ScARF Student Bursary Report: Ulle Aguraiuja

14C and Archaeology

As a 3rd year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh I am approaching the end of my doctoral studies, but also the start of an independent career as a researcher. Attending conferences is a great way to stay up-to-date with new discoveries and modern techniques, learn about the work conducted by colleagues, and to meet and converse with likeminded individuals who share my particular passion towards a very specific and narrow topic in the field of archaeology. I am grateful to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and to the ScARF Student Bursary for enabling me to take part in the 8th International Symposium on 14C & Archaeology and to present the preliminary results of my PhD research to a wider audience. My poster was well received and I was able to discuss my findings with both old and new acquaintances – something which will be very beneficial when I start the final write-up of my thesis.

Ulle with her poster at the C14 and Archaeology conference

My PhD research focuses on using stable isotope analysis of human and animal bone remains to reconstruct the dietary practices of a Bronze Age population in Romania. Stable isotope ratios of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in bone collagen can be used to differentiate between terrestrial vs marine, and animal vs plant-based diets, and sometimes to distinguish reliance on freshwater resources. In regards to my post-doctoral career, I hope to continue applying stable isotope analysis to solve archaeological research questions, in whatever region or time period my work would lead me to. This work will undoubtedly be related to the field of radiocarbon dating, as stable isotope ratios are commonly used to correct the radiocarbon age of bone samples for reservoir effects.

One of the main themes of the conference, and indeed the session of most interest to me, was ‘Reservoir effects and 14C dating’. Reservoir effects can be characterised as offsets in the radiocarbon age, occurring when an organism incorporates carbon 14 from a source other than atmospheric CO2, i.e. marine or freshwater carbon, leading it to appear ‘older’ than terrestrial samples of the same age. The stable isotope ratio of human bone can potentially be used as an indicator for a reservoir effect, since a diet rich in aquatic foodstuffs would result in an older radiocarbon age than that of a contemporary human who relied mostly on terrestrial resources.
Although my preliminary results have shown that the Romanian Bronze Age population did not rely heavily on aquatic resources and thus should not exhibit any reservoir effects, the topics covered at the conference have stressed the necessity to be aware of these issues and to always obtain the C and N stable isotope ratios when radiocarbon dating organic material such as bone. The experience of participating in this conference has also left me with an appreciation of the wide field of topics that can benefit from stable isotope analysis, indicating that there is a large amount of research still to be undertaken, with close ties to the field I have specialised in.

Ülle Aguraiuja PhD candidate in Archaeology, University of Edinburgh