in the North Sea, perhaps similar to the scale of flooding in 1014, with less thatched roofs. Credit: “Watersnoodramp 1953” by Agency for International Development.

I leave you with an example from north west Europe to think about. Last month saw the 1000 anniversary of a coastal flooding event which affected a large part of the English Channel and Severn Estuary. The event was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1014:

This year, on the eve of St. Michael’s day, came the great sea-flood, which spread wide over this land, and ran so far up as it never did before, overwhelming many towns, and an innumerable multitude of people.” And also by the chronicler William of Malmsbury: A tidal wave grew to an astonishing size such as the memory of man cannot parallel, so as to submerge villages many miles inland and overwhelm and drown their inhabitants.” While of great historical interest, I’d argue that there is also a moral imperative for us to understand the likely origin, distribution and effect of past flooding events.  Ground-truthing a single event from the historical record helps us to bracket the range of past observable effects and to prepare adequately for their possibility in the future. And if, during the 21st century, we continue to build communities and businesses in parts of the landscape likely to be at risk from the effects of climate change, is there not also a clear moral obligation to assess the ground on which they are built for past resilience to flooding or erosion?

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Reconstructing pollution histories in the Lake Baikal basin: an application of silicon isotope geochemistry

This post represents the contributions of three authors. Anson Mackay is a professor in the Department of Geography at University College London and a member of the Open Quaternary Editorial Board. Virginia Panizzo is a Research Fellow in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham. George Swann is an Assistant Professor in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham.

Figure 1.  Freshwater seals (Pusa sibrica) in Lake Baikal. Photo credit: Sergey Gabdurakhmanov

Figure 1. Freshwater seals (Pusa sibrica) in Lake Baikal. Photo credit: Sergey Gabdurakhmanov

Lake Baikal [map] is one of our most iconic freshwater ecosystems – it is the deepest, oldest and most voluminous lake in the world. Most of the plants and animals that live in Lake Baikal are endemic, that is they are found nowhere else in the world, from the microscopic algae responsible for much of the lake’s primary production to one of the world’s few species of freshwater seal. Since the 1960s Lake Baikal has faced many environmental threats, including effluent from the Baikal Paper and Pulp Mill situated in the south basin (although this has now closed), multiple sources of pollution being released into the Selenga River and unregulated logging in the lake’s catchment. While these threats remain real, Lake Baikal has displayed considerable resilience, in the main due to its sheer size and volume. However, new threats are widespread, most notably economic development in the catchment (e.g. mining and pipelines), on-going pollutant release into the Selenga River, increasing tourism (PDF), and anthropogenic climate change, which is already impacting ice cover on the lake (Todd and Mackay, 2003), and the lake’s biota (Hampton et al., 2008).

Our UK-led consortium  of British, Russian and Swiss scientists is currently exploring the impact of environmental threats on primary producers in Lake Baikal, because these are at the base of it’s food-web, and therefore act as early warning indicators of disruption of the lake’s ecosystem. The two main approaches used are pigment analyses and silicon isotope geochemistry; it is this latter, rather novel, approach which forms the basis for the rest of this blog.

Figure 2.  The cozy kunks of Lake Baikal.  Credit: Beat Mueller.

Figure 2. The cozy kunks of Lake Baikal. Credit: Beat Mueller.

Silicon stable isotope geochemistry (d30Si) has the potential to provide critical information for our understanding of both regional and global silicon and carbon cycles (Leng et al., 2009). To date there are few terrestrial studies, especially those that focus on freshwater environments. We hypothesise that d30Si analyses from Lake Baikal and its catchment, will record changes in aquatic productivity, linked to industrial development, urban growth and agricultural practises. To disentangle enrichment caused by either pollution or climate change, cores from different parts of the lake are being examined over three timeframes (the past 5 years, 50 years and 500-1000 years).

Figure 3. Sampling on the surface of Lake Biakal.

Figure 3. Sampling on the surface of Lake Biakal.

