Specialist in plate-spinning and the braided river career path. Co-founder of TrowelBlazers in 2013, and mama to 2 human babies in two years since then. Postdoc at Uni Bordeaux finished 2015, my research expertise is in Neanderthals, stone tools, Palaeolithic archaeology. Also evolved to include feminist practice in archaeology, project management... and popular book writing. You can see how things changed for me in my previous Day of Archaeology posts. A rather dusty blog can be found at www.TheRocksRemain.org, but I'm reliably found on Twitter @LeMoustier.

From Streams to Deltas: Navigating Archaeology Careers, 5 Years On

In 2012, five years ago, I wrote what was to turn out rather amazingly as the most popular post thus far for the Day of Archaeology project. I can’t know all the reasons why people might have felt attracted to my words, but the idea of needing a “Plan B” in our careers must have resonated.

My annual posts since then track a career path of unexpected turns – I’m probably somewhere on Plan E by now, although that makes it all sound rather more controlled and systematic than the organic reality. Things have certainly gone pretty off-road from the seemingly obvious, standard route that 18-year-old me understood took place, should one be lucky enough to progress from an undergraduate degree to the dreamed-about status of lecturer and researcher. Maybe I was naive, but I don’t think I was alone, and my 2012 post tried to see the positive sides to a confusing (and at times disheartening) outcome.

Five years on, I’ve realised that this untenured, untethered, and often uncertain situation is the new normal, for me and many others in archaeology. Winning an incredibly prestigious postdoc wasn’t enough to guarantee an academic position or even other research grants, and I’m not the only one who is now technically unemployed, but somehow working full time. So for this final year, join me at the helm to see what my working life looks like, doing archaeology in many different ways.


Exotic flints from the silcrete quarry workshop



First task of the day is checking the proofs of a journal article which was accepted a couple of days ago. It reports the results of my postdoc fieldwork (covered for Day of Archaeology in 2015 here) and subsequent analysis of the stone tools from a prehistoric silcrete source and quarry-workshop in the Massif central, south east France. This was a really challenging site to excavate and study, as while hugely abundant (there are probably over 500,000 knapped objects), the technology is very informal, making dating activity very difficult. We did however find some possible hints of direct extraction from the bedrock using pits, as well as some extremely interesting flint artefacts that were what we call ‘exotic’: imported to the site from four different flint sources up to 70 km away. It would have been nice to know when this was happening, so we could tie it into the archaeological record for different prehistoric periods in the region – I was especially hoping for some evidence of Neanderthal lithic transport- but the sample we recovered did not allow us to do that. Still, I’m really proud of the paper, especially as it’s part of a special issue in the journal all about silcrete use around the world, which I co-edited.

Once the proofs are all approved, my next job is catching up on correspondence for multiple related projects linked to my work with TrowelBlazers, an organisation focused on cheerleading women in archaeology, geology and palaeontology. The past year my focus has mostly been on our Raising Horizons exhibition (which we were busy planning in the last post for Day of Archaeology). As a collective of four women, we each have evolved different areas of responsibility to develop what TrowelBlazers does, which means we can all take ownership of what excites us most, while benefiting hugely from brainstorming, positive critiques and endless support of each other’s work (not to epic and hilarious email threads). It’s the most continually fun and inspiring work I’ve done as an archaeologist, and I’m incredibly proud of what we achieved with Raising Horizons, one of my two babies of 2016 (the other being an actual Homo sapiens infant). We’re most of the way through a UK tour for the exhibition, having successfully crowdfunded the entire enterprise thanks to the fantastic engagment and generosity of our community. I’m working on contract documentation and final planning for three upcoming showings at the British Science Festival, the Lapworth Museum in Birmingham, and the annual conference of the Palaeontological Association (one of our major sponsors).

