X Close

UCL Global

Home

London's Global University

Menu

Ask an Academic: Professor Sue Hamilton, Director of the UCL Institute of Archaeology

Sian EGardiner30 May 2019

Professor Sue Hamilton is Professor of Prehistory and since 2014 has been Director of the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

Sue is Principal Investigator of the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Landscapes of Construction Project (LOC), which has been substantially funded over the past decade by the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. 

It has been undertaken in collaboration with UK Universities of Bournemouth (co-investigator), Manchester (co-investigator), Cambridge and Highlands and Islands, together with representatives of the Chilean Council of Monuments, MAPSE (the island’s museum) and the indigenous peoples communities of Rapa Nui.

Sue and her team were the first British archaeologists to work on the island since 1914, when the English archaeologist and anthropologist, Katherine Routledge carried out the first true survey of the island.

We spoke to Sue to find out more about her unique partnership with the local indigenous community of Easter Island, and how she navigates the relationship with both the local community and the Chilean government while conducting her research.

What is the project about?

The project studies the sites and artefacts of the Easter Island statue building period (AD 1200-1550) as an interconnected, integrated whole, on a landscape scale. It has involved excavation, mapping of monuments, assessment of threats to preservation and studies of the island’s ancient and present environment.

What’s it like to work on Easter Island?

It’s a remote place, being a tiny Pacific island some 5000 km from the nearest mainland of Chile and 2,500 km from the nearest island, Pit Cairn. The local indigenous community is highly politicised, so all sorts of major internal events continually happen. If you have just a few months away it’s likely there will be completely different ground rules when you get back.

I have been formally working on Rapa Nui (which is the local name) since 2009. Much of the island is covered in prehistoric remains and is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Landscape.  In 2017, the Chilean government and National Parks Authority signed over the management of the National Park to the local indigenous community, Ma’u Henua and in 2018 we signed an agreement with the community that ‘LOC’ would advise them on archaeological issues in the park. By the time we got back in January 2019, there were several new people involved in discussing what LOC might work on and the methods to be used. Alongside this, there were new island tensions and new agreements of access to land and methodologies of documentation. Such negotiations to undertake work and its precise format can only be resolved by face to face meetings on each occasion of return to undertake fieldwork. It’s very much based on people trusting you; being able to talk to different individuals, and importantly giving people your time.

How does this partnership differ from others you might have, say with the local community in Camden?

There’s a lot of delicacy that comes with global partnerships. There are all sorts of tiny nuances. Easter Island is famed for its colossal statues and these prompt high profile discussions of the apparent collapse of the society that produced them and of the threats to the conservation of the island and its archaeology in the present; and any work on issues of its heritage always hits the newspapers – even the tiniest thing. Today the local community do at last have a very powerful gift in their hands in managing their heritage, and equally they have had a very embittered history of enormous threats to the survival of their society and traditions, which must be touched upon with empathy and sensitivity.

From the time the island was discovered by Europeans in the 18th century the local community had all sorts of terrible things happen to it, in no small part because of European contact brought disease, and ultimately loss of access to their lands. Katherine Routledge in 1914 recorded just 250 islanders compared with a population of maybe 6,000 during the statue building period. With the increasing return of land by the Chilean government in the late 20th century, and the current role of Ma’u Henua the islanders are significantly economically empowered because they have a heritage that tourists pay a heavy Park admissions fee to see.

There are currently about 6,000 islanders and 75,000 tourists go there every year. But this means that there are things that we might think are best for Rapa Nui’s extraordinary archaeology that might not be so good for tourism. We need to take things slowly and take care in giving opinions as  ‘privileged academics’, and not for example just leap in with a comment because someone says that’ll make a great quote in a national or international newspaper.

You have to remember it’s not your past, it’s their past, and I think it’s particularly so on Rapa Nui because it’s living heritage – the statues and associated monuments still have an active meaning to the Rapanui; they are not ruins of a now dead past. So a living heritage is something you can’t dabble with and think it won’t affect people.

How did you first come to work on the island?

I was working in Italy and invited my colleague, Colin Richards who worked on similar sites in the UK to come out and see the Italian ones. He spent rather a lot of time on the beach rather than working! So I went down to the beach one day and he was reading Thor Heyerdahl’s Aku-Aku, which is a 1950s popular book about Easter Island. Colin said we ought to go visit Easter Island and when we did we were just stunned by the archaeology and its great potential for new work. It was a great leap for both of us but we ended up co-directing our AHRC funded LOC project. It’s the most amazing archaeology I’ve ever worked on.

