Archive for the 'Josephine Mills' Category

An Evening Dealing Out “Justice”

By Arendse I Lund, on 4 April 2018

Last week, we held our first event of 2018 in the UCL Art Museum where three of us PhD students — Josie Mills, Cerys Bradley, and myself — all approached the topic of “justice” from different perspectives and vastly different disciplines.

Josie speaking about the Neanderthals

Josie spoke about the idea of justice amongst the Neanderthals and what theories scholars have for any type of justice system in the Palaeolithic era. By talking about the factors we need for a crime to happen, she described from an archaeological view whether or not there was rock solid evidence for a Palaeolithic justice system. Turns out, there isn’t — at least not yet!

She drew comparisons to the modern Inuit justice system, and discussed whether they could tell us anything about tribal justice at large. Taking questions from the audience, Josie disabused us of the notion that Neanderthals are completely different from modern humans or that they ran around bashing each other on the head with rocks. This is a topic she’s well accustomed to discussing; she has also written extensively on Palaeolithic burial practices and cannibalism amongst the Neanderthals.

Arendse speaking about the Anglo-Saxon concept of justice

Skipping from the Neanderthals to the Anglo-Saxons, I followed Josie’s talk with a discussion of justice in the year 600 CE. This was the year that King Æthelbert of Kent issued his law code. With its long list of clauses, Æthelbert’s law code was a comprehensive list of how to calculate the appropriate amount to pay someone if you wrong them somehow. This would theoretically make it easier to police crimes as families are paid off for their relative’s injury and therefore don’t need to attack in retaliation and start a blood feud.

As everyone arrived for the talk, they had been handed a piece of paper with an attack on a victim, the social status of those involved, or the location of the attack. I now invited the audience to play a game with me. We would attack a hypothetical Edwin of Kent and see what happened. For example, laming Edwin’s shoulder would cost us 30 shillings in the year 600 (an enormous sum). If Edwin was a freeman and our attack killed him, we would have to pay his family 100 shillings, broken up into two installments: 20 shillings at Edwin’s open grave, where a blood feud might erupt, and the remaining 80 shillings within the next 40 days. The location where we murder Edwin is also important in calculating how much we have to pay because through our actions, we might accidentally have insulted someone else. If our attack was on the king’s estate, then we would have to pay an additional 50 shillings to the Æthelbert for disrupting the peace.

Cards to “attack” poor Edwin of Kent

The goal of this exercise was to show how expensive it was to injure or murder someone. But because of this exhaustive list of fines, for the first time in Anglo-Saxon law there are recognized crimes and standardized punishments, and there will theoretically be fewer blood feuds. The audience engaged with this talk and I received excellent feedback encouraging me to do another one in this style.


Cerys giving an overview of 21st-century justice

Jumping from the Anglo-Saxons to modern policing, Cerys spoke about attempting to enforce justice in the age of the Dark Net. As a doctoral student in the crime and security science department, Cerys studies people who buy drugs on the internet and how they react to different law enforcement interventions. In a fascinating discussion, Cerys showed how far we’ve come in policing crime but also how the modern justice system has not caught up with anonymous internet crime.

We moved from one-on-one crime with very little evidence of a justice system with the Neanderthals, to recognized crimes with standardized punishment for the Anglo-Saxons, to anonymized crime which doesn’t always have a standardized punishment in our modern world of the Dark Net. These types of interdisciplinary talks with different approaches to a common theme is something that excites me the most about working as part of the Student Engager team. It provides me greater insight into my own research by hearing about the resources and approaches of other disciplines.

At the end of the evening, we asked our audience members for feedback and to vote on which justice system they’d most like to live under. To my great surprise, the Anglo-Saxons won!


Event: What do you need to create a justice system?

By Arendse I Lund, on 14 March 2018

What do you need to create a justice system, an evening of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, will be taking place on Tuesday, 20 March 2018, UCL Art Museum 6:30-8pm


Our upcoming event “What do you need to create a justice system?” is next Tuesday — come join us for an evening of short talks focussed on the justice systems, or lack thereof, in early farming communities, amongst the Anglo-Saxons, and in the Dark Net. Think there’s no connection at all between these disparate time periods? You might be surprised!



