Meghan Burchell sampling the temperature
and salinity of water on the central coast
of British Columbia. These instrumental data
are used to help understand how shellfish
incorporate local water into their shell matrix.
(Photo credit B. MacDonald).
Read on to learn more about her boundary pushing research in the field of sclerochronology...
|Plans and Profiles #12. Meghan Burchell, Shells, Seasonality, Settlement and Subsistence in Coastal British Columbia.|
1) Tell me a little bit about your project.
My current project focuses on understanding patterns of seasonality, settlement and subsistence at shell midden sites on the coast of British Columbia, in the traditional territories of the Heiltsuk on the central coast, and the Coast Tsimshian on the northern coast. More specifically, I employ high-resolution sclerochronology and stable oxygen isotope analysis to understand patterns of shellfish harvest and by proxy, the timing of site occupation.
Alignment of biological growth markers with stable
isotope data from a live-collected shell.
In many interpretations of hunter-gatherer settlement systems, archaeologists have assumed implicitly or explicitly that a pattern of mobility based on seasonally-scheduled movements between different site locations was practiced. This pattern of mobility is often characterized as a seasonal round, where different locations are used during specific times of the year for different purposes. An implication of this pattern of mobility is that short-term occupation sites are visited annually, approximately at the same time each year and longer term residential sites can span multiple seasons. The Pacific Northwest Coast provides an ideal landscape to examine seasonality since many of the staple resources, particularly salmon, were available on a seasonal basis. Contrary to long standing assumptions of regular seasonal movement between sites, the analysis of shell samples from multiple archaeological sites from distinct regions in British Columbia show complex patterns of multi-seasonal occupation at smaller campsites and specific seasonal or multi-seasonal emphasis in occupation and/or shellfish harvest at longer-term residential sites.
In addition to my research in British Columbia, I am also the Operations Manager for Sustainable Archaeology at McMaster Innovation Park. Sustainable Archaeology is a collaborative initiative between Western University and McMaster University in southern Ontario, Canada, funded by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the Ontario Research Fund (ORF). These state-of-the art research facilities will bring together thousands of previously inaccessible archaeological collections generated from across the Province of Ontario as a result of research and cultural resource management excavations.
2) How did you become interested in this particular problem?
When I was in my third year of undergraduate studies at McMaster University, I saw a picture of the site of Namu on the central coast of British Columbia. Namu is one of the longest continually occupied sites on the British Columbia coast, and just from looking at the pictures, seeing people doing innovative field work using coring and augering techniques, I knew I had found the place I wanted to go - and I knew I had found the kind of field archaeology I wanted to employ. I was extremely fortunate to be able to go there in 2010 to collect materials (water samples and live shellfish) for my dissertation.
I became interested in this specific project because I am fascinated in the application of stable isotope analysis in archaeology and micro-analytical techniques. I think it’s amazing that we can investigate large-scale regional histories of archaeological sites with an extremely powerful microscope that allows you to zoom into at the micron level, and a mass spectrometer that measures the isotope ratios of only micro-grams of shell carbonate powder. More importantly, I wanted to learn more about long-term histories of seasonal settlement patterns and resource acquisition. I’ve always been interested in shell midden sites in British Columbia; each one is different, not only in the stratigraphy and composition of the site, but the function and nature of the site as well. I am motivated by learning more about the environmental and historical variability along the coast and the variability within a region; especially how people used short- and long-term camps and villages to create networks of interaction on the coastal landscape.
|Shell sampling techniques using a micro-mill and a micro-mill in preparation for stable oxygen isotope analysis via mass spectrometry.|
3) Has your project changed since you originally began working on it? How?
Aside from the methodological changes, my ideas around seasonality have changed a lot. While seasonality is important for understanding patterns of resource acquisition, site occupation and sedentism, I’m thinking about this problem more critically now – seasonality isn’t as simple as four seasons. Now I’m interested in tackling the theoretical component of understanding the role and importance of seasonality interpretations in archaeological narratives.
4) If you could ask the people/person who lived at your site(s) one question what would it be?
There are so many questions I’d like to ask, but if I could know one thing, I would want to know something that we can’t see archaeologically. I’d want to know what the sites smelled and sounded like when people were gathering and processing shellfish.
