Conversations with: Dr Rob Davis

It is my absolute pleasure to introduce my next guest, Dr Rob Davis a Palaeolithic archaeologist who currently works at the British Museum in London. Rob is project curator for the ‘Pathways to Ancient Britain ‘Project, with his primary research interests lying in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic record of northern Europe. He is also co-director of the Barnham Palaeolithic Field School in Suffolk and is chair of the Lithic Studies Society.

What are your current research interests and particular area of expertise within archaeology?

Currently, my research is focussed on the Lower Palaeolithic of Europe, in particular that of northern Europe. I’m interested in understanding how humans were able to overcome the difficulties of occupying northern latitudes; how were they overcoming these cooler climates with longer, colder winters, what technologies they needed to do this and what subsistence patterns enabled them to get over the shorter growing seasons. I’m trying to work out when humans were in northern Europe and how they were managing to live in these new, unfamiliar landscapes.

In terms of my area of expertise within archaeology, I work primarily within the Lower Palaeolithic with a practical focus on lithic technologies. My specialities lie in lithic analysis, excavation, both geological and archaeological, and surveying techniques.

What originally drew you towards Palaeolithic archaeology?

When I started my undergrad, I was very much interested in later prehistoric periods. I don’t think I had really been exposed to Palaeolithic archaeology at school or even on TV or anything like that. I was always interested in history and archaeology, in periods like the Neolithic and the Iron and Bronze Age. However, I had two excellent lecturers when I started my undergrad in archaeology at UCL, Ignacio de la Torre and Dietrich Stout, who were just amazing and had a big influence on me. They ran the Palaeolithic modules and I ended up taking them all. I found that over the course of my undergrad my interests shifted earlier and earlier in time! I then decided to do my masters dissertation on a Lower Palaeolithic assemblage with Nick Ashton at the British Museum and it all went from there. Once I had been exposed to it, it felt like there were so many big unanswered questions about human evolution and the development of human societies and I was just so interested in it!

What path did you take to get to the position you’re in now?

I came as a mature student to archaeology; I initially had a career in construction management as a site engineer. When I was 25, I quit that job and went back to university to study archaeology. I found that my previous career was actually very useful to my studies as I already had a lot of survey skills which I was able to contribute to excavations right from the offset; I was already able to use total stations and things like that. That was very useful.

I did my undergrad pre the huge increases in fees, so I was also able to go on and do my masters at UCL self-funded, which was good. The best decision I made, which was kind of fortuitous, was that I studied a collection from Hoxne, a Lower Palaeolithic site held at the British Museum, for my masters’ project. I found it really useful to do a dissertation based around studying a collection and learning how to record and interpret an archaeological assemblage. Doing my own research on a collection definitely provided me with important skills going forward into a PhD. My PhD was at the University of Reading with Rob Hosfield and I was looking at the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic from the River Solent, studying the river terraces that you find around Bournemouth and Southampton. Again, this project was very practical based as we did some fieldwork and I studied lots of collections, which gave me further research skills to go on into similar post-doc roles.

After my PhD, I was fortunate enough to get a two-year position at the University of Bradford on the ‘Fragmented Heritage Project’. I was working on trying to develop automated refitting technology where you can scan lots of artefacts and then use some software to see how they fit back together. That was a good project. Then, I worked with Nick Ashton and Simon Lewis to write a proposal for the ‘Brecklands Palaeolithic Project’ which ended up being a three-year Leverhulme Trust funded project at the Queen Mary’s University in London. And now I am currently working on the ‘Pathway’s to Ancient Britain Project’ at the British Museum!  

What are the aims, findings so far and future directions of this project?

With the ‘Pathway’s to Ancient Britain Project’, we’re looking at the British Palaeolithic and trying to put it into context of the broader European Record, with a specific focus on three chronological periods. At sites like Happisburgh and Pakefield, we can see the very earliest human presence in Britain dating to almost 1 million years ago. So, in this part of the project we’re trying to understand how these pioneering populations were adapting to their new environments. We think this could be Homo antecessor, as we see this species in Spain at a similar time, but at the moment we have no fossils from this period so it’s hard to ascertain exactly who these earliest human groups were! In the second period, around half a million years ago  we start to see evidence for much larger populations. We have a lot more sites and a lot more artefacts, which suggest that we have more sustained occupations, so we’re looking to see what changes in behaviour and technology enabled humans to occupy these areas more successfully for longer periods of time.

Finally, we see the emergence of Neanderthals in the final stage. I’m currently focussed on the first two phases and another group is working on the final phase. This part is mainly focussed in Jersey, looking at sites like La Cotte de St Brelade where we have evidence for the presence of Neanderthals and insights into Neanderthal behaviour.

