Digging for Britain

Another kind of human: researching Neanderthal archaeology

As I described in my first post, my research is on the last Neanderthals, a field I find fascinating through the ‘alternate universe’ of hunter-gatherer adaptations and lifeways they represent as a different kind of human. I’m a lithics geek, which means I study, in loving detail, the stone tools that Neanderthals made and which were fundamental to their everyday lives. My PhD involved looking at the evidence from Britain of the re-occupation by Neanderthals of this landscape around 55,000 years ago, after they had been absent for about a hundred thousand years. This meant in practice spending a year visiting a LOT of museums, to record information from over 1000 stone tools. This might sound like a big number, but in fact it’s a very small sample when you’re talking about sites which probably span over 10,000 years in time. Big French cave sites of the same period can have ten times that amount of lithics from a single occupation layer.

After this recording phase was another year (or two…) of data crunching to find out what the stones were telling me. The results showed that Neanderthals moving into Britain during a very unstable climatic period (termed Marine Isotope Stage 3; we’re now at Stage 1, and the last proper ice age was Stage 2) were living very mobile lives, with a highly organized technological strategy that promoted flexibility in their tool production and maintenance.  So where am I now two years later, on 29th July in 2011?

At the moment I have several different projects, and multi-tasking is definitely something as a researcher you need to get to grips with. I’ve just got back from three-weeks of fieldwork in Jersey, as part of a really exciting project called the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey, which will be featured in the first episode of the new Digging for Britain tv series. Although Jersey is a small island, it has a fantastically rich archaeological record.  We’re interested in the hunter-gatherers who lived there from the Neanderthals right up to the people who lived in the forested landscapes after the last ice age. My part in the project is to study the lithics (stone tools) from the upper layers of one of the most important Neanderthal sites in the world, a collapsed cave/ravine called La Cotte de St Brelade.

La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey. The original excavations were underneath and behind the rock arch, originally thought to be a cave until the roof of sediment collapsed in the early 20th century.

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Neanderthals in Limbo

So, you’ve got a PhD in archaeology, what next?  I’m a Neanderthal researcher at that strange point which a few lucky people manage to miss in their career path: post-PhD, but not yet officially a ‘Postdoc’, with a paid position on a research project. I submitted my PhD in 2009, and after a long and nervous wait, passed my viva in February 2010, transforming into a Doctor of Archaeology. So far, so good, right?

Things are not as straightforward as PhD = job.  The next stage in forging an academic career involves trying to do two conflicting things: publish a ton of papers from your PhD in “high-impact” journals and books, and at the same time, write kick-ass funding and job applications, the success of which depends to a large part on your publication record. Oh, and earn some money to live on too…

My posts today will be about the reality of this process: what kinds of things a normal aspiring Postdoc does to try and get a foot on the ladder in a research career in archaeology. I’ll start by talking about my research in Neanderthals, and how this has led to where I am now: working on several very exciting projects (including one which will soon be featured on the new Digging for Britain television series!). Then I’ll get onto the funding/publishing merry-go-round: what I am juggling today, 29th July 2011, in terms of applications, writing, and planning for future collaborations. So, not a lot of digging, but certainly a lot of hard work and hopefully an insight into what goes on behind the scenes of cutting-edge research into the funkiest hominin species of all time!

Recording Neanderthal artefacts at Jersey Museum in July