Research Trip Week Two: The Sculptor’s Cave

Week two of my research trip to the  National Museum of Scotland found me working under the supervision of Dr. Matthew Knight (for a brief summary of the goals and objectives of my research trip, check out my blog post from the first week). This week was focused on the human remains from the Sculptor’s Cave, arguably the most famous of all of the Covesea Caves.

The Sculptor's Cave twin entrance passages from the cave interior
The Sculptor’s Cave twin entrance passages from the cave interior

As long-time followers of this project may know, human remains is not my expertise. Although I am trained in human osteology, I am primarily a zooarchaeologist, which means I am mostly concerned with animal remains. However, here lies the most interesting aspect of my PhD research: I will be approaching the human remains from a zooarchaeological perspective, which may provide different features of note than what a human osteologist may see.

My main goal is to see where the human remains show similarities to the faunal remains – whether that it is the texture, colour, treatment, etc. These similarities (and differences) will help me better understand the funerary rituals that these Later Prehistoric peoples would perform, and how non-human species were utilised alongside their human ancestors. More broadly, I hope these comparisons also tell me a bit more about the relationships between humans and non-humans in the past, and what role the Natural played in their rites.

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A bag of human teeth and maxilla fragments.

My comparative assessments were run similarly to the ones I had recently undertaken on the Broxmouth Hillfort faunal remains – I took notes on the physical characteristics of each group of bones and rated some of them based on a set of criteria that I developed prior to the assessment. However, for the human remains, I found myself taking much more detailed notes on taphonomic features – specifically, anthropomorphic modifications (aka cuts, marks, and chops made by humans) and pathological evidence (aka signs of disease, trauma, injury, etc.). These particular characteristics will be especially important in the overall interpretation of the Covesea Caves, revealing more about the individuals who were laid to rest in these caves and how their living ancestors interacted with the dead.

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An example of an assessment sheet for human remains

So…now what? Well, now that I’ve got the last of my data, I’ll be spending a lot of time comparing and contrasting my results with the other assemblages. Sounds easy, but it will take many, many, many hours of developing new theories and looking up similar research. So stay tuned – I’m hoping to continue my blogging as I start the final year of my PhD research!

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The Covesea Caves display looks empty…I wonder why?

Comparative analysis has been made possible by funding from the following organisations:

Research Trip Week One: Broxmouth Hillfort

Part of my PhD research requires significant comparative analysis – basically, many hours of analysing and recording other bone assemblages so that I can compare their characteristics with my main collection from the Covesea Caves. For my particular project, I had two objectives:

  1. Find a faunal assemblage from a domestic context, sourced from a contemporary site in Scotland. This comparison would help highlight the “unusual” characteristics found in the more ritual contexts of the Covesea Caves, and could be used as a sort of baseline.
  2. Use the human remains from the Covesea Caves as a comparative group in order to further explore how ritual/funerary handling of human remains compared to

For the first objective, I turned to faunal remains recovered from Broxmouth Hillfort, which boasts the largest Later Prehistoric faunal assemblage in Scotland. To work on these selected bones, I travelled up to Edinburgh to visit the collections at the National Museum of Scotland under the supervision and guidance of Dr. Jerry Herman.

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These are the many, many boxes that contain the faunal bones from Broxmouth Hillfort.

So, how do I analyse thousands of bones in only a few days? Thankfully, there’s a handy little method for zooarchaeologists: bone assessments! Basically, it simplifies the analysis process into a shorter “assessment” that allows you to paint a broad picture of what this assemblage contains (for a slightly longer explanation, I wrote up a blog post about bone assessments here), allowing for patterns to be seen easily without spending too much time on analysis. This can be used as a form of preliminary work to inform where additional, more thorough analysis should be done.

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An example of one of my assessment forms…pardon the chicken scratch that is my handwriting!

Sounds simple? Well…not exactly. Even though this isn’t an elaborate recording process, bone assessments still require me to lay out all of the necessary bones and identify them by species and element. So, it’s still a few hours of work per bag o’ bones! But judging on this week’s work, it was definitely vital and important work that will help me further explore the ritual elements of the Covesea Caves!

Tune in next week where I’ll blog about the human remains!

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An example of what the “laying out” process looks like for assessment.

Comparative analysis has been made possible by funding from the following organisations:

10/05/19 – We’re Back! A Post-Excavation Update

Hi everyone! It’s been a while, but in my defence, I’ve been pretty busy with post-excavation work for my PhD research. How busy? Well… after nearly a year, I’ve finally finished identifying and recording over 7,000 bone fragments from our various excavations in the Covesea Caves (if you’re new to the blog, feel free to go back and read our earlier blog posts, which are from the 2018 excavation season!).

