FURTHER PARTICULARS - Cardiff University

Diversification and Sustainability in Ancient Coastal
Communities: The Role of Marine Resources
The doctoral research project is part of a wider project motivated by key questions that exist
relating to importance of marine resources in the human diet in prehistory, particularly at the
early Neolithic on the Atlantic seaboard of northern Europe, and the evolution of marine
resource exploitation in later periods. The studentship will be focused on developing a more
holistic understanding of marine resource exploitation through a holistic approach to
osteological remains; fully exploring both direct (e.g. stable isotopes) and indirect (through
modelling of exploitation strategies) evidence to explore the level, intensity and diversity of
marine resource exploitation in prehistory.
Our overall objective will be to apply the aforementioned biomarkers to investigate the
processing of marine commodities in archaeological pottery. Our overall hypothesis is that the
exploitation of marine products by prehistoric humans will be detectable at higher sensitivity
and selectivity through lipid biomarkers preserved in archaeological pottery than through the
bulk stable carbon and nitrogen isotope signatures preserved in human bone collagen. In
addition, where marine food consumption is high the
acids will provide further criteria for assessing marine resource processing in pottery vessels.
The specific aims of the research programme are to:
Further investigate the production of novel marine marker compounds in pottery
vessels via the processing/heating of foods, marine oils and pure compounds in pottery
Implement high resolution gas chromatography/mass spectrometry protocols for the
ultra sensitive and selective detection of marine lipid proxies in archaeological pottery.
Investigate the compound-specific
classifiers marine fats in archaeological pottery.
in archaeological pottery.
Apply the proxies developed and validated in (i) to (iv) to the detection of marine
product processing in pottery vessels from early Neolithic and later sites on the coast
and inland of the continental mainland of Europe and adjacent islands.
(vi) Correlate the results from the biomarker analyses with the results of investigations of
faunal, human and other archaeological finds performed as part of the complementary
PhD Project Studentship.
The identification and characterisation of marine constituents of organic residues in pottery
would allow the recognition of societies with a continued reliance upon marine resources in
post-Mesolithic prehistory. This in turn would facilitate an exploration of the relationship and
possible tensions between coastal and non-coastal communities, the latter of which may have
chosen a fully-domesticated terrestrial subsistence strategy. At present, the role of the sea in
post-Mesolithic communities in terms of food, non-dietary resources, transport and trade
remains undefined and the application of these new organic residue approaches would
contribute significantly towards an understanding of our long-lived relationship with aquatic
Marine fish, shellfish and aquatic mammals were extensively exploited by our
ancestors for tens of thousands of years and remain an important resource for many
populations today. However, finding evidence for the consumption of marine resources by
prehistoric populations can prove extremely problematic due to the taphonomic bias against
the survival and recovery of remains. Although shell middens are often very visible in the
archaeological record, fish bones are small and fragile and easily missed during excavation
unless systematic sieving is undertaken (Tauber, 1981). Furthermore, the processing of larger
mammals and shellfish may have taken place at the site of procurement, leaving few (if any)
visible traces amongst artefacts recovered from settlement areas (Bird & Bliege Bird, 1997).
Indirect archaeological evidence for the hunting, fishing or gathering of marine fauna (such as
hooks, harpoons and net-weights) is, moreover, relatively unusual. Thus far, it appears likely
that an absence of archaeological evidence does not necessarily imply a lack of marine
exploitation at many archaeological sites, and therefore other means must be sought in order
to detect the contribution of marine resources in prehistory.
In recent years, the most widely-used approach to this problem has been to address
it through the isotopic analysis of human bone collagen, as enriched δ13C and δ15N values
have been shown to correlate with an increased marine contribution relative to terrestrial
consumers (Tauber, 1981; Chisholm et al., 1982; Schoeninger & de Niro, 1984; Ambrose et
al. 1997; Mays, 1997; Richards & Hedges, 1999; Eriksson, 2004; Corr et al., 2005). Many
datasets from European coastal and inland sites have shown an apparent discontinuation in
the consumption of marine foods with the onset of the Neolithic (Tauber, 1981; Lubell et al.,
1994; Schulting & Richards, 2001; Richards et al., 2003). This has led to a widespread
assumption that the Neolithic period began with a rapid and complete transition to terrestrial,
domesticated species of fauna and flora, with corresponding implications for organizational
and social behaviour inferred from the somewhat counter-intuitive rejection of an obvious and
nutritious food resource at coastal sites (Richards, 2003). A more likely scenario is that with
the onset of the Neolithic marine food consumption continued, albeit at a reduced level
(Fischer et al., 2007). The latter interpretation is supported by archaeological evidence,
including shell middens, fish bones and fish traps, which suggest continued marine
exploitation into the early Neolithic at coastal sites on the Atlantic coast (Milner et al. 2004).
