Interview questions Geoff Hill:
Some archaeologists are after Cleopatra, others are more into Coleoptera! This blog entry will host Geoff Hill, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, who has kindly shared some insights from his young career as an environmental archaeologist. In the interview below he gives us a glimpse into the use of beetles as indicators of ancient landscapes, and provides some great advice for young archaeologists looking to develop their career.
– What got you interested in Environmental Archaeology?
It was during my undergraduate degree in Climate Studies at Coventry University, which I undertook as a ‘mature student’ of 26. The combination of being taught climate reconstruction via organic fossils, and being introduced to Ruddiman’s ‘Ploughs, Plagues and Petroleum’ by a really passionate lecturer, Dr Jason Jordan. I wrote my dissertation as a literature review on the spread of agriculture in Britain and any implications for Ruddiman’s ‘Early Anthropocene’ argument, it was amateurish, but it got me hooked.
Following that, I was lucky to secure a place on the Environmental Archaeology and Palaeoenvironment MSc course at the University of Birmingham – lucky, considering I was the only one on the course! Dr Andy Howard kindly took me on and it felt like an apprenticeship, I got a fantastic grounding in many aspects of EA. It was at Birmingham that I was introduced to the use of Coleoptera in EA by Dr David Smith, I prefer the tactile nature of handling the sclerites as opposed to many other organic fossil proxies. I’m not an archaeologist, but I think pulling out the elytra of your first Silphid from the murk of a peaty petri, might be similar to excavating your first Neolithic sherd in the field. Well, maybe.
I also have to thank my older brother, Tom. He’s a Quaternary diatomist and palynologist and loves his field so much, that I think his enthusiasm rubbed off on me.
– How long have you been a member of AEA? How did you hear about us?
I think I first joined during my Masters, and via Andy Howard, but I let it slip over my PhD until recently. Considering it’s such a great price for students and non-students alike, there was no excuse really. It might help if someone from the AEA walks around Archaeology and Palaeoecology departments ringing a bell a reminding us absent-minded types to join.
– What is your current research about?
I’m currently writing up my PhD, at Queens University, Belfast, looking into the effectiveness of using Coleoptera as a proxy for detecting and perhaps measuring the ‘open-ness’ of ancient landscapes. There is still much discussion about this characteristic of the European ‘wildwood’ following Franz Vera’s, hotly contested, publication in 2000 (AD!).
A fantastic ‘property’ of beetles, owing somewhat to the great diversity of their order, is their specificity of habitat, from which we can deduce certain aspects of their host environment, including some anthropogenic activities. Even when they are not so specific they can be lumped together in functional groups which can reflect more general conditions, e.g. woodland, fenland, or drier, open ground, amongst others.
My research involves the analysis of how functional groups differ in their proportions at the present time from a number different landscape types. Finally these modern analogues are compared with palaeo data-sets… the initial results are very promising, but I’ll leave it at that until my initial publications!
Along with my openness project I have been working on the beetle assemblages from a Late Mesolithic site with in-situ brush-wood layers at Lough Kinale. These are intended as one of my palaeo data sets in the ‘open-ness’ project – but has actually turned into a project in its own right. It would seem I have come across a very early ‘house fauna’ which suggests these structures, in amongst a damp fen-like environment, were enclosed spaces kept relatively dry. These findings need to be peer reviewed, but I am incredibly excited by its potential.
– What is the importance of studying the open-ness of ancient landscapes? How does it contribute to our understanding of ancient human lives? Does it relate to modern landscape and environmental issues?
I can think of 3 reasons. Firstly, and harking back to my undergraduate roots, it would play an important role in climate models which incorporate forest cover/density (as a carbon sink) within its algorithm. Secondly, it’s an ongoing concern for conservationists and foresters alike who seek to establish or re-wild ‘natural’ landscapes. Just exactly what is natural with regards to Europe?
Thirdly, and importantly for archaeologists, ‘open-ness’ (or not) of a landscape will affect human relationships with their environment, not only culturally, but also on practical, economically driven terms. It has implications for the Neolithisation of a landscape; how much of the early pasture and arable land was created within a pre-existing open space?
I believe it might also influence our understanding of Mesolithic activity, I’m reminded of this quote by a pioneer of palynology, Johannes Iversen:
“In the Atlantic period … there would scarcely be any natural glades of any size or stability … the comparatively dark character of the forest implied that conditions of living in it were unfavourable for animals, which means man too.”
Maybe life wasn’t so unfavourable in this deep dark Mesolithic ‘Forests-Grimm’?
– How difficult was it to find career opportunities within Environmental Archaeology?
I’m still at the very early stages of my career, so I’m not sure how well I can answer this. I do believe I was fortunate with my PhD; the timing was perfect and it was right up my alley. Following David’s excellent introduction, Dr Nicki Whitehouse has been great in helping me understand our palaeo toolkit and in bringing these and other skills together in a big project such as this. I’ve had great support from so many people at all stages, especially the other PhD students, and I really can’t thank everyone enough. I think this good fortune defines my opportunities thus far.
I was disappointed to see a number of archaeological units and departments close in the UK, in the wake of the austerity and higher education fee’s gamble. I guess this is my main concern for opportunities in Environmental Archaeology at the moment, for all of us.
– What would your advice be for students looking to develop their career in Environmental Archaeology?
I think there are two things which I’ve learnt later on than perhaps I wish I had, for when you apply, or get accepted on to a PhD.
Firstly, ‘stay ahead of the game’. Take the time to consider what other skill or methods you want to learn early on, even before you start, and how you can merge it with your project. Maybe it’s something wholly different to your project but now is a great time to learn – there’s always a course for it! When it comes to applying for postdocs you really want to stand out, hundreds may apply to a post who can count pollen, but can you count pollen and extract and analyse its ancient DNA? I can’t!
Secondly, it’s a bit cliché, but, I think it’s important that whilst you question your findings, try not to question your ability. You’re going to meet some scarily intelligent people along the way, and for many people (myself included) it can be daunting, and you can feel out of place – almost like you’re pretending to be an academic. It’s important to remember that you were accepted for the PhD for a reason, you have the ability, and no one knows your research better than you do.
On a different note, science isn’t a competition, it’s “an exercise in honesty”. So many people have helped me get where I am, so I try to help others when I can – especially with their fieldwork. You can never get enough of it!
I think all of us can benefit from your advice! Thanks a lot for taking your time to share your research experience with us.