At the Raising Horizons exhibition launch, February 2017

After the Raising Horizons admin is out of the way, I can get a bit creative in thinking about two potential new projects linked to TrowelBlazers: first a consultation on working with a hugely significant archaeological site in the UK to tell the story of the women who worked there, and second, mapping out possibilities for a collaborative grant application to create an entirely new exhibition on particular women who made key contributions to both science and society. I’ll be having skype meetings for both these projects next week, so the main task is preparing for those conversations. Project management and exhibition work is not something I had thought much about before the chance opportunity to develop Raising Horizons appeared, but it turns out it’s something I love (fascinating deep research, coupled with creative connections and juxtapositions), and am really good at.

After a lunch break (with the luxury of working close enough to home to visit my family and share a meal), my afternoon is all about the Big Book Project. An earlier contract with Sigma Science for a book on birds in prehistory is temporarily on ice, but my incredible editor is marvelously supportive, and so I have a second contract for a popular science extravaganza on my official area of expertise, the Neanderthals. With the manuscript due this autumn, most of my days are focused on delving into the nitty gritty of their archaeology, and packing in all the unexpected and compelling stuff we know about this species, plus how we know, and why we seem so obsessed with them. It’s a dream project, and right now we’re close to being able to share the title which is immensely exciting (and also terrifying, in a rollercoaster-over-the-edge way).

Snapshot of book writing; Scrivener software totally recommended!

Can what I do now still be called archaeology? I’ve not done any fieldwork for the past two years, and I have a bad case of trowel itch. Yet even without an active excavation or current analytical research project, all my time and energy is spent on archaeology in one way or another. Increasingly that includes working to improve it as a discipline, both for the people in this field, and to make what we do mean something, beyond intellectual curiosity. The answer to my question in 2012, “once an archaeologist…? ” is definitely, yes, always. My biggest lesson since starting out is that everything in archaeological careers is about luck. But, you also have the ability to load your own dice, and the more throws you give yourself, the better chance you have of rolling a good score. My own professional course been less of a single-stream, focused trajectory, and more of a braided river delta, where the lie of the land means diversifying expertise, taking chances when they come, and reaching the horizon in more ways than you imagined.

Lena River Delta. Image: Public domain, NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

Raising Our Trowels to New Horizons

It’s summertime, and all over the world the trowels are blazin’ … for some of the TrowelBlazers team this year, however, the hard graft isn’t soil-shifting but grant-writing.

As a genuine grassroots collective which began in 2013 and has been growing ever since, we’ve started to throw out fresh shoots towards Big New Projects. Last year’s Fossil Hunter Lottie Doll was one such, and we have another that is going to launch in early 2017.

While our core activity of running the TrowelBlazers website still goes on, we’re also working on developing Raising Horizons, our collaboration with renowned photographer Leonora Saunders and Prospect Union. We’ve shared a bit of information about this already (via our blog), and since then lots more things have been coming together for this exciting project. (more…)

Maternity leave archaeological-style: blogging and breastfeeding

It’s July 2014, and I’m back for the fourth year, writing about what my day as an archaeologist is like. Reading my previous posts is like a humourous lesson in modern academic careers – just as you think life might be going one way, everything changes! A year ago I’d just started a postdoc at Universite Bordeaux, and I wrote about that project, what I was doing and the amazing Massif Central region we work in.

Two other things had just started too, which are the focus of this year’s post. The first is an exciting collaborative project which launched in May 2013, and which has been incredibly successful. The second new thing in my life last year, I wasn’t even aware of – but as I sat writing for Day of Archaeology, I was starting another more personal project: growing a baby! Both these things have had a big impact on my professional life in the last year, and I want to talk about what these two “extra-curricular” aspects of life as an archaeologist have been like, and how they relate to what I am doing today.

The TrowelBlazers project started in the digital world- one afternoon on Twitter in April, discussion was being had about the lack of recognition of women’s contribution in archaeology, and the need for some kind of online resource to celebrating it. After some “get on with it then!” prompting, four of us decided to start a blog doing just that. We are myself, Tori Herridge (dwarf mammoth expert), Brenna Hassett (dental anthropologist) and Suzanne Pilaar Birch (zooarchaeologist). Given only two of us are archaeologists, we widened our remit to women from other fields that use trowels (mighty tools they are). So a “trowelblazer” is officially a woman working in archaeology, geology or palaeontology. Tori takes credit for the superb pun!