5) Has your research taught you anything about yourself? What?
The process of working through this project has taught me many things. Probably the most important is that you can’t do archaeology, stable isotope analysis and sclerochronology by yourself – working in a team is important. I also learned that I really enjoy working with people from other disciplines, such as paleontology, biology and geochemistry. I think engaging with people from different disciplines allowed me to broaden my own expertise while gaining a much deeper appreciation for the work that is accomplished in other scientific fields – especially when it can be applied to archaeology.
6) I can’t imagine doing this research without…
|Lecturing at the University of Mainz, Germany at the annual |
Geocycles Symposium (Photo credit Uni. Mainz)
7) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?
I unwind in a ballet studio. I’ve been taking ballet since I was three years old, and I can’t imagine my life without it. When I’m not in the ballet studio, I’m in the woods on my mountain bike. But if I really need to relax, I usually have a nap with my two cats.
8) Have you ever found anything in the field or in the lab that you wish you hadn’t?
One time I found a frog stuck at the bottom of a 3m deep excavation unit. My good friend and I spent a long time trying to find a way to get the little guy out, we tried our best but we couldn’t help him. Excavation units should always be carefully backfilled not only to protect the rest of the site, but also to protect the precious animals that may stumble into them.
9) What books or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?
Definitely check out the world of sclerochronology. This technique is rarely applied in archaeological contexts, but it’s definitely something archaeologists should look into before engaging in the analysis of shells or any other hard tissue that grows on a regular basis (i.e. teeth and bone, especially otoliths).
Analytical Chemistry for Archaeology by Cambridge University Press is also a great book to introduce people to archaeological sciences.
I also really like Human Impacts on Ancient Environments by Charles Redman, and Human Impacts on Ancient Marine Environments edited by Torben C. Rick and Jon M. Erlandson. Tim Ingold’s writing about landscape has also been very influential for my work, but one of my all time favourite papers is ‘Sacred Power and Seasonal Settlement on the Central Northwest Coast’, by Aubrey Cannon from the book Beyond Forging and Collecting: Evolutionary Change in Hunter-Gatherer Settlement Systems (2002).
Shell midden stratigraphy at the Pender Island site in
southern British Columbia. (Photo credit R. Klenkler)
2013 Burchell, M., Cannon, A., Hallmann, N. Schwarcz, HP., Schöne, BR. Refining estimates for the season of shellfish collection on the Pacific Northwest Coast: Applying high-resolution stable oxygen isotope analysis and sclerochronology. Archaeometry. 55: 258-276.
2013 Burchell, M., Cannon, A., Hallmann, N. Schwarcz, HP., Schöne, BR. Inter-site variability in the season of shellfish collection on the central coast of British Columbia. Journal of Archaeological Science. 40:626-636.
2011 Hallmann, N., Schöne, BR, Irvine, GV., Burchell, M., Cockelet, D., Hilton, M.
An improved understanding of the Alaska Coastal Current: The application of a bivalve growth-temperature model to reconstruct freshwater-influenced paleoenvironments. Palaios. 26: 346-363.
2010 Risk, M., Burchell, M., de Roo, K., Nairn, R., Turbett, M. Trace elements in bivalve shells from the Rio Cruces, Chile, trace the evolution of an earthquake-impacted watershed. Aquatic Biology. 10: 85-97.
2009 Hallman, N., Burchell, M., Schöne, BR., Irvine, G., Maxwell, D. High-resolution sclerochronological analysis of the bivalve mollusk Saxidomus gigantea from Alaska and British Columbia: techniques for revealing environmental archives and archaeological seasonality. Journal of Archaeological Science. 36: 2353-2364.
The INCREMENTS research group at the University of Mainz: http://www.increments.de/
And our Sustainable Archaeology Facebook Page – we upload our research images on a regular basis. Right now we’re doing a lot of experimentation learning how to use our new equipment, and we regularly upload some pretty amazing pictures that are taken by staff using different types of microscopes.
Do you know of any interesting archaeological research projects or researchers who should have their work profiled here? Maybe its you? Drop me a note with your suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credits:As indicated in the captions.
Plans and Profiles Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White