Monday, 13 October 2014

5 Trowel Blazers who have influenced my career

I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking over the past year about women in archaeology. I've become increasingly aware of the concept of privilege and the impacts it has on the structure of academia, and since joining Twitter it is something I reflect on regularly. Twitter really is one of the best sources of information and interaction on this topic, letting you connect directly with so many people and understand different viewpoints. It is through Twitter that I became aware of the Trowel Blazers website, dedicated to promoting the contributions of women in geoscience, palaeontology and archaeology. I did a post for them recently on Florence Bascom, and hope to contribute more in future. It got me thinking about my own career and the people who have influenced it, many of who happen to be women. So here is a list of inspiring Trowel Blazing women who have influenced my career from starting university to the present day, in roughly chronological order of influence!

Dr Barbara Kennedy

Dr Kennedy, who was a karst geomorphologist, is pretty much the reason that I got a place at Oxford. As a 17 year old from a family where no one had gone to university before, I was not very well prepared for the interview process. She saw past my nervousness and managed to make my interview a not-quite-as-terrifying experience as it could have been. I still remember the map that I was asked to look at and comment on, showing geomorphological features in a karst landscape. Better than the human geography part of the interview where I was asked to identify South Africa, and thought that the answer was so obvious that I must somehow have got it wrong and said something ridiculous instead. I initially applied to Jesus College, where she was helping with interviews, but was offered a place at Barbara's college, St Hugh's instead. There she led me through 3 years of weekly essays and tutorials with her no-nonsense but effective approach to teaching. She sadly passed away this year after 26 years' at St Hugh's College, but part of her obituary makes me smile. The comment from a student in 1979 shows her distinctive style of tutorial teaching - setting a deceptively simple question that made you think.

Professor Kathy Willis

One of my first undergraduate tutorials was with Dr Willis. I was still quite shy at the time but I remember being impressed by how she went against the stereotypes I'd grown up with, showing that it is perfectly possible for women to have a family and be a successful academic. At the time I was still heavily influenced by scare stories about how you couldn't have it all, and that it was 'unusual' for women (especially with families) to be in senior academic positions. Since I was an undergrad Kathy has been promoted to Professor, runs the Oxford Biodiversity Institute, is currently science director of Kew Gardens, and also is presenting a fantastic radio show Roots to Riches. Although my research diverged from biogeography, I still keep an eye out on her research on long term environmental records and biodiversity and the work of her Long Term Ecology lab at Oxford. These long term records form the backbone of environmental reconstruction that archaeologists (should) rely on to understand human impacts and responses. Many archaeological pollen studies focus on higher resolution or shorter time scales, which are important for detecting human impacts, but which need to be interpreted against a backdrop of longer term ecological changes in response to climate change.

Dr Majorie Sweeting

I never had the chance to meet Dr Sweeting myself, but she had an important indirect role to play in shaping the direction of my career. My interests always gravitated towards long term environmental change, but when I was deciding on a dissertation topic I didn't know where to start. One thing was for certain, I was not going to do something local; I wanted to travel. Fortunately, my college had a travel award for undergraduate dissertation fieldwork, left as an endowment from Sweeting. My method for choosing my topic was therefore related to where in the world I could possibly get money to travel to. At the time I thought this would be my one and only chance to travel abroad and that I'd never get the chance to do it again. What is the farthest away place I can go? The answer was Fiji, and I was lucky that the University of the South Pacific happened to have an excavation project that summer that I was able to join. I started from an environmental perspective, looking at changes in shellfish size in a Lapita midden, but it introduced me to the world of geoarchaeology. Sweeting is a true Trowelblazer - she was one of a very small number of women who held a university and college post at Oxford in the 50s and 60s, and led the first British geomorphology research project in China, focused on karst landscapes. She is equally as fascinating for her interdisciplinary approach, combining physical geography and geology.

Dr Wendy Matthews

As one of my PhD supervisors, Wendy has had a huge influence on my career. Her ideas about the specific context of materials at the microscale, and the use of micromorphology in helping understand taphonomy of plant remains, are central to much of my own research. Her 1996 paper in World Archaeology remains one of the major contributions to the discipline of archaeological micromorphology of complex settlement sites, and is frequently cited. When I started working with Wendy during my MSc, I was still focused on the environment and interested in middens as environmental archives, having enjoyed working on this for my undergraduate dissertation. Wendy introduced me to the Catalhoyuk middens, and how these archives are a complex record not just of past environments, but of human activity. Understanding one requires understanding the other, and this interplay between humans and environment has been the theme of my work ever since.

