Monday, 21 December 2015

Environmental archaeology conference: call for posters

It's almost the end of 2015, which means that our big conference is happening in a few weeks' time!

We recently issued a call for posters for our upcoming conference, Looking back, moving forward: 70 years of environmental archaeology in Ireland. The conference will take place on Friday 19th February 2016 in Dublin.

The poster session is designed for students and professionals to present their research or ideas on any aspect of environmental archaeology to a larger audience. If you would like to present a poster at the conference, please visit the conference website.

Remember that pre-registration is required to attend the conference. You can register here.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

New conference website

Please visit our new conference website to find out more about our upcoming conference, Looking back, moving forward: 70 years of environmental archaeology in Ireland. Registration is now open.

Archaeofest and Environmental Archaeology

The Specialist Tent at Archaeofest 2015 (photo: Penny Johnston)
In August 2013 the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (IAI), in association with Dublin City Council, the Heritage Council and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, hosted the first Archaeofest in Merrion Square as part of the Heritage Council’s annual Heritage Week. The idea was to bring together archaeologists from many different walks of life for a public showcase of the varied aspects of the profession in a fun engaging way!

A ‘specialist tent’ was included from the outset, a place where environmental archaeologists and osteoarchaeologists could demonstrate to people what they do, how they do it and what we can tell about past environments and past lives from this often lab-based side of archaeology. It was enthusiastically supported by many colleagues who gave freely of their time on that first occasion and have continued to support and participate in Archaeofest in 2014 and 2015.

Mick, Monk, archaeobotanist, Bettina Stefanini, palynologist and
Eileen Reilly, archaeoentomologist talking to visitors at Archaeofest 2014
(Photo: Penny Johnston)
People are genuinely fascinated by the scientific side of archaeology, by what we can see ‘down the microscope’ – seeds, beetles, pollen, tree-rings, cut marks or signs of disease on bones and teeth. The ‘specialist tent’ has proved to be extremely popular each year with adults and kids alike, curious about how we extract these tiny things, how we identify them, how much they can tell us about what people ate in the past, how they lived, what diseases they suffered from, how alike or unlike they were to us. Some have expressed surprise at how much we can learn about the past from soil or from bogs, emphasising how important it is for us to use every opportunity to disseminate the fascinating results of our research.

Linda Lynch, osteoarchaeologist, at Archaeofest 2013
(Photo: Neil Jackman)

Any of us who have participated have enjoyed the experience immensely; our hoarse throats at the end of the day a testament to the popularity of this part of Archaeofest! Long may this event continue and our association with it.

We would particularly like to thank the IAI conference organisers past and present, Ros Ó Maoldúin and Christina O’Regan, for their help in making the ‘specialist tent’ such a successful part of Archaeofest. 

About the Author
Dr Eileen Reilly is an environmental archaeologist specialising in the study of insect remains from archaeological sites. Most recently she was an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at UCD School of Archaeology looking at the topic of dirt and cleanliness in early medieval Europe. She served on the board of IAI as vice-chairperson/acting chairperson from 2013 to 2015. 
Cathy Moore, worked wood specialist and Lorna O'Donnell, wood anatomist,
with specimens of archaeological wood and charcoal, Archaeofest 2013
(Photo: Neil Jackman)

Thursday, 8 October 2015


We are currently organising a conference.

Looking back, moving forward: 70 years of Environmental Archaeology in Ireland
Date: Friday 19th February 2016
Location: National Botanic Gardens, Dublin
Organisers: Environmental Archaeology in Ireland (EAI) workgroup
Sponsor: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht

It is almost 70 years since the publication of Frank Mitchell’s seminal paper “Evidence of early agriculture” in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. In this paper, Mitchell outlined exciting new scientific approaches for investigating agriculture and environments in ancient Ireland. Since the publication of this paper, environmental archaeology in Ireland has grown and flourished. Environmental archaeologists now explore human-environment interactions through the scientific investigation of many different types of remains, including preserved plants, wood, animal bones, insects and other materials. These analyses can reveal what people ate in the past, how they organised their economies, and how people interacted with their local environments and wider landscapes.
This conference will seek to explore how environmental archaeology developed in Ireland, where we are now, and how we can move forward. What are the strengths and expertise in Irish environmental archaeology? Where are the gaps in knowledge and skills? What are the challenges in practice? Through a day of lectures and interactive discussion, this conference will seek to set out a vision for environmental archaeology in 21st century Ireland.
Attendance will be free, but registration will be required. We will open registration in November 2015. Watch this space for further information!


