TUBA on the Tube! BBC Countryfile Meets Archaeology

If you’re interested in people, places and stories making news in the British countryside, and appreciate a bit of good BBC programming, then we’re sure you’d love to catch the next episode of Countryfile, tonight at 8pm, 7th August, BBC Two. We’re particularly excited for this episode because it features a strong segment of excavations and climate research at Vindolanda and Fort Magna, including some of the chemical and microbial analysis we’ve been undertaking!

Talking through some of the many scientific experiments on the go!

Why is our science research so important to old, buried fields? Well, Fort Magna is next to a substantial bog with conditions similar to the excellent preservation seen at Vindolanda. However, the gradual impact of climate change has resulted in a significant reduction of the preserving bog due to the soils drying out. Consequently, the bogs are compacting on themselves, crushing the archaeology within. You can see this clearly in drone footage, where the top of a Roman well is now exposed above the ground. This is now occurring at an alarming pace due to the rapid increase in global warming and climate change, endangering the history beneath our feet.

And so, TUBA’s role here is to conduct ongoing surveys into the soil across the site, looking at the past, current and potential future of the burial conditions; are we maintaining an anaerobic and slightly acidic environment? Are the areas of Roman occupations still kept within waterlogged conditions? Is the microbial profile remaining unchanged and non-degenerative? How far out does the site go, and how close to the edge of the bog does it reach? Using a combination of chemical and microbial analyses with the multidisciplinary team at  TUBA will shed some light on these questions and help answer some key questions in the maintenance and management of British heritage.

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We hope you get a chance to catch the episode – we had so much fun and were proud to take part in this filming for Countryfile alongside Vindolanda!

TUBA

Happy Birthday Hadrian!

This week marks the 1900th Birthday of Hadrian! Born on 24th january 76 AD in Italica, Spain, Hadrian was a Roman conquerer that lead the Romans toward entrenchment and consolidating the empire rather than ongoing expansion. And so, we’ve got a doozy of updates for you in our first post of 2022 – which we reckon will be called 202TUBA!

Revealing Magna

This week, Vindolanda was featured on BBC Breakfast showing the incredible impact of Climate Change at Fort Magna. The rapid heating and drying of climates over the past few decades have led to a drop in the ground and water levels, resulting in parts of Roman masonry becoming exposed. Vindolanda Trust produced an absolutely fantastic video to discuss this:

We’re absolutely thrilled to be part of the scientific investigation into why these changes are being observed, and the rapid destructive impact being made to the delicate artefacts that have been preserved for thousands of years. We started this work last summer, drilling bore holes in what turned out to be the hottest week of the year – and the hottest summer on record! We have never been so grateful to see a single lone tree in the field offering shade for refuge…

Digging up Memories

We’ve also been part of the Digging up Memories online exhibit (we chatted a little about this here), which saw volunteers at Vindolanda Museum select and discuss their favourite wooden artefacts. Through the online exhibit, you can find interviews, videos, behind-the-scenes information and many of our 3D models showcasing a wonderful narrative of life at Vindolanda.

Intense 3D scanning days led toward an awesome online exhibit!

We urge you to check it out and dive through the archives! You can still view them at: www.vindolanda.com/Listing/Category/digging-up-memories

Individual Milestones

As this is our first post of 2022, we thought it would be nice to have a quick look at some of the milestones achieved by the team.

We published the first work we started with Vindolanda in Scientific Reports, writing all about the chemical and microbial factors toward the vivianite formation in one of the ditches at Vindolanda. We’re thrilled to see this come out to such great reception!

Helga submitted her 31 MB thesis (plus supplementary files!) in time for a well-deserved Christmas break with baby Breki.

Rhys was awarded his doctorate in Developing pXRF soil analysis of preservation at Vindolanda, and is now Lecturer in Forensic Science. Congrats Dr Williams!

Gillian was appointed Associate Professor in Research at Teesside University where she’s already powering through the development of analytical techniques towards forensic and archaeological applications.

Becki Scott joined Teesside University and TUBA in September – we’re looking forward to driving forward provenance research with her fantatsic expertise. Look out for some of our blog posts together coming soon!