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Team TB!

Having begun the project at short notice, we started out using Tumblr, and aimed to have short, fun but respectful posts, bringing to the wider world examples of trowelblazers, both famed and lesser known. Each post also needed to have a stonking image, because (most of us) live in a highly visual world, and this can create a unique connection to the figures we featured, some of whom were working in the early 20th century, or even earlier.

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Just a few of our 80+ articles – some famous faces, some less so.

From the start, we aimed to only use open access images, or where these weren’t available, to source permissions directly. We also wanted to make TrowelBlazers a community effort, so we also opened the project up to crowd-sourced submissions. We can safely say, the last 14 months since our beginnings as online chit-chat have been a roller-coaster of discoveries, fun collaborations and a lot of hard work. The latter is why TrowelBlazers is “extra-curricular” to my official job- all four of us (working as a team spread across France, UK and the US) are early career researchers, who work on this project voluntarily, in our spare time (which may or may not be weekends and evenings…).

While some colleagues are non-plussed that we put so much energy, for free, into this project, others really get what we’re doing. We are also kept going by the wonderful feedback we get from non-professionals, and the fact that it’s fantastic fun. We’ve been involved with many organisations including the British Geological Society and Science Grrl, with mainstream media (including CNN and the Guardian), made a film on what palaeontologists do with the very cool Catherine Bennet (alter-ego of performance artist Bryony Kimmings), and connected people together, such as linking up a real Egyptologist (Petrie Museum curator Alice Stevenson( with Jump! Mag to help them base their educational story in fact. We also put together a Wikipedia Editathon hosted at the Natural History Museum to try and sort out the deplorable state (or total lack in many cases) of trowelblazers’ entries.

Plus we’ve made efforts to get involved with the scholarly communities who work on this type of thing, resulting in multiple conference papers (Royal Society Revealing Lives, AAA, EAA and ESHE), one book chapter and further publication possibilities. We hope that we can therefore, in the absence so far of funding, at least ensure our invested energy also goes towards our CVs, something all early career researchers have to constantly think about.

To celebrate our own first birthday, we launched a brand-spanking new website in May this year, trowelblazers.com. This is one of the activites I’m doing today on the Day of Archaeology- writing new content for our site. I’ve been really into palaeontology for a long time out of personal interest, and only recently discovered this fossil finder who should be better known than she is. Without wanting to spoil the story, it’s a great example of a girl whose sharp mind and eyes spotted something others didn’t, but who wasn’t believed. Only the next year a boy with the right connections was able to convince people of what he’d seen, and ended up with one of the most important fossils in the history of palaeontology named after him. Was it just bad luck, or was it thanks to 1950s ideas of what young girls were capable of? Either way, this is one trowelblazer who needs to be celebrated much more widely.

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The homepage for our magnificent website (designed for us by Neil Monteiro!). The circles link to articles, and change each time you refresh!

As well as our website, TrowelBlazers has a strong presence on social media (Twitter and Facebook), so I and the rest of the team will also be looking out for other cool Day of Archaeology posts, and sharing those for our many followers.

So, to the second New Thing- becoming a parent. I found out I was pregnant at the end of last year’s field season ( which involved hauling a lot of rocks about, oops). After recovering from the surprise, I took a look at how this new adventure was going to fit into the one I was already on- working in France on my first postdoc. I was extremely fortunate to be on a good contract that guaranteed me the same rights to maternity leave as a French employee (thanks to it being a Marie Curie Fellowship). Coming from the UK, the 16 weeks I was entitled to felt quite short – 9 months is routine there – but as I work for the Universite Bordeaux, a public sector entity, I would receive full salary for the period of leave. I’m well aware that compared to US archaeological colleagues, I was very lucky indeed- they often only get paid 2 weeks, if any! My maternity leave officially finished in June, but I’ve stretched it out a bit by adding on several weeks of this year’s holiday allowance, meaning I can be at home right up to when we head off to the field at the end of July.

