forensics, fun stuff, lithics, news, university, world

Lithics and Lost Limbs

This is Part IV of a series on a short intensive class I did on Lithics.

Q: When was the earliest known successful surgical amputation?

A) 700 years ago

B) 3100 years ago

C) 7000 years ago

D) 31000 years ago


If you chose option C, you were almost correct. Up until recently, the earliest known amputation of a limb was dated to 7000 years ago, courtesy of a Neolithic farmer in France who’d had his arm cut off.

The information has now been updated with a recent discovery. At the time of writing this blog post, the correct answer is Option D.

In 2020, a group of researchers went to a cave in Indonesian Borneo and found a skeleton they named “TB1” with a missing left lower leg.

Image credit: cropped from

They took, dated and analysed it and were astonished. The skeleton was 31000 years old, and the bones in the left leg had been cleanly “obliquely sectioned” ie sliced diagonally, and healed, with no signs of infection.

This showed that the cut was intentional as it ruled out the individual losing their leg by being mauled by a prehistoric animal.

So it suggested that people were practicing amputations in the Late Pleistocene, and had some idea about using plants to prevent infection.

Read about it here!

This story is what I did my assignment on. The task was to analyse and fact-check a media article about lithics.

I must say, before embarking on the homework assignment, I thought it was complete bunk.

A picture of a complete bunk. Image credit: wikimedia

Reasoning: surgery has only been consistently successful since we became aware of germ theory and anti-microbial management; we didn’t discover lenses for magnification until Anton Van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)… and yet we are expected to believe that a prehistoric hunter-gatherer was able to:

“…successfully navigate veins, arteries, nerves, and tissue, and keep the wound clean so that it healed successfully.” Source: (University of Sydney)


Well, after doing the research (as our lecturer intended) you could knock me down with a microlith. The discovery was actually made by a team of archaeologists with different specialist backgrounds (from geophysics and geochemistry to paleopathology) and published in peer-reviewed Nature in September this year.

Which makes it all look pretty darn legitimate.

My mind changed completely as I did the assignment. An interesting bending of reality.

Other fun facts:

• A strong contender for the stone that was used for surgery is obsidian, which is dark and shiny and looks like glass. It is sterile when first cut and extremely sharp – some surgeons today have experimented with it but it’s not FDA approved for actual cutting up of people in 2022.

An obsidian arrowhead from Wikimedia Commons

• Obsidian was mentioned in the media articles/interviews but not the scientific paper. This is likely because the surgery was done on TB1 6-9 years before they died – the surgical scalpel was not buried with them, and so the choice of obsidian is actually speculation not science.

• The other possible reason that TB1 had their leg amputated was as punishment, rather than life-saving surgery. However…

• The authors suggested that TB1 would have needed super careful and an inordinate amount of care by a lot of people as they healed. Also, when they died, they were buried in a careful, respected way. This suggested that they weren’t a social deviant and so punishment was considered unlikely.

• “Stone Age” is really a broad term used by laypeople, and archaeologists actually mean a very specific time in African prehistory when they use these words! But for the purposes of describing TB1’s story to the public, the words “Stone Age surgery” were thrown around a lot.

Link to the original Nature article if you want to have a read.

Surgery! Image credit: pexels.con

And that was my homework!

How are you? Would you have believed that humans were capable of performing surgery 31000 years ago?

fun stuff, journal, lithics, university

Lithics, Line Art & Limericks

An unlucky lithics student named Joan

Couldn’t tell between ice cream and stone

She ran into grief

When she fractured her teeth –

She’d fancied a taste of a Hertzian Cone.

Image credit:

• A Hertzian Cone is a kind of break that happens when you chip a material which fractures conchoidally such as glass, rock, chocolate and frozen toffee (I’m not joking). Link is to the Wikipedia page.

Most people will recognise the above format as the Limerick, popularised by Edward Lear who lived in the late 19th century.

Our class was encouraged to write limericks about Lithics over the week and submit them, and then the teaching staff would collate and judge them over drinks at the student pub (very serious business!).

