Virginia Tech soil scientist partners with archaeologists to investigate Early Bronze Age civilization on the Isle of Man
July 17, 2019
For W. Lee Daniels ’78, M.S. ’80, Ph.D. ’85, summer trips to the Isle of Man offer the soil scientist the perfect blend of academic entreaty and leisure time.
Daniels and his wife, Jody Booze-Daniels, are frequent visitors to the picturesque isle, which is approximately 30 miles long, 10 miles wide, and situated equidistant from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The couple is long-time friends with Isle of Man native Robert Cannell, former director of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and professor emeritus of crop and soil environmental sciences.
After retiring, Cannell returned home to manage Berk Farm, an island property characterized by lush, rolling pastures and captivating post-card views of the Irish Sea. Long considered a jewel of the isle, the agricultural estate has been in the Cannell family for multiple generations.
While Daniels, the Thomas B. Hutcheson Jr. Professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, had visited Berk Farm several times since Cannell’s retirement, 2018 marked a different sort of trip.
Just one year before, Rachel Crellin, a lecturer in later prehistory at the University of Leicester in England, approached Cannell with a request. Based on Lidar and other imagery, the archaeology expert expressed an interest in excavating one or more raised mounds located on a high glacial ridge above Berk Farm. After Cannell granted her request, Crellin, together with her co-director, Chris Fowler, head of archaeology and senior lecturer at Newcastle University, secured a grant from Manx National Heritage to conduct an initial limited excavation in 2017.
That summer, excavation of a burial mound on Berk Farm began. The mound is one of a cluster of three on the estate. When Daniels and his wife learned about the project during a visit to the farm in 2017, they volunteered to work with Crellin and Fowler during their next trip to the isle in July of the following year.
“During a previous visit, Robert pointed out the mounds on the ridge and said he was fairly sure they were archaeology sites. He assumed they were most likely Viking mounds, which are common in that part of Europe,” Daniels said.
From that moment, Daniels’ curiosity was piqued. Nationally recognized for his pioneering research in the reclamation of disturbed lands, particularly those impacted by mining, waste disposal, and road building, he was among the first researchers to develop and implement highly effective remediation strategies, including the use of municipal and industrial waste products as soil amendments. The soil scientist’s current research addresses wetland creation and the conversion of dredge sediments to useful soils.
Shortly after arriving in the U.K., the Daniels joined Crellin and Fowler, along with a team of undergraduate and graduate students, to assist with the final week of their one-month dig.
“Rachel and her team were able to identify several burials that were not Viking in origin,” said Daniels. “They think most of the remains are from the Bronze Age. There are at least two different time periods associated with the dig.”
The archaeologists unearthed a ring cairn, a layer of stones covering and encasing the barrow, signifying a ceremonial site. The team also discovered a rich array of artifacts, including collared urns containing cremated remains, flint, arrowheads, pottery, and various tools associated with peoples of the Early Bronze Age, which ranges from 2200 to 1500 BC. Some pottery may also date to the late Neolithic period.
“The researchers’ level of detail is phenomenal,” said Daniels. “In soil science we identify layers and interpret how these layers formed based on properties like color we can observe in the field. We have a model of how they form and can estimate the timing for a given region. For archaeologists on a site like this, they have a much more detailed and different way of describing the layers they encounter. They excavate out long trenches. Every single artifact is surveyed with an on-site station so they can build 2D and 3D models that show where everything was found in its ‘context’ to other similar or contrasting layers at the site.”
Daniels also noted that whereas he and his American peers observe soil and see distinct layers, called horizons, Crellin and her cohorts approach their work from a different paradigm. They explore a given layer and all of the artifacts it contains, examining how the contents are related to each other and how each layer is related to what’s above, underneath, and around it, making for a contextual, complex, and interrelated set of layers with depth.
“They had questions about each layer,” said Daniels. “’Do the darker subsurface layers that resemble topsoil, for instance, have more carbon?’ They do. So, this means that it was vegetated for some period of time, or it was brought in from offsite and dumped.”
Daniels’ soil analysis was also able to answer another important question: Had the archaeologists reached the bottom of human disturbance?
“I could look at certain layers around the site and tell them they were not at the bottom. They had not gotten out of the fill,” he said. “As they went deeper, they kept finding artifacts.”
“There are signatures we see, such as phosphorus. This is because of food, excrement, vegetation, and other material that people brought into their work areas,” said Daniels. “We know the mound was a work and ceremonial area rather than a living area. So, the soil contains evidence of bone, flint, fire pits, and so on. There are also other interesting features. When a water table fluctuates, manganese goes through transformations and forms black stains on pottery and rock slab faces. That is associated with the water table moving up and down. Certain zones had large visible manganese stains.”
The soil scientist also identified features consistent with the presence of a tubular, tap-rooted plant such as gorse that at one time grew about 5 feet down through multiple layers of soil. In later centuries, rain washed topsoil into the holes and plugged them.
Daniels’ most significant contribution, however, has been his exploration of the relationship between context, Crellin’s methodology, and horizons, or soil layers, in the determination of pedogenic, or naturally forming features, versus anthropogenic, features originating from human activity. This analysis, he feels, is an important contribution, presenting detailed evidence about the site’s inhabitants and how the space was used, and making a compelling case for closer transdisciplinary collaboration between soil scientists and archaeologists.
“This is what I was most interested in helping them with. Everything at this site, with few exceptions, is all anthropogenic,” he said. “We helped them interpret several important layers at the site. An orangish-yellow band of soil that cuts through the middle elevation of the mound was of particular interest. The team wanted to know if it formed since the structures were built. This answer was no. It was transported in by humans and didn’t form in-place.”
Crellin and Fowler’s work was approved for the summer of 2019. So, this July, Daniels returns to the Isle of Man to document the latest findings in order to build teaching modules that will enable him to share this work with students at Virginia Tech.
“One of my major goals was to build teaching modules to show an application of soil science,” he said. “Archaeologists and social scientists look at layering in much greater detail with more interpretation in order to understand how layers and artifacts relate to each other. We can work together to help them answer basic questions that inform and help them.”
At the site, Daniels also continued to examine and analyze soils outside of the excavation area to help the team interpret when anthropogenic influences give way to natural soils.
After a second summer of digging, Crellin and her team uncovered five burials on the site, including several below the mound layers, in the mound layers, cut into the top of the mound, and placed within the ring-cairn.
In total, the researchers have made more than 3,000 finds, discovering blades, grinder tools, burned bones, charcoal, pottery sherds, generic tools, and other artifacts. They have also carried out osteological examination of all Neolithic and Bronze Age human remains held in the museum on the island, and radiocarbon, isotopic, and aDNA analysis of samples from this work is currently underway.
In addition, extensive landscape research using GIS and LiDAR has mapped the location of more than 180 mounds across the island offering promising possibilities for further archaeological exploration
Presently, the team’s artifacts are in storage at the Manx Museum in Douglas. In the future, these finds will be displayed in the museum where they will shed light on the island’s rich history and contribute to a greater understanding of Early Bronze Age civilization.
Daniels hopes to continue to return to the Isle of Man. He aspires to share this work with his students in order to introduce the next generation of soil and environmental scientists to archaeology and to illustrate the value of transdisciplinary partnerships.
— Written by Amy Painter