The speakers are:

Josie Mills – a third-year PhD in Archaeology at UCL specialising in applying scientific techniques, like mass spectrometry, to understand more about stone tools made by Neanderthals. She’s particularly interested in how we, as modern humans, perceive prehistoric behaviour and the division we draw between us and other species.

Arendse Lund – a PhD student in the UCL English department. She traces the development of an Old English legal language and how rulers use this legal terminology to shape perceptions of their authority. She is funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.

Cerys Bradley – a PhD student in the crime and security science department at UCL. They study the people who buy drugs on the internet and how they react to different law enforcement interventions.

The event is being hosted in the UCL Art Museum, an intimate space in what used to be the old print room. The three talks are 15 minutes each and are followed by questions. Then attendees are welcome to join the presenters for a wine reception. No booking is necessary but space is limited.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Make a Museum about Pokémon!

By Josephine Mills, on 21 November 2017

Post-it Note found on the visitor feedback board in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (if this was left by you - do get in touch!)

Post-it Note found on the visitor feedback board in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (if this was left by you – get in touch!)


While working in the Petrie Museum last week I glanced at the board reserved for visitor feedback, noticed this post-it and couldn’t resist taking a photo… As a child of the nineties I have a soft spot for Pokémon and have wholeheartedly embraced revival of the plucky little critters. I’ve particularly enjoyed the nostalgia of sharing the new games with my younger brother, Daniel; if only there were a degree in poké-studies!

Last year the app Pokémon Go made headlines world-wide and the presence of the virtual creatures in museums and archives was widely discussed within the heritage industry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m team positive for Pokémon Go in museums, and the staff at UCL Museums have written some great blog posts on the subject. See this post by Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby and Research Engager Arendse’s blog.


A wild Pigeotto appears as I am doing my PXRF analysis (Image: J Mills 2016)

A wild Pigeotto appears as I am doing my PXRF analysis (Image: Author’s own photo)


In fact, museums, archaeological ruins, and science labs also feature in the Pokémon games, serving as venues to transform fossils found in the wild into rare Pokémon. These Pokémon, like those mentioned in Arendse’s post, were inspired by real fossils, for example Omanyte from ammonites, and Aerodactyl from pterodactyl. My personal favourite is Relicanth, a fish bearing a close resemblance to the Lazarus species the coeleocanth!



Left: Omanyte (Image: Bulbapedia; Right: Ammonite (Image: British Geological Survey)


Omanyte and Ammonite

Here you can see the similarities between the shell of the Pokémon and the preserved ammonite Mantelliceras, which lived during the Late Cretaceous/Cenomanian period around 100 million years ago. This was a time when much of the Chalk in England formed and Cretaceous ammonite fossils are common in chalky areas of the South Coast. Interestingly fossil ammonites are often displayed ‘upside down’ (effectively with their head in the air!) whereas the Pokémon are orientated to move with their tentacles at the base, more like the original creatures.


Top: Aerodactyl (Image: https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Aerodactyl_(Pok%C3%A9mon ); Bottom: Pterodactyl (Image: http://dinosaurpictures.org/Pterodactyl-pictures)

Top: Aerodactyl (Image: Bulbapedia); Bottom: Pterodactyl (Image: Dinosaur Pictures)



Aerodactyl and Pterodactyl

Perhaps the most literal translation of the three are the obvious similarities between the Aerodactyl Pokémon and the extinct Pterodactyl, which lived during the Jurassic period 200-150 million years ago. The fossils on the game are rare and can only be found in certain areas; similarly pterodactyl fossils are also localised in real life, with most excavated from the Solnhofen limestone in Germany.

Top: Relicanth (Image: https://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/pokemon/images/a/ad/369Relicanth_AG_anime.png/revision/latest?cb=20141006041759); Bottom: Coelacanth (Image: http://vertebrates.si.edu/fishes/coelacanth/coelacanth_wider.html)

Top: Relicanth (Image: Bulbapedia); Bottom: Coelacanth (Image: Smithsonian)


Relicanth and Coelacanth

Even Relicanth’s name nods to the antiquity and mysterious-ness of the real-life fish the Coelacanth. The Coelacanth is a ‘Lazarus’ species, a term that refers to a taxon that was thought to be extinct but reappears again in the wild. The cryptic nature of the Coelacanth is reflected by the camouflage cartoon pattern of the Pokémon, a graphic allegory of the fish’s complex history!