Shahina Farid 

I still remember my first ever field season at Catalhoyuk, back in 2004. As part of the micromorphology team, I was in an unusual situation, whereby we used to only visit for a few weeks at a time, compared to other specialists such as zooarchaeology and osteoarchaeology, who would spend the entire field season on site. Micromorphology requires a lot of lab processing to produce slides for analysis, so the emphasis used to be on sampling and getting back to the lab to process them asap. Now we have more of a routine whereby we bring ready made slides from the previous year, which can then be analysed in the on-site lab, in addition to collecting any new samples. Back when I was an MSc student it was quite intimidating turning up on such a big project with such a history, and so many people working on different projects, everyone seemingly knowing exactly what is going on. Shahina was the field director at Catalhoyuk until 2013, and throughout my PhD answered my questions, provided essential information on stratigraphy and context, and made me feel welcome when I visited the site. For more on her many contributions to archaeology, check out her recent bio on Trowelblazers here!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The interdisciplinary continuum in studies of Humanity and the Earth

Sometimes I find it hard to put myself into a subject area box. I was a Geography undergraduate, a Geoarchaeology MSc student, and did a PhD jointly in Chemistry and Archaeology. What does that make me? I used to say I was a geoarchaeologist, applying the methods of geoscience to archaeological questions. But I realised that was too narrow, as even the methods I draw upon vary depending on the question being asked, and indeed a multi-proxy approach is something which I try  to promote. My main research interests are the relationships between humans and the environment, how this has changed over time, and how it varies in different geographic settings. Very much a theme of environmental archaeology, but also geography.

Geography has been called the subject that bridges the human and physical sciences, encompassing the Earth and all of its natural and human components, and the dynamic relationship between the two. Physical geography seeks to describe and explain the spheres of the Earth - the lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, atmosphere. It is closely linked with other geosciences such as geology, which inform specific aspects of these 'spheres'. Human geography is concerned with the people, and investigates the processes that shape human society - social, political, cultural, economic. The two are distinct, yet inextricably linked, and in theory the two parts of the discipline are complimentary and inform each other. Being at the interface of the two, an environmental geographer, is arguably the most exciting, but also the most challenging, not quite fitting in to a neat little box.

Anthropology too is the study of humans, both in the past and the present, drawing on physical and social sciences. In the UK it focuses on socio-cultural aspects, the customs, structures, relations, religions, but also the economic and political organisation to name a few. In the US it is divided into 4 parts (or sub-fields), cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology and archaeology. This 4 field approach encourages integrated approaches to the study of humans, from their biology to their cultures, with archaeology being the study of humans in the past. I like that the 4 field approach leans towards the interdisciplinary. I would take this further and say that we also need to look beyond the confines of these traditionally defined sub-disciplines, drawing on whichever subject areas can inform the research questions.

Archaeology in the UK is largely seen as a separate discipline to Anthropology. I think if we focus on the methods of archaeology, there is a case to be made for it being 'separate', and indeed this is the area where I had the most to learn when I shifted from being a geographer to being an environmental archaeologist. Approaching the archaeological record requires a different sort of approach to modern material culture and living humans. Its methods of data acquisition give nods to geoscience (stratigraphy, taphonomy and formation processes) and physical sciences (preservation, characterisation), yet are highly distinctive. The process of interpretation on the other hand requires an understanding (or appreciation!) of the complexity of human behaviour that draws on anthropology, and an awareness of our own theoretical biases which are rooted in philosophy.

So, how do we understand human-environment relationships in the past? What are these relationships? How have they changed over time? How do they vary in different environmental settings? We need the methods of geography, the methods of archaeology, informed by anthropology if we are to understand the complex human-environment dynamic. I examine anthropogenic sediments, and integrate analysis of microfossils with microstratigraphy and geochemistry (geoscience). I link this micro data back to excavation, macrofossils and artefacts (archaeology).  I try to make sense of what these linked data tell us about the people that produced these deposits, what activities they were engaged in, what and environments they inhabited and utilised. Sediments as material culture, and sediments as environmental archives.

So, what am I? An enviro-geo-archaeologist-geographer who dabbles in chemistry and philosophy? And you, reader, are you more easily defined?

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Micrograph of the Month: The Other Paisley Poop

Paisley Caves became well known a few years ago for it's famous coprolites, or fossil faeces, which were found to contain human DNA, dated between 14,170 and 14,340 cal. BP. Although there have been questions over the identification of these as human (and work is still ongoing), this ancient DNA analysis currently provides some of the earliest evidence for human occupation of North America. The research at Paisley has been key in demonstrating the utility of coprolites as an archaeological ecofact that can contribute to the wider picture of the human past, rather than simply a 'novelty' area of study or one which is purely ecological. But human poop isn't the only kind we find at Paisley Caves, in fact it isn't even the most common, by far! In this month's micrographs we have pictures of the poop that occurs most frequently at the site, bat poop. This stuff is fascinating, and is a huge contributor to the sediment profile of the caves. In the upper left at the lowest magnification you can see how thick layers of sediment in the cave are composed almost entirely of bat droppings. The pellets vary in size around 3-4cm. The black arrow points to a tiny bone fragment, and the blue arrow points to the distinctive compound eye of an insect that has been eaten. In the lower left image is an example of what the bat dropping deposits look like from lower down in the sequence. Due to compression and decomposition, the individual pellets have started to fuse together to the point where it is difficult to see individual pellets at the macroscale. On the upper right we have a close up at x100 and x200 of an individual pellet, where you can see the insect eye more clearly.