Environmental Archaeology Conference: Only 3 Weeks To Go

We are busy organising our conference, Looking back, moving forward: 70 years of Environmental Archaeology in Ireland, which will be held at the fantastic lecture theatre in the National Botanic Gardens Dublin on Friday 19th February 2016.

The conference will explore how environmental archaeology developed in Ireland, where we are now, and how we can move forward. We want to provide a forum to consider our strengths and expertise, gaps in knowledge and skills, and challenges in practice. We believe this will help us develop a sustainable future for environmental archaeology in Ireland.

The full programme is now available on the conference website. The morning session of the conference comprises a series of lectures, where we will find out about new research on climate change, bog bodies, woodlands and wetlands, agriculture, and the environments of early towns. Something for everyone, we hope! Then in the afternoon, interactive discussions will help us to find a way forward.

As well as participating in the conference, delegates will have an opportunity to view the Viking house reconstruction built by Eoin Donnelly and a photographic exhibition on the night sky.

Further information on the conference, and registration details, can be found here. Hope to see you there!

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.

Archaeofest and Environmental Archaeology

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.

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.

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. 

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 Sponsors: 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!

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 http://data.okfn.org/doc/csv

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 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/.

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 (http://creativecommons.org/choose/).

About the author

Penny Johnston is an archaeobotanist with an interest in digital data and preservation. She has her own blog (http://archbotarchive.blogspot.ie/) 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.

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 http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1080723).

For more information on PIDs, see http://www.dcc.ac.uk/resources/briefing-papers/introduction-curation/persistent-identifiers

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 http://dri.ie/digital-archiving-in-ireland-2012.pdf).

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.