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A very, very small selection of bones from the 7,000+ that make up the Covesea Caves assemblage!

Now that most of the arduous recording has been completed, I figured we’re due for a blog post! More specifically, I want to talk a bit about my process as the project’s faunal bone specialist and how a recent trip to the Natural History Museum at Tring helped me finish my post-excavation recording.

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The Natural History Museum at Tring is absolutely lovely and aesthetically pleasing – do visit if you’re ever in the area!
For zooarchaeologists, one of the most important tools in our kit is the reference collection – we are often faced with such a wide berth of species in various states of preservation, which can make identification difficult. Using a reference collection of the skeletal elements of various species can help us narrow down our IDs and, most importantly, streamline the process a bit more – after all, animal bone assemblages often come with thousands of bone fragments, so time is of the essence (for more on the zooarchaeological process, read my blog post about it here). Of course, most – if not all – zooarchaeologists end up working with a somewhat limited reference collection; in my collection, for example, we do have many examples of domestic animals found in Britain, but if you asked for, say, an elephant bone, I’d be pretty hard pressed to find one in our storage! Our collections are usually tailored towards the common fauna in our specific regions – domestic animals such as sheep, cows, horses, etc.

But of course we sometimes hit a snag and find ourselves with a truly unusual bone…so what do we do? Well, there’s a few things. If you can manage the funding for it (as we did through a research grant from the British Cave Research Association), you can try to get your bones IDed through various archaeological science methods – this can include ZooMS (or Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry) or aDNA (ancient DNA analysis), both which will provide pretty confident identifications, provided your samples have enough preserved material to analyse. Unfortunately in our case, our bones were unable to get IDs due to lack of preserved material.

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The bone in question…it’s a large tibia-tarsus bone from a bird, but what kind of bird?!

This is where the Natural History Museum comes in. Dr. Joanne Cooper, curator for the museum’s avian collections, was gracious enough to allow me access to their enormous bird reference collection to help me identify some rather large bird bones that were giving me a bit of trouble. It was amazing to get to utilise their amazing and thorough collections, and to pick Dr. Cooper’s brain for helpful advice with regards to birds.

Afterwards, I took a quick walk around the museum itself and honestly, that was just as helpful! You see, I feel like as a zooarchaeologist that it’s easy to forget the actual scale and scope of the animals we are working with – after all, most of our bones are heavily fragmented and hard to imagine belonging to a once living creature. So it was nice to walk around the taxidermied animals in the museum and get a better idea of how many of the animals from the Covesea Caves once roamed the lands.

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A Great Auk reimagined at the Natural History Museum at Tring
As of the identification of that particularly big bone…well, let’s just say it’s a large surprise that I’m excited to write about soon for Cave and Karststay tuned!

Thanks again to the Natural History Museum at Tring and the British Cave Research Association for their contributions to our post-excavation analysis!

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…maybe a hint at the identity of that bird bone? You’ll see soon enough!

15/06/18 – Goodbye (For Now!)

The sun sets not only on our accommodations at Blackhills Estate, but also on the 2018 excavation season. We hoped these blog posts were as fun to read as they were to write! Although we will no longer have daily updates for you on the progress of the Covesea Caves Project, please watch this space for occasional updates

Today was mostly spent on clearing out our excavation equipment from the Covesea Caves – thankfully for our team, the amazing mountaineering expert Kevin Rutherford has been able to lift most of the heavier equipment out of the caves using rope! Excavation was technically finished yesterday with the backfilling of Laird’s Stables. To celebrate, the excavation team treated themselves to some delicious – and well deserved! – ice cream.

Our final Find of the Day is…a bone fragment. Underwhelming? Maybe, but it’s not just any bone fragment…it’s a bone fragment with the initials of one of the project’s co-directors! In a bizarre moment during bone cleaning, what appears to be the letters “IA” chopped into the bone. Does this mean co-director Professor Ian Armit is a time traveller? The mystery continues!

14/06/18 – Finishing Touches

Well, it’s our second to last day in the trenches and…well, there’s not much to write home about. At least, nothing that interesting. With tomorrow being our last day of work, our excavation team spent most of today backfilling our trenches and clearing our Laird’s Stables. As for recovered finds, most have been small faunal bones (bird, fish, rodent, etc.) with the occasional deer bone.

Our newest guest, Kristina Wolfe, has continued her work recording the surrounding environment of the Covesea Caves as part of her post-doctoral fellowship project at the University of Huddersfield, the VRAASP Project. You can learn more about her project here.

Today’s Find of the Day is another gorgeous piece of flint from the Covesea Caves.

13/06/18 – Cave Concerts

Our excavation continues onward in Laird’s Stables. Despite the small size of the cave, the team has been making considerable progress in uncovering exciting new finds that may change how we interpret the use of this cave in the past. Stay tuned for more updates as we round up this excavation season!