This inconsistency may in part be due to the relatively small numbers of skeletons which have
been analysed isotopically, combined with a possible bias towards those remains which tend
to survive and be recovered (Milner et al. 2004).
Other factors that might skew interpretations based upon bulk collagen isotopic
techniques include the insensitivity of the approach towards the non-protein component of the
diet, such that the dietary contribution of marine fats and oils (such as blubber and fish oils)
could be vastly under-represented. Sporadic or seasonal consumption of marine products
may be masked by the slow remodelling of bone collagen and integrated into its longer-term
signal, thus becoming difficult to detect. Studies have also shown that a diet low in protein
results in the assimilation of lipid and carbohydrate carbon into bone collagen, rather than the
direct routing of dietary protein carbon (Ambrose & Norr, 1993; Tieszen & Farge, 1993; Fogel
& Tuross, 2003). Therefore, estimates now suggest that amongst populations consuming a
predominantly carbohydrate-based diet, as much as a 20% contribution of marine protein to
the overall diet could be isotopically undetectable in human bone collagen (Hedges, 2004).
Hence, the archaeological and isotopic evidence for the detection and quantification
of a marine component in ancient diets can be problematic to interpret and reconcile and both
lines of evidence can include inherent biases against the detection of marine exploitation.
These problems in reconstructing past subsistence strategies create difficulties in unravelling
how populations interacted with their environment which will have been an important stimulus
for, or response to, organizational, technological and social change. If we are to develop a
more thorough and sophisticated understanding of how prehistoric populations chose to
exploit or manage the resources available to them, it is necessary to incorporate techniques
more sensitive to detecting the marine component of the diet.
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(eds.), Prehistoric human bone: archaeology at the molecular level. Springer Verlag 121.
The extant models used to describe subsistence strategies for prehistoric British populations
are generally derived from dryland sites and from the Neolithic onwards paint a picture of a
dependence upon introduced domestic species for food resources until the Medieval period.
However, this model of domestic and, by definition, terrestrial exploitation is not the case for
coastal communities where the faunal evidence suggests an on-going relationship with the
sea. Coastal ecosystems have extremely high biodiversity and productivity levels and provide
a sustainable resource in the face of seasonal fluctuations. These characteristics were
exploited from the earliest times resulting in the continual habitation of British archipelagos,
however, the intensity of marine exploitation remains unclear despite stable isotopic analyses
focused on the identification of dietary composition from changes in the Carbon and Nitrogen
ratios (Schulting & Richards, 2002). This leaves archaeologists with a dilemma; if marine
foods are consistently present on coastal sites but stable isotope reconstructions provide little
evidence of their consumption is there something wrong with the interpretative models? Do
marine foods in later prehistory provide an isotopically invisible contribution to the total diet
(Milner et al., 2004) or is the contribution of marine resources overestimated? Are they
merely seasonally exploited, used to feed livestock or considered famine foods? The level at
which marine food consumption becomes archaeologically and isotopically visible has not yet
been established with little detailed research focused on fully characterizing marine resource
utilization. This studentship will focus on archaeological sites located in the Scottish islands
in order to redress this situation.
On-going research into these islands economies has produced substantive
zooarchaeological data sets from which the contribution of marine and terrestrial resources
can be assessed. In addition, the Hebrides can provide an unprecedented continuous
ceramic sequence from the Neolithic to the Medieval period for comparative residue analysis.
Often in zooarchaeological analyses mammal, bird, fish and shellfish are treated separately
and the nature, seasonality and intensity of marine consumption remain unquantified. Thus,
opportunities exist to more fully reconstruct human dietary profiles from traditional methods
and compare this with residue analyses and supplemented by stable isotope data. Initial
research into prehistoric human isotopic signals in the Hebrides once again indicates the
invisibility of marine foods (Parker Pearson et al. 2005, 2007) whilst on the Northern Isles
there is some evidence of later Pictish marine exploitation (Richards et al. 2005). Detailed
analysis of the extant zooarchaeological data in tandem in tandem with selected faunal
isotopic values, building upon the initial baseline values (Mulville et al. forthcoming), will allow
the development of dietary models against which human stable isotope values and marine
biomarker information from the main project can be assessed.
The research carried out by the PhD Project Studentship will be highly complementary to that
described in the main study but with an emphasis on zooarchaeological analyses
supplemented by stable isotope analyses of skeletal remains.
Four specific lines of investigation will be pursed
1. Palaeoeconomic analyses of the zooarchaeological assemblages
from a range of sites from the Hebrides and Northern Isles (Neolithic to Norse) will produce
qualitative and quantitative data on the relative proportions of marine and terrestrial based
species on island sites. This will allow the calculation of the contribution of marine species
(aquatic, inter-tidal and aerial) to human dietary composition (e.g. fats and proteins) and their
overall role in human diets. Detailed zoological and ecological data will allow the modelling of
food values for the species repressed, in particular age, sex, season of death will considered
as food composition depends upon a number physiological factors. Reference to modern
biological data for wild animals and for analogous domestic stock will made and where
necessary supplemented by experimental assessment of food composition (e.g. creating
utility indices for marine birds and eggs).