Monday, 5 October 2015

Digital Data in Environmental Archaeology 2 – Open Data

This is a follow up blog post for Digital Data in Environmental Archaeology 1: Preservation

This is a short account of the reasons why I think that environmental archaeology data should be stored and disseminated as open data (i.e. data that is freely available in accessible formats, usually digital, under licences that allow it to be re-used). I’ve provided an outline of some of the methods that I have used below.

Research is a process that builds on the results of the past, and in the case of environmental archaeology it can often be a useful process to incorporate results from many different sites into one larger dataset, and to analyse this to see if new patterns and insights emerge. To move the study of environmental archaeology forward, I think it is important to ensure that results are stored and disseminated in a way that allows other researchers to re-use data.

Making data accessible

If a researcher wants to re-use archaeobotanical data from one of my reports, no doubt they could re-type all the information that is available in printed formats or in PDFs. But it would be much better if the data was made available digitally. Much of the raw data in environmental archaeology (certainly in archaeobotany) is prepared in spreadsheets and I have spreadsheets that date back to 1998. How long will I be able to access these using more modern software packages? And is it realistic to expect me to convert and update the files each time there is a new iteration of spreadsheet software?

Fortunately many software packages have some built in backwards compatibility. The best way to ensure that the data in my spreadsheets (and in databases) is readable into the future is actually to convert it into a very old format, a .csv file. Comma Separated Value files (.csv) provide a very simple means of structuring data. CSV is a de facto standard for saving tabular data and it supported by a huge number of applications. This means that if you save your tabular data as a .csv file, most programmes will be able to access the data (and the more accessible your data, the more likely it is to be preserved into the future).

For more details on .csv formats, see

How to convert your spreadsheet to a .csv file

The easiest way to save your data in. csv format is to open your preferred spreadsheet application, click on “Save as” and scroll down the list of options until you find .csv. This file should contain all your basic data, organised simply and clearly (leave pie-charts out). It should be kept as the preservation copy of your data.

N.B. Preserving text files is different. Save your report as a .pdf, as this is a relatively stable and supported format. For added accessibility it is a good idea to save text as .txt files (go to “Save as” and select the .txt option). This will preserve the text but won’t preserve any added graphs and images, and it won’t preserve formatting.


Licensing your data so that it is available for re-use

Open data is distributed so that it can be re-used. This usually means publishing your data under an open licence, such as one of the Creative Commons licences. These are licences that provide an extension to copyright, allowing you to give permission in advance for people to re-use your material, and allowing you to stipulate the conditions under which this re-use can take place. Creative Commons offer several different ways for you to share your material, from a completely open licence (CC-0) to more restrictive licences that stipulate that the material must be cited as your original content (CC-By).

For more details about Creative Commons licences, see

How to assign an open licence to your work

If you use repositories such as Zenodo or Figshare the service asks you to assign a licence to your material as part of the upload process. Alternatively, you can download the appropriate text and HTML code for each licence from the Creative Commons website (

About the author

Penny Johnston is an archaeobotanist with an interest in digital data and preservation. She has her own blog ( about her digital archiving practices/experiments, but this, like the archive, has languished somewhat over the past year or so because of time constraints. However, there is a lots of information there about archaeobotanical remains from Cork, and these are all disseminated online in accessible and open formats, using Creative Commons licences.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Digital Data in Environmental Archaeology 1: Preservation

This is a short blog post about preserving digital data, from the perspective of an environmental archaeologist. There is a follow up post about open data in environmental archaeology. All of this comes from my personal experience of creating, sharing and trying to preserve digital data.

This post was originally published on 30 September 2015. It was updated on 5 October 2015 to include links to a follow up post.

