New paper: Rapid deterioration in buried leather: archaeological implications

This recent paper was the accumulation of work by Helga Halldorsdottir, huge data sets and some really novel results. The experiment set up was amazing..

Non-destructive FTIR-ATR analysis was applied to experimentally buried vegetable-tanned leather and archaeological leather excavated at the Roman site of Vindolanda, UK. Analyses focused on observing and monitoring changes in functional groups related to leather tannin, collagen and lipid components following burial. FTIR spectra were also collected from the tannin material and untanned hide, capturing the major structural differences between four stages of the leather material life cycle: The raw material, the tanned leather, the decaying buried leather, and archaeological leather.

Results highlighted rapid changes following experimental burial in wet soil, tentatively associated with early onset microbial activity, targeting readily available lipids but not tightly bound collagen. Before burial, major differences were present in leather spectra based on manufacture, but early after burial in wet soil, FTIR-ATR spectra indicated de-tanning could occur rapidly, especially in waterlogged conditions, with archaeological leather becoming more uniform and similar to untanned leather. Thus, comparison of FTIR-ATR results from archaeological leather to experimentally buried leather samples of known pre-burial manufacture proved useful, while comparison to FTIR-ATR data from modern unburied leather did not. Despite de-tanning occurring soon after burial, the vegetable-tanning method does impact long-term preservation of leather in wet soil. The impact could not be directly associated with the proportion of condensed to hydrolysable tannin, suggesting alternate variables impacted the preservation. Furthermore, mineral components introduced into the leather through the animal skin, tannin material and/or tannin liquid are tentatively suggested to contribute to this impact. A high degree of heterogeneity in error results within the experimentally buried sample material underlined that any changes in collagen ratios cannot be overinterpreted and must be considered within the context of larger datasets.

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Introducing Dr. Aboli Vavle (Finally)!

The team are wonderfully proud of Dr Aboli Vavle this week, on passing her viva.. here is her story..

I can’t believe I am writing this blog post. It still hasn’t sunk in to be very honest, but it gives me great pleasure to finally say that I’ve passed my PhD viva with some great comments from my examiners.  On 8th January 2023 at 1:30pm in the afternoon (not to forget in a freezing cold room), I was called in for my viva.  My examiners greeted me with a very warm smile and excitement. I walked in with confidence but was nervous at the same time. My external told me at the start of the viva that ‘Please relax and take your time to answer and if we’re asking follow up questions, we’re only asking them to understand a bit more from you’. That did calm me down a bit.

And so it began! I was asked so many chemistry questions regarding the structures and bonds and formulas. I tried to answer them to my best ability. Anything that I was not sure of, I was being 100% honest and was calmly letting them know and both my examiners were very kind and helpful in making me understand anything that I wasn’t sure of. By 3:30pm, we were only on 90/228 pages. I remember walking out to stretch my legs and thinking, we haven’t even got to my actual results yet and that got me a bit more nervous. But I calmed myself down and reassured myself that it is my work and all I need to do is answer to my best potential. I went back in and we started the viva again and this time I was a bit more confident in answering as the questions were more related to my actual samples. Funny thing is I didn’t get asked many questions about my actual work, because when reading the thesis the examiners said that they themselves could see how novel the work was. My external examiner asked me, ‘Do I like underselling my work?’. I nervously laughed and he continued ‘it’s done with such precision especially the chromatograms. You need to highlight it a bit more’ and that made me very happy. My internal examiner also said that they found the tables of all the case studies very helpful and that made me even happier. Around 5:20pm, the viva was concluded and I was asked to wait outside.

Those 10 minutes were the hardest 10 minutes of my entire life. I was called in by the chair and I sat down. The external examiner said ‘We have decided to pass you. Congratulations Doctor’. As soon as I heard that, I had tears rolling down my cheeks, I said ‘Thank you’ in a squeaky voice and I apologised and they said ‘you don’t need to because we understand what a PhD student goes through’. They said they enjoyed reading my work and that was the reason they kept asking me questions for 4 hours! They also said that my thesis was very easy to read and follow. I thanked them for taking time to read my thesis and their valuable feedback. We showed the examiners around the NHC labs and I thanked them once again for the day. Also, just want to take a moment here to thank Dr. Gillian Taylor, my Director of Studies and Dr. Caroline Orr, my supervisor because I don’t think I would have been able to do any of this without their help and support.

