Studying the Past for the Future: Video Transcript

Dr. José R. Oliver (BA Sociology and Anthropology, Miami, 1977) [Reader in Latin American Archaeology at University College, London]: If I had advice to give to potential students who want to do their studies in anthropology and archaeology is, basically, besides looking at anthropology, which I'm sure you will be taking courses on that and being a good part of your courses, if particularly you want to specialize on the archaeology side of things, my recommendation is to also look for a specialty within that field that will allow you to have a skill that can also often go beyond being an archaeologist or serving archaeological purposes. Most of these courses are in the fields from, for example, of identifying provenience of materials. There's a whole field, for example, of archaeometallurgy, that is becoming quite important. There are fields on paleobotany. You have to look at the archaeological record that humans create if you want to understand global climate changes so that you can become not just an archaeologist for studying the past, but the future, and what we can get out of the deep past has an impact on today. So, these things of maintaining an eye on what we usually call the hard sciences are contributing, but you as an archaeologist taking the baton for what humans have affected different areas, particularly in the environment and in the landscape, that require this knowledge of biological and natural sciences is particularly relevant as a background for being a complete archaeologist.

Knowing how to ask questions to the biologist, to the geneticist, is part of what makes us be very aware of the advances in science. Some of the most fantastic ones in recent years for me has been the ability now of being able to identify through micro-plant remains, which is basically something called the starch that the plants carry, that you can actually identify the plant species, and that this starch, unlike pollen which tends to blow in the wind and so on, can only, let's say fall off the plant by someone crushing it, and so it stays on the instrument. You can relate the instruments and what they were processing, but the discovery of that is an interesting story because it has to do with Johnson & Johnson, the powder makers. It took an archaeologist, who was very well-versed on the plant botany to make the connection between, "Wait, these people are sampling all sorts of plants and things around the world for the best starch to produce talcum powder from, say, maize or corn, why don't we use if for archaeological sampling?" That's the lesson that, although not a new development, I got from looking at different fields that you would normally think are disciplines that might be quite away from what archaeologists do. I could, you know, take it to medical sciences, to health, nutrition, so it is crucial to have this sort of science and humanities combination of knowledge, even if you don't specialize in it. It's knowing how to ask the question or recognize what's a useful method or approach to answer the questions that you have in mind.

[March 2015]