Anyway, that limerick was the one I was most proud of. The judges preferred another one of mine though – which was among the several poems that got read aloud, and that was nice!

A classmate won a bottle of wine for their funny poem. This, and the fact that someone brought in a surprise cake for the whole class in celebration of a fellow student’s birthday made me feel that this entire experience was really wholesome.

Good times!


I enrolled in a topic on Lithics

But found myself confronted with Physics

So when given a rock, I went straight into shock

And couldn’t record its specifics.

… And recording we did a lot of, for the next few days.

We got into a bit of drawing. There are some specific conventions and methods that archaeologists must follow when drawing stone artefacts – it’s actually more of a technical recording than realism, like a map.

Something that blew my mind: I have done other kinds of drawing AND I did maths to the very end of high school, but somehow I’d never used a set square for drawing before in my life.

I’d always just thought this thing was another kind of ruler. The more you know.

Image credit: dreamstime

So anyway, we got to using those to draw outlines of some artefacts…

Image: mine!

… and adding the conventions – parallel lines for flake scars (where thin bits have come off), and stippled dots for anywhere that’s a rock cortex (ie the outside bit).

Drawing of a flake!

That second poem was tongue-in-cheek. We had a lot of fun and am unbelievably grateful that I enrolled!

Did you know what a set square was?! Do you like limericks/have your own favourite one?


Lithics II

It really pays to read about your topic >1 week before it starts. Sunday morning (6th) before Lithics began, I thought I’d best open the portal to see what was coming up. I saw:



Cue mini-heart attack.

Thankfully they were multiple choice questions, ensuring we would rock up to class with at least a bit of background knowledge, having done prior reading.

So yes, last-last weekend I read up on stone tool manufacture in record time. Did you know that:

• Aboriginal Australians would hunt emus and dingos with stone tools.

Adzes are a stone tool, kind of like the sister tool to the axe (pronounced “ads”, like the annoying things you try and skip before a YouTube video)

• When the adzes wear down after a lot of use they become adze slugs, named so because you get the little sliver left behind and they can indeed resemble a homeless snail

• There are numerous ways you can crack a open a stone by hand and every pathway regarding stone flaking has been modelled and documented and described by physicists (what?*) … because of the angles of fracture can be theta and gamma and so on etc

• …and the previous point is why stone tools will have predictable features compared to an untouched rock sitting around.


On day two we got to recording different kinds of stone tools.

The main takeaway the lecturer wanted us to take away was that recording forms should be able to be stand-ins for people i.e. if you aren’t around to describe a rock, all your notes should be able to point someone else in the right direction.

Document, document, document! I think that really applies in all industries, such as accounting.

Image credit:

Our lecturer wanted us to try recording a mystery item at the start of classes with little/no knowledge, then return at the end of the course and see what the difference was.

I don’t know if I knew what the heck Silcrete was but for some reason I put that down as the raw material for the mystery item.

BTW if in doubt, silcrete (and a lot of volcanic rock) is glittery.

I now think my favourite stone is chalcedony because it was the prettiest thing in class (is that shallow? Oh well.) Some of it looked like frozen cola cola and some of it like frozen white mist.

I should have taken more photos but we were busy recording and I didn’t want to be rude with my phone out. So here’s a stock image.


One more fun fact: if you ever find a stone that’s nice and smooth and suspect that it’s an archaeological artefact purely “because it fits so well in my hand!!!”

…it’s not.

Do you have a favourite kind of stone? Do you know your birth stone? Does life spring up on you sometimes?

*I think physicists are examples of the cleverest people who look at the weirdest things with their time.

lithics, university


I write this post and its series in memory of Ashley L Peterson, who was always so supportive and followed my blogging journey at its inception, just over one year ago. She was an inspiring mental health advocate. Ashley passed away in October. Even though we never met, I always looked out especially for her replies on WordPress and will miss her razor sharp wit and insightful comments.

I have just finished a 5 day intensive class on Stone Tools, over a year after I did the Human Osteology course. It’s surreal, coming one full year and full circle – it was in the same classroom as well.