Although the Pokémon hype has gradually dwindled, perhaps this message from our younger audience (or any nineties kids out there), highlights what we can take from Pokémon: the appeal of learning about animals and artefacts, the surprise of finding new things where you didn’t expect them, and the lure of encountering the rare and interesting.

More practically, specimens that have inspired both fossils and non-fossil Pokémon are on display across the Grant Museum. However, if anybody is interested in funding a museum solely about Pokémon, please get in touch: I know someone who might be suitable for curator *cough*…

Mammoths and Magdalenians: A Summer in the Ice Age

By Josephine Mills, on 30 August 2017

This August I swapped the busy streets of London for the beaches and archaeology on the island of Jersey, which is located close to the Normandy coastline in the English Channel. Jersey is an incredibly archaeologically-rich location with many prehistoric and historic sites of interest. The project that I work with is called Ice Age Island (twitter hashtag: #iceageisland) and we are particularly focused on archaeological deposits from the Middle Palaeolithic, Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites on the island.

Jersey is currently an island but during cooler periods of the Pleistocene (Ice Age), when sea level fell, it regularly became part of the larger Channel landmass of the Continental Shelf. The Ice Age Island team are a group of researchers and students focused on unravelling this part of the island’s past by exploring terrestrial sites on the island but also investigating how humans used the wider, now submerged, landscape that surrounded it. Currently work is focused on reconstructing geological and topographical mapping of the Continental Shelf and also working out how artefacts from the sites we are excavating and studying can contribute to our understanding of behaviour in the offshore area.

3 maps

Fig 1. A map showing the location of Jersey and the other Channel Islands. Numbered locations refer to Middle Palaeolithic sites in the area: 1= Le Rozel, 2= La Cotte a la Chèvre, 3 = La Cotte de St. Brelade, 4 = Mont Dol

My PhD is focused during the Middle Palaeolithic of Jersey when Neanderthals visited the island, particularly the site of La Cotte de St. Brelade on the south-west coast. La Cotte is a sheltered cave-like area formed within a granite t-shaped ravine system and has recorded Neanderthal activity intermittently from around 240,000 to 40,000 years ago. The work that I do helps to contribute to the understanding of how Neanderthals interacted with the offshore landscape, particularly where they got the raw material needed to make stone artefacts from. The use of stone, particularly flint, to make tools was key to survival for Neanderthals. Tools made from stone were used for activities like hunting, food processing, and preparing hides—giving access to food, nutrition, defence, and warmth. Flint presence and absence fluctuates in the deposits at La Cotte and by understanding differences in the types of raw materials in the different archaeological layers we hope to reconstruct a model of the availability of different sources; this will in turn shed light on Neanderthal behaviour in the wider landscape. So this summer I’ve swapped three museums for one museum archive in Jersey where I have been analysing flint tools from La Cotte!

High def CSB

Fig 2: View into the t-shaped ravine system at La Cotte de St. Brelade (own image)

However Ice Age Island is made up of multiple strands of investigation and the most active is the archaeological training dig and field school, which UCL has been involved in for seven excavation seasons. The site is run by Dr Ed. Blinkhorn (Senior Archaeologist UCL and Archaeology South East), and supported by supervisors and students from different universities. Excavation is focused on the Magdalenian (a time period spanning 17,000 – 12,000 years ago) site of Les Varines, where the archaeological deposits are dated to approximately 14,000 years ago.


Fig 3. Students and staff working at the excavation during the site open day (own image)

The current interpretation is that the site represents a hunter-gatherer camp where Magdalenian people lived for some parts of the year. Located at the sheltered apex of a wide valley system the site would have been a prime position for tracking migrating animals, like deer and horse, in the landscape below. However the story of Les Varines has changed through the seven years the site has been excavated. Initially the artefacts that were found appeared disturbed by post-depositional processes and were not excavated in the original position they were left by the Magdalenian people. This limited the behavioural inference that could be taken from the artefacts. However as new trenches and test pits were put in, guided by geophysical survey, areas of intact Upper Palaeolithic archaeology were discovered!