Like all palaeoenvironmental proxies, a robust interpretation requires detailed understanding of their behaviour in the contemporary environment. This necessitated two fairly intensive and very different field expeditions. The first took place in March 2013, where we lived in ‘cozy’ kunks by the edge of the frozen lake. At this time we co-operated with Swiss and Russian scientists on their long-term Lake Baikal sedimentation monitoring programme. We analysed d30Si of dissolved silica from different water depths d30SiDSi as well as the d30Si composition of diatoms (d30Sidiatom) from open sediment traps deployed between 2012-2013. In July-August 2013 we also collected samples for d30SiDSi from major Baikal tributaries (especially the Selenga River which provides the majority of riverine inflow to the lake) and from water samples across the lake itself. These data are currently being analysed to assess the impact of human alteration of Lake Baikal’s catchment. During both fieldtrips a number of sediment cores were extracted from the bottom of Lake Baikal from each of its three basins using a Uwitek corer. These are currently being dated using the unstable radioisotope 210Pb so that any changes in the past 150 years linked to pollution and / or global warming can be accurately dated.

Figure 4.  Coring on the surface of Lake Biakal.

Figure 4. Coring on the surface of Lake Biakal.

Results are currently being written up for publication. But they will be presented at three up-coming conferences: the AGU (Session: Biogeochemical Cycling of Silicon and Isotopes in Biogenic Silica, San Francisco. December 2014), ASLO (Recent Ecological Change in Ancient Lakes, Grenada, Spain. February 2015) and the next Isotopes in Biogenic Silica (IBiS) meeting,  to be held in London, May 2015.  The authors gratefully acknowledge UK NERC (NE/J010227/1) for funding this research programme.

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The Summer Fieldwork Season – The wilds of Kerry, Cork & the Orkneys

Benjamin Gearey is lecturer in Environmental Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology at University College Cork. He is a member of the Editorial Board for Open Quaternary and has research interests in the areas of peatland palaeoecology and archaeology. In this week’s post, he outlines his field trips to peat bogs in Ireland and Scotland during the Summer of 2014.

The departure of the undergraduates in the early Summer means two things for many of us based in University departments: the beginning of the fieldwork and conference season. Actually, it really means three things but I’m not going to discuss my summer holidays in this post (Portugal, for the record). Instead I’m going to provide a short retrospective of the ‘fields’ that I visited in the Summer of 2014. With my teaching loaded heavily into Semester 2 (January to March) and subsequent exams and marking, I try to cram most fieldwork (and as many conferences as possible) into the summer months. I suppose this short post is the academic’s equivalent of those old ‘what I did in my summer holidays’ reports we used to have to do when we went back to school in September.

Figure 1. The Imlagh Basin, Valencia Island (Photo: Brian Mac Domhnaill)

Figure 1. The Imlagh Basin, Valencia Island (Photo: Brian Mac Domhnaill)

I’m not long in my new post in the Department of Archaeology at UCC (Cork) and my first foray of the summer was a local jaunt with two colleagues into the wilds of County Kerry in southwest Ireland. I wanted to scope out a few sites and landscapes over that way and headed west to Valentia Island, the far southwestern edge of Ireland [map]. I was keen visit an area of peatland on Valentia that had originally been investigated by the late, great Professor Frank Mitchell. In particular, I wanted to see if I could relocate two prehistoric sites he had identified in the peatland of the Imlagh basin: a possible Mesolithic-Neolithic site described as a ‘platform’ and another potential Bronze Age ‘slab trackway’. Despite the pitfalls of crossing a much overgrown, cut-over bog surface, this proved a half-successful trip on a beautiful June day (Figure 1): we found the Bronze Age site but the prehistoric platform is located in a the face of a drain which is now much overgrown, not to mention half full of uninviting looking peaty water.

Figure 2.  Prehistoric rock (Coomasaharn) Co. Kerry, Ireland (Photo: Ben Gearey)

Figure 2. Prehistoric rock (Coomasaharn) Co. Kerry, Ireland (Photo: Ben Gearey)

The next couple of days included a hike up into the Kerry uplands to look at the extensive areas of eroding blanket peat and a visit to some of the wonderful Co. Kerry prehistoric rock art. Some fantastic examples of this are located in areas of now cut-over peatland (Figure 2). For an environmental archaeologist with a particular interest in peatland palaeoecology and archaeology, the west of Ireland is a cornucopia of possibilities for research. I have an M. phil. student who has just started a project based in West Kerry; given the extent of peatland round those parts, his biggest problem now is to identify exactly what sites will be best for his particular research interests.