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The newest addition to the TrowelBlazers team- and something I’m occupied with today!

It’s thanks therefore to the fact I’m still sort of on baby-time that I’m able to be here writing this Day of Archaeology post- albeit most of one-handed! However, as many people tried to convince me beforehand (but I didn’t believe them), getting much done for my postdoc during the past four months has been virtually impossible. Trying to work when raising a very young baby means attempting to fit things into very short free blocks of time every few hours, if you’re lucky, while operating on very little (and broken) sleep, every day. Not a recipe for success! I was hoping to get more done than I have, but am pleased that I managed to get a blog post of my own out (following some fun news about Neandertal poo!), and more recently get back into TrowelBlazers writing, as well as academic work through reviewing journal articles, organising a conference session in September and resuming final edits on a paper from my PhD research.

I’m returning to work in the field very soon, but in the meantime have been working out logistics of being a new parent that are specific to aspects of being an archaeologist- fieldwork and conferences! Again very luckily, my husband is at home during my postdoc, so childcare is not a problem. As she’s breastfed, we will probably try a mix of him bringing the baby to the field station and excavation site so I can feed her directly, alongside some expressing to provide morning and feeds while I’m working. Similarly, I’ll be at three conferences in September, two of which the family will be together, but the third in Turkey I will probably be attending alone. While this will be my first absence from the baby which is nerve-wracking, I will still also have to manage expressing milk while I am actually at the conference, in order to protect my supply (if you miss too many feeds, not only does it get physically uncomfortable, but your body assumes you don’t need milk in future). So the final activity of today will be planning accommodation for these conferences, but also deciding whether to purchase a light-weight transportable breast pump I can use while at the conference (provision of space to do this is another question!) as well as on fieldwork, and continuing to express milk now between feeds in order to have a stock in the freezer for my absence.

There you have it- a day at home, technically on holiday post-maternity leave, but still full of activities related to my archaeological life. If only I could get my hands on one of those time-multipliers that Hermione Granger had, this would all be a doddle!

Tracing Neandertal Territories in the Mountains of Southeast France

Day of Archaeology 2013 for me means being away on 2 months of fieldwork in the southern Massif Central, France.  I’ve been contributing to DOA since 2011, and if you look back, it’s clear a lot has changed  since then (see my four 2011 posts, and 2012). After my PhD I was searching for a postdoc for several years, ran out of time and money to keep looking, and ended up seredipitously with a contract to write a book about humans and birds in prehistory.

I thought that would be it, and that the 2013 Day of Archaeology would take place without a contribution from me. But it seems that archaeology wasn’t quite done with me…

My workspace at the field station, Laussonne, Haut Loire

My workspace at the field station, Laussonne, Haut Loire

As I wrote in a postscript comment to my post last year, only a few days after writing about the difficult process of changing paths from a research career to one focused on writing and wider communication, an email dropped into my inbox from the European Commission offering the very last postdoc funding I applied for- a Marie Curie Intra European Fellowship to work in at the PACEA lab, Universite of Bordeaux. After a lot of soul-searching on the wisdom of doing another 180 degree turn in my life trajectory, and talking with my husband about him coming out with me, I decided to go for it. And so here I am, in the mountains of the Massif Central!

Laussonne map

Laussonne map

The field station for Archeo-Logis at Laussonne, Haut Loire

The field station for Archeo-Logis at Laussonne, Haut Loire

My postdoc is focused on two elements: training in a new skill (the Marie Curie Fellowships are especially concerned with career development), and applying this method to an archaeological context. I’ve written on my own blog in more detail about my project, which is called TRACETERRE. This stands for “Tracing Neandertal Territories: Landscape Organisation and Stone Resource Management“. It’s part of a larger collaborative project directed by my boss, Jean-Paul Raynal, and Marie-Helene Moncel.

