Irvine, Benjamin

Koç University

Project: Environmental Archeology Project

Dr. Irvine is a bioarchaeologist who specialises in utilizing osteological, archaeological, and stable isotope analyses to examine human-environment interactions, dietary habits, subsistence practices, agricultural strategies, and mobility patterns of populations in ancient Anatolia and neighbouring regions. He is currently also an Honorary Research Fellow of the BIAA. 

Click here for the fellow’s Introductory Video…


Fellow’s End of the Academic Year Research Report:

The Enticing Environment of Environmental Archaeology

To summarize this past year as a DAI-ANAMED Joint Environmental Archaeology Project Fellow at ANAMED, I can paraphrase the immortal phrase of Jesse from ‘The Fast Show’—this year, I have mostly been extracting collagen from animal bones. This is the second phase of isotopic work as part of the DAI-ANAMED project on “Humidity & Society: 8,500 Years of Climate History in Western Anatolia.” It has involved spending a lot of time in the ARHA laboratory of Koç University, preparing, sorting, and processing the faunal bones from the projects’ sites of Barcın Höyük, Kaymakçı, and Pergamon. Following collection and sorting of the bones, an internationally recognized standard protocol was employed to extract bulk bone collagen from the selected samples. Very generally, this involved mechanical cleaning of the bones to remove external contaminants such as soil, dirt, and calcite. The bone samples were then demineralized in acid, followed by gelatinization in a heating block, filtration, and finally lyophilization using a freeze-dryer. A total of ca. 270 faunal samples from the three sites were processed, with more-or-less equal numbers of samples from each site. The sampled faunal bones include a range of both domestic and wild species, with approximately two-thirds being domestic species. This lab work at Koç University was conducted equally by myself and Rana Özbal and also included the assistance of several Koç University students (Sevil Kandemir, Şebnem Turhan, Berfin Dolançay, and Melis Yordamlı) who were trained by us in the collagen extraction protocol. This has meant that they have been able to gain the valuable hands-on experience of working in a laboratory environment, handling faunal osteoarcheological materials, and also the process of collagen extraction from osteological materials. All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of Rana Özbal, with assistance from ARHA laboratory manager Ebru Kaner, who have spent the last few years developing and setting up the infrastructure to enable scientific methodologies, such as collagen extraction, to be conducted at Koç University. The lab work was also supported by the zooarchaeological teams of all three excavation projects, helping to identify, sort, and collect the species of animal and skeletal elements for sampling. Particular mention and thanks should go to Rana Özbal and Alfred Galik (Barcın Höyük); Şengül Fındıklar, Francesca Slim, and Canan Çakırlar (Kaymakçı); and Peggy Morgenstern and Michael Hochmuth (Pergamon). Nicola Neuenfeld of the DAI-Istanbul also provided a lot of assistance with the organization and logistics of the bioarchaeological samples from Pergamon, so thank you very much to her too.
The extracted bone collagen (Fig. 1) is being subjected to stable carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) analysis, and, to my knowledge, this will be the largest single dataset of δ13C and δ15N data from archaeological fauna in all of Turkey, and it will cover chronological periods from the Neolithic to the Roman period of western Anatolia. The resulting δ13C and δ15N data will first allow us to examine the dietary habits of the sampled animals (i.e., what they were eating). This, in turn, will allow us to investigate things such as animal mobility and animal management and will provide information about the local and regional environment and biosphere—particularly when examined in conjunction with the other environmental proxy studies being conducted by the project as whole. For domesticated animals, this will, of course, allow us to also investigate animal husbandry and agricultural and pastoral practices at the individual site and local and regional levels, as well as diachronically, owing to the large number of samples taken from across time and space.
Fig. 1. Vial containing bulk bone collagen extracted from a faunal bone sample (Photograph by Benjamin Irvine)
My work as a fellow this year has also continued on the first phase of isotopic work as part of the “Humidity & Society” project. This has mostly dealt with the organization, analysis, and interpretation of additional radiocarbon (14C) and stable isotope (δ13C) data from carbonized wood charcoal samples, as well as integrating the new data with that from samples analyzed over the last couple of years. We (the “Humidity & Society” project team) presented the preliminary data and results of the δ13C analysis on the carbonized plant remains in December 2021 at the virtual component of the ASOR (American School of Overseas Research) annual meeting. Soon, the isotopic data I have been working with will be able to be fully integrated with the anthracological data, following the work of another DAI-ANAMED Joint Environmental Archaeology Project Fellow, Ceren Çilingir.
My work as part of the “Humidity & Society” project has also involved work of a less isotopic nature. This includes being involved with the budgeting and sampling strategy of the project, participating in a fieldtrip to take sediment core samples in the Gölmarmara region (Fig. 2), and representing the project at the DAI-Groundcheck meeting (of which the “Humidity & Society” project is a part) in November 2021, where I presented a brief overview of the project, its aims, and achievements so far.
Fig. 2. Watching Çetin Şenkul and his team examine an extracted sediment core (Photograph by, and courtesy of, Christina Luke).
This year also saw the formulation and finalization of the new “Bioarchaeology” module of the ANAMED Environmental Archaeology Online Program, following its COVID-related postponement last summer. Although my name is on the module as course instructor, it wouldn’t have been possible without the help and hard work of ANAMED’s Naz Uğurlu and Duygu Tarkan, as well as my peer, fellow Ceren Çilingir. This module is scheduled for its first offering in summer 2022, and at the time of writing, people have already registered for the program. I hope this new module will be useful, interesting, and informative for participating students, as well as complementing the already existing, and excellent, modules on archaeobotany and zooarchaeology.