The trip to the far west of Ireland was followed by a trip to the far north of Scotland: The Orkneys. I’d never ventured that far into the Scottish wilds before and an invite to visit Professor Colin Richards‘ excavations at Smerquoy [map] was too good an opportunity to turn down. I spent just over a week there, managing in that time to visit the iconic prehistoric sites such as Skara Brae [map] and the Tomb of the Eagles [map] and also to carry out some exploratory coring of a small peatland located close to Colin’s excavations. Despite continued palaeoenvironmental and archaeological work and thought, the debate concerning the precise question of the character and extent of early Holocene woodland on Orkney, the timing of its clearance by Neolithic peoples and relationship to the stone-built Neolithic domestic and monumental structures shows no signs of being definitively settled one way or the other. Hopefully analysis of the core we took this summer may provide further palaeoenvironmental data to allow us to weigh into this particular fray.

Figure 3. Inter-tidal peats on the coast of east Cork.

Figure 3. Inter-tidal peats on the coast of east Cork.

The summer tends to fly by rather quickly – by the time I’d attended two conferences: In The Bog in Sheffield, and the European Association of Archaeologists meeting in the rather more exotic surroundings of Istanbul, September was looming large. There was time for another couple of short trips into the field, including another memorable day out under blue skies, looking at inter-tidal peat deposits on the coast close to Cork. Intertidal peat deposits (Figure 3) were launched into the public consciousness in Ireland following the exposure of previously buried deposits that resulted from of the battering the coast took during the storms last winter. There is much potential for further palaeoenvironmental and archaeological study of these deposits. With the advent of semesterisation here at UCC, students re-appear early in that month and before you know it, summer is a distant memory and teaching takes over. Now begins work on the samples I collected in the field and planning of field trips and conferences for Summer 2015. . . hopefully the skies will be just as blue next year.

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Challenges and best practice in online science communication

This week’s post is by Bethan Davies, a Lecturer in Physical Geography at Royal Holloway College at the University of London.  Dr. Davies is a member of the Editorial Board for Open Quaternary and an expert in ice sheet dynamics in the Antarctic, Patagonia and Britain.  This post is based on a recent publication in the Journal of Glaciology about her outreach work with the website Antarctic Glaciers.

Davies, B.J., Glasser, N.F., 2014. Analysis of www.AntarcticGlaciers.org as a tool for online science communication. Correspondence paper. Journal of Glaciology 60, 399-406. [PDF]

Even Nature started out as "... an accessible forum for reading about advances in scientific knowledge." Image from Wikipedia.

Even Nature started out as “… an accessible forum for reading about advances in scientific knowledge.” Image from Wikipedia.

Public engagement, outreach and science impact are increasingly on the agenda. Academics are increasingly motivated to reach out; to engage the public with their work and to further their findings among the wider population  (Oppenheimer, 2011; Peters et al., 2008a, b). They want to tell people about their work and publicize their findings. Online social media, including interactive websites, Twitter, Facebook and blogs offer new possibilities for effective science outreach (Ashlin and Ladle, 2006). Websites and blogs can be meaningful tools in the public engagement arsenal, reaching large numbers of people relatively cheaply, filling gaps in traditional science journalism (Bonetta, 2007, 2009), delivering almost instant science commentary, providing context and additional information. Social media can reference –  and draw parallels with – additional relevant science (Wilkins, 2008).

However, it’s not all plain sailing, and criticism has been leveled at researchers’ attempts to use websites and blogs. One common criticism of academic websites and blogs is that they only communicate science to members of the academy; that they are the ‘water coolers’ of the Ivory Tower where researchers gather to analyse and discuss ongoing work. Recent analyses of researcher’s blogs has suggested that many may only reach a small number of already well-versed science enthusiasts (Bubela et al., 2009; Kouper, 2010), and critical evaluation as to the success of science communication efforts is rare (Shema et al., 2012). Scientific blogs may not provide extensive comment or critique, and have been accused of adding little to conventional science journalism (Bubela et al., 2009).  Jeremy Fox has argued that there is  often little communication between academic bloggers, meaning blogs stand isolated with the exception of weekly link roundups.