Essentially I’ll be learning a detailed geological technique called petro-archaeology, that allows us to determine where in the landscape Neandertals were obtaining the raw materials to make their stone tools. Specifically, we are especially interested in the flint sources: most of the geology in the area is igneous, which means it comes from volcanic action (the Massif Central is a world famous centre for volcanology, where you can see virtually every type of volcano and lava).

Sancy Massif

Sancy Massif, north of where I am based, showing volcanic formations

It’s possible to make stone tools from these kinds of rocks, but they are often very hard, and can also be coarse. Flint is a sedimentary rock, meaning it forms from the slow accumulation of mineral deposits. Flint is famous for the high quality tools that can be made from it, because of the predictable way it fractures. It’s often associated with Cretaceous chalk deposits, such as the big cliffs in the southern UK, where you can see black bands of flint nodules. So flint forms in marine contexts, but it can also form in other situations such as in lakes.
Although there are few primary sources of flint in the Massif Central (i.e. outcrops of rock containing flint), there are many different secondary sources. These can be eroded outcrops, material washed into river gravels and other kinds of sources. My training will be in identifying these secondary types of sources, based on the way the outer surface of flint cobbles changes during the process of first formation, erosion and later exposure at archaeological sites.

Some of the geological reading I've been getting up to speed on. Volcanoes galore!

Some of the geological reading I’ve been getting up to speed on. Volcanoes galore!

Because there are more than 70 different secondary sources in the region which have been painstakingly identified over more than thirty years (by Paul Fernandes, who will train me), this is too much to try to attempt to learn in two years. So I will be using a source-centred approach, where I look at one flint source, and see how this particular rock has been used by Neandertals. In particular, we are interested in where this rock ends up: which caves or open-air archaeological sites is it found in? And secondly, in what form does it occur: as finished tools, raw blocks, or flakes of stone that have been struck off blocks (cores) but not yet made into tools.

Finding these things out can tell us a huge amount about techno-economics: the way in which Neandertals were choosing to organise their exploitation of resources on landscape scales. For example, working out which types of technology they used to make tools and which stages of tool production occur where can reveal the level of investment of energy: were they making tools quickly, and dropping them soon afterwards? Or were they carefully choosing which kinds of tools to make, and which ones to take with them in toolkits, maintaining them by re-sharpening? Both these strategies can be used as adaptations to different situations, particularly the level of mobility.

A handaxe, one type of tool Neandertals seem to have carried with them as part of mobile toolkits, which could be re-sharpened and used in many tasks. This one is from near Bournemouth, UK

A handaxe, one type of tool Neandertals seem to have carried with them as part of mobile toolkits, which could be re-sharpened and used in many tasks. This one is from near Bournemouth, UK

The question of Neandertal mobility is also a key reason for studying in such detail the different sources of stone used. We want to know where the stone from a flint source was going: which sites is it found in? How far was flint being transported, especially in comparison to other stone types? We can even begin to work out the paths taken through the landscape by Neandertals: did they have to cross rivers, high mountainous areas? Which passes would have been likely to be used? We also plan to excavate at the flint source itself, to see what activities were taking place, and also which tools came from other places in the landscape.

We can then begin, by combining all the geological and techno-economic data, to build up a detailed understanding of the inter-connections between different parts of the landscape that Neandertals were living in. And this is just the stone tools: other parts of the archaeological record, such as animal bones preserved in caves, are studied by other project members. We can use these to determine things like what season people were living at sites, and where they were probably hunting the animals in the landscape.

Gravel bar system, Switzerland- one example of a secondary source of stone. Image used with permission via Creative Commons: " I, Paebi [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons"

Gravel bar system, Switzerland- one example of a secondary source of stone. Image used with permission via Creative Commons: ” I, Paebi CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons”

All this creates a web of the palaeo-landscapes that Neandertals were inhabiting. But the impact of sourcing flint tools goes even further, because if we can map the extent of inhabited landscapes, we can start to think about territories. This is crucial because territories are not just regions full of resources- they probably were also involved in defining social interactions between different Neandertal groups. This is something we are still learning how to measure, but it has huge significance because different kinds of territories and social interactions suggests particular cognitive capacities. This is of course one of the key areas of research in human evolution: how did Neandertals differ from us, and how were they similar? Did they have similar webs of social connections, or were they living local, isolated lives in small groups that did not regularly meet? If this was the case, how did they find mates, and prevent huge in-breeding? All these fundamental questions can be advanced by new data and investigations such as the research I am doing.