Fun facts from Day 1:

• Once upon a time before people in Europe knew about other continents, Europeans thought that stone tools found lying around (such as ancient arrowheads) came from angels in heaven shooting at the Devil’s army. This story also convenient accounted for thunderstorms.

Cupid’s Arrow by Walter Crane – different time period but you get the idea. Angel with an Arrow.


• There are three kinds of rock, and they are sedimentary, igneous and metamorphosed (Do most people know this from school? I did not, or had forgotten). Deposited rock, volcanic rock, and pressurised rock, respectively 🌋🗿🪨

• Shaping stone tools is called knapping, which automatically makes it sound like a great activity 💤💤💤

• Sometimes geologists won’t believe archaeologists re: a stone having been knapped. This can sometimes even have implications in court if archaeologists are giving evidence about past human activities in a historical setting. But ultimately, lithic tools have distinct anatomical features that one can pick out, with training.

…which is what I spent the last five days doing!

A picture of knapped quartzite

More to come. Totally blogging this evening in lieu of writing a 2000 word essay that’s due soon, of course.

Box of shiny rocks
forensics, journal, university

End of S1

Semester 1 is over. Goodbye, Surprise-4000-Word Assignment and 2000-Word Report on Planning A Project.

The plan I wrote basically involved driving a GPR over a disused cemetery where all the markers are missing (aka a Pioneer Park), then plug that data into computer software and create a rainbow “heat map” where all the old burials are.

You see, GPRs normally produce images called radargrams. Radargrams do not look dissimilar to grey TV static, and require a human interpreter to scrutinise patterns + see if they can detect changes in the masses of grey lines to find subsurface stuff. (Anyone who Google Image searches ‘GPR data’ will see examples of what I mean).

Image from Not far off from an actual GPR pic.

In contrast, below is an example of what a computer-modelled gravesite looks like (Minecraft anyone?):

3D plot of a real Cemetery in Nova Scotia, by Kelly et. al (2021)

Buried objects and people should become harder to miss when they are plotted intuitively like this. So this can be useful for forensic scientists too.

I borrowed the idea for this assignment, and that image, from this paper.

Just before I hit submit, I realised the marking rubric said the project had to span 4 weeks. With no good sense of how long archaeology projects take, I had written a lovely long Timeline that would have allowed project participants to dally around for 3 months getting materials together. Had to rewrite that section quick-ish.

Other things which have been happening:

• I found an old piano going second hand for $250, and have been noodling around on that.

• People at work know I’m enrolled in a certificate in Archaeology. I had only said that I had tagged along with researchers on a study when I took annual leave, but ex-students from the uni put 2+2 together. So it’s not really a secret now. Coworkers are pretty good about it. Only Corporate doesn’t know (yet)

• For the second time in my life, I have submitted an application to med school. This is an old dream. It took 15 minutes and was anticlimactic. Now I’m older and have learnt more things, I am okay with whatever the outcome is. We’ll see what happens.

Hope everyone is healthy, happy and well.


Kelly, T., M. Angel, D. O’Connor, C. Huff, L. Morris. G. and Wach 2021. A novel approach to 3D
modelling ground-penetrating radar (GPR) data – A case study of a cemetery and applications
for criminal investigation. Forensic Science International, (325):1-15.

Australia, university

Death of Glenthorne House

One of the research questions at our field school was: Was Glenthorne House lost to accidental fire and / or demolished by the Australian Army?

Glenthorne House was a 3 storey mansion built in the late 19th Century and was described as “handsome”, “lovely”, and impressive to visitors. It had thirteen rooms, a famous interior woodwork of cedar and inside there was even a grand piano flanked by two staircases. On a scale of 1 to 10 on the Fanciness rating it probably scored at least a hard 8.5.

Glenthorne house, picture from 1919. Courtesy of State Library of South Australia.


It passed through a number of wealthy families, and then in 1913 the Australian Government mandatorily acquired the estate from then-owner Harold Drew, because the army needed to use the land. (Can you imagine? Poor Harold Drew.)

Then the house died a horrible flaming death when it caught fire one morning, and people could not put the fire out.

