Geology meets Archaeology

Geology meets Archaeology A NERC funded workshop at the University of Leicester Saturday 23rd February 2013


Geology meets Archaeology

A NERC funded workshop at the University of Leicester

Saturday 23rd February 2013


Organised by Mark Williams [], Jeremy Taylor [] & Ian Whitbread


Bennett Building, Lecture Theatre 5

10.30 AM Coffee in the foyer of the Bennett Building

10.55 AM Introduction and welcome to the meeting by Mark Williams

Morning session, chaired by Jeremy Taylor, University of Leicester

11.00 Patrick Quinn, The occurrence and research potential of microfossils in archaeological ceramics and other inorganic artefacts

11.40 Alison Tasker, Mosaics and microfossils

12.20 Haydon Bailey, Provenance …….the search for a source

1.00 to 2.00 Lunch in the Bennett Building foyer (lunch provided by the meeting)

Afternoon session, chaired by Ian Wilkinson, British Geological Survey

2.00 David Knight & Eddy Faber, Assessing the provenance of later prehistoric granodiorite-tempered pottery from the East Midlands

2.40 Jeremy Taylor et al., Microfossil adventures at Burrough Hill Iron Age hill fort

3.20 Afternoon tea

3.40 Ian Boomer, Establishing the geoarchaeological context of a Mesolithic site at Howick, Northumberland coast: living in the oldest house in Britain

4.20 Tony Brown, The forensic palynology of crime scenes from arable environments

5.00 Closing remarks from Ian Whitbread


Abstracts for presentations


The occurrence and research potential of microfossils in archaeological ceramics and other inorganic artefacts

Patrick Sean Quinn

Institute of Archaeology, University College London, email:


The microscopic remains of organisms, or ‘microfossils’ can occur within or attached to a range of different inorganic archaeological artefacts such as ceramics, plaster, statues, masonry and even paintings. Because of their small size, these inconspicuous phenomena can be easily overlooked. However, as this presentation illustrates, the detailed biological and palaeontological analysis of microfossils in such contexts may be an important source of archaeological data. By critically reviewing a range of specialist cross-disciplinary analyses, it will be demonstrated how microfossils can be used to provenance inorganic artefacts, reconstruct aspects of their manufacturing technology and infer their function. Guidelines for the analysis of microfossils in ceramics and other artefacts will be presented, as well as possible drawbacks associated with their study in archaeological contexts.


Mosaics and microfossils

Alison Tasker

Department of Geology, University of Leicester, email:


Recent studies have shown that the biostratigraphical analysis of microfossils obtained from chalk tesserae from mosaics in Roman Britain can be used to identify possible provenances for the chalk and thereby shed light on the movement of raw material around the province during the Roman occupation. This talk will describe the results obtained to date from analysis of tesserae from excavations of town houses, a temple complex and several villa sites in Silchester, Leicester, Colchester, the Isle of Wight and Caerleon.  


Provenance …….the search for a source

Haydon W. Bailey

Network Stratigraphic Consulting Ltd, Harvest House, Cranborne Road, Potters bar, Hertfordshire, EN6 3JF, email:


From Pleinsbachian ammonites sitting on top of the Chalk, to Mosasaur bones derived from a chalk pit outside Norwich, the most frequently asked question is always the same, where did the material truly originate? The reasons behind the need to know this vary widely, but the controlling questions will always be - how did this material get to be where it is, what was it’s point of origin and how did it get from that point of origin to where it is now? This paper provides several diverse examples of searches for provenance, from building stones to paintings to mosasaurs. Most areas of research are largely of academic interest, but they become far more critical when criminal offences have been committed. The example is given of the investigation into the Soham murders. Ten chalk samples associated with the site where the bodies of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were found and the car belonging to the defendant Ian Huntley were analysed for both nannofloral and microfaunal content. The results of these analyses were fundamental in ascertaining that the car driven by the defendant had been taken to the site where the bodies were found and that subsequent thorough cleaning of the car by the defendant was insufficient to remove the evidence provided by the microfossils discovered.

As the potential for microfossils to be used in establishing provenance is more widely recognised, then their applications will also become more widespread. Micropalaeontologists will need to become increasingly aware of the leap from being an interested academic to being an expert witness.


The forensic palynology of crime scenes from arable environments

A. G. Brown

Palaeoenvironmental Laboratories University of Southampton (PLUS), Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BJ, email:


Forensic palynology has become a quasi-standard part of forensic sciences since its first use in the UK in the 1990s. Increased taxonomic precision and its combination with other analyses, particularly mineralogical analyses, have allowed the production of increasingly accurate environmental profiles of unknown locations and matches between clothing or vehicles and crime scenes. Historically the majority of cases have related to woodlands. However, this paper presents forensic palynological data from two arable crime-scenes in the UK Midlands and additional data on possible sources of cereal pollen pertinent to forensic investigations. Despite the significant rise in cases in which palynomorphs (pollen and spores) have been used it is suggested here that more taphonomic studies are desirable in order to increase the robustness of the evidence in court.