Right now, I’ve only been here just over a week, and am only one month into a two year postdoc. So there’s a long way left to go. But it’s very exciting, and I hope to start the petro-archaeology training and looking at the flint collections very soon. Meanwhile, there’s always time on fieldwork to have a day off, check out the local wildlife, cuisine and culture, and enjoy some of the lovely sunsets in this region. Very different landscapes to when Neandertals were living here!

 Sunset at Laussonne

Sunset at Laussonne

I am funded through a European Commission Framework 7 Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship for Career Development, and I work at the PACEA laboratory, UMR-5199, Universite Bordeaux 1.

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Once an Archaeologist…? Plan B Careers in Archaeology

Things move fast in archaeology, major discoveries are made that can transform our perceptions of the past and its relation to us, a perfect example being the Neanderthal genome in 2010. My own situation as an archaeologist has changed dramatically from 2011’s Day of Archaeology, and this is what I’ve chosen to write about for 2012: what happens when you’ve been doing archaeology for half your life, but have to step away from it full-time? I hope my experience can give people a more realistic idea of the benefits and risks of pursuing your archaeological dream…

Last year I wrote about the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey project, which I was working with as a late Neanderthal archaeology specialist. Although the project is still going from strength to strength (and started 2012 fieldwork officially today, on a probably rather soggy Jersey), I will not be there this summer to enjoy the delights of stone tool collections, the La Cotte site and the sponsorship of the Liberation Brewery.

Geoff Smith and me working on La Cotte material for the QAEJ project in 2011. Photo by Alison Lewis.

Like many others finishing their PhD since 2008, I’ve struggled to get research funding or a paid academic position. Despite gaining a clutch of prizes during my undergraduate years including best dissertation (on the missing Mesolithic of Shropshire, with own fieldwalking, test pitting and aerial photography survey), full AHRB funding for my MA and a coveted University Research Scholarship for my PhD, I’ve realized that exceptional academic calibre isn’t enough anymore to gain a foothold for a research career.

The ‘Post-Doc’ world has become ever more challenging over the past decade, with some truly horrifying statistics. Only a third of UK science PhDs get postdoc positions, while only 4% manage to secure a permanent academic position. Arts PhDs aren’t in a better position either, and in addition lack the obvious career transition to STEM industry jobs. The reality is that there are too many PhDs being produced, including in archaeology. While I was at Sheffield, there were 50 PhDs registered. I haven’t seen anywhere near that number of research jobs or funding possibilities over the past two years since I finished my PhD; there is simply not enough opportunity out there to meet the postdoc output of even one department! I’ve been lucky enough for the past year to be supported by University of Manchester with an Honorary Research Fellowship, that allows me to remain part of a department and benefit from the network of very active and supportive researchers there. However, Honorary = unpaid, and this position of trying to publish, attend conferences, network with colleagues, and work unpaid on projects is one many of my fellow graduates are in.

At the first ESHE conference in 2011, giving a poster on my PhD research. Photo by Elinor Croxall

Universities pressure staff within departments to keep taking on new PhDs as it boosts their research rankings, yet there is virtually no open discussion of the possibility of failing to forge an academic career after your doctorate (and it generally IS regarded as a failure). Then there are the perennial issues of vast disparities in quality of PhD supervision, with no system in place for assessing performance in this area, despite the support and advice received during your PhD being vital to your success afterwards. Everyone eventually comes to realize that an impressive publication list is what will get you noticed for postdoc funding and academic job interviews, yet many PhD are discouraged from publishing during their time as students (or even from speaking at conferences) by supervisors who fear repercussions if theses are submitted “late” (after more than three years).