Back to Newcastle around 7:30pm, all I wanted to do was to hug my husband (who now has to call me Dr. Wife), have a glass of chilled Cuba Libre, eat some Poutine and go to bed. It was a very tiring but a wonderful day that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Archaeological Institute of America – Best Poster Award

At the annual general meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), which is the largest and oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to archaeology. The Institute advances awareness, education, fieldwork, preservation, publication, and research of archaeological sites and cultural heritage throughout the world.

We had a the pleasure of presenting some recent research work as a poster, the team comprised of Dr Elizabeth Green, University of Western Ontario, Dr Rhiannon Stevens, University College London, Barbara Birley, Vindolanda Trust and Dr Gillian Taylor, Teesside university.

The poster title was Species analysis of leather objects and manufacturing offcuts from Vindolanda, UK. the poster was awarded ‘best poster’ which the team are delighted about, they are currently working on more results, using proteomics and looking forward to sharing more data soon..



ISBA – New Horizons in Biomolecular Archaeology

Dr Caroline Orr and Dr Gillian Taylor both attended ISBA10 in Tartu – 13-16th September 2023. This three day meeting was attended by over 400 researchers, presenting genomic and proteomic work and gave us the opportunity to explore Estonian peat bogs.

Dr Orr presented ‘Reconstructing Microbial Communities Within Roman Turf Ramparts: A Proof-of-Concept Study’ show casing our latest work combining techniques to aid our understanding of processes such as nutrient cycling. Our collaborators were Ben Russell (University of Edinburgh), Tom Gardner (Historic Environment Scotland), Andrew Birley (Vindolanda Trust) and Tanja Romankiewicz (University of Edinburgh).

Dr Taylor presented ‘Species Analysis of Roman Leather Tents from Vindolanda, UK’ the first results from an exciting new proteomics project, involving our collaborators Rhiannon Steven (UCL), Barbara Birley (Vindolanda Trust) and Elizabeth Greene (University of Western Ontario).

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Earth and Environment Group photo

Before the start of the new academic term, the Earth and Environment team has a lovely get together, discussing the exciting plans for the year ahead.

left to right..

Dr Gillian Taylor (group lead), Dr Ernesto Saiz val, Dr Craig McBeth, Dr Haliza Hassan, Amy Burgess, Dr Rhys Williams, Dr Becki Scott, Dr Lisa Baldini, Dr Pablo Cubillas Gonzalez, Dr Ambroise Baker, Dr Caroline Orr, Dr Desire Dalton, Alison Reid, Dr Kerry Pettigrew, Dr Chris Ennis, Dr David Wright.


On the TV: Secrets in the Peat

This week you will be able to see Dr Gillian Taylor in the first episode of ‘Secrets in the Peat’ will be broadcast on BBC ALBA on Wednesday the 20th of September at 9pm – Life on the Peat. Dr Taylor will be talking about peat cores from Magna, Roman Fort.  The series will continue each Wednesday thereafter with two further episodes: Our Peaty Past and The Power of Peat.

BBC ALBA – Miorbhail na Monach – Secrets in the Peat, Series 1, Beatha air a’ Mhòintich – Life on the Peat

#secretsinthepeat #bbcalba

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EAA Conference report – PhD student Aboli Vavle

Presenting my PhD research at the biggest Archaeological conference.

On September 1st and 2nd, I had the privilege of attending the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) conference in Belfast, UK which is one of the biggest archaeological conferences. During the conference, I had the opportunity to share my findings and engage with fellow scholars and researchers in the field. I presented my research on the Unravelling of textile production in the Roman frontier which was in collaboration with Gillian Taylor (Director of Studies), Marta Alberti (Deputy Director of Excavations at Vindolanda Trust, UK) and Heather Hopkins (Independent Research who provided the birch dyed wool for the experiments). Our research aimed to provide a comprehensive understanding of the textile production techniques employed by the Romans in their frontier regions as well as shed light on experimental archaeology like dyeing textiles with local dyes like Birch.

