“If they haven’t all died out, why can’t I meet one?”
By Briony Fleming, on 28 November 2018
This blog has been written by Josie Mills: a student engager currently undertaking a PhD in Archaeology.
What is a Student Engager? There are 17 of us in total, who you might meet and chat to in any of the three museums around campus: UCL Art Museum, the Grant Museum or the Petrie Museum. We are PhD students at UCL and work as Engagers to communicate aspects of our research – and information about the museum collections – to visitors.
I’m an archaeologist studying stone tools made by Neanderthals, using different scientific techniques to work out where the rock came from. The information from these lithics (stone tools) can be used to explore aspects of prehistoric life, particularly movement and subsistence in changing landscapes. Student Engagers work in all three UCL museums, making connections between our PhD research and the collections. We also chat about what we do and objects from the museums on the Research Engager Blog.
When I first started working I adapted well to the Petrie Museum, whose oldest artefacts are stone tools, and the Grant Museum where several hominin casts are on display. UCL Art Museum on the other hand was a bit of a challenge. However, part of working as a Student Engager is adapting themes of our research to different situations. Last year UCL Art Museum held an exhibition of work by Slade School of Art students, including art by Cyrus Hung, who collected debris from the Slade studios and collated it in sketchbooks. These discarded items, including food wrappers and doodles, provided an insight into the human process of creating art, without showing the outcome. The work resonated with me because archaeology is very similar: we use items that have been left behind and removed from their systemic context, to reconstruct past behaviour.
As PhD students we specialise to an unusual degree, spending a lot of time alone in a lab or writing at a desk. Working as a Student Engager is very different, it throws our research – and us – open to a wide and diverse audience. We are asked, why is our niche subject relevant? Why is it interesting? In relation to the museums, we’re asked, why can’t we read hieroglyphs? Why don’t we know the Latin name of this bivalve?
It took time for all of us to realise which parts of our work are interesting to others and will support a meaningful discussion. A lot of what I do is tied up in our human prehistory, particularly discussing Neanderthals and their behaviour. I am a staunch defender of Homo neanderthalensis and love to tell visitors that most of them are 2-4% Neanderthal. One of the questions I’m frequently asked is, ‘How did the Neanderthals become extinct?’ A traditional academic answer to this would be, there are many contributing factors like climatic fluctuation, low genetic diversity, and potential competition with humans. But as we have inherited Neanderthal DNA, maybe ‘extinct’ is not the right word and ‘assimilated’ is a better term. This answer is not always well-received. Someone once said to me, ‘If they haven’t all died out, why can’t I meet one?’ and that’s a valid question. Even though I might not use the term ‘extinct’, a representation of the archetypal Neanderthal doesn’t walk among us today.
On a lighter note, everyone (yes, even adults) is a little obsessed with toilet humour. In archaeology we talk a lot about preservation; the ability of artefacts to preserve is key to us finding them. This is particularly difficult in deeper prehistory as lots of factors, such as water and microbes, lead to decomposition. Preservation is fantastic in Egypt because the climate is arid and even organic material endures. This is something I like to talk about with visitors and I often begin with the bias that results from poor organic preservation then segue into a conversation about stone tools. Recently I was asked, ‘Well, what did the Egyptians do about the toilet, then?’ Initially stumped, I realised this visitor envisioned a catastrophic situation where all Ancient Egyptian poo was preserved, creating mountains of desiccated effluence for archaeologists to discover. When I talk about preservation I think of artefacts, but this person worried instead about a very basic human aspect of preservation.
This is what has influenced my PhD work most: the importance of human-ness and relatability, using imagery and bringing to life initially mundane things. I am continually surprised by how much people want to know about evolution, and this has forced me to keep up to date with paleoanthropological work, making me a better researcher. New findings and insights can change the narrative of our evolution in the blink of an eye. These key aspects of archaeological and anthropological research interest people and mustn’t be lost in a swathe of rocks, pollen, dirt and bone. Talking to visitors influences how we present our PhD projects whilst at the same time enriching their museum experience, providing expert knowledge disseminated in an accessible way. The idea of focused research presented in a framework of its wider relevance is crucial to the Student Engager role and it’s what we do every week across UCL’s museums.