2. Zooarchaeological evidence for the processing, preparation and
cooking of foods will be examined as dietary composition and nutrient availability also
varies with food processing. For example, assessments of intensity of carcass exploitation
(e.g. rendering for fat or fragmenting for bone marrow extraction) will provide evidence for the
targeting of particular food types. In addition, the problems of the archaeological identification
of foods will be considered such as the consumption of foods out with settlements, off-site
butchery of particular species (e.g. hunted animals) and the contribution of indirect sources of
animal protein e.g. dairy products to the human diet.
3. Residue analyses undertaken by the main project on the unparallel ceramic
sequence will provide a complementary dimension to the zooarchaeological and stable
isotopic datasets. The identification of a marine signal in pottery will establish the
presence/absence of marine foods within vessels and provide supplementary evidence for the
degree of exploitation. Conversely, the absence of particular groups of foods from ceramic
vessels will inform on the accuracy of dietary reconstruction attempts from residues alone and
indicate that other methods of food processing/cooking occurred.
4. Dietary isotopic signals established from human and faunal carbon and
nitrogen stable isotope data by the parallel project will be compared to the zooarchaeological
data. Although some datasets exist for coastal sites (Schulting and Richards 2002, Parker
Pearson et al 2005, Richards 2005) the pathway of isotopes in prehistoric coastal
communities has yet to be fully established and the diverse nature of the resources provide a
challenging ecosystem to characterise. Where appropriate, targeted sampling for carbon and
nitrogen isotopic data from a range of faunal and human remains closely associated with the
zooarchaeological assemblages under consideration will be undertaken. This will supplement
the stable isotope information provided by the parallel project.
The research will focus on the datasets from the Hebrides and the Northern Isles to provide a
substantial chronological spread. The quality of the zooarchaeological record in the islands is
without precedent due to the excellent chemical and physical characteristics of the island
geologies combined with modern, high quality excavations and the particular richness of the
archaeological record. As a result these island groups can provide detailed datasets of the
full range of zooarchaeological materials from the Neolithic onwards. In addition to the
published material, site archives will be consulted at the Royal Commission in Edinburgh
supplemented with further data from the zooarchaeological assemblages held at Cardiff.
Permission for isotopic sampling will be available from Historic Scotland. Assemblages will
be characterised through standard zooarchaeological analyses (such as number of identified
specimens) but other methods for establishing dietary contribution will consider not only the
relative ‘meat weights’ provided by marine and terrestrial resources but also the contribution
may be secondary products (e.g. milk) and the dietary composition of foods . In particular the
contribution made by fats, an important but often ignored food source, which remain
isotopically invisible at present will be estimated.
The student will receive training in all aspects of zooarchaeological analyses under the
supervision of Dr Mulville; this will include quantitative and qualitative analyses, modelling the
faunal-human dietary interactions and creating utility indices for marine species currently
lacking these predictive models. In addition training in the sampling and preparation of
osteological material for stable isotope analyses will be given. This material will be sent to the
NERC facility for analysis. Archaeological training and advice will be given by Dr Niall
Sharples. The University of Cardiff provides safety training, has a Code of Practice for
Research Degrees, and the Graduate Centre provides Research Student Skills and Personal
Development Program, such as time and project management, research skill and techniques,
communication skills, networking and team working and career management. The student will
present research findings at national and international conferences and publish in peerreviewed journals. The Cardiff Osteological Research Group (CORG) directed by Dr J.
Mulville, in the School of History and Archaeology (RAE 5) is part of a large interdisciplinary
research group and so the student will benefit from interaction with other PhD students and
PDRAs. The reference and analytical facilities contained within the Centre are or an
international standard and have recently been enhanced by the establishment of a collegen
extraction facility.
Craig et al. 2005. The identification of prehistoric dairying activities in the Western Isles of
Scotland: an integrated biomolecular approach. J. Archaeol. Sci. 32:1: 91-103.
Milner et al. 2004. Something fishy in the Neolithic in the Neolithic? Antiquity 78: 9-22.
Mulville et al. forthcoming. Isotopic Analysis of Iron Age faunal material from Bornais, South
Uist Journal of the North Atlantic.
Parker Pearson et al. 2005. Evidence for mummification in prehistoric Britain. Antiquity 79:
305: 529-46.
Parker Pearson et al . 2007. Further evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain,
Antiquity 81: 312.
Richards et al 2005. Stable isotope palaeodietary study of humans and fauna from the multiperiod site of Newark Bay, Orkney. J. Archaeol. Sci. 33:1, 122-31.
Schulting & Richards 2002. The wet, the wild, and the domesticated: the Mesolithic-Neolithic
transition on the west coast of Scotland. European J. Archaeol. 5: 147-89.
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