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Interview with Bioarchaeologist Dr. Andrew Nelson

Dr. Andrew Nelson, Western University

MOA had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Andrew Nelson, an Associate Professor in Anthropology at Western University, to discuss some of his more recent work including his contribution to the Art Gallery of Ontario Small Wonders exhibition that includes a Virtual Reality Medieval Prayer Bead, now available at MOA.

Andrew’s research interest are focused in two major subfields of anthropology; biological anthropology and archaeology. When he is not scanning artifacts in Sustainable Archaeology or on the many research projects at Western University, Andrew can be found navigating the complexities of archaeological sites both local and abroad.


How is the MicroCT scanner important in better understanding archaeological material?

The microCT scanner allows non-destructive analysis of the composition and method of construction of archaeological materials.  For instance, with ceramics, one can understand the choice of tempers, the means of construction of a vessel (slab, coil etc) and how the clay was prepared (the distribution of particles throughout the clay).  The key elements are the non-destructive nature of the analysis and the three dimensionality of the information that is provided.


Tell us about your research on the MicroCT Scanner in Sustainable Archaeology: Western
Most of my work has been exploratory, answering questions such as how can the scanner be used to aid in the analysis of both bones and artifacts from archaeological excavations.  Some examples…
– scanning the earliest coins that have value backed by the state – Lydian coins – to address the question of how they were made.  They are made of a gold and silver alloy – electrum – which is just about the best thing to completely stop x-rays there is.  Fortunately, our scanner has very high power and we were able to establish that they were made from molten gold and silver added together – rather than from heated nuggets – because we can see through the scan that there are small bubbles in the metal.
– I am interested to use the microstructure and density of different kinds of wood to identify wood species used in archaeological artifacts.  This is an ongoing effort that arose from the prayer bead work, and continues with some work I am just beginning with the conservation program at Queens on Egyptian coffin wood samples.
– I have also been working with external researchers exploring the use of the microCT scanner in other realms, such as the analysis of meteorites, copper/steel simulators of the lining of nuclear containment vessels, the deformation of human shoulder joints, examination of metal 3D prints, concrete samples etc.  The possibilities are truly endless – but many of them feed back to things we’re trying to do in archaeology – such as the meteorties and concrete samples having many similarities to the examination of archaeological ceramics.

Dr. Nelson using the MicroCT Scanner at Sustainable Archaeology:Western image source

The themes here are non-destructive and 3 dimensional.  In addition several of these examples draw on one of the particular strengths of this microCT system – its considerable power, enabling us to penetrate very dense objects.  Something that is extremely important to emphasize about this work is that it is inherently interdisciplinary and collaborative… I spend a lot of time working with imaging physicists, radiologists, chemists, geologists, bioengineers to name only a few.

“That is one of the most exciting aspects of working with the scanner – everyone brings a different problem to solve, a different perspective on how to solve problems – so there is always a buzz during plans for and actual scanning sessions.”

Even though we have had the scanner for several years now – we’re still finding new ways to use it, new ways to optimize what we have been doing, exploring new analytical routines to use on our artifacts and new people we need to talk to.  And there is lots yet to explore.

You mention your work with the boxwood prayer beads. What did the MicroCT scanner unveil about the manufacture of these beads?

This analysis allowed us to see the unseen – the complex nature of the construction of these amazing beads.  Once scanned, I was able to “deconstruct” the beads in the computer, demonstrating that they were composed of a complex series of elements, which were then assembled such that it was impossible to see seams from the front.  In this case, the bead was all made from the same material (box wood), but the three dimensionality and the ability to manipulate the data virtually were the keys to understanding the bead’s construction.  The results led to a greater appreciation for the sophistication and craftsmanship of these medieval artisans.

The Classificatory-Descriptive Period: Explorers and Romance

Written by MOA Exhibition Intern Joel Wodhams

What do you think of when you think “archaeologist?” Don’t try to be too correct. Have some fun. When I think of an archaeologist I cannot help but imagine an Indiana Jones-like figure: someone exploring jungles and deserts in search of mysteries from the ancient world. This isn’t what archaeology is today but it is part of the undeniable charm and romance of archaeology. Read more

Colony of Avalon, Ferryland, Newfoundland and Labrador

By Alicia Sherret


Remember that scene in Indiana Jones when you weren’t quite sure if Indy and Marion were going to escape from the snake filled temple in the Well of Souls? Well, there’s an archaeological site a little closer to home with the same secrets, surprises and religious past. While a visit to the Colony of Avalon at Ferryland, Newfoundland, might be a little shorter on action than an Indiana Jones movie, it’s got excitement and interest of its own.

The Well of Souls from Raiders of the Lost Ark


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Protecting the Past

By: Marissa Buckland

When people think of archaeology, they often think of box office hits like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft Tomb Raider. These movies suggest that archaeological “treasures” can only be discovered in far away lands such as the pyramids of Peru or the tombs of Cambodia, when in fact archaeological artifacts can be found right outside your back door here in Ontario!

About an hour north of Toronto are a series of archaeological sites near Wilcox Lake, on the Oak Ridges Moraine, located in Richmond Hill, that span most of the human history of Ontario. The TRCA (Toronto and Region Conservation Authority) began initial excavation of the Lost Brant site in 1992 and intensive excavations took place from 1999 – 2002, uncovering almost 10, 000 artifacts, including chert points and pieces of ceramic vessels[1].