This year has been a really exciting excavation season as the type of finds being made have diversified from flint tools to include a mammoth tooth and multiple constructed hearth areas. This allows a much more varied picture of life at the site, demonstrating different activities the Magdalenian people were carrying out!


Ed Blinkhorn and Letty Ingrey (UCL/ Archaeology South East) talking about the potential mammoth tooth find


UCL MSc Palaeolithic Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology students Leah and Fiona discussing uncovering the Magdalenian Hearth Features

So if you haven’t seen my in a museum for a while – that’s what I’ve been up to!

Lemurs: the Ghostly Primate?

By Josephine Mills, on 9 June 2017

Did you know lemurs are primates? In fact they are one of the oldest primates, known as prosimians, which evolved long before monkeys and apes. They belong to the suborder Strepsirrhini alongside other mostly insectivorous and nocturnal primates like bushbabies, lorises and pottos. Lemur-like primates appeared in Africa around 60 million years ago and crossed the sea to Madagascar shortly after – possibly via rafting on clumps of vegetation or trees. Madagascar, which had separated from the super continent Gondwanaland 100 million years earlier, continued to drift further from the African Coastline; this meant that no other primates were able to cross to its shores. Consequently Lemuriformes continued to evolve on Madagascar with no pressure from other primates and it is the only place where they survive today!


Lemurs have a distinctive elongated nose seen here on a red ruffed lemur

Without this competition and predation lemurs evolved across the island’s distinct ecological niches, which range from dense forests, to lakes and open areas. There are over fifty different species of Malagasy lemur who all evolved from the same common ancestor, which makes variation in their behaviour particularly interesting. Lemurs have started to adopt behaviours previously associated solely with Haplorrhine primates (monkeys and apes!), including activity in the day, frugivory, and the formation of complex social groups. Lemur groups operate a matrilineal structure where power rests with adult females and their female children. This is due to the practice of female philopatry where females always remain in the group they were born in whereas males leave. This behaviour is relatively unusual within the primate world!

However Madagascar did not remain an untouched paradise for ever, with the arrival of arguably the most destructive and dangerous primate (guess who?) by boat around 2,000 years ago. As humans settled on the island they began to cause damage to lemur habitats and started to hunt them for food. This resulted in the extinction of several species of lemur including the giant lemurs Megaladapis and Archaeoindris. These megafaunal lemurs could reach the size of a gorilla but were slow moving and well adapted to their niche habitats making them easy prey. Some skeletal remains have been found with cut marks indicating butchery by humans.

Lemur’s unique evolution, far from the pressures of living alongside other competing primates, has allowed them to expand their evolutionary niches. One great example of this is new sightings of them being active both during the day and night. This newly observed behaviour has been called ‘cathemeral’, literally meaning around the clock, indicating the ability to distribute activity throughout the 24-hour period. This is very unusual in primates but has now been documented in four species of lemur on Madagascar; it is observed elsewhere in some populations of South American owl monkeys Aotus azarii (Fernandez-Duque et al. 2001; Tattersall 2008). Interestingly being most active during the day (Diurnality) is seen as a fundamental transition in primate evolution; the move into the light associated with larger group size and gregarious social behaviour (Donati et al. 2013).

However lemurs are traditionally nocturnal; the name ‘lemur’ derives from the Latin ‘lemures’ meaning ghost or spirit, perhaps linked to their spooky call and haunting stare seen reflecting from the dense Malagasy forests at night. The lemur’s gaze looks distinctive in the dark due to a biological feature unique to nocturnal animals, the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer present behind the eye that maximises any available light. This provides a key advantage to nocturnal species, both predator and prey. Look closely and you can even see it on your family cat! The presence of this adaptation in many lemur species suggests that it was a characteristic shared by their common ancestor.