The army decided to clear it and when it was done, there was nothing left but a crater in the ground

I’ve included here the newspaper article from a paper called The Advertiser (which is still going today, by the way!) that detailed the fiery incident. Date of article: 22nd August 1932.

Crater in the ground, Snipped from our lecture slides. We got to sit in this crater at our field school! Photograph was taken by Brian O’Halloran, 1959. Courtesy of Smith, Walshe and Burns 2018.


Reading through the supplementary material, I learnt that when the Army first took over the land, they wasted no time getting to work, building extra barracks and officers’ quarters on the land. Commanding Officer Captain Normal Campbell and his wife moved into the fancy mansion in 1913, and moved out again in 1925.

There were also notes detailing that soldiers were billeted in Glenthorne house, and some of the young blokes were overjoyed about this because it was probably the 1920s equivalent of being allowed to crash at a Novotel/Hilton. Anyway, a soldier named Albert W. Pedler wrote in his diary that some of the “lucky lads” got to choose their sleeping spots in some of the enormous built-in cedar furniture.

Later, according to Albert Pedler’s diaries, when he went back to Glenthorne to stay, he and his friends were forced to pitch tents on the property because “the lovely house had burnt down.”

Camping! Photo by Lukas on

But get this: his diary was dated 1927, five years before the article I pasted above.

What jumped out to me was this – according to The Advertiser, the house had been condemned for human habitation “some years” leading up to 1932. How did a house shift from a “grand”, “lovely”, “handsome” mansion reserved for an important Captain up until 1925, into a decrepit building unfit for billeting infantrymen in 1927?

image from

Albert Pedler’s diary entry, which seemed to have an anachronistic detail, seems to provides the answer.

It’s also not a stretch of the imagination to suppose that an initial fire would have exposed the famous cedar interior to the elements, facilitating a rapid deterioration of the house leading to 1932, making the interior environment unsafe for human habitation.

Given the Army has forcibly bought the property and tried to get as much use of Glenthorne house as possible even after damage, the fire was unplanned and likely accidental. (Also note that the Advertiser says that people tried to put the fire out with a hose, and had to rescue the furniture). Given how everything turned out, there were likely two fires: one around 1925-1927, and the final one that finished it in 1932.

The timeline I made for the report to illustrate the point.


I found working this out all very exciting and emailed the university course coordinator. He was intrigued by this interpretation, as he hadn’t heard it before. He must have gone digging for more historical sources, because a couple of days later he wrote back. It turns out that one of the principal researchers of Glenthorne House had indeed determined that something fishy had happened to the house (she wrote circa 1924-1927), that stopped people from living in it.

The past researchers only wrote, though, “it was possible that there were two fires”, but I am entirely convinced that there was. I mean, Occam’s Razor is a real tool and philosophy used for problem-solving, after all – “the simplest explanation is the answer.”

So, while I wasn’t the first person ever to notice this bizarre detail and turn of events, it was nice to have a real Archaeologist at university come back and tell me I wasn’t nutty and speculating with wild conspiracy theories. Goodness knows, the world has enough of those.


Out of interest – have you ever witnessed a house burning down? I’ve seen 2 or 3 in my lifetime, as a passer by.

Australia, journal, university

Sweet mysteries of antiquity

A long long time ago, in 2012, the remains of the Lord of Ireland and last King of England to die in battle, Richard III, was found in a car park.

Above link leads to info page. Contains images of human remains.


The Wikipedia page also says he happened to be right under a parking space where the tarmac had been painted R (for ‘Reserved’).

It’s a neat coincidence, and I like to imagine that in the spirit realm he trying to use the parking lot as a giant Ouija board* all that time to tell people where he was.

I found out about Richard III because I have been running around for another assignment, trying to come up with a Proposal. AKA: practice asking for money from hypothetical VIPs to invade sites to do archaeology. Number of words written: 0 out of ~2000.

A lecturer told me that in the 1960s and 1970s, some community clubs (think: similar to Rotary or Lions) would go to old cemeteries, and if the headstones were crumbling they would shove them to one side, and place a lawn over the graves so they could have spaces for lovely green parks.

