AEA student blog – Interview with Julia Best

AEA student blog. Interview with Julia Best:
As part of this blog’s mission to provide young researchers with a glimpse into current research and career development in the field of Environmental Archaeology, we would like to introduce you to Julia Best. Julia has recently started her post-doc at Bournemouth University after having completed her PhD at Cardiff University. Her main expertise is bird bone analysis, and in the interview below she talks about her experience in the field of Environmental Archaeology so far and offers some great tips on career development.
– What got you interested in Environmental Archaeology?

It all started with a rabbit. Aged about 5 I was taken to Fishbourne Roman Palace. Said rabbit had been burrowing about and unearthed various bits of pottery and some bone fragments. I proudly handed these to the museum people and then promptly cried all the way home because I didn’t want to leave. I think I was doomed from thereon in! Many years later at Cardiff University doing my undergraduate degree I began to realise the staggering array of evidence that can be explored through environmental archaeology and once I started the osteoarchaeology module I was hooked. Zooarchaeology is my specialist area, particularly birds, but I also have a fondness for flotation and have conducted environmental sampling and processing for a variety of archaeological sites. There is something very satisfying about a load of charred grains bobbing out and into your sieve. Not to mention that good sampling and environmental processing are important for recovering some of my smaller bird bones!
– How long have you been a member of AEA? How did you hear about us?

I first joined the AEA at the end of my undergraduate degree in 2008/9. I confess that during my PhD I carelessly let my membership lapse, but I have since re-joined again! I heard of the AEA through their advertisement at various conferences, by using the AEA publications in the library, but most importantly through my supervisor at the time (Dr Jacqui Mulville) and other mentors who encouraged me to join.
– What is your current research about? How about previous research?

I am currently a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ‘Scientific and Cultural Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions’ project which is funded by the AHRC. I am based at Bournemouth University with the project’s leader, Mark Maltby. My zooarchaeological research focuses on investigating the domestication and subsequent spread of chickens across the world, and how they were used for meat and eggs in different periods and regions. As such, part of my work involves collecting data from across Europe for inclusion in a large project database. I am also conducting research into the history of egg production, and working to refine and develop our knowledge of the formation, duration and extent of medullary bone in chickens. The chicken is today our most numerous domestic animal and yet our knowledge of it is surprisingly limited. As such, our project is vital for understanding its origins, and its significance in diet, society and culture.
Prior to this I completed my PhD at Cardiff University (viva December 2013). My thesis explored the use of avian resources within the Scottish and wider North Atlantic Island environment via archaeological bone and eggshell. Birds can provide a range of products including meat, eggs and feathers, however their archaeological investigation in this context had been limited. By collating pre-existing avian data and combining it with new, in-depth analyses the thesis was able to investigate bird use though time and space more fully, exploring a wide range of evidence through their remains.
– How does studying bird remains contribute to our understanding of ancient human lives?

Birds are wonderful things for archaeology since they have the ability to provide evidence for a wide range of topics related to the human past. For example, analysing bird bones and eggshells can develop our understanding of human diet, their exploitation of wild bird resources, seasonal fowling activities, what habitats were present that these birds were sourced from, and human movement around the landscape to acquire them. Through the study of wild birds we can also investigate climate change and human persecution (such as in the case of the infamous great auk’s extinction). Domestic birds present opportunities to investigate animal husbandry, the domestication process, and the spread of these animal resources across the world (and via this we can study human movement and trade). Both wild and domestic birds also have the potential to help explore how these animals were perceived and interacted with, and as such their role in society, economy and culture.
– How difficult was it to find career opportunities within Environmental Archaeology?

I have been very fortunate in that a job position for which I was well suited and could write a strong application was advertised just after I submitted my PhD. As such, I had the opportunity to move swiftly from PhD to Post-Doc. My experience is by no means unique. Two close friends who finished their PhDs around the same time as myself are both now employed in environmental archaeology related areas; one in environmental processing in the field and archive, the other as a Post-Doc on a stable isotope focused project. Other friends (for example) completed Masters degrees and then went on to take major roles and responsibilities in environmental processing with a variety of archaeological units. As an area of archaeology I feel that we possess a strong and varied armoury of transferable skills that we can adapt to suit a wide variety of career opportunities.
– What would your advice be for students looking to develop their career in Environmental Archaeology?

Make the most of the range of opportunities available to you. Attend conferences (and seminars, workshops, courses etc.). Even if you are not speaking they are brilliant for networking and making contacts. People I met at my very first conference are now valued colleagues and it’s a great to meet people at different universities working in similar areas. It is a good way to get your name heard which can be very useful when it comes to applying for jobs or MAs, PhDs etc. They are also great fun and there are usually opportunities for financial aid available from various avenues.

Try to get practical and expand your skill set, explore areas of environmental archaeology that are less familiar to you, whether it’s helping with flotation on an excavation or learning to identify bird bones! Having a broad understanding of the breadth of our discipline will help you develop and expand your work in your own specialist areas, but can also provide vital opportunities for collaborative research.

Look at things from different angles. I very much enjoy public engagement and outreach work and this can be a very rewarding experience. I get the wonderful opportunity to look into the past every day, but I believe that our experiences are limited if we do not share this with the wider world. I recently took the Chicken Project’s work to Glastonbury Festival (in the Green Futures Field’s Science Tent). The level of interest was staggering and the visitors often ask questions and spark areas of discussion that had never occurred to us! Everyone has a past and as such the past belongs to everyone.

Thank you Julia! And with these inspiring words this blog interview ends. If you have any comments or questions about this interview or suggestions for future blogs don’t be shy, let us know!