Category: Archeology

Of Finger Prints, Stones and Old Bones… (by )

So last week I went to Bristol to meet up with my friend and walk around the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery which neither of us had yet been in even though we have lived in the area for years now. It was fantastic and I have loads of photos but that is not really what this post is about - no this is about a book I found in the shop on our visit.

I saw this book and I could not resist it! For a start I am doing a general interest talk on cave art etc... at the Gloucester Museum at the beginning of September and am doing some little bits of research trying to build some lovely maps up and this is exactly the sort of thing I want to be reading right now. And secondly when I started looking through it I realised that it was the write up of part of a group of projects that I helped out on during my work experience at the Natural History Museum London (it is actually an NHM publication) - it even has one of the people I was working with named in it! Simon Parfitt.

The project the book is about is the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project - I believe I was actually working on a European sister project but that they tied in together - I wasn't doing anything uber exciting - I wasn't out digging trenches against the clock like in Time Team - no I was sieving cave sediment and then pulling out "organic" material. This was one of my first encounters with each group having very specific meanings for words which don't always tie in with everyone else's definitions. I was a geologist - I realised they did not mean the Chemists idea of organic i.e. everything with carbon, oxygen and hydrogen in, nor the astrophysicists idea of organic i.e. anything that is heavier than helium (I think - it was something like that anyway and linked to star evolution), so I was going for the biologists definition with a bit of geology laid on top - I was pulling anything that had once been alive or had been created by living processes. However what the archaeologists actually meant was mammal teeth, bones and poo and maybe some insects if I was lucky!

This meant all the little cave corals I'd carefully extracted were a waste of everybody's time!

Still once I realised what I was supposed to be doing I got on with it. My friend had initially come along with me but she had too much work etc... so for most of the time it ended up being just me. I didn't actually like this - I'd liked it initially when the two paleo-anthropologist/archaeologists and their volunteer where there but most of the time it was just me and it was a faff to get in and there were often weird skulls plonked down on the workbench were I worked. I couldn't go and get coffee in the paleo department because my back was bad meaning I was having issues with my hands if I over taxed them - the door to the coffee/tea room was a big old heavy thing so there was no tea for me because I couldn't push the door open!

But I did like it when Simon gave me papers to read on the various types of animals I was finding - I remember thinking I'd found a hamster tooth - it was a little rodent - most of it was mice and bats teeth - what's living in the cave when tells you when it was and was not occupied by humans. And I liked it when the lady was in the office as she would get my coffee and tell me about how what she did for her work experience and the projects she was working on.

Sometimes I would get mistaken for a guy who worked in the department who had long hair - we both tended to have a thick plait and wear the same hippy/metal type t-shirts. I was quiet shy so it was always a shock to have some bloke slap you on the shoulder and then go into hyper babble as they realised I wasn't the person they thought I was!

I was also working in Meteoritics in Mineralogy - they gave me my own pass and it became easier to go in and work on rocks from space. And there were people in the lab... and I ended up with my own project. Even so I think Paleo would have kept me if the lab move hadn't happened.

In fact the museum could have had a lot more of us students and for longer but there was a miss communication. In our first year we had brazenly gone to the museum in a group of about give I think, and asked about work experience and voluntary positions. We were told that they kept those positions for final year students only, so we went away and awaited our final year. When we told the researches in both Mineralogy and palaeontology this tale they were horrified as that is not the case at all! And we had Wednesday afternoons off at uni for things such as sports or work experience.

Now the scientists Simon and Tiana(?) where great but were often just not about and because I didn't understand how academia worked I did not know that you were supposed to ask people to be your refs. I think I asked in general and Simon had said yes but I couldn't remember his surname so I put the ladies name down instead (ironically I currently can't remember it! Poss. head injury, poss. the passage of time and I think I only remembered Simon's as it was in the book!). Of course this kind of floored her and she asked me to warn her next time - me being shy... felt I'd upset her and had been stupid etc... but I don't tend to give up so would have continued with the work anyway - had not been for the lab move...

I was in lab (Anthropology 2 I think) when it was time for computer upgrade - the nhm is a large and sprawling thing and so though mineralogy had shiny computers in the early 00's - paleo did not and it was time for ethernet (everyone else was moving to wifi!). The guy came to install, the guy found the lab was lined with asbestos - I was sitting there at the time! - I don't know if that is the reason for the move but I know I wasn't happy with the situation as my granddad had died in 2000 of asbestosis (or rather the cancer caused by it!). Anyway all the stuff was moved and I was shown were it was but... I'm not good at remembering such things and they both went off on their digs and no one else knew where the samples were that I was supposed to be working on and... they'd finally given me a pass and all I could do with it was wonder aimlessly looking for the samples - so I left a message explaining and went and got on with stuff I could do in mineralogy and rocks from space.

