Monday, 8 September 2014

No more Whitechapel speculation?

The recent days have brought about the amazing news that the mystery of Jack the Ripper has finally been solved using the latest forensic DNA technologies. And as the Finnish newspapers have noted, the analyses were all done by a Finn, Dr Jari Louhelainen, a senior lecturer in molecular biology at the Liverpool John Moores University. This work was apparently partly funded – or at least publicized as a world exclusive by that every archaeologist’s favourite read, The Daily Mail. At least there is a book out available on the matter.


Map of Whitechapel (from whitechapeljack.com)

Elsewhere in the Independent the naysayers were suggesting that this is all unreliable and there is no guarantee that there was no cross contamination when these new analyses were carried out. The story is quite amazing. A man called Russell Edwards had seen Johnny Depp movie ‘From the Hell’ and started his ‘extensive’ research into the matter. I assume this research was more thorough than mine that happened when ‘Ripper Street’ TV series by the BBC started some years ago and I spent one night reading the Wikipedia on the Whitechapel murders. He made his way to the National Archives and has read original documents in Kew.

However, Russell made an even more far reaching additional step: he bought in an auction in 2007 an old tatty, bloody shawl in Bury St. Edmunds (as you do) that had already featured in a Channel 5 documentary. This had allegedly been taken from a murder scene of Catherine Eddowes by a police man called Amos Simpson and had never been washed by the lucky wife of the police man who had got it as a present. Unwashed and dirty – soaked in what turned out to be blood and semen in the analyses. It was tucked away and a descendant of this policeman, one David Melville-Hayes, wrote a letter and gave his word that this was true and the shawl had been taken with a permission from policeman’s superiors. Melville-Hayes had even given the shawl to the Crime Museum, which had put it into the storage, since the provenance could not have been proven. The shawl was more expensive than an assumed alcoholic prostitute could afford and one had to believe that Jack the Ripper came with a shawl that he did not take with him afterwards. Thus, Melville-Hayes returned and reclaimed his gift back and sold it instead.

Russell managed to find Dr Louhelainen and some descendants of both Catherine Eddowes and the main suspect of all times, Aaron Kosminski, who had been sent to an asylum about the same time as the gruel murders came to an abrupt end. Amazingly, Dr Louhelainen could find DNA of the ancestors of both Eddowes and Kosminski – or their descendants. This is the dubious provenience and provenance that raises the eyebrows together with the quality of the analyses and descendant DNA. The quality of the latter seems to be fine with Eddowes’s three times great-grantdaughter and a female relative of Kosminski’s sister. It seems plausible that the mystery has been solved.

These new breakthroughs of forensic science do have something of a letdown in them. Even if it is exciting that Richard III has been found in a Leicester car park and was not chucked into the river and that Aaron Kosminski was the lunatic who hated women and slashed them, the mystery is disappearing. Undoubtedly, there will be a series of new mysteries and unsolved dilemmas, but nothing seems better than an unsolved murder mystery with out-of-this-world details. Now the endless line of TV series (Ripper Street, Whitechapel etc. etc.) and the cottage industry of home-made sleuths may come to an end. Luckily, something stays: the mental image of a murder landscape along the narrow lanes of Whitechapel. More research is also carried out about the women murdered and it is clear that they may not have been prostitutes, but have had more complicated stories.

As an interesting note, one can see that the Wikipedia entry of the Jack the Ripper has been locked until September 10, 2014 due to an 'editorial dispute'. Russell's book is out on September 9, 2014. It seems some Ripperlogists are not happy... Pseudo-academic publication disputes!

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Hidden landscapes

It is the time of the year when archaeology is properly on the menu in the newspapers and the current online papers are no exception. This August had more news from the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project in the Daily Mail. The University of Birmingham team headed by Professor Vince Gaffney together with the Austrian Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology have ‘unearthed’ 15 new monuments using geophysical methods.