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The Speculative Period: Early Collectors

Guest Blog By: Joel Wodhams, Exhibit Intern Summer 2017

Canada’s 150th birthday is fast approaching, but did you know there is over 150 years of archaeology at the Lawson site? From its humble origins in the mid 1800s, to its current day affiliation with the Museum of Ontario Archaeology and the University of Western Ontario, Lawson has captured the imagination of generations.

Archaeology evolves from the underlying human interest in the past. Archaeology is a modern practice, evolving since the 1800’s, but interest in the human past spans back hundreds of years.

Sometimes called the “Speculative Period” early collectors created their own understandings of the past. The famous example in North America of this speculative period is the Moundbuilder myth: that the large burial mounds in the United States must have been built by an ancient civilization totally unrelated to the indigenous population.

Jury Collection on display at the Western Fair, September 1931.

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World’s Oldest Dress Re-Discovered

By Emila Siwik


The Tarkhan Dress

Could the world’s oldest dress be the coolest Archaeological discovery of 2016? Recent work by Alice Stevenson and Michael Dee shows that a dirty linen cloth excavated in 1913 by Sir Flinders Petrie is actually a dress.  But not just any dress, the worlds oldest woven garment! The Tarkhan dress dates to around 3200 BC and was once worn by a female Egyptian teenager of royal descent.  It was found in a First Dynasty Tomb south of Cario  and is made out of flax plants that were spun, then woven into linen.  Linen was the fabric of choice in ancient Egypt; many people were wrapped in it during the mummification process and it was often given as a symbolic offering after death. The dress was tailored, meaning that it was not draped or tied to the body, but cut and fitted.  It had a V-neck and pleated sleeves and bodice. Signs of wear at the elbow and armpits show that it was a beloved item worn in life, then brought into the after world.  It was placed in the tomb folded and inside out to allow the detail around the cuffs and neckline to stay intact through the years. Read more

Environmental Archaeology: An Overview


Environmental Archaeology is the study of the ecology of past human populations. No matter where we live, we create an impact on the landscapes and the landscape impacts us. Archaeologists understand the physical environment such as landforms and climate and the biological environment such as plants and animals through analytical techniques used by the various sub disciplines of environmental archaeology. This includes;


Geoarchaeology reconstructs interactions between humans and the past physical environment using geomorphology and sedimentology. Geomorphology studies the shape and origin of landscape features while sedimentology reconstructs the history of sediment/ soil deposits. Together we can identify inorganic resources such as stone, clay and mineral deposits while reconstructing past landscape topographies to explain human settlement patterns and impact. Read more

Canadian Currency from the 16th Century to 1867

Example of a wampum shell bead excavated in Southern Ontario

The evolution of early Canadian currency offers a unique perspective into the growth of Canada as it was evolving into a nation. From it’s pre-colonial origins, to the tokens ushered in by Confederation in 1867, currency saw many forms and many uses.

Early 16th Century- First Nations and Wampum

As Canada was being settled, coins from Europe were scarce and far between. Interactions with the First Nations led to strong trade systems through the bartering of goods such as furs, wampum, copper objects, tools, and beads.
Wampum was highly valued among the Aboriginals not only for the time and difficulty of creating wampum shell beads, but the ceremonial functions of both the beads and the wampum belt. Wampum most importantly conveys messages, mark peace treaties, and record historical events using marks of friendship and respect. To early European traders, beads were essential to the fur trade since they were small and high value. Europeans used the beads to trade for pelts to cover the high demand for fashionable furs in Europe. Read more

What’s On- Maple Harvest Festival

This hafted stone axe head would have been used to chop, split, or shape wood. This object, along with many other Indigenous woodworking tools will be on display in the Permanent Gallery during the Maple Harvest festival

As Canada commemorates its 150th anniversary with hundreds of events scheduled throughout the country this year, here at MOA we are taking advantage of the opportunity to highlight the life-ways and practices of the First People who were living here for millennia before “Canada” even existed. Many First Nations traditions and practices, such as maple harvesting, are still very much alive today and part of the traditions we consider to be quintessentially Canadian.

As part of growing up or living in southern Ontario, most of us enjoy, or have enjoyed at some point in our lives, the opportunity to walk or even ride on a horse drawn-sleigh through a snowy woodlot in late winter, observing the spiles and buckets (or today, the acres of tubes!) hanging from trees, collecting maple sap.  An isolated cabin, wood smoke billowing from the chimney and smelling of sweet, caramelised syrup is the highlight of our tour (short for the pancakes!), where sap is boiled in metal kettles or large, flat pans, reducing the liquid after many, many hours to the sweet, sticky, sugary treat that we all know and love. Read more

Online Collections: A Digital Experience

Technology is an integral part of our society. We spend countless hours checking our emails, browsing social media, and looking up ratings of places before we even visit them. We have the opportunity to connect with places across the world we may otherwise never have the opportunity to visit. The widespread accessibility of the internet allows museums the opportunity to present their collections online, making them more accessible and present within a wider community. With the quick advances in technology, it can be hard to stay up to date in the museum world. Online collections are one way of staying relevant with today’s technologically savvy generation. Read more