Despite coming very close to getting postdoctoral funding (I almost won a Marie Curie Fellowship to work at University of Bordeaux), after two years without any income beyond occasional expenses for working on field projects, I’ve had to take the difficult decision to shift my path out away from an archaeological research career. I needed to bring in some income to my household, and frankly I was getting very dispirited by repeated disappointments of funding rejections etc. In January 2012 I decided not to apply for the next round of postdoctoral fellowships (with success rates of 3-7%!), or try again for a Marie Curie that would require me to live away from my husband for two years, just after I’d got used to a home life after eight years of degrees in three different cities.

Instead I’ve upped the hours I was already working in non-archaeological jobs, and started to get a bit ‘leftfield’ in trying to keep archaeology in my life. Through my Honorary Research Fellowship at Manchester, I’ve been running Discover Archaeology workshops with young people aged 13-17 at the University, giving them an idea of why studying archaeology is relevant to them. This has been a lot of fun, and involved practical sessions on getting to grips with artefacts (animal bones, pot sherds, flints), as well as getting them to think a bit more deeply about things like the archaeology of death and how this can widen your understanding of diverse practices ongoing today. The sessions take quite a bit of preparation, and are very intensive, but are really rewarding. It’s always great seeing young people’s faces light up as they identify a beaver skull (“it’s kind of like a big rat”) or work out the relative ages of different pots. However, these workshops aren’t regular, and I receive barely more than minimum wage for running them (including preparation time). I would like to do more of this kind of work with schools, and I hope to make some connections soon with existing organizations who might like to have a Neanderthal specialist on the team (everyone knows kids love them, right?!).

Another exciting possibility for keeping the archaeology flame burning in my life has also developed since the start of 2012. I post on Twitter as @LeMoustier, and have found it a fabulous way to interact with many very cool archaeologists across the world. Additionally, I’m into birding in my spare time, and have connected with quite a lot of people in that sphere too. Following a tweet I posted on cave art, I got into conversation with @chiffchat, who turned out to be a Senior Commissioning Editor for Bloomsbury Press, and was just looking for the right person to write a book on cave art, prehistory and birds… Following a great trip to London to meet @chiffchat (aka Jim Martin), where we bonded over lunch and Neanderthals, yesterday Bloomsbury officially announced their acquisition of “Dawn Chorus in Eden: Humanity and Birds in Prehistory”, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, coming 2014! So I will be working on this book part time over the next two years, trying to communicate my passion for prehistoric archaeology, especially the Palaeolithic, through describing how birds have been part of the human story from the beginning. It’s not a full-time archaeology job, but it allows me to keep doing something I love, and get paid for it.

Heron from a birding trip: you never know how archaeology might fit into your life!

I want to finish this Day of Archaeology post on a positive note. I’ve been doing archaeology since I was 14, on work experience digging at Fishbourne Roman Palace. It’s part of who I am in a fundamental way as it is for almost all the archaeologists I know, it’s shaped me, given me incredible experiences (and a husband!). I don’t regret doing my PhD, but those considering a career in archaeological research should not be under any illusions of employment afterwards. I didn’t have an official career Plan B, and I might have done a lot differently with hindsight if I had. But if archaeology is your passion, there’s ways and means to keep on *being* an archaeologist, although it might involve a little lateral thinking and maybe getting yourself on Twitter!

Trowel my undergrad friends gave for for graduation

Finding Neanderthals in France, article reviews, and conference planning.

My last post for the Day of Archaeology is a mix of writing about another Postdoc project I am hoping to work on (and the process of shaping your research career), as well as describing other typical activities that researchers get done over a day.

I spent most of today working on a Postdoc application with a deadline looming alarmingly close. I’ve been busy writing a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship application, which has to be submitted on 11th August.  This is basically a European-wide competition for a two year research position, where you must move outside your normal country of residence. It’s up to you to find a research team at a European lab, propose a project to them, and get the go-ahead to apply for the funding from the central European Commission for Research and Innovation, which for early career researchers is called ‘Marie Curie’ Actions after the renowned scientist. These brilliant fellowships are aimed at supporting young researchers by training them in new skills within different research communities, and helping Europe as a whole become a more vibrant competitive research community.

