thinking about archaeology

The Blick Mead tooth conundrum

tooth

Blick Mead dog tooth: photo Jeff Veitch

I wrote a long blog about Stonehenge the other day, featuring the road tunnel and a dog tooth from Blick Mead. David Jacques commented on the latter, and gave a link to the Buckingham University press release on the story. It confirms that Peter Rowley-Conwy, of Durham University, said “the dog would have been roughly the size, shape and possible colour of an alsatian.”

Most usefully, it has a link to Durham University’s website, with a response to the press coverage. This includes a further link to a very helpful poster about the isotope study: “Stable isotope analysis of the Blick Mead dog: a proxy for the dietary reconstruction of mesolithic hunter-gatherers,” by B Rogers, DR Gröcke, K Gron, J Montgomery, P Rowley-Conwy and D Jacques.

A single domestic dog tooth, they say, was found at Blick Mead “in a context which produced faunal remains which have been radiocarbon dated to 4989–4808 cal BC”. I’m not clear where that (over-precise) date comes from – it doesn’t match any published determinations – but it sits in the region where most of the site’s dates lie, between about 7,500 and 6,250 years ago. This is the only dog remain yet found at Blick Mead.

As the title says, the poster is mainly about diet. The idea is that domestic dogs eat similar food to the people they hang out with, so the dog’s diet should give an idea of what the folk at Blick Mead were eating. The tooth dentine was incrementally sampled, so as to compare parts of the tooth that grew at different times. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes were similar at all points, suggesting no great change in diet during the dog’s life. Values for both are described as being significantly lower than those for mesolithic dogs at the Yorkshire sites of Star Carr and Seamer Carr. They interpret the figures for the Blick Mead dog as indicating that it ate meat, and gnawed bones or ate freshwater fish, and possibly less marine food than the Yorkshire dogs – summarised as “terrestrial mammals with a possible inclusion of freshwater fish”.

The result of oxygen isotope analysis is also described. The enamel produced a “drinking water value” of -8.1 per mill. Compared to such values for modern Britain, this is too low for the south-west. A warmer climate in mesolithic Britain, say the authors, would have caused a higher value, not a lower one, so on the face of it, it seems safe to say that this dog grew some way north of Blick Mead – in fact, judging by the map they feature (see below), from a limited area of Yorkshire and the East Midlands, or from eastern Scotland. The tooth is a permanent premolar, which, they say, forms after weaning is finished.

So perhaps the Vale of York doesn’t sound so bad after all as a home for the Blick Mead puppy. There is, however, a proviso. Aurochs teeth (not otherwise mentioned in the poster) “produced even lower” oxgen-18 values: so low, they are “largely incompatible with modern Britain”. Does this mean the aurochs at Blick Mead grew up outside Britain altogether? Bearing in mind that by the time hunter-gatherers were camping out at Blick Mead the English Channel had long been breached, this seems unlikely, to say the least.

isotope-map

Oxygen isotope map, adapted after Rogers et al

So how do we explain the “incompatible” low oxygen values? The answer, they suggest, may lie in the fact that the necessary equations “were developed using human remains rather than aurochs or dog remains, which may fractionate water differently possibly making oxygen-18 values appear lower than expected.” Body size could also be a factor, they say.

This is really interesting work. However, it seems clear that more research is needed before we can conclude anything firmly from the oxygen isotope data alone. On the available evidence, we certainly can’t say with any confidence exactly where the dog grew up. Bryony Rogers had previously told me they are progressing with strontium isotope analysis. We await those results with further interest.

 

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One response

  1. david jacques

    Tony Benn’s father once advised “never wrestle with a chimney sweep”. What he meant was: if somebody plays dirty with you, don’t play dirty with them or you’ll get dirty too.

    As a matter of record it is best to read oneself about the project rather than rely on this blog for information on Blick Mead.

    Our work at Blick Mead 2005-2010 covered just 14 days of digging at the site (14 days in 5 years) due to landowner constraints. The work was reported in the Prehistoric Society’s PAST newsletter in November 2010. Please read – http://www.prehistoricsociety.org/publications/publication/past_66_november_2010/ (there is an error about using the term ‘thermal spring’ in this piece which was picked up by a peer reviewer).

