Favourite Thing: Go on excavation to spectacular places with great teams, pour chemicals on soil, burn elephant poo, wear a lab coat.
Priory School IOW 1993-2005; Christ’s Hopsital 2005-2007; University of Cambridge (Trinity College) 2007-2010; UCL 2010-2011; University of Cambridge (Trinity College) 2011-2015
MA Archaeology and Anthropology (Trinity, University of Cambridge); MA Research Methods in Archaeology (UCL); PhD Archaeology (Trinity, University of Cambridge)
Trevelyan Research Fellow, Selwyn College, University of Cambridge (2015-present)
Trevelyan Research Fellow, Selwyn College, University of Cambridge
Selwyn College, University of Cambridge
I’m an archaeologist and part time Star Wars stormtrooper
Hi, my name’s Jena and I’m an archaeologist! I live in Cambridge for most of the year when I’m not away digging in India or Italy or Malta or Turkey (phew!). I’ve been an archaeologist since I was 7 years old when I dug a 2-meter deep trench in my mum and dad’s garden and found a 2000 year old pot. Since then I’ve become really interested in what people would have been eating in the past, how they lived from day-to-day, and I’ll talk a bit more about that below in the ‘my work section’. Other than archaeology, I’m a HUGE Star Wars fan, and am part of a Star Wars costume group. I even have a full stormtrooper costume. My group uses our costumes to raise money for charity at weekends. In my spare time I make costume parts, spend time with friends and look after two goldfish (Luke and Leia).
Dirt, diet and dung
My work looks at how people used plants in the past. So that includes everything from what people were eating, and how they got that food (did they grow it themselves, did they find it in the wild, did they get it from someone else?), to using plants to make building materials (e.g.: bedding, roofing, structural supports), to clothing (e.g.: cotton and linen), to fuel use (e.g.: wood or cattle dung – yes you can burn poo for fuel IF it is the right kind of dung and prepared well), to how people interacted with their environments.
I’m interested in this because plants are everywhere, you have to interact with them every day for food, building materials, clothes, environment, they are universal, but people use them in lots of different ways. For example, what do you consider food? Do you think budgie seed (sawa millet) is a food? Possibly not, but in parts of the Indus Civilisation of South Asia 5000 years ago it was an important part of the everyday diet. Today in South Asia sawa millet is often seen as a famine food. What is seen as food and how important it is varies depending on many things, and so we can think about some BIG questions:
- Social organisation: can everyone eat the same food? Are some foods more expensive than others?
- Religion: are some foods not allowed to be eaten (taboo)? Are there special foods for certain events? Are there certain events that have big feasts or fasting?
- Trade and environment: could people have grown or found all these foods locally or are some exotic? How did they get access to them?
I’ve been exploring these kinds of questions mainly in the Indus Civilisation of South Asia about 5000 years ago (3200-1500BC). I’ve been looking at how villages reacted when cities developed nearby – did they change what they were growing to feed the cities? And when the cities were abandoned – was it because villages stopped giving them food? And at the moment the cities start to shrink there is a climate change event called the 4.2k event. The Indian Summer Monsoon which gives rain in the summer months stopped for 200 years and I wanted to ask – does that affect village agriculture? And more recently I’ve been looking at how sites on the edge of the Indus Civilisation reacted when they made contact with the Indus people, did they change what they were eating, or ignore them completely and carry on regardless?
My Typical Day
Tough question – in the lab or on a dig?
If I’m in the UK I get up, play Pokemon Go on my way to work, then either pour chemicals on soil to extract phytoliths (microscopic fossils of plant cells) to put on microscopic slides while listening to Florence and the Machine, or I analyse charred seed remains down the microscope. At the moment I am looking at samples from northern Pakistan, and have been finding bottlegourd, which is very unusual from that place and time period.
If I’m on an excavation, I get up around 6am, we go to the site and we usually have our responsibilities on site to monitor throughout the day. As the plant person I am in charge of something called flotation (adding soil to water and pouring it through a mesh) to get ancient charred seeds out of soil so have to make sure samples for that are taken. The whole dig team joins in the excavation though in the morning. We have breakfast around 9am, before more digging, sieving for artefacts, pottery and bone, taking samples, recording and drawing, and measuring height and layout of the site. After lunch later in the afternoon it gets too hot to work out on site so we go back to the site house and wash and sort finds, record them, the pottery specialists count pot sherds, and I get to do the flotation. As the sun sets its back to base for dinner and chilling out for the rest of the evening. If we finish early, possibly some shopping in town too. 🙂
What I'd do with the money
Weird Science Workshops! I would use the money to pilot a new roadshow for GCSE and A-level students to showcase the wide range of options you can access at university beyond the standard science subjects. I’m a scientist get me out of here? I’m a scientist get me into this!
As a young scientist dabbling in the wide world of chemistry, biology, physics and maths, it can sometimes seem that life is straight forwards: natural sciences, pure maths, engineering or med/vet school beckon, but on the horizon, sometimes hidden from sight, lurks a world of mysterious, strange subjects where you can combine a love for biology with that secret desire to wade through ponds, to pour chemicals on soil dug out of the trench in your garden, to map and 3D model cave systems. There are a huge range of ‘weird sciences’ at universities that often get barely a mention at career day talks as they straddle the boundaries between subjects, never quite fitting into the A-Level categories that we are used to in the UK. Subjects that when you hear about them later you think, wow, that would have been awesome, I’d love to have made phosphorescent slime for a degree!