How closely are you now working with the Island’s local community?

We are currently doing research into the impact of soil erosion on the island’s archaeology and have been working on the massive ceremonial monuments by the sea and recording the extent to which many are near collapse. Conservation-related work is a good way to be working with the local community and stakeholders, and trying to do something that they want. For instance, they will put their effort into sites that tourists would particularly want to go and see, because that makes current economic sense. For us, this concurrently generates research information about the range and distributions of different categories of archaeological site. There are however numerous archaeologically very important sites beyond the tourist trail that may be key for better understanding Rapanui’s past and we have to find a pathway between both considerations.

Currently, most media people contact me about Easter Island to ask about climate change and rising sea levels and threats to the statues and their associated ceremonial monuments which wrap the island’s coastline. In many cases it’s not actually the sea that’s the most significant problem; it’s mismanagement of the landscape in modern times and the erosional impact of increased rainfall. Huge surfaces of the island are losing their soil. There are about 1,000 statues – which people don’t realise, and a lot of them at the main site where they were quarried are buried so there might be around 3,000. They are variously deteriorating due to lichen growth and the effects of atmospheric salt which penetrates the whole island environment.

Residential fieldwork uniquely creates local friendships; we stay with a local family business for a month each year, and the family have become special friends and are very supportive.  A few years ago I obtained a bursary  for a Rapanui archaeology student, Fran Pakomi, to come over to the UK and she was  trained on our UCL fieldwork course and stayed in my house. It’s these types of visits and exchanges that maintain and solidify connections and trust with distant local communities because they are at the cross-over between work and friendships.

What’s been your best archaeological discovery over there?

I suppose that one of the most dramatic is something that people knew a little bit about, but which we’ve documented and rediscovered many more of, are the carved  giant pairs of eyes on the walls of  the statue quarry. I always remember reading that in the Marquesas they believed rock to be living and that when rock was taken for monument building, the rock regrew again. We’ve found eyes that you can no longer see by using photogrammetry .

The other one’s a bit more esoteric – it’s just how interconnected things are and how many little stones were moved and how in being impressed by the physically big (such as enormous statues) you can lose the insights provided by small scale things. The builders of the statue period took giant flat cobbles from the beach and must have moved millions of them inland to make pavements and terraces outside of the houses they built. On land, large screes of volcanic rubble were move to create rock mulch, to protect the soil. The kind of human chains involved in moving millions of stones hand-to-hand from seashore inland and redistributing the volcanic rubble is quite incredible.

In the 20th century, the local community was provided with Chilean social housing, which is now seen by many as something to be rejected and demolished. We are now studying this housing and how interestingly a lot actually incorporates aspects of ancient traditions. Now on Rapa Nui there is beginning of building a sort of Polynesia of the modern imagination and an aligned very inventive local architecture that incorporates what they and potentially tourists may think Polynesia is. It’s fascinating to live through these changes as a regular visitor and it gives and insights into local priorities.

Fieldwork in distant places, and living with a local community over numerous years, accretes to make the dynamics of ancestry and heritage recording and isolating conservation and preservation priorities a mixture of diplomacy, empathy and co-production of research to secure the futures of a living past.

UCL at the forefront of dementia research

JasonLewis21 September 2017

Dementia – a group of neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease and vascular dementia – is a common condition that affects over 800,000 people in the UK. This number is expected to rise to one million by 2025 and two million by 2051.

UCL research is world-leading in efforts to diagnose, treat, care for and prevent dementia. Researchers at UCL are continuing to make great advances in this area and are at the forefront of impactful studies and trials currently ongoing in the world today.

Here are a few of the projects and initiatives led by UCL academics and researchers improving our knowledge of dementia and working towards creating healthier futures.

Image source: The Lancet

Lifestyle changes could prevent a third of dementia cases

A recent report led by Professor Gill Livingston (UCL Psychiatry) revealed that more than a third of the world’s dementia cases could potentially be prevented by tackling nine lifestyle factors that increase an individual’s risk of experiencing cognitive collapse later in life.

Prof Livingston said: “Although dementia is diagnosed in later life, the brain changes usually begin to develop years before, with risk factors for developing the disease occurring throughout life, not just in old age. We believe that a broader approach to prevention of dementia which reflects these changing risk factors will benefit our ageing societies and help to prevent the rising number of dementia cases globally.”

