Our first conversation is with Professor Chris Hunt from Liverpool John Moores University. I first met Chris when he made the long trek up the hill to the University of Liverpool to give a seminar on the new Neanderthal discoveries at Shanidar Cave. Chris is an earth scientists, whose research interests primarily lie in Quaternary Science. He currently teaches primarily in geography, with a specific focus on past human-environment interactions. After completing his PhD at University College Aberystwyth, Chris has held many research positions, most recently at Royal Holloway University, the University of Huddersfield and Queen’s University Belfast before taking up his professorship in Liverpool. He is founding editor of Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and an editorial board member of Journal of Archaeological Science. Here, Chris answers some questions about his current research projects, his experience as an academic and the ‘million-dollar question’ about Neanderthal behaviour..
What are your research interests and particular area of expertise?
I am interested particularly in how humanity interacts with our environment, now and in the distant past and, of course, all points between. I’m interested in how our environmental behaviour has changed over time. I guess I use natural sciences techniques to throw light on human behaviour. My particular expertise is in palynology, stratigraphy, sedimentology, palaeoecology and reconstructing ancient environments and I have lesser expertise in molluscs.
What originally drew you towards archaeology when you were an undergraduate student?
As an undergraduate, I did Geography/Geology but I met a very lovely Archaeology student and attended some classes to see more of her. Sad really.
What current projects are you working on?
I am co-investigator on the Shanidar Project, co-investigator of the Fragsus Project which has investigated societal and environmental change in Maltese prehistory and co-investigator on the Cyrenaican Prehistory Project which is investigating the past 300,000 years in NE Libya. I also have active research in Borneo looking at ancient rainforest use, at Petra where I’m part of a group led by Bernhard Lucke examining Nabatean agriculture, and in Ireland where I’m contributing to Richard Jennings’ Ballymintra project exploring pre-Neolithic colonisation of Ireland and am writing up a series of samplings of middens in Co Sligo with Finbar McCormick.
Where would you like these projects to go in the future?
I’m getting old, so I want to conclude my contribution to all these over the next few years. I hope that the Shanidar Project will develop – it’s an amazing site with huge potential and I hope that Emma Pomeroy and our colleagues in the Kurdish Antiquities Service will take it forward, find new Neanderthals and lots of great cultural information over the next 10 years. There will be all sorts of stuff to do once all of these projects are finished. For instance on Malta, our pollen evidence shows farming several hundred years before the first archaeology, and evidence continuity between the early and late Neolithic while there is no archaeological evidence in the gap in the middle. It must be there somewhere! Have we just have not recognised it or found the right site? And there is still loads to do on the collapse of the Maltese Temple Culture. Our evidence gives an idea of coastal sites being abandoned and activity continuing inland. There may be partial population replacement, but it’s by no means certain. Our information is really still very insubstantial and more work will be needed. The work on ancient rainforest use is at a very early stage. We are beginning to see long sequences of vegetation management in Borneo, with humans impacting on rainforest since before 50,000 years ago. I would really like to do more work on this.
In relation to your most recent publication (link at bottom of page), do you think we have enough evidence to say that Neanderthals have elaborate mortuary/symbolic practises? Do you think they are behaviourally ‘modern’?
Million-dollar question which I am wrapping up in a grant application at the moment. There are so many imponderables. They certainly looked after their injured, sick and lame. They seem to have done things with raptor feathers and claws that don’t look dietary. They may have occasionally put geometric designs on cave walls and floors. The mortuary cluster at Shanidar suggests memory and return to sites to place their dead, if no more. The difficulty is that we are looking through the geomorphological filter which was the Last Glacial Maximum so the evidence is not strong… but it is promising nonetheless!
What is it like to work at Liverpool John Moores University in the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences?
I have lovely and interesting colleagues, a great boss, super students and no pretensions. So I feel I am very lucky. But LJMU is a poor institution financially, so we have a lot of ‘Blue Peter’ make do and mend and lots of students to look after.
How has academia changed since you did your PhD?
Hugely. It’s much more like a business than it was and the number of administrators and the administrative load on academic staff have sky-rocketed out of all recognition. Health and safety is something we now have to strictly observe so there’s lots of lab and field stuff we simply don’t and can’t do any more (in many ways not a bad thing!). Students are less able to afford to be curious and much more instrumental about what they choose to do, both in subject choices and in the way they approach work on their degree. I think the loan system may have caused this. I wrote two essays a week throughout my degree but all my marks rested on the final exams. We struggle to get our guys to write one, unless credit is attached! Schools nowadays prepare students for university by focussing on passing assessments so they know little else and are far less sure of themselves than my generation were, 45 years ago. It’s a shame as a lot of them are very bright!
What is your best advice to an archaeology PhD student embarking on a career in academia?
Do something that really interests you! And don’t necessarily expect a career in academia. Most of the people I started with didn’t become academics, some out of choice others not. But, most would say that the time spent doing a PhD was really rewarding and exciting. And don’t think that because you started doing one thing, you have to do it for the rest of your life! The PhD shows that you have bucketloads of intelligence, problem-solving ability and sheer grit. Employers like these qualities, as long as you aren’t precious about it. If you really want an academic career, you have to hang in there and keep publishing, while doing other jobs till your opening comes along. I did 4 years consultancy and lots of odd jobs between finishing my grant and getting my first permanent job. But I kept publishing. Very hard! Finally, remember to keep perspective. A PhD thesis needs to be a very good piece of work, but don’t try to make it perfect. It’s a trap lots of people blunder into. Better a good thesis after 3.5 years than a great but unfinished one!