This year, through my DAI-ANAMED fellowship, I have also been able to do some informal teaching and training for Koç University students. The first was the training and supervision of students assisting with the collagen extraction process, as mentioned earlier. The second was a workshop on the application of isotopes to bioarchaeological materials held on campus on 18 March 2022. The latter included a lecture—“Applying isotopic analyses to bioarchaeological remains”—which provided a theoretical and methodological background and also a practical lesson in the lab to demonstrate a brief overview of the collagen extraction procedure from bones. In late March and through April 2022, I consulted for an independent study course at Koç University for undergraduate students in biological anthropology, providing an introduction to mortuary archaeology, excavation practices, skeletal and dental anatomy, and examination of human skeletal remains in the field and lab, including basic paleodemographic analyses such as estimating sex, age-at-death, stature, and identifying and analyzing skeletal pathologies and traumatic injuries.
I have also continued with some of my more independent research activities this year. These have included continuing with my role as a member of the ECA (Early Career Archaeologists) community, from which I was nominated to be part of the EAA (European Association of Archaeologists) website re-design taskforce. I also continued to develop and construct the BioIsoANE website and database in collaboration with colleagues, gave a talk in January as part of the METU (Middle Eastern Technical University) Archaeometry Department’s seminar series (“Using multi-faceted approaches to investigate staple finance in the prehistoric Near East”), and continued with publications. With regards to publications, of particular note are the series of short articles to be published in Turkish and in Turkish journals that I have been writing (in collaboration with colleagues). These are designed to provide introductory knowledge about the theories, methods, and applications of isotopic research that will, I hope, help to educate and inform the next generation of Turkish archaeologists and scientists, as well as create a more domestically accessible way of raising awareness about isotopic research and its potential when applied to archaeological materials and research questions in Anatolia.
This brings me to something that, whilst not directly ANAMED-affiliated, was definitely enacted within the scope of representing ANAMED in my role as a DAI-ANAMED Joint Environmental Archaeology Fellow. From 28 February to 6 March 2022, I helped to co-organize and run, in collaboration with Doğa Karakaya of Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen and Birgül Öğüt of the German Archaeological Institute, a workshop on “Highway to Science! Scientific archaeology in Turkey with a special focus on basic research methods.” The first four days of the workshop consisted of online lectures held via Zoom. These lectures were given by specialists in the disciplines of archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, biological anthropology, biomolecular archaeology, geoarchaeology, and digital archaeology. Thematic and discipline-related introductory ‘101’ lectures were complemented by case studies and more general site and project-specific lectures. Between 4 and 6 March, in-person training was held in Gaziantep and included practical lessons and training in zooarchaeology, biological anthropology, and macro- and micro-plant remains. I gave an introductory lecture about the application of isotopes to bioarchaeological materials and also ran the biological anthropology in-person training.
One of the aims of this workshop was to provide an introductory level of education and training to, particularly Turkish, students about the different sub-disciplines and fields of environmental archaeology and bioarchaeological sciences. These kinds of topics are not always covered specifically as part of archaeology courses and modules at an undergraduate level in Turkey. By providing an opportunity for students to learn, or hear more, about these kinds of subjects from experts in the field, this has the double effect of not only providing a basic level of education, as a lecture as part of a course or module may, but also helps to enlighten students as to what kind of specialist fields they may want to move into at graduate, post-graduate, and career levels, including what this would entail and how they might go about it. This has been one of the first workshops of its kind, with a focus on a broad range of environmental archaeology topics aimed at students and involving lectures and practical-based teaching and training. At the end of the online part of the workshop, we held a general discussion about environmental archaeology and bioarchaeological sciences in Turkey and the current state of the fields, as well as thoughts for future developments. One of the things that came up was the need for more specialist workshops, training programs, and field schools. In some ways, therefore, ANAMED has been ahead of the curve and is certainly a key part of the vanguard in the development of environmental archaeology in Turkey, with initiatives like its Environmental Archaeology Online Program, its Environmental Archaeology Fellowships, an Environmental Archaeology Workshop (focusing on archaeobotany and zooarchaeology) held in 2019, an Environmental Archaeology Training Program (ENVARCH) held online in 2020, the development of the environmental archaeology laboratory facilities and reference collections, and a general commitment to promoting, facilitating, and supporting environmental archaeological research. As someone whose research interests and specializations fall within the overarching term of “environmental archaeology,” I certainly feel like I have been very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time at this stage in my career!