Anything for lawn bowls, amirite?

Image credit: wikimedia commons

This is probably what I will write on when I am done typing frantically for the other 4000 word assignment on Glenthorne. Number of words written for that one: ~3800/4000.

To revisit, Glenthorne House was a 3 storey mansion built in the 19th Century, and burnt down mysteriously in 1932. Little about it was documented.

An interesting thing occurred yesterday as I was reviewing the historical records. I had a lightbulb moment 💡. The records only point to a vague possibility there was more than one fire, but I am entirely convinced that there were two events, about six years apart, that were critical to the destruction of the house. The evidence was always there, but simply jumbled.

It was quite exciting to have this realisation, and I hope to blog about in more detail once I’ve submitted the assignment. I wonder if they would accept a theory postulated by a student as mainstream.

I hope everyone is doing well! I am still reading WordPress posts in my feed, and will channel words towards commenting again when I have done more homework.

*You could pay me to survey graves but not any amount of money to use a Ouija board, as I find that stuff creepy AF.

journal, university

Photogrammetry, and then some

At field school, we were introduced to the awesome concept of Photogrammetry.

Image credit:

Essentially, it’s taking multiple photos of one thing from slightly different angles, then a computer matches all the pixels across those photos to generate info about the object in 3D – down to, say, the last hairline crack in a brick.

I don’t know about everyone else, but getting something in three dimensions from flat images sounds a little bit like wizardry (yes, our brains do this with our retinas and depth perception, but I meant the fact we’ve worked out how do this with literal metal, plastic and pixels).

Cartoon by Jim Benton, whose books are hilarious. This wizard has generated a 3D lemon.

These are some notes I took from our instructors:

• This method doesn’t like vegetation very much, due to the mess and high detail.

• The software used by the archaeologists at uni is called Metashape.

• Photos can be analysed at any resolution, eg from 4K to potato quality.

• Obviously, the better the res, the more 3D information you have, but the time it takes for your computer to think and spit out data goes up exponentially.

• An interesting application of photogrammetry occurred after a Middle Eastern site (building?) was destroyed by terrorists. The locals asked for people to donate photos, and from the ones that poured in that had been taken by tourists, they were able to reconstruct the site.

Pretty neat!

From my notebook

In other news,

• I made a friend in my class, who also discovered Archaeology after an identity crisis. They came a long way from overseas. We have a fair bit in common, and I think the universe is funny.

• There was a club fair at the university last week. I registered interest in a few of them, and one group told me I won a gift voucher for joining – yay! Although, the people had told me I was their first recruit that day. I sincerely hope it does not mean I was the only person to join the Environmental club.

• I had underestimated the field school topic. I didn’t realise there was a 4000-word report to hand in after the trip when I enrolled – oops. Should be writing that, right now…

• There are some thesis projects available next year along the themes of Forensics and Chemistry and I may/may not get involved.

Current status: assignments within date, but am about a week behind in readings. It has been amazing to me how quickly a week slips by; fingers crossed that uni does not dry up all the words and time I use for blogging.

How’s your week been?

journal, university

Kindness of others; Detective work

“You will never meet a close-minded archaeologist.”



I should have made a note of where I heard or read this in the past week – it was mentioned, and got stuck in my head.

The people running the Archaeology department are some of the kindest teaching staff I’ve ever met. Whenever a student made a mistake and said sorry, more than once I heard, “No! Don’t apologise! You are learning!” And all of them are so nice that I just want to buy all of them weeks’ worth of beers, although you are not supposed to drink on archaeological field trips.*

April’s field school did indeed support the idea that archaeologists are very open as people**. It has been both refreshing and comforting. My experience of teachers throughout uni has now officially been the full range of let’s-belittle-students-until-they-cry (this was elsewhere), to the above.

Bless good folk!


These are a handful more other things we did at field school:

Pedestrian Surveying is literally walking in a row with your team mates, and scanning the ground for man-made objects with your eyes.

