ICAZ Taphonomy Working Group 2016, Paris

At the beginning of September, I went to Paris to attend the fourth meeting of the ICAZ Taphonomy working group. This fantastic conference was a great opportunity for me to present my newly-published article (Johnson et al. 2016) and meet some colleagues old and new. Accompanied by my zooarch buddy Malene, another Exeter PhD student, we arrived in a sweltering Paris on Tuesday 6th September, settled quickly into our small but ideal AirBnB near the conference venue, and made our final preparations for three days of conferencing!

The conference was held in the beautiful grounds of the Jardin des Plantes. A ten-minute walk from our AirBnB each morning brought us to the entrance of the impressive Grand Gallerie de l’Evolution, where the presentations were being given in a well-equipped, modern conference room to the side of the main museum.

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Of course there’s a statue of a giant vertebrae in the Jardin des Plantes!

Day 1: Presentations given and lessons learnt

The first day of the conference was the most important for me, as I was presenting that day, and many other papers were directly relevant to my research. My presentation was on a new methodology I have been developing regarding displaying the types of fractures to occur on bones in a graph format that highlights sequences of fracture. I like presenting early on in conferences as you can then enjoy the rest of the conference without worrying about your upcoming talk. I quite like speaking at conferences, but this time there were two forces acting against me!

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Presenting my research! Yes, that’s John Speth chairing my presentation.

The first was that I had bought new hay-fever tablets recently, which I hadn’t yet tried out. Combined with a poor night’s sleep stressing about my presentation, this was enough to dull my wits and make me seriously drowsy for the afternoon session. I was so frustrated about this as the first day was the one that I really needed to be on my a-game for, and I just wasn’t! I stopped taking the hay fever tablets after the first day and had no problems at all.

My second problem came during my presentation, and a valuable lesson was learned. I presented several graphs, which I had pasted straight across from Excel into Powerpoint. When the presentation was moved from my laptop to the conference computer, labels on the graphs were lost and replaced with [CELLRANGE]. For the most part this information was not crucial to the understanding of the presented material, but I had to completely skip some statistical analysis that made no sense whatsoever without the data labels. From now on I will always make my graphs into images before putting the material on a memory stick!

The first day hadn’t quite gone to plan, but I was determined that I would make a lot more of the next day. On the way home we stocked up on sweets for munching between coffee breaks, watched the Great British Bake-Off and then went to bed. Although not really making the most of Paris I was glad of a long sleep – almost 10 hours! – and energised for Day 2.

Day 2: Neanderthals, Human and Animal Predation, and a Rhino

The second day began with an invited lecture by Professor John Speth, which I had been particularly excited about when I saw it in the program. Speth’s work on subsistence strategies, resource stress and seasonality (for example Speth 1987; 1989; 1990; Speth and Spielmann 1983) have been particularly useful to my studies on bone fat use in the Neolithic. He gave a presentation on Neanderthal diet, hypothesising that storage of food was likely much more important than suggested by the archaeological evidence. He called upon the taphonomists in the conference to solve questions related to fermentation of food and the archaeological detection of fermentation practices like those that we see in ethnoarchaeological examples. Following Speth’s talk there were more presentations on bone taphonomy and some on bone breakage – in all a very good morning for me!

At lunch Malene and I decided to look around the museum that the conference was being held in, which we had only glimpsed from the entrance hall. With free entry for under-26s, and an hour-and-a-half lunch break, it seemed like the perfect thing to do! We wandered around looking at taxidermy and bones, but the main draw was the museum layout and architecture itself – absolutely stunning. My favouring item was the taxidermy of an Indian rhinoceros from the Palace of Versailles menagerie in the 18th century. We read all the information about this fascinating creature’s life (and death) from a touchscreen, with me translating from French aloud the best I could.