So, they’re the three big chronological periods we’re currently focussing on in the project. In terms of future directions, we’re going to continue working on establishing what is going on in those three periods. Fire use is becoming increasingly a thing that we’re focussing on, as this may have been a necessary cultural adaptation that allowed early humans to occupy more northern latitudes. We’re been talking with some fire specialists, like John Gowlett and Sally Hoare, who do work in central East Anglia as well, at Beeches Pit where there is strong evidence for early human fire use.

What is it like working as a researcher for a museum as opposed to a university? And do you prefer it?

I have been working with the same team of people whilst working on projects at universities and for the British Museum so, from my personal experience, there has not really been a huge change. However, I have found that there is definitely a change in emphasis in terms of the type of research that you do at a museum compared to a university. When you’re employed by a university, you’re looking to provide the best learning experience for your students at the same time as conducting internationally recognised research. At the museum, we’re instead looking to provide the best learning experience for our visitors, which is very different to that which is provided for students. Whilst there’s also an emphasis on international renowned high-quality research at the British Museum, this research is very much focussed on the collections that we have and bringing these collections to life to provide that learning experience for our visitors. Public engagement is of course important for any researcher, but there is definitely a different emphasis on it when you’re working at a museum.

From a more practical point of view, when working at a university, you are part of a huge interdisciplinary institution, so you have more access to different equipment, software and journal access. You get less of that at a museum because the research is much more narrowly focussed. In terms of preference, it’s hard to pick one over the other. I don’t have any student teaching opportunities now, which I did when I was employed by a university, so I do miss that. But I enjoy working with collections as it’s is really interesting and there’s the potential for developing small exhibitions.

You’re also co-director of the Barnham Palaeolithic Field School. What is the field school, who is it aimed at and what’s your most memorable/favourite moment from last season?

Our field school is funded by the ‘Pathways to Ancient Britain Project’ and it’s been running since 2013. It initially started out as a field school for students from Leiden University in the Netherlands, as there had previously been a field school in Happisburgh for those students and this was the next project for them to work on.Over the next couple of years, we decided to broaden it out and so we opened it up to students from anywhere.

A few years ago, we started offering scholarships for students, so it doesn’t cost them anything to participate. We provide them with a practical and accessible training experience, which is something that I didn’t have when I was doing my studies, as there were no British-based Palaeolithic field school opportunities. Our field school is for students looking to continue their studies in a Palaeolithic-related discipline, whilst gaining experience of field techniques. At the same time as being a great opportunity for students, it’s very much a research excavation so we’re trying to ask these same big questions about early humans during Lower Palaeolithic. We’ve found that there’s two different assemblages at the site with considerable differences so we’re trying to understand the relationship between those assemblages, and we have significant evidence for fire so we’re also trying to understand whether the humans were using fire or whether it’s naturally occurring fire. Also, there’s a very rich environmental record at Barnham so we’re using the data we get from there to reconstruct the environment for the Hoxnian interglacial period. So, we’re looking to provide both a good teaching experience whilst also answering essential research questions about the Lower Palaeolithic.

In terms of the most memorable moment, we have reinterpretted the site since starting the new field school. As I mentioned, this is primarily because there are two different assemblages, one with hand axes and one without, which we had previously thought were the same age. We interpreted this as the same population doing different things in different functional areas. However, when we opened a new area, we found evidence to suggest that these two assemblages were stratigraphically separated, indicating two different groups of humans at the site. So we see an initial group that did not make hand axes and then a second group, arriving not long after, that did make hand axes. This is very rare to find at the same site. These groups might be separated only by a few hundred years, perhaps only a few generations, and this level of chronological resolution is almost unheard of in Lower Palaeolithic archaeology. That’s been really important for the way we’ve been thinking about the European Lower Palaeolithic record in the last couple of years.

Excavation of Area III, also known as the faunal area, from the last field school in 2019.

What is your favourite thing about being an academia and what’s one thing about academia that you would change?

The best thing has to be the freedom to be able to follow interesting avenues of research. Whilst our current project has clear aims, we do have the ability to follow it wherever it takes us which is really nice. From a personal point of view, I love fieldwork and so the opportunity to find and dig new sites is really exciting. The drawback is, of course, that it would be nice to have more jobs and more job security. We all work very hard and it takes up a lot of time, so it can get very stressful and there’s a lot of pressure to publish and produce new results. All of this plus the precarious position a lot of people are in, as they are on short-term contracts, can make it difficult. I have been very lucky as I’m now in my third position, but there’s always that end date looming. Saying that, I love what I do so I don’t think people should feel too sorry for me!

You can read Rob’s latest publication from the Pathways to Britain project here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278416519300467

Conversations with: Professor Chris Hunt

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!

Shandiar Cave, Iraq, where Chris and his team have recently found evidence for elaborate Neanderthal mortuary behaviour

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!