As I’ve discovered over the past few years, perhaps the most important thing you can do to help your research career (apart from publish, publish, publish!), is to get out and meet people. Go to conferences, talk to colleagues, attend workshops, and take the opportunity to network whenever it presents itself. All the projects I am currently involved in have happened this way, by meeting people outside of the Universities where I did my degrees.

With colleagues at the CAHO conference: Dr John McNabb, Dr Thora Moutsiou and Dr Nick Taylor


Tracking Ice Age Mammoths

In my last post, I talked about the main project I’m currently working on, which is studying the stone tools made by the last Neanderthals at the site of La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey. This collapsed cave site is well-known not only for the richness of its deposits, but also for the famous ‘bone heaps’ of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros remains found in the 1960s-70s excavations. These have been interpreted as the remains of a mass-kill by early Neanderthals driving herds off the cliffs into the ravine.

Standing below the site of La Cotte de St Brelade. The rock arch in shadow opens out into the ravine.

Another project I am working on today is aimed at testing this theory, as well as providing rare information about the migratory behaviour of ice age megafauna. These are the large, often formidable beasts that lived alongside the last Neanderthals: mammoth and woolly rhino, giant deer, horse, bison and the extinct ancestors of  today’s domesticated cows.

In 2010 I set up a project with Geoff Smith and Sarah Viner that uses isotopic analysis of ancient teeth to determine mobility of Pleistocene megafauna.  The Pleistocene covers roughly the million years before the end of the last ice age, but at the moment we are focusing on investigating sites during the time of the Neanderthals, which is mid-late Pleistocene. Our first site is La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey, which we are working on with the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey project. We can use the Strontium isotopes present in an individuals’ teeth to determine their movements over different periods. Simply put, we can find out if an animal whose remains ended up at La Cotte had spent time in other regions of the landscape. Isotopic analysis works based on how different geology affects the levels of Strontium isotopes present in drinking water, which gets laid down in animals’ and peoples’ teeth.

This kind of direct measure of animal (and human) mobility is still quite rare for this period, although one Neanderthal from Lakonis in Greece has been published. We want to understand how animals that Neanderthals were hunting were moving around: for example, were mammoths great travellers as African elephants today can be? And were Pleistocene reindeer going on vast annual migrations as we can see in herds from Alaska in modern times? This information will help build models about how Neanderthals may have been following or intercepting megafauna at various points in the landscape. As Neanderthal fossils themselves are so precious, it’s unlikely we will be able to directly measure the mobility of many more individuals for some time. Until then, we can use animal movements to provide a framework alongside other measures for Neanderthal mobility such as transport of stone tools. At La Cotte, we may also be able to test whether the bone heaps are really mass-kills by determining if the bones represent  herds that had moved around together, and then were killed in one event.

With some of the La Cotte de St Brelade collections, Jersey Museum.

We received funding this year from the Societe Jersiaise, the island of Jersey’s learned society, to do pilot analysis on six samples of mammoth and horse teeth, which Sarah will be undertaking very soon. Today I am working on finding more funding to allow us to increase the number of samples from the site. This involves trawling various websites of funding bodies to see whether we are eligible or not for different grants. We’re in a difficult situation, as only one of us (Sarah) currently has a Postdoc, and is therefore affiliated to an Institution, which rules us out of a lot of grants. At the same time, current Postdocs are ineligible to apply for other kinds of funding, meaning that early career researchers in our position really struggle to get projects off the ground independently.

We are hopeful however that the pilot study will provide positive results which will allow us to apply for more extended funding from particular sources, and keep building up the project profile while I apply for Postdoc funding separately.

My last post for today will be a round-up of the other things I’ve been working on, including writing a funding application to work on a French project on Neanderthal landscape use.

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.


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