I know these are cats, but you get the idea! (Photo credit: Awwwcats)


So if lemurs have this specialised nocturnal adaptation why are we seeing them active during the day? This unusual change in several different species of lemur presents quite a conundrum and several adaptive factors have been suggested that may have been influential (see Curtis and Rasmussen 2006 for more info):

  • Temperate control: Being able to spread their activity throughout the day and night allows lemurs to avoid extremes of temperature; on cooler days they can feed and forage in the day and vice-versa on hot days. In this way they would save energy otherwise used to regulate their body temperature.
  • Maximising digestion time: Extremely folivorous (leaf eating) lemurs may improve their digestion by being active at different times.
  • Predator avoidance: Lemurs may have adopted cathemerality to avoid their main predator the Fossa (you may remember these scary critters from the movie Madagascar); a highly specialised and dangerous nocturnal predator.

Contrasting non-adaptive hypothesis

  • An evolutionary disequilibrium: This theory proposes that cathemerality is only seen when a distinct ecological pressure is lifted putting a primate population into an evolutionary disequilibrium. Proposed by Van Schaik and Kappeler (1996) who suggest that lemurs can be active during the day due to removal of their diurnal predators by the recent mass megafaunal extinction events in Madagascar.

Overall the idea of an evolutionary disequilibrium is not well supported as there are distinct adaptive benefits to cathemerality; equally lemurs have a stable relationship with their main predator: the fossa. It appears that cathemerality is closely linked to predation and may provide other physiological benefits, but it is particularly interesting when re-evaluating the evolution of diurnal behaviour. In this way it emphasises the complex and diverse process that influence primate evolution and how there is not a pan-explanation for how certain behaviours appear. It also reminds us that when interpreting primate evolution new previously unseen things are happening all the time. Here’s where if I was going to bore you I’d link it back to Neanderthals but I won’t… Instead a picture of me hanging out with red ruffed lemur… and do check out the lemur specimens in the Grant Museum!


Red ruffed lemur at Artis Zoo in Amsterdam



Curtis, D., Rasmussen, M. A. (2006). The evolution of cathemerality in primates and other mammals: a comparative and chronoecological approach. Folia Primatologica 77: 178-193

Donati, G., Santini, L., Razafindramanana, J., Boitani L., Borgognini-Tarli, S. (2013). (Un-)expected nocturnal activity in ‘diurnal’ Lemur Catta supports cathermarlity as one of the key adaptations of the lemurid radiation. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 150: 99-106

Fernadez-Duque, E., Rotundo, M., Sloan, C. (2001). Density and population structure of owl monkeys (Aotus azarai) in the Argentinean Chaco. American Journal of Primatology 53: 99-108

Tattersall, I. (2008). Avoiding commitment: cathemerality among primates. Biological Rhythm Research 39: 213-228

Van Schaik, C. P., Kappeler, P. M. (1996). The social systems of gregarious lemurs: lack of evolutionary convergence with anthropoids due to evolutionary disequilibrium? Ethology 102: 915-941

Materials and Objects: The Secrets behind our Research

By Josephine Mills, on 16 May 2017


Materials and Objects, an afternoon of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, will be taking place on Thursday 18th May 2017, UCL Art Museum 2-4pm

Our next event ‘Materials and Objects’ is just a few days away and I thought this would be a good opportunity to chat a little bit about the event and our work as research engagers in general! This Thursday an afternoon of short talks will be given by UCL PhD researchers on a wide variety of topics, with a focus on the materials and objects that underlie each of our research areas. How this is interpreted varies from discipline to discipline but we all directly deal with materials and objects—or the systems used to understand, archive, and process them—whether it’s studying how objects like diaries and brains can be created, or interpreting new layers of meaning from materials like medieval manuscripts. As a team we employ a huge variety of different techniques, although we often surprise ourselves by the degree of overlap even with our disparate time frames and subject materials!

Materials and objects










The event itself is being hosted by UCL Art Museum—one of the museums we actively engage in—as our work reflects themes and pieces from the space itself. In fact, as research engagers, you can usually find one of us in the three museums on campus: the Art Museum, the Grant Museum or the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Depending on which museum we’re engaging in, different aspects of our research intersects with the displays.