Preserving data

For many years I worked on archaeobotanical material from Irish excavations. I identified and counted seeds, and presented my results in a table at the end of a technical report. The results were usually prepared so that they could be presented as appendices in excavation reports, and they were supposed to be printed and read as hard copy reports. Even when the reports were digital, they were usually a digital version that mimicked the paper report, e.g. a pdf, with the look and the format of the printed page preserved.

(N.B. This is not the best way to preserve data! That’s because it makes it difficult for others to re-use or manipulate the results. For details about how to make environmental archaeology data open, see Digital Data in Environmental Archaeology 2.)

Over the years I have moved house and changed jobs and, in the meantime, methods of storage of digital data changed (all my backups for my work in 2002 were on floppy disc). I lost the digital versions of a few reports, and some files became corrupted. This is why paper is still the preferred preservation medium for lots of different data types.
“Born-digital data are in most danger of being lost to future generations” (O’Carroll and Webb, 2012, 8).
I started to worry about preserving my digital data. I began to adopt a preservation policy that involved the principle of LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe).

Using repositories

One way to do make multiple copies of your data is to disseminate it online. But even when you upload a report or a dataset online you can’t ensure that the platform that you upload to will continue hosting your data forever. This is a problem across research institutions, and it has led to a call for the development of reliable repositories (with the resources to sustain data in the long term) and a system of Persistent Identifiers (PIDs) or handles.

The easiest way to assign a PID to your dataset is to upload it to a trusted repository. These will keep multiple copies of your data on their servers. There are a handful of trusted repositories for archaeological data, and a review of these is available on the website of the meta journal, Journal of Open Archaeology Data.

I have used both Figshare and Zenodo to upload my data (these are both trusted repositories that offer free services). The repositories assign a PID to the files, and this also means that it is easy for someone else to reference your work and acknowledge your contribution, as the repository generates a citation for the data (for example, one of my datasets that has been uploaded to Figshare is cited as: Johnston, Penny (2014). Plant remains data from Derrybane 2, Tipperary Ireland. Figshare

For more information on PIDs, see

Using these services not only provides me with a step towards digital preservation, but it also means that it is much easier for me to share my data with other researchers. Making data open and accessible so that others can re-use it is the topic of my next blog post.


O’Carroll, A., & Webb, S. (2012). Digital archiving in Ireland: national survey of the humanities and social sciences. National University of Ireland Maynooth. (See

About the author

Penny Johnston is a PhD candidate in UCC. She is interested in digital preservation, and has started to archive her back catalogue of archaeobotany reports online, so that others can re-use her work without having to ask her permission.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Introducing the Irish Wood Anatomists Association

Who we are

The Irish Wood Anatomists Association (IWAA) was established in 2007 to exchange information between wood specialists working in the archaeological sector. This group acts as a forum for discussing results and encouraging collaboration. Initially it comprised of individuals who identified and analysed wood through the different anatomical characteristics of each tree species. The IWAA then encouraged other people to join who worked in comparable specialist fields using wood as the main paradigm for woodlands reconstruction, wider environmental impact and woodworking evidence. Consequently the wood group now includes wood anatomists, woodworking specialists, pollen analysts and insect specialists. The group merged with the IADG in 2014 
Left: Oak tree (Quercus sp.); Right: Microstructural characteristics of oak

What we do

Similar to the archaeobotanical group our aims are many and varied. We promote high standards of methodological reporting and cataloguing of wood proxies. As we often work alone, we share problematic identifications, so collaboration and discussions between each other is essential. Commenting on documents, such as the Bord na Móna on-site sampling procedures for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, ensures we have input into the day-to-day methodological approaches on excavations. We have also been in discussion with the National Museum of Ireland on the viability and justification of the long-term storage of wood remains as well as insects from archaeological samples.

Middle and Late Bronze Age toolmarks; note the wider axe in the Middle Bronze Age (right)
The IWAA collaborated with the Discovery Programme in securing funding from the INSTAR scheme for ‘WODAN’ ( WODAN is a centralised database that incorporates wood and charcoal identifications from Ireland (including worked wood) and thus forms a digital archive. This archive can be assessed by researchers, private sector and public sector individuals interested in Ireland’s past woodlands.

