An integrated approach

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Sciences or humanities?

One of the oldest clichés in the book is that a fault line separates the sciences and the humanities. We’d take issue with that.

As archaeologists, we make bridges between the ‘two cultures’ all the time, particularly at York, where we work closely with the departments of Biology and Chemistry to find new ways into the past. We also make other kinds of connection. Encouraged by the strong interdisciplinary ethos here at York, we collaborate with colleagues from English, History and the History of Art. Interdisciplinary centres for Medieval, 18th Century and Conservation studies, all based at King’s Manor, also cut across old disciplinary divides, throwing new light on old problems.

Bioarchaeology

Bioarchaeology at York is revealing new information on the history of humanity. We’ve been sequencing protein from Neanderthal fossils and studying DNA from mammoth remains. We’ve also reconstructed the pre-Ice Age landscapes of Greenland, and continue to use protein-based research to enrich our picture of long-term environmental change. York has also taken the lead in developing new means of dating the distant past, using Amino Acid Racemisation to place Palaeolithic material from the Suffolk coast at 700,000BC.

We’re also using chromatography and isotope analysis to tackle other questions. Ol Craig and Hayley Saul have been looking at the food residues left on some of the pottery from feasts around Stonehenge, and from hunter-gatherer shell middens in Scandinavia. Organic chemistry is also unlocking the secrets of Egyptian mummification, revealing how the process changed as it went in and out of fashion. We’ve even been using isotope studies to explore the value of livestock in Neolithic Britain, the origins of the Medieval fish trade in Atlantic Europe, and the diets of Post-Medieval mariners.

Evolutionary stories

Archaeology often challenges our assumptions and some of the most profound of these concern our definitions of human nature. For Penny Spikins, common narratives of human evolution leave little or no space for people with distinctive capacities, people we now recognise through terms like autism. For Penny, this is not simply about recognising diversity. It is about recognising that the motor for change in the past may have stemmed directly from that diversity; it is central to the story.

From Nicky Milner’s work along the Mesolithic lake edge around Star Carr to the waterlogged deposits of Medieval Yorvik, much of our research concerns the complex histories that link people and nature around the world. In the French Alps, Kevin Walsh has traced a history of occupation that stretches back over seven thousand years, a unique insight into the changing use and perception of high ground all too often dismissed as marginal. Mark Edmonds has covered similar terrain in Britain, exploring perceptions of landscape in prehistory and also the influence that 18th and 19th century ways of seeing landscape have had upon our appreciation of the past.

Our ancestors spread out from Africa, but there is much debate about when, where and how this happened. Geoff Bailey is currently exploring this problem in the Red Sea, where he’s working with an international team on an underwater survey to locate old shorelines and associated material from as far back as 100,000 years.

Architecture and artefacts

Architectures also have stories to tell, stories that link to the identities and biographies of people. Steve Roskams’ work on towns and cities in the classical world demonstrates how the character and configuration of space is primarily a function of broader economic and political realities. In much the same way, Kate Giles has been working on medieval Guildhalls in England, buildings rich in symbolism and important for the focus they provided for the artisans and merchants who became important figures in towns across the country. The social significance of the built environment is also crucial to Aleks McClain, who is currently working on the use of space in English churches, and the architectural signification of status in the Medieval world.

As with buildings, so too with artefacts. York has a strong community of researchers working on material culture; from Palaeolithic flintworking to the radio telescopes of the 20th century. Tania Dickinson’s work on Anglo Saxon Brooches in England has revealed the rich symbolism of what is all too easily dismissed as mere adornment. The same can be said of Steve Ashby and Soren Sindbaek’s use of combs, ceramics and metalwork to understand trade, identity and attitudes towards the body in Early Medieval Europe. Small things may often be forgotten, but they still have stories to tell.

Dr Kate Giles

The research interests of the department are so wide ranging that any student can find someone who can help them to pursue their own research interests. There is a great sense of community here, and the department is actively involved in researching, interpreting and informing the development of the city around us.

Kate Giles, Senior Lecturer

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Case studies from the Department