As an archaeologist who focuses on prehistoric stone tools when I’m in the Petrie Museum I usually talk to people about the flint artefacts that you may not necessarily associate with the Ancient Egyptians. In the Art Museum I mainly focus on discussing landscape as my research also deals with reconstructing ancient landscape use.

Funnily enough last Tuesday in the Grant Museum someone asked me ‘So how do you relate rocks to this?’ as they gestured widely indicating the menagerie of fauna, both skeletal and preserved, surrounding us. I hastily indicated the Neanderthal skull cast around the corner and we chatted about Ice Age megafauna and hunting. We also talked about research in general and how, although he had studied medieval history, many of the processes that we use to get to the end goal are similar across all disciplines be it archaeological or neuroscience.

flint snake

The head of a flint snake (UC. 15171), which I often point out to people in the Petrie Museum, it is part of a display of flint animals including cows, dogs and birds! This demonstrates flint’s use as non-practical material and highlights its importance in Ancient Egypt! (photo by author)


That pretty much sums up the core of being a research engager, attempting to make what we do – which may at first glance sound niche – relevant and interesting to visitors of UCL Museums and UCL in general. In turn we benefit from having other opinions about our research as well, which can sometimes seem like a solo journey!

So come and see for yourself this Thursday—expect science, art, cake, and the odd Neanderthal!

Grab a free ticket here:



Neanderthals: Not So Different?

By Josephine Mills, on 4 April 2017

Although opinions of Neanderthals are rapidly changing within academic research groups, their image as primitive, brutish, and violent, can still be pervasive in wider spread media. This division between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals has deep roots in Europe, exacerbated by the historic tendency to see Anatomically Modern Humans (H. sapiens) as the only behaviourally complex hominin species. The first recognised Neanderthal fossil was discovered in 1856 in the Neander Valley in Germany and rapidly prompted widespread chaos in the scientific community as to where it fitted within the hominin lineage.

Much of this dialogue focused on perceived ‘primitive’ features of Neanderthal anatomy highlighting skeletal differences such as large protruding brow ridges, shorter stature, and barrel-like rib cages (if you visit the Grant Museum a selection of hominin crania are displayed showing some of these differences!). Discussion also focused on disparities in cognitive capacity and behaviour, quickly restricting Neanderthals to a species who favoured hunting over culture, and were more likely to display violence than altruism.

My PhD is based on unravelling aspects of Neanderthal landscape use and migration in the Western English Channel region during the Middle Palaeolithic, a period stretching from around 400 – 40,000 years ago. I am exploring behavioural complexities and reactions to environmental change through Neanderthal material culture, mainly via studying the movement of stone tools. Therefore it isn’t surprising that when I am engaging in the Grant Museum I gravitate towards the Neanderthal cast, which is a replica of the famous skull excavated from the site of La Chapelle-Aux-Saints in France.


Figure 1: La Chapelle-Aux-Saints Neanderthal cast held at the Grant Museum—note the pronounced brow ridge over the eye sockets. Although the mandible and teeth look very different from Anatomically Modern Humans this is a cast taken from the skull of a particularly old individual who had advanced dental problems including gum disease! (Grant Museum, z2020)

Interestingly the most common theme in conversations I have with visitors to the Grant Museum is the shared similarities, rather than differences, between Anatomically Modern Humans and Neanderthals. It seems that what captures our imaginations now are the significance of concepts previously thought of as unique to Homo sapiens that are being gradually recognised in association with Neanderthals. Important advances in dating and DNA analysis have shown that Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans co-existed in Europe for at least 40,000 years, with population groups meeting and interacting at different times. This is seen both in the archaeological record but also in the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, which indicates that most modern people living outside of Africa inherited around 1-4% of their DNA from Neanderthals. As I mentioned, after the discovery of the first Neanderthal fossils people weren’t too keen on any evidence that threatened to topple the shiny pedestal reserved for Homo sapiens, however these advances in modern science have prompted a greater openness when exploring Neanderthal archaeology.