And never heard from them again :'(

It's interesting because now I can see that it was me not knowing how things worked and being shy.

I still love Quaternary Science and all things to do with human and civilisation origins, I also still love the Pre-Cambrian and the questions surrounding the origins of life... and of course Space - I love stars and stuff and to me these things hold the same fascination - academically they are very different areas especially at post grad level. When I was considering doing a PhD this was one of my issues - which area to choose?

It was why I picked the MRes in research techniques in Earth Sciences - it taught the stuff used in all the areas so I was pretty much still looking for some breathing space before having to choose and I also felt I needed to bone up on the old maths and physics - without A'levels in them I had struggled through my degree and I felt I needed them to do proper science. I've been told that I am intuitive at maths by multiple people, I just don't have the basics or language in place to use it.

Of course that pathway did not work out for me and I ended up being the Geologist Running Scared.

I thought I'd stopped being a geologist - I'm an artists and writer now... I did the post grad in Practical Science Communication but that is science in general and is kind of just an extension to the writing and art and performance etc...

But I think that you can't stop being something you are - you might not be able to apply it and you may study something you aren't but I am and always have been a geologist.

And I think... I might not be the only one in this family anymore. I get excited about rocks, the girls now know my fern tree tale off by heart - I still tell them about giant cats/marestails every time I see the little plants.

Jean sometimes asks questions but was always more books and keyboards (even as a baby we had to give her a keyboard) but she still has a rock collection and has always been drawn to them 🙂

Mary also collects rocks, lots and lots of rocks and I have to stop her from pillaging other people driveways. Also bits of pot - to be fair her sister started this craze. At Blists Hill last week I had both of them geologing in different ways - Jean asking questions about the underlaying rock structures and formation processes and Mary steadily filling a bag that was getting heavier and heavier and watching metal pouring and general how to make things and getting excited about old mine workings.

Mary is a little confused about word definitions - she wants to be a hair dresser because they do art stuff and she already is an engineer, she says, but she also says she wants to be an artists because they find out how things are made and how they work - like Mummy is an artist and that includes science stuff because she has no concept of them being different things. She has collected stones and sticks and feathers since she could grab things. She loved the rocks in South Africa and Wales and will always find something to bring home.

This is very like I was - I had bags and bags of finds and it only solidified into an idea of something when I saw the giant dinosaur in the entrance hall of the Natural History Museum (I wanted to show it too her but will have to await the bronze replacement skeleton that is going in the gardens - I just don't think she will engage with the whale skeleton that now hands in the NHM's main entrance hall in the same way).

This summer we have also been to the dino exhibition at the Gloucester museum as well were we had to forcefully extract the girls! And of course we went to Jodrell Bank where she was awed by space and planets and rocks from space.

Her enthusiasm has awoken me to the wonders I love once more - I had shied away feeling a keen pain when I thought about geology and the academic world I was no longer a part of. I'd focused Cuddly Science on science and engineering in general and then last year we went on holiday with my brother down in Cornwall including looking at old mines and seeing the rocks along the beach and the kids all showed interest and I thought about how I needed my paleo posse puppets and set about designing things.

The trip to South Africa showed me that I could still read landscapes and that setting me loose on a mountain was going to result in everyone panicking when I lost track of time and didn't make the rendezvous.

This year I have thus ended up running archaeology and palaeontology workshops and drawing colouring sheets and looking at rocks and buying books on rocks. I count everything as rocks and rocks are everything from our origins to our futures to the stars and the seas. If they are not rock currently they are part of rock forming processes.... and so on.

I am excited. I was excited about the book I got at Blists Hill on general geology in Britain:

And the book from the museum: Britain - one million years of the human story. Both times Mary announced "BORING!" at the books (her general reaction to books (unlike her sister)) and both times I have found her either reading them/looking at the pictures or found sticky finger prints just the right size for a precocious little 6 yr old!

I don't think I a geologist in hiding or running scared anymore - I used to say "what use is a geologist on crutches/in a wheelchair?" I even wrote stories about a geologist who is injured and creates an exoskeleton so she can continue in the field. I know I will probably never be out in the field (even without the crutches) or in a lab and that does still make me sad (I am a high octane engine in a little skoda chassis). But also I've seen that light of wonder in kids eyes as I explain Mary Anning's discoveries to them - I know that the stones are in my bones and I can not stop being a geologist. And I am no longer alone - I have little rock minions to help me (even if one of them is now taller than me) 🙂

Paleo Posse (by )

Cuddly Science now has a Paleo Posse - very similar to the Awesome Archaeology team but with the addition of Darwin and some special head gear 🙂

Cuddly Sciences Paleo Puppet Posse with props!

