Conversations with: Professor Andy Herries

My next guest is Professor Andy Herries who is Head of the Department of Archaeology and History at La Trobe University in Australia! Andy is a field palaeoanthropologist, geochronologist and geoarchaeologist, running The Australian Archaeomagnetism Laboratory (TAAL). TAAL applies magnetic and geophysical methods to the study of archaeological sites and artefacts. He also directs two field projects in South Africa – The Drimolen Cave Palaeoanthropology and Geoarchaeology Field School, looking at the transition from Australopithecus to early Homo and Paranthropus, and the Amanzi Springs Archaeology Project, looking at the transition from the Acheulean to the Middle Stone Age.

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise? 

My main focus has been on the geoarchaeology and geochronology of human origins, particularly in southern Africa, through the use of palaeomagnetism. I work as both a specialist on archaeological and fossils sites where I fly in and take samples and return to the lab to run them, as well as a field archaeologist and site director. My main interest is providing a chronology for hominin evolution and understanding the transition from the Acheulian to the Middle Stone Age. However, I have a very diverse publishing background based on the fact that archaeomagnetism can be used on almost all time periods and I have published papers on 19th Century Melbourne bricks, modelling Chacma Baboon distributions, and I’ve just had a joint authored paper accepted on fossil wombats. I love this diversity in research.

What originally drew you towards archaeology and anthropology? 

I never remember not wanting to be an archaeologist. I always used to say that I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was 6 but a few years ago my grandmother told me that when I was three I asked for her toffee hammer to go out into the garden to break rocks to find fossils. So not much has changed. I was lucky enough to grow up in the United Arab Emirates and travel to Egypt, Greece, Italy, Sri Lanka with my parents so I was immersed in archaeology from a very early age. I went on my first excavation when I was 16 with University College London at Beddingham Roman Villa in Sussex. Consequently, when I went to the University of Liverpool and studied Archaeological Science I had visited many of the places being talked about in class. However, when I sat in a first year subject where Prof John Gowlett talked about early hominins in Africa I found it fascinating as I knew so little about it and I was hooked from that point on Palaeoanthropology. In my second year John was on sabbatical and so I got classes from John McNabb and that gave we a wonderful grounding in stone tool technology which I used for my honours on Australian stone tools. My becoming involved in African archaeology came about because I was a caver and Anthony Sinclair and Patrick Quinney at Liverpool invited me on the Makapansgat Middle Pleistocene Research Project because they wanted to explore for new caves in South Africa. At this point in my life I was all ready to become a hominin palaeobiologist but my trip to South Africa prompted me to move into geoarchaeology instead and study cave geology.

What was your PhD topic? How did you choose this and who was your supervisor?

My PhD was a “Magnetostratigraphic seriation of South African hominin palaeocaves”. When I started it in 1999 there were really no good ages for the South African hominin sites, which were mostly based on faunal correlation. I had done a stratigraphic study of the Makapansgat Limeworks hominin site in South Africa for my MSc and so my supervisor, Alf Latham suggested the next natural step was to do a palaeomagnetic study to look at the age of the site, expanding what had been done in the 1970s. I did this in the Geomagnetism Laboraotry at Liverpool in collaboration with the Makapansgat Field School run by Kaye Reed of Arizona State University and Kevin Kuykendall then of the University of the Witwatersrand. After I started I then got asked to work on several other sites in the Cradle of Humankind including Sterkfontein, Gondolin, and Gladysvale.

Excavating a horn core at the Cornelia hominin site in South Africa with John Gowlett and James Brink (2001).

Since your PhD, what academic positions have you held? Where have these been and on what projects?