The IWAA along with IADG ran two Continuous Professional Development (CPD) courses for the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (IAI) Archaeological in 2010 & 2011 on Archaeobotanical samples – how, where, what and when to sample on a range of archaeological sites.

Along with the IADG we continue to improve our professional qualifications and research endeavours by attending and co-organising sessions at many conferences as well as publishing and lecturing on new techniques and research areas. For example, a recent collaboration between members on the interrelationship between woodland history and urban life in Viking Age Ireland will be published in 2015. The group has been active in promoting research on Irish woodlands in various conferences, such as the International Meetings of Charcoal Analysis and the European Association of Archaeologists.

How can you find out more about our work?  

We will be updating this blog regularly, and profiles of most of the group members can be found on

About the authors

This article was written by Dr Ellen OCarroll and Dr Lorna O'Donnell, who are wood specialists and founder members of the IWAA.

Friday, 31 July 2015

New environmental archaeology guidelines

Researchers in environmental archaeology often analyse disparate datasets through time and space to come up with 'the big picture'. For example, we may wish to track the types of cereals being consumed at different locations, from small-scale excavations at ephemeral campsites up to very large-scale excavations at enclosed settlements.  In order to allow robust analyses, it is important that there is a standardised approach towards environmental sampling, analysing and reporting. In Ireland, unfortunately, this was not the case in recent years. Many different sampling, analysing and reporting styles emerged over the past two decades. Unsurprisingly, this made ‘big-data’ analyses more challenging for researchers. Environmental archaeologists began to recognise this problem over the last few years, and we decided to do something about it. No point in complaining unless you’re willing to be part of the solution!

Several of us started work with archaeologists at the National Roads Authority* in Ireland to develop guidelines on the retrieval, analysis and reporting of palaeoenvironmental remains recovered during archaeological excavations on road schemes. The NRA is the largest procurer of archaeological services in the Republic of Ireland, which means that the guidelines would have a very big impact on archaeological practice here. The guidelines have now been completed and published (download them here.), and are being implemented on NRA archaeology projects across Ireland. The guidelines enable a standardised approach, ensuring that palaeoenvironmental work conforms to the best professional standards, and is focused on achieving high-quality and scientifically meaningful results.

The guidelines focus on certain categories of remains, including plant macro-remains, charcoal, wood, pollen and insects. The guidelines were written by Dr Meriel McClatchie, who is an expert in non-wood plant remains, and Dr Ellen O Carroll, who is an expert in charcoal, wood and pollen analysis. Contributions on insects were also provided by Dr Eileen Reilly, who is also an expert in this area.

The NRA is now leading the way in Ireland in implementing best practice in environmental archaeology. We are keen to promote best practice more widely in Irish archaeology, so watch this space for further developments.
* Note that the NRA will soon be no more, because it is joining forces with the Railway Procurement Agency to form a new organisation, Transport Infrastructure Ireland. But the guidelines will still apply!

About the author

This article was written by Dr Meriel McClatchie, who is an archaeobotanist. Meriel recently started work on an INSTAR-funded project on late prehistoric landscapes, based at the Department of Archaeology, University College Cork. Meriel also has her own blog: Ancient Food and Farming.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Introducing the Irish Archaeobotany Discussion Group

Who are we? 

The Irish Archaeobotany Discussion Group (IADG) was established in 2007 to bring together archaeobotanists working in Ireland. The Group was envisaged as a forum where we could build professional relationships, discuss recent discoveries, seek solutions for problems that we were encountering, and establish strategies for development of the profession.

Charred hazelnut shell fragments (Image courtesy Meriel McClatchie)

Archaeobotany is the study of past societies and environments through the analysis of preserved plant remains from archaeological excavations. Our focus in the IADG is non-wood plant macro-remains; typical material that we examine includes ancient seeds, grains, nutshell and other vegetative remains.