So we have Mary Anning known as the Princess of Palaeontology who was a poor girl from Dorset who made her name collecting and studying fossils - she's the one in the bonnet and has a squid head piece accompanying her as she discovered fossilised ink sacks and would study modern creatures to see how they compared to the fossil creatures she was finding!

Then there is Charles Darwin who came up with the theory of evolution, he had many adventures on the high seas and was massively influenced by the new geological finds that were coming from people like Mary Anning and the Bone Wars! Where there were fights over the fossils bones of dinosaurs and were to find them! He has a reconstruction of a dino head with him.

Lastly but not least is the archaeologists, physical anthropologists and paleo-anthropologist Mary Leakey who worked on everything from Roman ruins to iron age sites to neolithic caves complete with stunning cave paintings to finding the remains of what appear to be the ancestors of humans paving the way for more insight into how our brains evolved. There is a brain hat to help her explain!

The paleo posse are preparing for their first outing as a team to Country File Live (2017).

Cuddly Sciences Paleo Posse getting ready for Country File Live

The Folk Museum (by )

The Folk Museum (rebranded to the Life Museum) is Mary's favourite museum - it is a great local treasure full of local history and fun activities for the kids, behind the scenes there is a lot of curation and looking after the collections. The building itself is a beautiful wooden beamed structure that is hundreds of years old - sadly this also means it is expensive to maintain.

And so what with cuts and austerity and a struggling council the heartbreaking news that they were going to close the museum was not so much a shock but an expected blow. The museums do relatively cheap activities for the kids and the staff are lovely but the news had already reached me that the staff had been slashed in number over all three council run buildings (two museums and the Guildhall).

This is the museum where Mary left her money baby in the wendy house and the staff went out of their way to return it too us.

So obviously I'm not the only person who feels ill at ease with loosing this local resource and historical gem and a petition was soon up and running - you can sign it here. Since it was started up the Civic Trust have said they will take it on but if that is the case then it is doubtful that they can afford a curator so there would be no one to manage and maintain the collection. Curation is not just about labelling things and putting them in shelf displays - it is also about making sure things are kept in ways that do not damage them - with out a curator then the potential damage is pretty high (mind due the roof leaks so if that is not fixed then the damage will be damn high too).

Added to all this is the fact that historic buildings that are not wanted by the right people tend to go up in flames around here - recently there was three fires in one night - all targeting local old pubs with development issues.

Jokingly me and my friend suggested we might need to make a human shield around the museum - we were only half joking :/ I wish I was rich because I would buy it and fix it and pay the staff and make it free access and have a mini hackspace and little science/education bit in the new building out the back in garden. I'd hold talks in the cafe and stuff like that.

DeCrypt Poetry Slam (by )

DeCrypt Poetry Slam

This is tonight - me and a host of other poets who happen to have a connection to Gloucester will be performing at St Mary's DeCrypt in Gloucester. The building is ancient and being restored - I'm really looking forward to seeing inside it actually 🙂

It is being compered by the wonderful poet and comedian Angie Blecher. It's gearing up to be a cracking night of poetics and fun 🙂

Mary Leakey – The Puppet! (by )

Cuddly Science has a new puppet 🙂 Mary Leakey - an paleoanthropologist who along with various other members of her family and team found alot of the early homonid fossils and moved our understanding of our own evolution on in leaps and bounds.

Mary Leakey the puppet reading one of her favourite books

Mary Leakey was one of my science heroes when I was a teen - during my GCSEs and A'levels I read all the books the library had or could get on her discoveries. And she was in the original list of ten puppets to make for Cuddly Science. My Mum and Dad worked on her mainly in secret for me, knowing I was uber busy with things.

Mary Leakey the puppet with one of her creators Angie Pym

She also doubles as a general geologist, archeologist and explorer! Which is just what I needed with various archeology festivals and geology based workshops coming up this summer!

Sarah Snell-Pym Cuddly Science Cheltenham Science Festival

The puppet was in fact barely finished before it was being whizzed off to the Cheltenham Science Festival to help explain the Cheltenham Hackspace's magic sand box!

Geology Puppet showing off the sand projector

This 3D projector that maps the sand contours in real time and projects and ever updating graded colour system on top was amazing! I do have video but haven't worked out how to extract it from my phone etc...

Geologist puppet is at the sand

We had over 10, 000 kids through the Makers Shack at the festival which was amazing and also exhausting! Mary Leakey and Ada Lovelace both enjoyed their outings and I have a hell of a lot more photos and vids to put up from the festival including trying to launch a robot into near Earth orbit! But for now I shall end with this pic of Mary Leakey chilling and relaxing behind the scenes.

Mary Leakey the puppet chilling behind the scense at the Cheltenham Science Festival

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