• We sieved through buckets and buckets and buckets of dirt, clay, and rocks, and every time we found even a tiny item of interest, they went into bright containers labelled Metal, Glass, Ceramic and Other. This bit was hard work…

Here is an old bone from an ovine (sorry, fellow vegos). Turns out the land in O’Halloran’s estate was often used for cropping and farming. A morbidly fascinated part of me wondered if there would be any forensic archaeology of 90-year-old crime at this field school, but no, it was just sheep.


These trays got taken to the Artefact Processing station, where absolutely hundreds of tiny bits of human-made objects were catalogued into Excel Spreadsheets, and we practiced being magpie-accountant hybrids.

I saw first-hand how a lot of detective work goes in to analysing little bits of items that are found.

Good times!

One more interesting idea that I came across while doing assignments is that police, forensic scientists and archaeologists all seek to reconstruct human actions by looking at things and/or bodies left behind – the time periods are generally thought of as different, but the principles are the same. This was mentioned in a paper by Dr Soren Blau.


How is your week? Do you think the things around your house reveal some telling things? What has your experience with teachers been like?

Photos: all mine.

*For safety reasons, as levels of sobriety and the incidence of falling into trenches are inversely related, probably.

**I realised, paradoxically, a truly open archaeologist may be open to the idea of there being a close-minded archaeologist.

journal, university

Between a rock and a hilly place

This appears to be a pile of rocks. It sits on top of a hill, in Glenthorne National Park, South Australia. It was not known about until very recently, when a worker involved in the development of trails stumbled upon it, in the tall grass.

Photo: mine

The worker’s colleagues all said it was probably just nothing, but he said he had a funny feeling it was significant:

• From the hill, you can see many fields, and the ocean in the distance; it is a peaceful view.

• The rocks were clearly not from around the National Park. Some were rounded, which only happens to rocks that have been made smooth by the ocean

• The placement of the rocks looked very intentional, with some edges interlocking, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. This suggests that they were all hand placed.

The deliberate placement of this pile of rocks lead the gentleman to conclude that this was likely a grave.


The construction workers eventually agreed to fence the rocks off out of respect.

This remains unconfirmed, but likely. In discussions with the head Archaeologist on our team, I gathered that they thought it probably was not a human’s grave, as:

• The present-day National Park was owned by very important, influential colonialists in the 19th Century, and people who died would have had Christian burials down by the Church.

• Non-Christian persons around at the time would have been Aboriginal Australian, who do not like to have hard objects over their resting places, so this is unlikely.

• Another reason this could have been a private burial was that this was a scandalous one, like a lady of the night. However, the elevation, sentimental atmosphere of the hill and the rock placement would seem at odds with this hypothesis.

Glenthorne National Park is on land that was owned by the First Police Commissioner of South Australia, Major Thomas O’Halloran, who sailed to Australia from London in 1838. As mentioned, he was very influential, and he owned stallions in his time, which is like a modern day squillionaire collecting Maserati sports cars.

The worker and head Archaeologist suggested this was likely the grave of a prized horse, if not Major O’Halloran’s most prized horse.

An Arabian horse. Photo by Ealdgyth, from Wikimedia commons.

The grave will unlikely be excavated (I have since learnt on the field trip that it is common consensus in Archaeology that digging is often the last resort for investigating a site, due to its destructive nature*).

The site obviously meant something special to someone, and we now have the technology to analyse/scan what is under the earth without disturbing it with shovels, and so this is what archaeologists are going to do for further research projects.


So there you have it! Our field trip last week was at Glenthorne. The horse grave was a little diversion from the main project though. Archaeologists are actually looking for this house:

c.1919 Image credit: State Library of South Australia

This three story mansion was called Glenthorne House, built in the 19th Century. It passed down wealthy colonialist families before it was given to the military, who billeted soldiers there.

The house was burnt down in 1932, and questions remain around why it happened: Did the army blow it up on purpose? Where did they hide the rubble?

And that’s what we were digging for – an unresolved 90-yo mystery. I felt a little bit like I was in a Scooby Doo episode when I heard the brief.

*I could rename this blog, but Dreams of Surveying doesn’t have the same ring to it.