Although recent papers have demonstrated that online science communication can be very effective (e.g., Bonetta, 2007; Davies and Glasser, 2014; Goldstein, 2009; Nisbet and Scheufele, 2009; Peters et al., 2008b), researchers may still be reluctant to begin blogging or tweeting for a number of reasons (Table 1). For example, career credit can be limited and maintaining websites and blogs is a time-consuming activity (Davies and Glasser, 2014; Harris, 2011; Somerville and Hassol, 2011). Further, many academics are disinclined to use websites, blogs or twitter for science communication because of fear of misrepresentation or attack, fear of being ignored or not making a difference, or because of a lack of training and confidence in their communication skills (Table 1; after Davies and Glasser, 2014).

Table 1. Common challenges and mitigations for scientists engaged with online science communication. From Davies and Glasser, 2014.

Challenges Mitigations
I won’t get any credit Communication of research results increases the impact of publications. Publicly funded science should be widely available to the general public. Academic institutions and tenure committees should reward time and effort devoted to outreach.
My outreach will be misrepresented by journalists Scientists should endeavour to work with journalists, developing good communication skills and an understanding of journalistic process.
I don’t have the time Range of options available, from guest blogging, to tweeting, curation of existing media or editing Wikipedia. Join community outreach efforts.
I don’t want to be attacked for the things I say As a scientist, it is vital to be able to defend your work and research. This is an important skill for young researchers to develop. Refer to robust, peer-reviewed research wherever possible. Make considered statements and posts.
My peers will criticise me for not spending enough time on research. Outreach and blogging is increasingly seen as a useful skill and a vital part of publicly funded research, but it should not take the place of academic scholarship.
No one’s going to read what I write Joining a thriving online community is an excellent way to build attention and support.  But it’s not all about page views.
I might be breaking the rules. Check institutional regulations and work with press and communications officers and funding agencies before hand
What if I make mistakes? Be willing to correct a mistake if it is pointed out – just as you would in other work. Encourage commenting and discussion on posts.
What I say isn’t going to make a difference Thoroughly research intended audience and start with a well thought-out outreach strategy
I don’t use words good I’m not very good at writing or communicating Writing and communication skills only develop through practice. Read up on the wider literature on communication skills, and request university or departmental courses in science communication skills.


A road sign to successful academic blogging?  Photo credit: Gideon Burton

A road sign to successful academic blogging? Photo credit: Gideon Burton

Despite these difficulties, a number of researchers emphasise the positive career benefits of using websites and blogs as a tool for science communication. Benefits include promotion of their research and increased citations, the forging of new links and collaborations, increased profiles and recognition, resulting in new opportunities, the sharing of new information, and keeping up to date with new research (Bonetta, 2007, 2009; Butler, 2005; Fox, 2012; Shuai et al., 2012). Early career researchers may be more visible to potential future employers as a result of their endeavours (Bik and Goldstein, 2013). Further, new analyses have highlighted the important role websites and blogs can play in public engagement, outreach and impact (e.g., Davies and Glasser, 2014). However, in order to be most effective, websites and blogs should consider best practice and carefully evaluate their audience, rationale and role. Here, we summarise some key considerations for academics who wish to set up a science blog:

  • Identify your audience (other scientists? School children? A-level students? Undergraduates? Adults?) and analyse their needs and their scientific understanding (Smith et al., 2013).  Be prepared to evolve in response to your readers’ or users’ needs (Davies and Glasser, 2014).
  • Allow interaction, direct engagement and conversations (Davies and Glasser, 2014; Nisbet and Scheufele, 2009). This could include, for example, an amalgamation of Twitter, podcasts, social networking, user recommendations, games and commenting.
  • Make it easy to read.  Text should be easy to understand, illustrated with a strong narrative and plenty of graphics (Davies and Glasser, 2014). Human interest and narrative are fundamental to the success of the website (see tips here; Davies and Glasser, 2014; Nisbet and Scheufele, 2009; Somerville and Hassol, 2011; Stewart and Nield, 2013). Fieldwork, lab diaries and photographs make great narrative (e.g., Natural Curiosities and the EGU’s Imaggeo posts) and can act as hooks, drawing people in. A blog, being more immediate and personal by its nature, may provide more ‘human interest’ and could be more reactive, by commenting in a timely manner on recent news or publications (Wilkins, 2008). However, using blogs on their own may be problematic for education and science communication, as it is difficult for users to explicitly find subjects they are interested in (cf. Goldstein, 2009).
  • Make it easy to find.  Finally, it’s no use blogging into a vacuum. Use Search Engine Optimisation to make best use of your blog or website, ensuring that it is visible in Google search results (Davies and Glasser, 2014). Simple strategies include: linking to your blog from your university webpage (and wherever else possible), having a domain name that includes your key words, sprinkling keywords liberally throughout the text, figure names and captions and headings, and installing an SEO widget.