Visitors in the late 19th century

Vince with his brother is an old hand not only in geophysics but all prospection and surveying methods. Knowing him, it is a great joy that their project has been successful – considering how volatile the position of archaeology at Birmingham has lately been. Now the study of 6 square kilometres has revealed new henges in addition to the more expected late Neolithic pits, barrows and ditches. However, some of the features are so large and relate to the previously known monuments, such as the Cursus, that they must have had special meanings.

Such is a case with a huge pit, laying at the eastern end of the Cursus, that has been interpreted as relating to the rituals at the Solstice. The 4.5-metre-diameter pit also was laying in the path of the rising sun at the Solstice. This pit forms a triangle with another pit, laying on the path of the sun going down below the horizon, and Stonehenge. Naturally, without an excavation the team cannot say what is there in the pits. Were they fire pits or offering sites? It is known that pits were important for Neolithic practices (see Garrow 2006), so they may just have spent time ritually digging large pits.

Nevertheless, the real story is that geophysics were used to draw a new archaeological map. This is not a novelty: Roman Towns project has been doing it for whole millennium near Rome in places like Falerii Novi (Keay et al. 2000) and Portus (Keay et al. 2005). Here the methods used were magnetometer and ground penetrating radar - the latter technology being successfully used at Volterra as well. The Ludvig Noltzmann web site gives an abridged description how the project was run over five years. However, the catch is that these are interpretations. The validation and verification – crucially with dating - comes only with excavation. In any case, awesome results.


  • Garrow, D. 2006. Pits, settlement and deposition during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age in East Anglia (British Archaeological Reports British Series 414). Oxford: John & Erica Hedges.
  • Keay, S., Millett, M., Poppy, S., Robinson, J., Taylor, J. and Terrenato, N. 2000. Falerii Novi: a New Survey of the Walled Area. Papers of the British School at Rome 68: 1–93.
  • Keay, S., Millett, M., Paroli, L. and Strutt, K., eds. 2005. Portus: an archaeological survey of the port of imperial Rome (Archaeological monographs of the British School at Rome 15). London: British School at Rome.
  • Sunday, 24 August 2014

    Diet fit for a king

    The fascination of the whole Richard III find is that here you have a skeleton who belongs to a known individual – with a(n) (in)fame. Nobody would have been interested for Tutankhamen, if he had not come with a treasure, since he was just an almost disappeared footnote in the history. Richard III is something else. With the story of the princes in the Tower, Shakespeare’s lines and Josephine Tey’s detective story, there is an individual all English have heard about and the foreigners have an inkling of.


    Richard III (National Portrait Gallery)

    Now the team from the British Geological Survey in collaboration with the University of Leicester team have studied the bone chemistry of Richard III’s bones and found out that – he ate like a king. Not really the greatest surprise on the planet, but the foods he ate reflect the times he lived in. Different levels of isotopes, such as oxygen, strontium, nitrogen and carbon, revealed that he ate high protein diet that had changed remarkably after he became king in 1483. The news is not without historical data, since the results of scientific test have been compared to the documents, such as the menu of his coronation banquet.

    The oxygen isotopes actually suggested that Richard III had lived in the fartherst south-west of England, an area were London is not known to be located. Different stable isotope markers fitted that area best. The researchers started to wonder if the discrepancy originated from the fact that he was not drinking water, the source of oxygen. The researchers concluded that the king was downing up to a litre of wine every day. The fact that was the main ‘meat’ in the popular news stories in the papers. Instead the real news is that the different drinks and foods skew the interpretation of isotope data. Would a continued San Pellegrino habit result with an interpretation that the person lived in Italy?

    However, the fact that fish and wildfowl were not considered meat is fascinating. During the times when religious observances required fasting – up to a third of the year – the [higher status] people had come up with a way to have some whiter meats on the table. Keeping a king in fish, species such as pike were cultivated in fish tanks – a landscape feature in places such as Braybrooke Castle in Northamptonshire where breeding tanks are part of the earthworks among the buried remains of the Medieval moated manor house. The fowl included heron and egret, not widely eaten today. Richard’s coronation dinner included also rarer delicacies, such as peacock. Naturally, the royal swan was regularly on table as well.