Ten archaeobotanists were invited to the first meeting, most of whom were working in the private sector (sole traders and in companies), with a small number of colleagues based in universities at Cork and Belfast. The nature of work in archaeobotany – often working alone at a microscope or computer in the lab – means that individual workers can become quite isolated. The first meeting was held in University College Cork, and it was an excellent opportunity for us to get to know each other better and find out what each of us was doing. Over the years, we began to invite colleagues from related disciplines, such as pollen, wood and insect remains. We’re still quite a small group (around 15), but we have an ever-increasing impact on professional practice within archaeobotany and the wider discipline of archaeology, and we hope to have a long future!

What do we do? 

One of the main functions of the IADG is the organisation of discussion meetings. We hold several meetings each year, usually in Cork or Dublin. Our meetings are often chaired by Mick Monk, who is a founding member of the IADG. Over the years, our meetings have included discussion of identification and recording techniques, long-term storage of material, dissemination of results, and we sometimes include lab sessions to show interesting discoveries and seek opinion on tricky finds! We have also organised GIS training for our members, as well as field trips to meet with farmers and food producers. 

IADG field trip to an oat field in Co. Waterford, with farmer Harry Gray showing us around (Image courtesy Meriel McClatchie)

Individual members publish their own research in journals and monographs, but we do sometimes come together to write short pieces based upon our considerable combined expertise. For example, in 2007 we responded to an interesting article on brewing that was published in Archaeology Ireland, and our letter outlining our findings from the perspective of archaeobotany was published soon after. This blog, Environmental Archaeology in Ireland, is a further initiative established by members of the IADG to showcase the work of our members and colleagues in related areas.

The IADG is committed to promoting high standards in archaeobotany, and we put this into practice by providing training sessions for professionals in archaeology and related disciplines. For example, in 2010 we organised CPD (Continual Professional Development) training for members of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (IAI). This event was co-organised with colleagues in the Irish Wood Anatomists Association (IWAA).The training consisted of a day of short talks supported by laboratory sessions and interactive discussions, and it provided archaeology professionals with an opportunity to learn about how, where, what and when to sample for plant macro-remains and wood on archaeological excavations. The event was successful, and due to demand, we ran the course again in 2011, this time including pollen and insect remains. 

Sharing our expertise at an IAI CPD event (Image courtesy IAI)

An ongoing initiative also relating to best practice is our collaboration with the National Museum of Ireland to develop a strategy for dealing with long-term storage of archaeobotanical remains.

How can you find out more about our work? 

Keep checking this blog! IADG members will be blogging here, so you will hear about our latest results and new discoveries.  You will be welcome to ask questions via the comments section.

About the author

This article was written by Dr Meriel McClatchie, an archaeobotanist and founding member of the IADG. Meriel recently completed an NUI-funded post-doctoral fellowship on early medieval agriculture at the School of Archaeology, University College Dublin. She is about to start work on an INSTAR-funded project on late prehistoric landscapes based at the Department of Archaeology, University College Cork. Meriel also has her own blog: Ancient Food and Farming.

A new environmental archaeology blog!

This is a new blog, established by environmental archaeologists working in Ireland (there are many of us, working in third level institutions, in companies and operating as sole traders). We set up the blog because we think what we do is fascinating, and we want to share it with a wider audience!

Environmental archaeology is the study of human-environment interactions through the scientific investigation of ancient remains. The remains often derive from archaeological excavations. Environmental archaeologists analyse a broad variety of material, including remains of plants, wood, animals, insects and many other types of material. These analyses reveal what people ate in the past, how they organised their economies, and how people interacted with their local environments and wider landscapes.

This blog will showcase interesting discoveries from environmental archaeology in Ireland. This could include insights into the diet of Ireland’s earliest hunter-gatherers, how we deal with enormous datasets, impacts of changing environments during later prehistory, and explorations of identity through the study of exotic medieval foods. 

The blog will start out by posting one article per month. Each article will be written by a different environmental archaeologist, which means you’ll get a chance to meet us and hear about our wide variety of research interests. You’ll also have an opportunity to ask us questions via the comments section. We hope you follow this blog and enjoy it.