In order to investigate these aspects of complex behaviour, such as symbolism and art, we consider behaviours preserved in the archaeological record that appear to surpass the functional everyday need for survival. Recent discoveries have suggested that Neanderthals were making jewellery from eagle talons in Croatia and may have had more involvement than previously thought in the complex archaeological assemblages found at sites like Grotte du Renne. However evidence of these behaviours in Neanderthal populations remains rare and although this may relate to the historic viewpoint (it simply hasn’t been looked for…), empirically we just do not see it on the same scale.

Two examples I often refer to when discussing this at the museum are the recent discoveries of potential abstract art at Gorham’s Cave Gibraltar and the Neanderthal structures found underground at Bruniquel Cave. The abstract art (disclaimer: I understand that ‘art’ depends on the definition of the concept itself but that’s for another blog post!) was found at Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, a well-known Neanderthal occupation site. Often nicknamed ‘the hashtag’ it is a series of overlapping lines that appear to have been made deliberately by repeated cutting motions using a stone tool. The archaeologists who discovered the hashtag suggest that it was created around 40,000 years ago and that, as it was found underlying Neanderthal stone tools, it can definitely be attributed to them. They hail it as an example of Neanderthal abstract art that may even have represented a map, suggesting an elevated level of conceptual understanding. Whatever the marks represent, if they are associated with the Neanderthal occupation of the cave this is a behaviour that has not been observed elsewhere!


Figure 2: An image of the Neanderthal ‘hashtag’ made deliberately with repeatedly with strokes of a stone tool on a raised podium in Gorham’s Cave Gibraltar (Photo: Rodríguez-Vidal et al. 2014)

The other example that I mentioned is the site of Bruniquel Cave in southwest France, where unusual underground structures deliberately made from stalagmites have been dated via uranium series to 176,000 years old. This date firmly places the creation of the structures in a time where Neanderthals were the sole occupants of the region. The structures themselves are circular in diameter and are composed of fragmented stalagmites (all of a similar length c.34cm) with evidence of deliberately made fire. The function of these structures is not immediately obvious but as there is a distinct lack of other archaeological material in the cave it is unlikely they were used for domestic purposes. Equally their potential for functioning as shelters is unclear as they are located a whopping 336 metres from the cave entrance in an area that would not have faced the elements.

For me this location deep within the cave presents one of the key implications for Neanderthal behaviour in that no natural light whatsoever would have reached the chamber! This indicates a degree of familiarity with the subterranean world and potentially hints at the symbolic or ritual significance of the cave. Whatever the purpose of the structures, the authors of the study conclude that they represent unique evidence of the use of space, which may reflect the complex social structures of the Neanderthals who built there.


Figure 3: A schematic of the circular structures made with stalagmites deep underground in Bruniquel Cave, the orange colouration shows the areas of deliberate burning (Photo: Jaubert et al. 2016)

The inferences that are made from these Neanderthal finds are carefully considered by both the researchers concerned and the general archaeological community, disseminating the evidence and evaluating what archaeological information can be drawn from it. Overall there is something undeniably privileged to be working in a time where the complexity of Neanderthals is recognised and the potential for art, symbolism and other human characteristics is discussed!


Green, R.E., Krause, J., Briggs, A.W., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., Patterson, N., Li, H., Zhai, W., Fritz, M.H.Y. and Hansen, N.F. 2010. A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome. Science 328 (5979), 710-722

Jaubert, J., Verheyden, S., Genty, D., Soulier, M., Cheng, H., Blamart, D., Burlet, C., Camus, H., Delaby, S., Deldicque, D. and Edwards, R.L. 2016. Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature534 (7605), 111-114

Radovčić, D., Sršen, A.O., Radovčić, J. and Frayer, D.W. 2015. Evidence for Neandertal jewelry: modified white-tailed eagle claws at Krapina. PloS one 10 (3), p.e 0119802.

Rodríguez-Vidal, J., d’Errico, F., Pacheco, F.G., Blasco, R., Rosell, J., Jennings, R.P., Queffelec, A., Finlayson, G., Fa, D.A., López, J.M.G. and Carrión, J.S., 2014. A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (37), 13301-13306.