    By October 2013 we had had 32 excavation days in total. Our reporting on the work was prompt and chosen to be published in the Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine (107) in 2014. Mike Pitts himself co-authored an article in the previous volume of this respected journal which at the time was edited by Professor Andrew Reynolds and Dr Stuart Brookes (UCL). Our article included contributions from eminent specialists such as the late Professor Tony Legge (large fauna, Cambridge University), Dr Barry Bishop (lithics, Lithics Society) and Simon Parfitt (small fauna, Natural History Museum). Please read –
    http://www.buckingham.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Blick-Mead.pdf

    This article has since been cited by leading academics in the field. For example, Professor Richard Bradley, et al see – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquaries-journal/article/where-water-wells-up-from-the-earth-excavations-at-the-findspot-of-the-late-bronze-age-hoard-from-broadward-shropshire/D2AF3769DE100BE6D198C9CA5DD88FF1

    Professor Tim Darvill, et al see – http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1751696X.2016.1171496

    Its results are also amply and supportively discussed by Professor Mike Parker Pearson, et al in http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/383912/
    Mike’s review that – “Despite 50 years of large scale excavations across western Europe, the Stonehenge posts are unrivalled as Mesolithic monuments. They date to the earliest stages of Blick Mead so it is likely that people gathering there were responsible for erecting them” (p.2). And -“The camp at Blick Mead may have been far more than just a handy place to gather, but somewhere that people returned to as a place of origin. Over the centuries and millennia it was used, this place would have become the centre of a network of paths leading towards it from many parts of southern Britain. Just as all roads led to Rome, so all these paths led to the future site of Stonehenge”(p. 43) – underscores the efficacy of our results and interpretations.

    Since 2014 we have been in the process of compiling a monograph on the work at the Blick Mead spring. Specialist contributions include the already peer reviewed Durham University analysis of the large fauna, Dr Sophy Charlton (Natural History Museum, formally York University) ZoomS analysis, Simon Parfitt’s analysis of the small fauna, Reading University’s QUEST environmental report, Dr Barry Bishop’s lithics analysis, The Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project’s GPR survey, Professor David John’s (Natural History Museum) analysis of algae (magenta pink phenomena) and a full field report –

    Blick Mead: Spring Excavations, D. Jacques. (ed.). Oxford. (I sent this link to you Mike in response to your request two weeks ago (?)).

    A couple of other things need clearing up.

    In his piece Mike silkily describes Andy Rhind-Tutt as a “colleague”. Andy is a well respected member of the local community of Amesbury, the chosen representative of one of the landowners, in charge of site security therein and a passionate and valued friend and supporter of our work, but he would be the first to tell you that he has no professional archaeological relationship to the project. Colleagues of ours in those terms are as above and also include Professor Tony Brown (environmental specialist, Southampton University) and Professor Peter Rowley-Conwy and Bryony Rogers (fauna, Durham University).

    The press reporting of the dog’s tooth story took all of the ambiguity out of the press releases provided by University of Buckingham and Durham University. Please see – http://www.buckingham.ac.uk/latest-news/earliest-journey-in-british-history-unearthed/ for both university responses.

    The Times did however publish my letter about the value of A’ level Archaeology, teaching Archaeology in schools in general and its benefits for local communities, as exemplified by the Blick Mead project, so that was positive- http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/culture-creativity-and-the-axing-of-a-levels-nkdr0s7sv , though reference to it has been cut in Mike’s otherwise very comprehensive account of Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries (FSA) comments about this to the media in their in house SAL magazine ( I am a FSA).

    In short the Blick Mead Project has generated an immense amount of goodwill from the local community and the wider archaeological community. Specialists and locals on the ground appreciate how hard it has been to dig on what is very private land and the subsequent problems with various logisitics and funding that entails. We are delighted that Amesbury Town Council has found funding to build a new museum next year to house the town’s archaeology on the back of our discoveries. During this year’s dig a pleasingly diverse group of local people participated in the work and we were visited as usual by Historic England’s Dr Phil McMahon and Dr Mark Bowden and the National Trust’s Dr Nick Snashall. Other specialist visitors on site were Professor Martin Bell, Professor Tony Brown, Professor Tim Darvill, Professor David John, Dr Barry Bishop and Julian Richards. In previous times Wiltshire County Council Archaeologists have attended, as have, among others, Dr Chantal Conneller, Roy Froome, Dr Jonathan Last, Professor Richard Bradley, Professor Nick Branch, Professor Caroline Wickham-Jones, Professor Peter Rowley-Conwy and Professor Mike Parker-Pearson. The team has benefited from all the various feedback and our analysis of site dynamics has been informed it. We hope the readers of this blog will be too.

    David Jacques, Blick Mead Project

    November 1, 2016 at 12:47 pm

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