Today we welcomed our newest guest, University of Huddersfield postdoc Kristina Wolfe! Although not part of the Covesea Caves Project, Kristina Wolfe is also doing work on the caves here, specifically the Sculptor’s Cave, as part of her VRAASP Project. This project uses “virtual reality and archaeo-acoustic analysis to study and exhibit presence”; you can learn more about it here and on Kristina Wolfe’s website.

Today’s Find of the Day is another example of the amazing stone working found at the cave sites: it’s a piece of worked flint!

12/06/18 – Dark Caves and Sunny Beaches

Our excavation team is continuing their work in our final cave of the 2018 season, Laird’s Stables. It’s one of the smallest of the Covesea Caves, with the end of the cave narrowing down into a tunnel that requires our team members to work while crouched on the floor. The darkness of the cave has also become a bit of an issue – our team is equipped with work lights and head torches, but once they run out of power, it’s time to end the work day.

Outside the cave, on the other hand, is a completely different story! When the team is on break, they get a lovely view of the coastline, complete with this giant stone arch that our Digitalisation and Visualisation team scanned and turned into a 3D model (hopefully more on that soon!).

After a big lunch and a few hours of hard work, it’s pretty difficult not to want to take a nap while listening to the calming noise of the waves.

Although the cave is dark, sometimes cramped, and quite cold, our excavation team has been in pretty good spirits and enjoying our last week together. I mean, look how happy we look in our little tunnel!

Well, I mean…look how happy I look.

Today’s Find of the Day – well, it’s actually Finds of the Day. These are two beautiful boar tusks that were recovered from one of our trenches in Laird’s Stables!

11/06/18 – The Tiniest Little Cave

With the recent fire, our access to the last two caves has unfortunately been blocked off. Sounds ridiculous, but the burnt trees and shrubs are still smouldering! Helicopters were seen above site carrying water from the ocean to put out the remaining fires.

Fortunately, access to Laird’s Stables, a smaller cave near the other Covesea Caves, is still open to our excavation team! Passage to this cave is slightly easier than the other given the shorter walking distance, but there’s still a good amount of climbing involved! Luckily, we have our amazing mountaineering expert Kevin Rutherford with us to make sure we climb safely up and down.

Due to the smaller size of the cave, it was a bit of a tight fit for an excavation team of six people. I ended up in the very back of the cave to help with sieving; it was cold, dark, and small…yet somehow slightly cozy?

As this is our last week of excavation, we will most likely finish up with Laird’s Stables, so fingers crossed we recover some interesting things! At least, other than the bones I ended up collecting off the beach – as the team’s zooarchaeologist, of course I’m going to add to my reference collection when I can!

Today’s Find of the Day is yet another amazing example of worked animal bone: it’s a bone pin.

10/06/18 – Its the Final Countdown!

Well, we’re just about at our last week excavating the Covesea Caves. Has it been nearly 3 weeks already? Today our team up excavation in Covesea Cave 1 and are preparing to work in the remaining caves for this final week.

Meanwhile in our “zooarchaeology lab“, detailed analysis is revealing a lot more about the remains that have been recovered by the excavation team. For example, more evidence of anthropogenic modification (for example, butchery) has been observed, which will be vital information for the overall interpretation of these sites.

The next few cave sites are relatively smaller than Covesea Cave 1 and 2, so there may be less “exciting” finds this week. However, there will still be a lot to learn from excavating and examine the stratigraphy of the sites.

Today’s Find of the Day is probably one of the more exciting artefacts that have been recovered: it’s a whetstone! Note the striations marked on the stone – this shows that it had been used many times in the past.

08/06/18 – Photobombed!

Today was a bit of a sad day as we said goodbye to our Visualisation and Digitisation (or is it the other way around?) team members. They’ve wrapped up their side of the project and are heading back to the University of Bradford – hopefully in due time we’ll be able to show you the finished product!

On their last day, the team did have some issues. But oddly enough, it wasn’t due to lugging all of their (expensive, heavy) equipment across boulders! The last two caves that they photographed and scanned, Quarrymen’s Cave and Clashach Cave, are much more accessible than the other caves. Maybe too accessible…some of their photos ended up getting “photobombed” by people enjoying the sun!

Today’s Find of the Day is once again from our zooarchaeological analysis (sorry about all the animal bones, but hey! That’s what you get when you let the zooarchaeologist write the excavation blog updates). From Covesea Cave 1, here is…a knife? A votive figure? A stone tool? Nope! It’s actually a bird skull (of an unidentified species as of now – if you think you recognise the bird, however, let us know in the comments!).