New year new me, except clearly TUBA has always been dedicated to high quality research and public engagement – we’re allowed to gloat in the conclusion, right? Until next time!

TUBA

Online Exhibit: Digging up 3D Memories

This summer, TUBA were hard at work with 3D scanning for the Digging up Memories – Making Connections online exhibit that has now officially gone live! You might even have seen snippets yourself or read about it in the recent Teesside University press release. And so, we thought it’d be nice to give a little behind-the-scenes of this amazing opportunity.

How does 3D scanning actually work? Well, there are lots of different types of 3D scanners, all with their own applications and uses. For this exhibit, we used a structured light scanner (SLS), which works by projecting a tightly calibrated set of patterns onto an object. The pattern changes shape as it falls onto an object, resulting in 3D measurements. This process takes a full, closed scan of the camera view, which we then apply a texture to by applying red, blue and green light filters:

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How can we use this in our work with Vindolanda? As you may have noticed in some of our previous blog posts, we’re big fans of 3D here, including animal and human heads on pikes, and the Locomotion. We’ve even published on 3D scanning of ox crania used in target practice, and have some further outputs on their way. The key outcome from 3D scanning for the museum environment is access. How often have you visited a museum and though “hey, that’s a pretty cool object, I wanna look closer”? 3D scanning provides a digital model of the object that you can freely zoom in and out or rotate around, which is.. well, pretty neat! However, we can then run some bespoke processes to make these 3D printable. That’s right – you can properly get hands-on with highly accurate replicas of delicate and fragile museum objects!

So where does this lead us? Well, over the years, we’ve been partaking in several exhibits on the 3D scanning, chemical and microbial work we’ve been undertaking at Vindolanda. Following the success of these, we were invited to Vindolanda over the summer to explore the suitability of 3D scanning a wide range of wooden objects. To say we were excited and proud of this opportunity is an understatement!

There is such a fabulous range of wooden artefacts available for your viewing from the comfort of your sofa, so please do look at these either on Sketchfab or better yet, on the Digging up Memories exhibit on the Vindolanda website! Here, you can find more information, videos and commentary on each object plus the 3D models. Some of these are incredibly rare, such as the only conserved wooden toilet seat in Britain, the cherry wood saddle stiffener, or the wooden trowel with mortar still stuck to it!

Just a few of the wooden objects available. Click the image to view them all!

We do have a couple personal favourite objects, of course. The wooden toy sword is an excellent artefact because it really demonstrates that the military took their families with them to Vindolanda, rather than the typical focus on conflict and fighting. The pepper pot is also great because of how well the 3D scanning came out – we had anticipated this to be poor because it’s a very cylindrical object that normally doesn’t facilitate 3D scanning but there was just enough of an irregular morphology to stitch together and texture beautifully. Atto’s Workbench is also a fantastic object but the sheer size and lack of thickness meant it took more scans and time than any other object we’ve scanned in order to fully capture and register together. This was well worthwhile because you can actually feel the hammer impressions on the 3D printed version!

Just some of the 3D printed objects available for handling at the museum!

And that brings us nicely to our final point – hopefully over the coming days, weeks and months, you’ll have the opportunity to visit Vindolanda and get hands-on with some highly accurate 3D printed versions of a wide selection of these wooden artefacts! We cannot recommend this enough; this evokes such a different set of emotions and leaves an experience that lingers for a long time. Who knew that something as banal as opening and closing a pepper pot lid could be so captivating!

How did all of this come about? Purely thanks to so many people involved, coming together for this collaborative effort, with Vindolanda Trust and Dr Anneke Hackenbroich driving this project forward. Our utmost thanks to them for inviting us to be part of this special exhibit, we’re all thrilled here to see it come together as I’m sure all are at home too!

Lastly, keep an eye out for updates to the Digging up Memories – Making Connections exhibit, with more objects being added at the start of November and December.

TUBA

Unique signatures

One of the most amazing things I love about research is that you are constantly learning, constantly exploring and driving forward understanding. I am so pleased to share a recent publication entitled Unique chemical parameters and microbial activity lead to increased archaeological preservation at the Roman frontier site of Vindolanda UK.