There are a vast number of university degrees that will allow you to apply a range of scientific techniques and knowledge from an array of subjects rather than pinning you into a specific category. These include:
- Archaeology – the study of the human past
- Biological anthropology – the study of human evolution and adaptation
- Plant sciences (botany and ecology) – exploring the fundamental plant processes which sustain life on earth
- Earth sciences (geology) which includes palaeobiology/palaeontology – studying the early fossil record
Archaeological science, for example, makes use of chemistry in exploring the isotopic signature of human bones to see where people came from and what they were eating and to date organic remains, biology to identify animal and plant remains down to the cellular level, geography to look at the landscape and how it changed over time and map major climate events and their impacts, statistical models to handle and analyse huge datasets, model building to test hypotheses and build 3D images of past settlements and artefacts, and genetics to explore ancient and modern DNA during processes like crop and animal domestication, amongst other techniques.
But these ‘weird subjects’ are often not seen or dismissed as unattainable because students supposedly don’t have the right A-Level combinations (a myth) or can’t see a route in. With the money from ‘I’m a Scientist’, I will set up a pilot workshop scheme to take five scientists (an archaeologist, palaeontologist, geologist, botanist and biological anthropologist – it’s going to be a fantastic party!) into a school for an afternoon to give GCSE and A-Level students a chance to try out these subjects for themselves. After a brief pitch about each degree where we try to persuade you that our subject is the best (and we know archaeology is going to win – I’m not biased but it is epic!) we’ll divide the students into groups and give them our own research material and set them up with tasks, such as sorting 5000 year old seeds to look at the impact of climate change on agricultural strategy, or poking algae to think about phosphorescence and epigenetic changes, and 3D scanning of skeletal remains. The money would be spent on making sure the correct equipment, consumables (chemicals, petri dishes, pipettes etc) and safety gear was acquired, a booklet on ‘weird science’ subjects would be produced, and a small amount would also go to sponsor some university students to come along and support the post-docs/lecturers and provide first hand insight into what studying the degrees are like. Advice and guidance on applying for the unusual university subjects and also more general university application advice would also be given at the end in a Q&A session to wrap up the day.
The aim is to have this as a pilot scheme, apply for more funding after and then run it at as many schools as would like to try some weird science.
The options for your futures are limitless, you just have to know where to look, and these workshops will hopefully open those options up a bit more.
Oh, and I’ll use a small amount of the money to make some edible pottery sherds (aka cookies) for the workshop too.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Crazy about digging
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Florence and the Machine
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Photobombed Darth Vader
What did you want to be after you left school?
Archaeologist (living the dream!)
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I was never caught
What was your favourite subject at school?
I was lucky – Archaeology A Level. Otherwise, English Lit.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Floated down the Goksu River in a tractor tire inner tube
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Time Team and my local county archaeologist Dr Ruth Waller
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Sci Fi novel writer
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) be in a Star Wars film; 2) get my novel published; 3) run my own big excavation project (I have plans…!)
Tell us a joke.
Why did the archaeologist cry? Because her career was in ruins! ;)
This is my lab space, and I’m currently working on some samples from Pakistan from 5000 years ago. I think I’ve found rice, lentils and barley. .
The first step towards this is to excavate. Once you have a question and a site of course. This is one of our excavations in India a couple of years ago where we were looking at Indus Civilisation (3200-1500BC) material, thinking about how the rise and fall of cities and a period of climate change affected village agriculture and water use.
My job is to look at what plants people were using and how they were getting those plants, so I need to get samples. One of my data types is charred (burnt) seeds, and the best way to extract those is by ‘flotation’. This involves adding soil to water, because soil sinks but charred seeds, because they are light, float, and you can skim them off. This is a picture of a flotation machine from 2008 in Turkey (back when I had blonde hair in my undergrad days).
We also sort the soil fraction for pottery, bone, artefacts, and seeds that didn’t float, and get covered in mud! It’s the best job on site – this is in India again, so it’s 45oC, but we’ve got our hands in nice cool water and mud. Glorious. 🙂
And this is the result: a stunning ancient seed. This is a 5000 year old millet grain photographed using SEM (scanning electron microscopy). You can still see all the detail despite this being the burnt remains of someone’s dinner 5000 years ago.
I also look at microscopic casts of plant cells called phytoliths. These are extracted from soil using a series of chemical steps but it works on the same principle as flotation: heavy stuff sinks, light stuff floats. (Again, the blonde undergrad days – this was my main dataset for my BA dissertation)
And this is what they look like. This is a rice leaf cell. The aim is to look at the parts of the plant that would otherwise rot away. These are a fraction of a millimetre in size.
I also get to travel across the world to present my data. Recently I went to Japan to share my results at World Archaeology Congress 08 and while there travelled around to see how plants were/are used at ancient sites and living cultural heritage sites. This is a view down the torii (gate) path at Fushimi Inari. Each gate is made of wood and some are several hundred years old.
Archaeologists sometimes need to experiment to work out how things happened in the past, and sometimes we just want to try stuff out for fun! This was at a Prehistory Day where I got to try spear throwing, with a stuffed cuddly toy target. No-one hit the target! Makes you think about how hard hunting might have been – or how rubbish we all are…
And to prove I have stormtrooper armour…