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!

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