The paper is open access and free to read, from scientific reports and here are five reasons why you should:-

  1. Microbes are fascinating and we understand so little about how they impact on preservation on artefacts
  2. Inorganic analysis – such as metals, play a huge part in the activity of microbes and thus preservation
  3. The diversity of microbes change depending on archaeological context.. and guess what this will impact on preservation
  4. The graphs are really cool
  5. It shows we need to understand the chemical and microbiological environment to understand our management practices for the future..
Sampling the soil

Slogging for Skelton

Just this week, our new paper on “Mapping an archaeological site: Interpreting portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) soil analysis at Boroughgate, Skelton, UK” was published! And so, we thought it would be nice to share some of the work that went toward this with you all.

Boroughgate was a 12th Century medieval borough in Skelton, North Yorkshire UK, near the All Saint’s Old Church and Skelton Castle. It was placed in the perfect location to support trade and income for the castle via but unfortunately it was unsuccessful and abandoned around 1400 CE. The remnants of earthworks at the site and medieval documentation recording some of the tradespersons at Boroughgate gave some clues as to the history of the site. Tees Archaeology went through a series of surveys before excavating the site, inviting us out to complete some pXRF analysis and explore whether pXRF elemental analysis can enhance and support their interpretations of the site. This was also an excellent opportunity for us to show the value of our method development for pXRF soil analysis in archaeology! Admittedly, this also may have been a bit of an excuse to get out on such a glorious Summers day…

Better get the sun lotion on because it’s a scorcher at Boroughgate!

pXRF is often seen as a rapid point-and-shoot method  but for good quality data, we really need an appropriate methodology. The soil matrix can vary greatly over just short distances, and we need to make sure that all our soil is examined in the same way, otherwise our comparisons are inconsistent and not well validated. We extract soil samples, dry them in the lab (preferably oven dried), grind down and sieve the samples so they’re nice and homogenous, and prepare them into pXRF sample cups. This does of course mean that we end up with a fair bit of soil samples in the lab from just one small area of soil..!

Nice selection of sorts sorted for scanning back at the lab

Research into social organisation and the activities or use of space from archaeological excavations uncover hidden knowledge on past societal practices and the structuring of historic communities. This work explored whether we could map out the elemental distribution of soil to identify different activity areas. This is discussed in much more detail in the journal article but just briefly, the distribution of aluminium, phosphorus, potassium calcium and iron distinguished between the internal dwelling and external area of a longhouse. Aluminium, potassium and calcium also distinguished a likely clean or food preparation area against a refuse area. These areas also aligned closely with the locations of artefacts such as pottery fragments, daub, and domestic or charred waste, as well as structural remains such as building foundation pads, postholes and wall foundations.

Summary of the pXRF interpretation. More pictures and diagrams in the paper!

This was a well worthwhile investigation into mapping pXRF of soil which we’re very excited to continue further. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you’re interested in surveying your site with pXRF, we’d love to see how much more we can learn about past communities with pXRF! Now before you go, don’t forget to say hi to the ridiculously sweet kitten which I’ve dubbed Sandy the Archaeology Cat because of its love for sitting in soil buckets and climbing over your shoulders judging your use of the Harris Matrix:

Sandy is the sweetest!

And finally, thanks to David Errickson at Cranfield University, and Tees Archaeology for inviting us out to your site!

TUBA

Telling the Beavers

You may have seen recently some talk about the reintroduction of certain animals into the UK. There are a few animals you might never have realised were native to the UK, such as lynx and bears, the white-tailed eagle, and the ridiculously cute pine marten (seriously, look at them!). Well, we’ve just started work on a project alongside our Ecology and Environmental friends at Teesside for the Forestry Commission investigating a new beaver enclosure!

You must answer the riddle to pass the beaver’s dam (image: BBC)

A beaver’s paradise

Within just a year, what started as a small stream passing through the private woodlands has now become home to two beavers, their four new-born kits (yeah, I wish they were called babe-eavers too) and this massive pond teeming with new aquatic life! And to think, you used to be able to stroll through here without needing overalls and a raft just a year ago…

Fancy a quick dip? This guacamole pond is much deeper than it looks!

Why do we give a dam?

