Friday, 12 August 2016

The story of how I started working in Oregon

If you follow me on twitter you may have seen a series of posts over this year relating to a NERC application I submitted. From writing the thing, >10,000 words (that's a whole undergraduate dissertation!), going through the internal review process, finally submitting it in January. Then anxiously waiting for reviewer feedback, frantically responding to reviewer queries within a very short time frame, then waiting for another couple of months to hear...the amazing news that I was awarded the grant! When the administrative process is complete, I'll write a proper post about the project and what it is we hope to do, but for now I wanted to tell the story of how I ended up working on a project that initially seems far removed from working on Neolithic middens in the Near East, or even Neolithic pottery in Britain. I like this story, as it goes to show how opportunities turn up in strange ways, often when you don't expect them, and that the research process can take you in directions you didn't originally plan for. It also shows how a project can take a while to get off the ground, especially if you are not in a permanent post, or one where you can apply for large grant funding.

Back in 2011 I had a conversation with my mother in law, on the aspect of my PhD work that seems to fascinate people the most - the fact that I spent quite a lot of time analysing prehistoric poop. Not just any poop, but poop that turned out to be (largely) human. Fun story, with interesting implications about neolithic health and attitudes to waste and cleanliness. My MIL volunteers with the Archaeological Society of Central Oregon (ASCO), and she suggested I do a lecture for them about it. She also mentioned the fact that in Oregon, they had some very famous ancient poop. This rang bells, and sure enough, it turned out that a paper I had read recently was on coprolites from Paisley Caves, a site based quite close to where my in-laws lived. She put me in touch with the site director, and that's where it began.

I visited the site during the summer to collect some pilot samples, to see whether the methodology I had developed at Catalhoyuk would work at this type of site. The thin section slides turned out to be amazing, and also quite complicated. The sediments are highly variable and full of all sorts of amazing stuff. We knew based on these pilot samples that there was huge potential here, but as a post-doc I had no way of actually getting funding to develop the project. Even when I started a fellowship at Edinburgh in 2013, where I was technically eligible to apply to NERC, I was not allowed to because I only had a two year contract. The drawback of being an archaeological scientist is that you can't just sit and write, you need to do the lab work first, and it can be very expensive. The organic chemistry and micromorphology that I use are particularly expensive, and impossible to do without funding.

As soon as I got my position at Newcastle, I knew that this was the first project I wanted to pursue. Archaeological science is very much a team process -  the site director is an expert in the archaeology of the region and provides the framework for interpretation, whilst my lab collaborators have a level of technical expertise that can only come from having a background in chemistry. I guess I am the facilitator who links the two, having a foot in both worlds. It will be the first major project I've been involved in where I am overseeing the process, rather than carrying out the lab work myself. I'm not yet sure how I feel about that! I love spending time in the field and in the lab, and it will be strange delegating out the different tasks rather than doing it myself. I look forward to writing more about it over the next 3 years, so watch this space...

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