Hello to everyone from sunny old England. I arrived in London this past Saturday, the overnight flight from Ottawa of course, only to be treated to a quirky British tradition surrounding Guy Fawkes day. In a small, yet enormous by London’s standards, back yard I spent the evening watching people set off fireworks and stare into a bonfire in honour of the parliament not being blown up back in the day. There’s a lot of information out there on this so I won’t dwell on it.
Sunday might as well not have existed thanks to jet lag but I did catch up on sleep. This was a good thing because today was the first day of my Archaeological Soil Micromorphology course at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL. The course is focused on a technique that involves collecting intact sediment samples, embedding them in resin, slicing and dicing, sticking them to a glass slide, and finally grinding them down to 0.03mm thick before sticking them under a microscope for description and interpretation (includes both geological and archaeological sediments). I have been looking forward to this course for months, reading as much as I could and looking at as many images of thin sections as possible. I thought I was somewhat prepared…boy was I way off.
The course started with an introductory seminar, followed by 3 hours looking at reference thin sections under the microscope. Lunch break was great! I found a nice sandwich and bag of crisps (aka chips) for 3 pounds. Then the afternoon was a lecture on buried soils and the numerous taphonomic factors that act upon them. This included marine water fluctuations and the resulting cycle of pyrite formation and oxidation, as well as other things like the velocity of deposition in flash floods and the sorting patterns produced. This lecture was again followed by a few hours of browsing reference samples under the microscope.
Today’s class was not overly uplifting. The lectures were great, the concepts all make sense and the interpretation that follow are somewhat satisfying. Even the basic principles of deposition, soil formation, and post-depositional alterations all fit nicely into my head. My biggest stepping stone is understanding the identification process. How do I know which minerals are quartz, pyrite, tourmaline, muscovite, etc. from clay, shell, bone, flint, and ash fragments. Coming from a purely archaeology side of things (specifically North American archaeology rooted in an Anthropology department) my optical mineralogy, and mineral crystallography are a little weak…if not non-existent. So, some pretty major hurdles and there was quite a bit of frustration today but at least I know what I need to learn. To me, that’s a pretty good first day. I already know what I need to get out of this 2-week course.
So after 6 hours with the microscope today and a couple more reading, the screen is starting to go a bit blurry. It’s time for me to stop and do some more reading on birefringence. I’ll be back tomorrow night with some updates on the course and my progress.