Assessing the provenance of later prehistoric granodiorite-tempered pottery from the East Midlands

David Knight[1] & Eddy Faber[2]

[1]Trent & Peak Archaeology, email:

[2]Department of Archaeology, University of Nottingham, email:


Petrographic studies of prehistoric pottery from the East Midlands have identified several distinctive fabrics containing angular granitoid inclusions that it has been suggested may derive from the Mountsorrel granodiorite complex of Charnwood Forest. This provides an interesting complement to studies of Saxon pottery from the East Midlands (Williams and Vince 1997) and, if verified by further work, would add significantly to the growing evidence for long-distance ceramic exchange networks in prehistoric Britain. A recent review of thin section analyses of prehistoric granodiorite-tempered pottery concluded that the results should be tested by chemical analyses aimed at comparing individual mineral and rock inclusions with samples from different Charnwood rock sources in order to distinguish between potential sources (Knight et al. 2003). Such an approach is particularly important as the granitoid inclusions in prehistoric pottery thin sections generally comprise only a few crystals, which given the coarse-grained nature of these rocks does not enable sufficiently robust comparisons to be made with the putative Mountsorrel source.

This paper focuses upon a recently completed project, funded by English Heritage, aimed at elucidating by petrographic and electron microprobe analysis the production and distribution of prehistoric pottery incorporating granitoid inclusions deriving from rock sources in Charnwood Forest. This has confirmed the hypothesis of a Charnwood source for many granitoid inclusions in pottery spanning the Earlier Neolithic to Late Iron Age periods, but has also identified multiple sources for both the rock inclusions and potting clays within the East Midlands. This has major implications for our understanding of prehistoric ceramic exchange networks in the region and for changes in production patterns over time, and we hope will provide a basis for isotope analyses of pottery fabrics aimed at establishing the potential of this innovative technique for determining raw material sources.


Microfossil adventures at Burrough Hill Iron Age hill fort

Jeremy Taylor[1], Mark Williams[2], Ian Wilkinson[2,3], Ian Whitbread[1], Ian Boomer[4], Rebecca Stamp[2] & Emma Yates[2]

[1]School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK

[2]Department of Geology, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK

[3]British Geological Survey, Keyworth, Nottingham, UK

[4]School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK


Here we describe the application of microfossils for the provenance of artefacts at Burrough Hill, east Leicestershire. Burrough Hill is a large Iron Age hill fort of the Corieltauvi people who occupied the East Midlands in the millennium prior to the Roman occupation of Britain in AD 43. From razors to roundhouses, excavations at the site are yielding new information about the nature of life in lowland Iron Age Britain. Among the materials discovered are the clay linings of storage pits, the clay linings of walls, floors and hearths, and pottery. Though more mundane than the spectacular finds of skeletons at the site, these materials yield information about the lives of East Midlanders more than 2000 years ago. Where were construction materials sourced? How was their pottery made? And what happened to Iron Age life after the Roman occupation? Many of the clay-based archaeological materials at Burrough Hill yield microfossils, and these provide information about the provenance of materials, processes of construction and manufacture, and information about the continuity of life in lowland Iron Age Britain.


Establishing the geoarchaeological context of a Mesolithic site at Howick, Northumberland coast: living in the oldest house in Britain 

Ian Boomer 

School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, email:


The immediately adjacent landscape to any archaeological site must be considered in its proper, contemporaneous, context. Traditionally palynology has given us a flavour of the vegetation of an area of archaeological interest (and sometimes this can constitute evidence form some 10s of km away). For a better understanding of the local environment, a geoarchaeological approach is required, considering not just pollen and spores but also a range of biological indicators and, importantly, an appreciation of the geology and geomorphology of the site and how that is likely to have changed over time.

In 2000 an important Mesolithic structure was discovered on the Northumberland coast together with lithic and organic materials that indicated a dwelling inhabited for some considerable period of time. Subsequent excavations in 2002 together with a detailed, high-resolution radiocarbon dating programme revealed the structure to have been in use over a few hundred years around 10000 cal. BP. The site is of considerable interest since there are also Bronze age cist burials within a few metres of the Mesolithic excavation, there is also both an Iron Age Hillfort and a Romano-British rectilinear enclosure just a few hundred metres away.

Geomorphological studies of the coastal zone, historical records and sediment cores from the nearby Howick Burn allow us to present a more detailed palaeonvironmental history for this area of coast during the Holocene not least of which is the impact of rising sea-level along this coastline and the possible impact of a tsunami in the early Holocene.


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