I was in the first session after lunch on 2nd September. I had expected a moderate turnout for my presentation since textile production in the Roman frontier might not be a topic of interest to everyone. However, to my surprise, the room was packed with attendees eager to learn about Roman textile production and dyeing. The interest and engagement of the audience during my presentation was truly inspiring. I saw everyone attentively listening to what I was trying to explain and actively taking notes. I saw some people taking pictures of all my slides as well as 3-4 people raising their hands to ask questions and seek clarification on certain aspects of my research. One of the questions raised during the Q&A session was regarding extraction of dyes such as birch and if the methods are applicable to other dyes as well. I personally thought it was the best time to ask me this particular question because it was only a few weeks before this conference that I worked in the lab trying to find an answer to this question, which is yes! It was wonderful to see that the audience was genuinely interested and engaged with my research. This also gave me an experience of understanding what questions I could be asked for my PhD viva soon.

The EAA conference in Belfast provided a valuable platform for scholars and researchers to exchange knowledge and ideas about several research topics from all around the world. It was a massive conference with at least 50 sessions being conducted simultaneously in different parts of the University. This conference provided a diverse range of perspectives and insights into the study of colours, dyes and textiles allowing me to broaden my understanding and refine my research further. The experience of presenting my research at the EAA conference in Belfast was both exciting and rewarding and I am immensely grateful that I was given this opportunity.

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Magna – Summer progress 2023

At the  start of July, the HLF funded project started at Magna. The £1.6M project was to support excavation and explore the impact of climate change, and awarded to the Vindolanda Trust.

The Teesside University team were involved in the installation of the weather station and monitoring system – VanWalt, which provides data every 15 minutes from a wide range of sensors including pH, temperature, ORP and moisture.

In July, soil monitoring was conducted by Dr Gillian Taylor and Dr Rhys Williams prior to the excavation. You can keep upto date with excavation progress by following the dig diary. The excavation in 2023 focuses on milecastle 46 and already some interesting artefacts such as a steelyard beam.

There is also a wonderful report in current archaeology about Magna and magnifying milecastle 46.


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Pompeii – Climate change impacts

Pompeii is often described as a place frozen in time, when in October 79AD, Vesuvius  erupted and plunged the surrounding areas into darkness for three days, ash and pumice rained down on pompeii.

The site is vast and amazing, covering well over 60 hectares, and walking around today really feels as if you could be back in Roman times. The site has been under investigation for approx three hundred years, but is continually coming up with amazing finds, such as the pizza painting, and further information can be found here youtube clip.

This summer, has been one of the hottest on record, (and it was 35oC when I visited) and Pompeii is trialing modern technologies to help monitor and guard against possible damage from climate change.

The visit really helped develop thoughts and comparisons with other sites, and I am looking forward to using these images in my teaching sessions, where we explore monitoring techniques at different archaeological sites.

Dr Gillian Taylor

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INQUA 2023 – Roma, Italy

INQUA 2023 was held in Rome 13th-20th July, Sapienza University. The congress was opened by the President of Italy, in the most amazing lecture theater. The congress covers quaternary sciences, but includes human evolution, anthropocene, climate records, processes and models. The climate discussions were a very hot topic (!!) with rome reaching a record temperature of 41.8oC. Despite this, conference organizers did a superb job to help attendees, the lunch and coffee break sessions were fantastic.

We had two presentations, firstly by Dr Caroline Orr – Microbial and chemical characterisation from occupation contexts involved in the preservation of Roman writing tablets, and secondly Dr Gillian Taylor –  Monitoring peatlands changes at the Roman site of Magna, Northumberland, UK.

Talks and poster sessions were well attended (higher for those in airconditioned rooms!), the quality, expertise and diversity of the talks makes this the best conference I have been too in a long time.

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