    Sunday, 17 August 2014

    Volterra through lens

    The field school of the Stockholm University in Volterra turned out to be so intensive I had absolutely no time for my blog. Those days I was not teaching, I was planning teaching, having meetings with other teachers and taking care of other research matters. One also has to keep contact with family at home and eat and sleep, so blogging was the thing that had to give.


    One of our sites of photogrammetry

    In this field school I participated in or ran single-handedly teaching of three different elements: photogrammetry with Agisoft, archive and library research and GIS. All are important parts of the archaeological research and give important skills to the students. Since I was in Volterra for this purpose for the first time, the workload was greater if I had been there for the first school ever in 2013. The experience was very giving and the people lovely, so it was an honour to teach such a talented group that consisted of people of different ages and backgrounds from four different institutions of higher education.

    The part I perhaps enjoyed most were the photogrammetry sessions during the first week of the two week course. However, library sessions were also memorable, since we could see some of the treasures of the library, including the miniature portrait that was recently suggested to have been partly created by Leonardo da Vinci, and find out more about the earlier research of the monuments near which our group has carried out studies using georadar. In the future, building stadsGIS will grow in importance, even if now we are just starting.

    Due to the pedagogical focus of the photogrammetry, we could not follow the same schedule as the main groups carrying out georadar studies and related GPS measuments. Due to the time constraints and changing conditions, we had to choose smaller monuments and photograph only in the morning. This meant that we could photograph two of the facades of the main structures at the sites, since the sun was shining directly to the camera or there were too many tourists to concentrate on our work. However, I managed to photograph the sites for the coming week: one in a Sunday afternoon when the lighting was optimal and the other on the Ferragosto morning at 7am when the site was deserted, albeit a priest opening the church door.


    Students carrying out recording duties

    The work I did with the students was directed more towards the visualisation than any other archaeological purpose. I can hardly wait to try to lay a model together with a time slice from the georadar prospection. Nevertheless, the students seemed to get the idea considering the successful independent modelling with some help from my colleague who was available for the task. There were issues, but they were mainly related to the particulars of the programme and how it calculates the models. The models themselves came out fine in the end and the wrong choices just added to the pedagogical experience. With students’ helpful feedback, there is room for improvement and even better classes, if needed!

    Monday, 28 July 2014

    Anstey Big Dig

    I and my son had a fabulous day yesterday on Sunday when we went to our friends' house in order to participate in Anstey Big Dig organised by the Charnwood Roots project. I felt originally that putting a whole weekend into an archaeological activity would be too much on my last weekend here for a month. In addition, considering the size of our garden and the terracing between the plots, I suspect there is very little left, even if there are bits of brick in the soil in our herb plot. But the houses tend to be brick here, so there are many fragments about. Luckily our friends wanted to dig a test pit and only committed themselves for a Sunday, which suited me and Alex perfectly. Phil ironically had a work commitment - in a community archaeology group near Market Harborough, so he only could come afterwards to the pub.


    Dave removing turf (following my instructions)

    It turned out that my decision not to go to London on the only Sunday I and Alex could to see the Natural History Museum due to the warm weather and curiosity (plus knowing that there was a paddling pool and tree house for the children) turned out to be a fortunate one. The Big Dig had fewer volunteers than originally anticipated and the area 'manager' just popped in thrice in order to check that the thing was started, ongoing and finished. I ended up explaining in a more detailed manner what we were doing and telling about the local geology and archaeology while keeping eye on the paperwork and weeding rocks from the find tray. Sadly, it turned out that the top soil had been stripped when this particular estate had been built in the 1960s and sold away, but we definitely could demonstrate that. There were only 25 centimetres of turf and soil on top of the virgin clay. There luckily were some finds, including an iron nail, tiny bits of porcelain, slag and a fragment from a clay pipe. The truncated stratigraphy meant that we managed to get the test pit finished while the children from four families ran riot and we had a nice outdoor lunch with hod dogs and ice cream.