Right after my PhD I was a post-doctoral fellow on the European Union funded Archaeomagnetic Applications for the Rescue of Cultural Heritage (AARCH) at the Geophysical Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia, Bulgaria. This is the only job I have had that did not focus on Palaeoanthropology as I worked on the archaeomagnetic dating of Bronze Age and Mediaeval Pottery kilns. However, during this position I started working at Pinnacle Point in South Africa with Curtis Marean looking at pyrotechnology and stone tool heat treatment in the Middle Stone Age. During my PhD I had started this line of work with Lyn Wadley at Sibudu and Rose Cottage Caves, as well as the Cave of Hearths at Makapansgat. In 2005 I moved to the University of New South Wales Dept. Anatomy on a NewSouth Global Post-doctoral Fellowship where I worked on some Later Stone Age sites as well as continuing work at Pinnacle Point. During this period I also started working back in the Cradle of Humankind at Gondolin. I was successful with an Australian Research Council Australian Research (ARC) Fellowship at UNSW in 2008 to work on fossil sites in China and excavated Red Deer Cave in Yunnan Province, but continued doing magnetics research on South African sites during this period including at Cornelia, Bolt’s Farm, Malapa, Taung and Drimolen. I also started work with John Gowlett in Kenya at Kilombe. In 2012 I was successful with an ARC Future Fellowship at La Trobe University where I also set up The Australian Archaeomagnetism Laboratory (TAAL) and continued to work on many of these same sites, as well as at Rising Star. During this period I started a Field School at Drimolen and began early research at the Acheulian site of Amanzi Springs. I became the Head of Dept. of Archaeology and History at La Trobe in 2018 and was promoted to Professor.   

What current projects are you working on in The Australian Archaeomagnetism Laboratory (TAAL)?

TAAL works on projects across a lot of time ranges and current projects include palaeomagnetic analysis of Oldowan and Acheulian sites at Kilombe in Kenya, the Paranthropus robustus site of Kromdraai, fossil sites in Saudi Arabia, Acheulian sites in Jordan, and archaeological and marsupial fossil sites in Australia.  

What are the aims of the Drimolen Cave and Amanzi Springs Archaeology projects? What have been the most memorable finds so far?

The aim of our research at Drimolen is to try and understand the changing landscapes, climate and species that occur between the newly discovered older deposits of the Drimolen Makondo (~2.6 Ma) when Australopithecus africanus was on the landscape and the younger ~2.0 Ma Drimolen Main Quarry when Paranthropus robustus and Homo erectus first occur along with bone and stone tools. The discovery of the DNH 134 Homo erectus cranium, the oldest fossil of this species is by far the most significant find. At Amanzi Springs our project has so far focused on trying to date the deposits and try to understand the relationship between the Acheulian artefacts and newly identified Middle Stone Age deposits. The most significant discovery to date is a layer in the Acheulian that contains a significant amount of preserved wood. Both projects are run with researchers at the Palaeo-Research Institute at the University of Johannesburg that I have been partly involved in establishing in recent years. It’s extremely important to get more South Africans involved in Palaeoanthropology in South Africa. Hence the Drimolen Field School has supported the honours program training at UJ and we provide scholarships for African students to come on the field school. At Amanzi we have had lots of students from the University of Cape Town come excavate with us.     

What project or publication are you most proud of from your academic career so far? 
Obviously I have just published my first, 1st author paper in Science on the age of the Drimolen site and the DNH 134 Homo erectus cranium. The discovery and publishing of a significant hominin crania by a team I lead has been a lifelong ambition so it certainly tops the list. But this is just the start of our publications from Drimolen and some quite significant publications are also on the horizon for Amanzi Springs we hope. I’m also pretty proud of my first paper in Science in 2009 where we published the oldest evidence for the heat treatment of rock to make stone tools at Pinnacle Point as this paper really seemed to set off debate within the discipline. My paper on the age of Sterkfontein is also one I’m fond of because it gave some of the first ages for iconic fossils like Mrs Ples and when Robyn Pickering came along afterwards and uranium-lead dated the site she got the same answer for the ages independently. This set off a long collaboration that culminated in our paper in Nature together last year showing that speleothems form across the Cradle of Humankind caves and can be used to cross correlate in a similar way to volcanic tuffs in eastern Africa, which is just very cool.  

Andy with the recently published DNH 134 Homo erectus cranium

What is your favourite and worse thing about academia? What would you change if you could? 

My favourite thing is that I am able to get up every day to do something I love and for the most part decide what I want to research each day. I also love interacting with my PhD students and trying to help them to full-fill their dreams and career wishes. That love of teaching is the same reason I run the Drimolen Field School as I want to both inspire undergraduate students into palaeoanthropology like John Gowlett inspired me and also help to provide opportunities for South African students to work in the field. The worse thing about academia is that it is hard to relax and switch off because you always have something that needs doing, some deadline coming up. It makes creating a work life balance a challenge (It’s currently 1.30 am as I write this!). The thing I would change if I could would be the lack of jobs available, especially for students when they first finish their PhD.

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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