Ashlin, A., Ladle, R.J., 2006. Environmental Science Adrift in the Blogosphere. Science 312, 201.

Bik, H.M., Goldstein, M.C., 2013. An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists. PLoS Biol 11, e1001535.

Bonetta, L., 2007. Scientists Enter the Blogosphere. Cell 129, 443-445.

Bonetta, L., 2009. Should You Be Tweeting? Cell 139, 452-453.

Bubela, T., Nisbet, M.C., Borchelt, R., Brunger, F., Critchley, C., Einsiedel, E., Geller, G., Gupta, A., Hampel, J., Hyde-Lay, R., Jandciu, E.W., Jones, S.A., Kolopack, P., Lane, S., Lougheed, T., Nerlich, B., Ogbogu, U., O’Riordan, K., Ouellette, C., Spear, M., Strauss, S., Thavaratnam, T., Willemse, L., Caulfield, T., 2009. Science communication reconsidered. Nat Biotech 27, 514-518.

Butler, D., 2005. Science in the web age: Joint efforts. Nature 438, 548-549.

Davies, B.J., Glasser, N.F., 2014. Analysis of www.AntarcticGlaciers.org as a tool for online science communication. Correspondence paper. Journal of Glaciology 60, 399-406.

Fox, J.W., 2012. Can blogging change how ecologists share ideas? In economics, it already has. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 5, 74-77. [PDF] [blog post]

Goldstein, A., 2009. Blogging Evolution. Evo Edu Outreach 2, 548-559.

Harris, F., 2011. Getting geography into the media: understanding the dynamics of academic–media collaboration. The Geographical Journal 177, 155-159.

Kouper, I., 2010. Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges and opportunities. Journal of Science Communication 9, 1-10. [related discussion]

Nisbet, M.C., Scheufele, D.A., 2009. What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany 96, 1767-1778. [also: Science of Science Communication]

Oppenheimer, M., 2011. What Roles Can Scientists Play in Public Discourse? Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 92, 133-134.

Peters, H.P., Brossard, D., de Cheveigné, S., Dunwoody, S., Kallfass, M., Miller, S., Tsuchida, S., 2008a. Interactions with the Mass Media. Science 321, 204-205.

Peters, H.P., Brossard, D., de Cheveigné, S., Dunwoody, S., Kallfass, M., Miller, S., Tsuchida, S., 2008b. Science-Media Interface: It’s Time to Reconsider. Science Communication 30, 266-276.

Shema, H., Bar-Ilan, J., Thelwell, M., 2012. Research blogs and the discussion of scholarly information. PLos ONE 7, e35869.

Shuai, X., Pepe, A., Bollen, J., 2012. How the Scientific Community Reacts to Newly Submitted Preprints: Article Downloads, Twitter Mentions, and Citations. PLos ONE 7, e47523.

Smith, B., Baron, N., English, C., Galindo, H., Goldman, E., McLeod, K., Miner, M., Neeley, E., 2013. COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement. PLoS Biol 11, e1001552.

Somerville, R.C.J., Hassol, S.J., 2011. Communicating the science of climate change. Physics Today October, 48-63.

Stewart, I.S., Nield, T., 2013. Earth stories: context and narrative in the communication of popular geoscience. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 124, 699-712.

Wilkins, J.S., 2008. The roles, reasons and restrictions of science blogs. Trends in ecology & evolution (Personal edition) 23, 411-413.

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