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Animals on Parade in the Grande Gallerie de l’Evolution

Many presentations followed lunch, beginning the sessions on human and animal predation. These talks were very interesting, but weren’t so relevant to my research. In the Neolithic large settlement patterns mean we can be pretty sure that human agency has caused accumulations of bones in refuse pits, rather than in the Plio-Pleistocene, where markers of human (butchery marks, impact fractures from marrow processing) and animal (gnawing by predators that cause similar-looking bone modifications) predation take a lot more untangling.

Day 3: Taphonomy, Palaeoenvironments and Bones Galore

Due to some unfortunate flight prices day three was the final day of the conference for Malene and me as we were due to head home on the Saturday. Day three continued to assess human and non-human agency affecting animal bone assemblages along with taphonomy and palaeo-environments, with some particularly notable presentations. Firstly the frankly famous Anna K. Behrensmeyer gave a fascinating talk on her work in the Amboseli basin on tracking skeletal material through the death of the animal, predation, scavenging, trampling, weathering and burial. Another talk that really stood out for me was by Camarós, who presented cool evidence for crocodile predation of Homo erectus.

Following the success of our museum visit the day before we decided to go to one of the other museums belonging to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle – the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée (comparative anatomy). I’d always wanted to visit this museum as I had heard that this was a fantastic place for bone lovers. I was dumbstruck upon walking through the entrance, met with thousands of skeletons of mammals, birds, reptiles and so on, all in anatomical position in a grand parade down the centre of the museum.

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Gallery of comparative anatomy… be still my heart!

I wandered open-mouthed around the ground floor – and then realised that there was a first floor too! This was the palaeontology gallery, with smilodons, mammoths, giant ground sloths and some colossal dinosaurs.

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DINOSAURS

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Remember the Versailles Indian Rhino? This is its skeleton! Such a great bridge between two museum experiences.

The whole experience was one of my best museum adventures of my life.

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After the conference was over Malene and I headed back to our flat. We did what packing we could for our journey the following day and then went out for dinner. In honour of our conference on bones I had a steak and marrow bone, which I had never had before, it not being common in the UK. The bone was sawn at both ends, with about a 7cm piece of probable femur balanced on my steak. The heat of the steak and the marrow bone (which had also been heated) melted the fat within the marrow cavity, resulting in juicy fatty goodness slowly seeping into my steak. 15 minutes later I was in a massive food coma, and very satisfied! The following morning we headed for home, arriving back in Exeter without incident.

 

Final thoughts

Something I have come to expect at conferences I have been to before (notably the EAAs in Glasgow and the AEAs in York last Autumn) is people using Twitter. However, there was not a sniff or whisper of Twitter at all during the conference – no conference hashtag, no obvious “here’s how you connect to the Wi-Fi”, no one even asking us not to discuss their research on Twitter. Some may find this refreshing, but I like using twitter during conferences to discuss points with other academics and to meet people who I might not know that share my research interests. To not have this was a new experience for me!

Finally, I would like to thank the conference organisers for putting together such an entertaining program and for allowing me to present my research on an international stage. There were some amazing presentations from researchers too. I’d like to particularly thank all those presenting in English where it was not their first language!

The fourth meeting of the ICAZ Taphonomy Working Group was a great conference. I can’t wait for my next one!

References:

Johnson, E.V., Parmenter, P.C.R., Outram, A.K., 2016. A new approach to profiling taphonomic history through bone fracture analysis, with an example application to the Linearbandkeramik site of Ludwinowo 7, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 9, 623-629.

Speth, J.D., 1987. Early hominid subsistence strategies in seasonal habitats, Journal of Archaeological Science 14, 13-29.

Speth, J.D., 1989. Early hominid hunting and scavenging: the role of meat as an energy source, Journal of Human Evolution 18, 329-343.

Speth, J.D., 1990. Seasonality, resource stress and food sharing in so-called “egalitarian” foraging societies, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 9, 148-188.

Speth, J.D., Spielmann, K.A., 1983. Energy source, protein metabolism and hunter-gatherer subsistence strategies, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 2, 1-31.

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