Beavers have a pretty well-known habit of building dams. Did you know that a major reason for this is winter survival? The deep water behind the dam doesn’t freeze the whole depth, allowing the beavers to anchor a food source at the bottom of the water and survive the winter. When building the dams, the beavers scurry around the environment selecting the juiciest of trees and have a little nibble. Okay, more like a feast. As they munch on the bark, the trees eventually give way and topple over. Sometimes these are left in place for a while, sometimes they’re broken down and moved elsewhere, generally somewhere that would be a good place to fill up with water. These branches accumulate, slowing down the movement of water and creating a sort of reservoir. Eventually, this forms a series of dams that can reach several meters high, filling up with water. This water is amazing for the ecosystem, providing a good quality environment for many sensitive plants and animals whilst also potentially improving flood control. When we visited this week, there were frogs everywhere, you had to play leapfrog around them! Frogs are fantastic for the environment, so we certainly want lots and lots of lil’ froggos bopping around.

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Time for Change, Time for TUBA!

Hold up, conservation… beavers… ok ok, so why were TUBA there? Part of TUBAs research involves recording and visualising the environment, and exploring ways to show this information to the public and improve learning without disrupting the beavers. Whilst it’s early days and we’re limited on what we can show and tell you right now (I mean, we did only just complete our first recording session), we’re so looking forward to show some awesome applications of digital technology to the environment and sustainability.

Sneaking in some filming – perfect for a 10-hour loop of the dam’s tranquillity for YouTube study channels!

That’s all for now, but keep an eye open for some more updates on this project in the coming months, whether through the blog or our new Twitter page @TUBArch. Until next time!

TUBA

Digitising Vindolanda Workshop

Last week, TUBA had the fantastic opportunity to place our research directly in the public’s hands and show them just what happens behind the scenes at Vindolanda Museum. As you may well already know, I’m a tad passionate about breaking down barriers in museum, unlocking the display cabinets and allowing people to make their own discoveries. And so, we showed all the hard work we’ve put in to 3D scanning and printing – perfect for allowing these discoveries!

What a display! 10/10 if I do say so myself.

After a few too many weeks of preparing 3D scans and printing models (sorry to those suffering PTSD after my printer harassment!), we finally produced quite the little display of heads shoved onto pikes. C’mon, admit it, you’re just as impressed as we are!

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all photos were taken with express permission, but please get in contact if you want them removed.

The whole aim of this workshop was to really gauge “what’s the point, the impact?”. Visitors progressed through three zones. First, they swiped through the iPads, formulating some ideas as to what really happened to the range of heads. After, they handled the printed models, allowing them to contextualise much of this digitised information. This was key – it’s really, really, difficult explaining the dips in the human head caused by forcing onto the pike without feeling them, otherwise you beg the question “which dip? Ketchup, guac, garlic mayo?”.

Finally, visitors finished with a miniature archery range, really shooting home with how amazing Roman archers were (or rather, how abysmally terrible we are now). Sometimes visitors had pretty great aim with the little dinky bows:

And other times… it looked like the museum was under attack!

Before visitors continued their exploration through the museum, they voted on what they enjoyed the most. Digital models? Printed models? Or, the original museum display? Clearly we evoked some excitement here because some visitors bragged to other people that they absolutely must come to our exhibit!

Yes, I know what (some) of you are thinking. What are the results?! Now now, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here, there’s a while before we can release those. But for now, here are some juicy quotes, which also make up for the lack of visitor photos because we were SO BUSY:

“I’m just stopping on a whistle stop tour, what’s all this?” – 30 minutes later – “my mind is BLOWN”

Jessie James, aged 32

“Can we eat it? [the plastic cow target]… aw, well can I shoot my brother instead?”

Hannibella, aged 6

“Aw jeez Rhys, aw jeez, I dunno, doesn’t this seem a little barbaric of the Romans? I dunno, aw jeez”

Morty, aged 14

So, was this a success? Yes! Did anything break? Not at all! Will we continue to push 3D imaging and printing forward? Absolutely! Wink wink nudge nudge to anyone fancying our 3D work for yourselves..!

Looks like we’ve had the best way to close off a summer of research!

TUBA