I am engaged in numerous research projects some of which are described below.
Theme 1 - Plio-Pleistocene faunal dispersals, evolution and extinction
- I am particularly interested in palaeoecology and hominin-carnivore dynamics. However, long before such questions can be addressed, the animals themselves must be identified. I am responsible for the description and publication of new carnivore material from several sites within the Sterkfontein valley, South Africa. These include Drimolen (in collaboration with Colin Menter (University of Johannesburg), Coopers D and Gladysvale (in collaboration with Christine Steininger and Lee Berger (University of the Witwatersrand (Wits)). Drimolen and Coopers D have yielded both robust australopithecine and early Homo fossils. My visits to South Africa to examine these fossils have been supported by the NERC PACED project, the Royal Society, the National Research Foundation (NRF), South Africa, the Palaeoanthropological Scientific Trust (PAST) and an LJMU Early Career Research Fellowship. Three papers on the South African Carnivora have been published: O'Regan (2007), O'Regan & Menter (2009) and O'Regan & Reynolds (2009), and another is currently in review (Cohen et al. submitted). There are many more to come! The photograph below shows me at work at the Transvaal Museum, studying fossil sabre-toothed cat remains from the Sterkfontein valley caves (Bolts Farm and Kromdraai).
- Assessing the diet of modern and fossil macaques (Macaca sp.) using stable isotope analysis of hair, bone and tooth enamel. The ultimate purpose of this project is to look at dietary variation in Plio-Pleistocene fossil macaque material by comparing interglacial and glacial (refugial) populations. The current pilot project was funded by NIGL and is in collaboration with Dr Sarah Elton (HYMS) (grant PI), Dr Angela Lamb (NIGL), Carolyn Chenery (NIGL), Dr Rhiannon Stevens (Cambridge) and Professor Lorenzo Rook (University of Florence). The first paper from this project has been published in the Journal of Human Evolution (O'Regan et al. 2008), the second in Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry (Chenery et al. 2011), and the third is in preparation.
- For three years I worked as a postdoctoral research associate on the ‘Palaeoinformatic Approach to the Context of Earliest Human Dispersals (PACED)’ project which was funded by NERC as part of the EFCHED thematic program. This work was in collaboration with Professor Alan Turner (LJMU, grant PI), Dr Laura Bishop (LJMU), Dr Angela Lamb (NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory (NIGL)) and Dr Sarah Elton (Hull York Medical School). Papers generated by this project include O'Regan et al. (2005, 2006), Hughes et al. (2008), O'Regan (2008) and Turner & O'Regan (2007a,b).
Theme 2 - Cave archaeologyCaves are persistent in the landscape – unlike many other archaeological sites, the setting (for the most part) does not change, but how and why people use the cave can change over time. I find this fascinating, that one site can hold Upper Palaeolithic to Romano-British or later deposits, which reflect uses from the mundane such as rubbish disposal or shelter to ritual deposits or burial chambers. Disentangling all these usages and the meanings behind them, particularly when sites are also used by many other animals (especially badgers) is challenging, but ultimately what makes it fun! More information on the Cumbrian archaeological projects can be found on the Research Centre Cumbrian pages. This work is in collaboration with Tom Clare, Dave Wilkinson and Ian Smith (all LJMU).
- Our re-assessment of the history and assemblages from Helsfell Fissure has been completed (O’Regan et al., 2008), and a display board on the topic is now in Kendal Museum. We tracked material from the 19th century excavation to a number of museums, but these extant assemblages contain bones from a number of localities. Ultimately only the material from the Ruskin Museum in Coniston, and the canid skeleton at Kendal Museum, could be related to the site with some confidence. None of the rarer species such as bear are present in the extant assembages, and several bones previously identified as bear are from domesticates such as sheep and horse.
- Work is continuing on the Romano-British to Medieval assemblages from Doghole Cave, Haverbrack, with the aid of willing undergraduates at LJMU. We hope to undertake a third season of excavation in July 2011. Charcoal analysis by Alan Clapham on material excavated in the 2010 season has identified hazel, birch, lime and oak. Some of these large charcoal fragments came from a single context which also contained charred sheep remains. This material has been radiocarbon dated and early-mid Romano-British in date.
Ian Smith is working on material from caves near Grange-over-Sands for his PhD, and this is yielding very interesting results regarding the Upper Palaeolithic to Neolithic archaeology and fauna of this area. We have recently radiocarbon dated human remains from Kirkhead Cave, and with funding from Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (CWAAS) Ian has also radiocarbon dated material from a cave site near Urswick. If anyone has information about Kirkhead Cave or the bones from the 1960s excavations, please get in touch using the contact details on the main page.
The Upland Caves Network. I chaired the AHRC funded Upland Caves Network (UCN) for two years (2008-2010) to bring together people interested in caves, including cavers, archaeologists, biologists and land managers. The project website can be found here. The Network held two public conferences and four workshops from June 2009 to October 2010. The proceedings of the second conference Cave archaeology – Past, Present and Future, will be published as a special issue of Cave and Karst Science in December 2011. The Guidelines for Cave Excavation are being redrafted, and it is hoped that they will be ready for publication by the end of 2012. The UCN has finished, but it's spirit lives on though a British Cave Research Association Special interest group - the Cave Archaeology Group, co-chaired by John Howard and myself. The website for the Cave Archaeology Group can be found here.
Previous ProjectsPrevious projects on captive animals and the history of zoos have resulted in several other publications (O'Regan, 2001, 2002; O'Regan & Turner 2004, O'Regan & Kitchener 2005, and O'Regan, Turner & Sabin, 2006). The latter paper on Medieval big cat remains from the Tower of London attracted media interest (e.g. BBC, New Scientist), and was recently covered in a short film for the BBC’s the One Show, which can be viewed online here. The radiocarbon dates for the Tower project were generously funded by English Heritage. Further resources on zoo history can be found on the Tower of London project webpage.
Below are two pictures that illustrate the diversity of archaeological fieldwork experiences that Cumbria can provide - from small, cramped, damp spaces, to very large, wide open, wet places...!