These factors range from hearing loss to poor education and physical inactivity. Taking proactive measures to improve brain health throughout life by targeting these risk factors, such as continuing education in early life, reducing hearing loss in mid-life and reducing smoking in later life, could prevent one in three cases of dementia.

UCL home to £250m national Dementia Research Institute

Alzheimers-research-UK-Oxford-186UCL beat Oxford, Cambridge and other leading universities in a bid to host the headquarters of the £250m UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI). The UK DRI is jointly funded by the Medical Research Council in collaboration with Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK. The institute will ultimately operate across a number of UK locations, with its ‘Hub’ to be based at UCL.

The UK DRI aims to transform dementia research by broadening the scope of its research area and facilitating a more interdisciplinary approach to the study of dementia. The institute will connect researchers working across different disciplines, including those outside of the dementias field, and attract leading experts from around the world to the UK.

UCL President and Provost Professor Michael Arthur said: “Our vision for a DRI is a truly national asset that facilitates exchanges of ideas, people and resources between groups, disciplines and centres. A UCL DRI Hub will enable and support all DRI centres to deliver on the Prime Minister’s dementia challenge 2020 and internationally on the G8 Dementia Summit Declaration.”

Professor Bart De Strooper, Director UK DRI at UCL, added: “Right now, our understanding of these diseases is not dissimilar to what we knew, or thought we knew, about cancer several decades ago. What we need is a paradigm shift in the way we think about dementias. Just as we realised that a whole range of factors is responsible for how cancers occur and progress in an individual, we now need to take a more holistic view of dementia and accept that a wide range of approaches may be needed in order to be successful. We have a huge amount of discovery science to do – and I want to see real surprises.”

To find out more about the UK DRI visit their website and follow them on twitter.

Groundbreaking dementia research, Virtual Reality and innovative collaboration

SHQ1

Image source: Sea Hero Quest

Dr Hugo Spiers (UCL Experimental Psychology), in collaboration with a range of partners including ETH Zurich, created award winning mobile game, Sea Hero Quest (SHQ) to support scientists currently working towards finding a cure for dementia. SHQ records users’ sense of direction to determine how navigational skills decline with age.

By playing SHQ for two minutes, users generate the same amount of data that scientists would take five hours to collect in similar lab-based research. Researchers from UCL and the University of East Anglia will use this data to create the world’s largest benchmark of how humans navigate, which will then go on to become a critical diagnostic tool for dementia in the future.

The game has been downloaded over 2.7million times and played in every country in the world. It is currently the biggest dementia study in history, and has collected an amount of data that would have taken over 9,000 years to acquire in a traditional lab setting.

Speaking on the findings, Dr Spiers said: “The findings the game is yielding have enormous potential to support vital developments in dementia research. The ability to diagnose dementia at early stages, well before patients exhibit any signs of general memory loss, would be a milestone.

Watch the project story and find out more on the Sea Hero Quest website.

UK’s first non-medical therapy for dementia

Dr Aimee Spector (UCL Psychology) directs the International Cognitive Stimulation Therapy centre at UCL. Cognitive Stimulation Therapy (CST) is an evidence-based therapy for people with dementia, which has changed dementia care within the UK and worldwide.

UK Government NICE guidance on the management of dementia recommend the use of group Cognitive Stimulation for people with mild to moderate dementia, irrespective of drug treatments received. CST is currently the only non-medical therapy endorsed by UK government guidelines for the cognitive symptoms of dementia.

cst2-smallThe International CST centre aims to share information and encourage collaboration between professionals and consumers internationally. In addition to various services, it also hosts annual CST conferences to facilitate the proliferation of knowledge and empower practicing health professionals working with dementia patients.

The 2nd International CST Conference will be held in Hong Kong on 1-2 December 2017.

World-leading trials and research studies at the heart of UCL

MRI_scan_mummeryThe UCL Dementia Research Centre (UCL DRC) is a hub for clinical research into various forms of dementia. The DRC focuses on identifying and understanding the disease processes that cause dementia, the factors that influence these disease processes, and how best to support people with dementia and their families.

In addition to research, the UCL DRC also provides a cognitive disorders clinic within the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

There are currently a number of clinical trials and studies ongoing at the UCL DRC, to find out more and get involved, visit the UCL DRC website.

Free online course on dementia

UCL also offers a free online course for anyone interested in dementia, its effects on people and the brain. The four-week (two hours a week) course provides a unique insight into dementia through the stories, symptoms and science behind for less common diagnoses. Learn more and register your interest for the next enrolment.