New book highlights archaeological and forensic applications of microfossils | Curator of Micropalaeontology

In June, a book was published highlighting the archaeological and forensic applications of micropalaeontology and a deeper understanding of human history. The Museum’s Tom Hill is one of the editors of this volume of papers, some of which feature contributions from Museum staff and associates.

Cover of a new book published in June by the Micropalaeontological Society on the application of micropalaeontology to archaeological and forensic studies.

Read on to find out how Museum scientists have provided evidence about the early human occupants of the British Isles, provenance materials used in ancient pottery and provided forensic evidence for drowning and murder. A brief review of other chapters in the book underlines the importance of the study of micropalaeontology.

The book is split into three main areas, environmental applications in archaeology, provenancing studies and forensic applications. The Museum’s contributions come mainly under the first of these areas.

Environmental applications to archaeology

Earth Science Associates John Whittaker and Simon Parfitt have been studying an important early human site at Boxgrove, West Sussex. At one stage, this site contained the earliest evidence of human activity in the UK. Older examples of activity have since been found but Boxgrove still contains the oldest human teeth and bones found so far in this country.

Ostracods (microscopic bivalved crustaceans) discovered by John Whittaker and Simon Parfitt from the Boxgrove site.

Microfossils (foraminifera and ostracods) they recovered suggest that the area went from nearshore marine, through intertidal flats in a semi-enclosed bay to a grassland plain with a series of freshwater pools fed by springs emanating from the Chalk. These springs had attracted animals that early humans hunted.

Applying the Mutual Ostracod Temperature Range (MOTR) method shows that sustained human occupation occurred during a period when the region was colder in winter and may have experienced greater seasonal temperature variation than the present day.

Three drawers of microfossil slides from the Boxgrove site processed and studied by John Whittaker. The Museum holds slides similar to these with microfossil evidence backing up conclusions for research on many other early human sites in the UK.

Tom Hill and co-authors studied sediments deposited during Mesolithic to Neolithic times (roughly the last 10,000 years) at Queen’s Sedgemoor, Somerset. Collections of pollen, freshwater diatoms (see more about diatoms later) and molluscs (snails and bivalves) provide new evidence for a freshwater body present within the Somerset Levels in an area known for human activity from the late Mesolithic onwards.

Tom Hill in the field in Somerset collecting sediment cores.

Provenance studies

Microfossils recovered from ancient pottery and tiles can show which raw materials were used and whether these changed over time. As well as providing details about the source of materials, microfossil content can also provide information about transportation along trade routes, the migrations of agricultural practices, diet and culture.

I have previously described how a former colleague used a tiny fragment from the bottom of a carved stone cylinder on display at the British Museum  to better understand the source of the material.

Tiny fragment from the bottom of one of the Folkton Drums displayed at the British Museum. Microscopic coccoliths (falsely coloured in green and yellow) show that they are made from chalk rather than Magnesian Limestone.

The book gives examples of similar studies of archaeological ceramics from the Bronze and Iron ages, providing information about the source of clays used. The final paper in this section identified microfossils in thin sections of Roman chalk tesserae from South Wales to show that they were sourced from the Dorset area.

Forensic applications

Life Sciences researcher David Williams is often asked to give evidence in criminal trials relating to his expertise in diatoms. Diatoms are unicellular, photosynthetic, micro-organisms that secrete intricate shells of silica. They inhabit almost all bodies of water such as springs, rivers, ponds, lakes, ditches and in freshwater, brackish and marine waters.

Freshwater diatoms

When a person drowns, water enters the lungs and subsequently the bloodstream and organs such as the liver and heart. The microscopic contents of the water including the diatoms also enters the body so identification of diatoms in the organs can indicate death by drowning. David Williams’ paper with co-authors describes the pros and cons of the ‘diatom test’.

Haydon Bailey (who worked with us on the BP project) and co-authors outlined the use of microfossils in forensic investigations, with particular reference to the so-called ‘Soham murder case’. Microfossils were used to place the suspect’s vehicle at the location where the bodies of the two victims were found.

The book is now available from The Geological Society Publishing House and was published on behalf of The Micropalaeontological Society. If you have any questions about any of the projects I have outlined here, we’d be happy to answer them via this blog.