    Richard Huxley checks our progress

    The Charnwood Roots project is related to the ongoing compilation of the Victoria County History for Leicestershire. The project got a large grant from the Lottery Heritage Fund and brought archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) to Anstey. The preliminary results, communicated in a briefing at the end of the Dig, included at least some sherds of Roman pottery, a Stamford sherd and some Medieval Potters Marston. I and my friend also spotted a big piece from a black Cistercian beaker from near the church. The project will return to tell about the results of the recording of the finds. Let's see if I am in the country then!

    Monday, 21 July 2014

    I do know a blogger or two

    It is my annual leave and even if a Finnish newspaper warned about not having a full, proper holiday, I do keep my stress levels normal by working slowly towards the illustrations of a major article. However, enjoying my daytime with my son and digitising pot sherds every now and then do not make an interesting reading, so I forward you to my friends and fellow bloggers instead.

    Alun Salt is not only our very own Godless-Father, but also an archaeoastronomer. Anybody interested in classics will find something new in his 'Ancients and meteors'.

    And those of us who find death inspiring in one way or another (as long as it is not our own), can look at Archaeodeath. 'Aldworth Church' is worth visiting.

    And in order to try to keep a gender balance and introduce a female blogger, not to mention interdisciplinarity, Maijastina Kahlos presents interesting thoughts. I do have a soft spot for frontiers and boundaries, so her entry on her time in Budapest is illuminating.

    Sunday, 13 July 2014

    Digging deep for archaeology?

    An article in the Independent – apparently to celebrate the start of the Festival of Archaeology – recognised the current problems of the archaeological profession in Britain. The profession has shrunken by a third, the loosening of the pay is low for graduates, one major department has closed its undergraduate course and there may be a shortage of diggers in the future, if the building and planning picks up. There are signs in our village that this is a case.

    I could use this blog to marvel the unfortunate situation after the planning regulations recently. The developers build new estates to the villages where the infrastructure cannot support them. In our village the rush hour traffic is horrendous with long queues, since all the traffic to nearby villages goes through our village. The suggested solution by a developer: to remodel a roundabout to be a double roundabout that does not help to increase the flow – probably the opposite. The only way would be to create alternative realistic routes to Leicester city centre...

    Anyway, archaeology is a curious profession, since the archaeological units have a margin thinning business model with competitive bargaining and short-term contracts for most of the workers when its core business is totally dependent of planning regulation. If that was to disappear, archaeology would probably go, too. The local museums are closing or cutting personnel and even if running the community archaeology will bring some jobs, it is unlikely to support thousands of fulltime staff permanently. The funding comes in piecemeal from grants and crowdfunding.

    Crowdfunding is offered as a solution, but I am sure hundreds of projects would not be guaranteed funding simultaneously. DigVentures is a high profile venture in this field and says that their grant money is not going to run out in three years, but they have to work continuously in order to keep money rolling in. Luckily, there will be people eager to fulfil their inner archaeologist dreams, but how many similar businesses the country could take? Businesses that could pay continuously salaries.

    DigVentures is right in the fact that the archaeologist have to be creative and use all the possibilities, but it would be foolish to think that the crowdfunding will be the basis for long-term solution that will support academics, university departments and regular excavations at planning sites. However, it is a workable solution for shorter research excavations and field schools, but the market can saturate quickly. Nevertheless, the society and charity funding model is now expanding in Finland, for example, so it bring at least short-term help. We can only hope that the government do not shrink the state to the smitterings, since planning guidance is needed – not only to keep archaeology going but also to keep villages from being overdeveloped with overextended primary schools and too many cars in a daily traffic jam with no libraries or museums.