Friday, January 17, 2014

Awesome Archaeologists: Rachel Kulick

Rachel is currently a student at U of T, working on her PhD with a focus on human-environment interactions in the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age. More generally, she works on analyzing soil micromorphological data from the Minoan centre of Palaikastro in East Crete. The goal of this analysis at Palaikastro is to show the human responses to environmental and social stimuli, and to elucidate the society’s impact on the environment.

I met with Rachel back in November to interview her about her research, and we had a great conversation.

Interviewer (Me): JE
Rachel: RK

JE: Could you explain what your goal is with the excavation, and tell me a little bit about what you’re doing with your PhD here at U of T?

RK: I am doing geoarchaeological research at Palaikastro in order to understand what was happening there in terms of the relationship between the society and the environment. In general, researchers have been looking at macro-scale levels of the environment, where the focus is on change in the broader landscape over time. Micro-scale geoarchaeology, which is what I’m doing at Palaikastro, is the level on which we really can see the evidence of human activity, and, with thin section analysis, we can even differentiate between human activities that occurred only once or over the course of a several year period or more. By microscopically analysing sections of a block of soil from the on-site context via thin section analysis, we can attain a finer scale of resolution that permits us to see all of the things we cannot see with the naked eye during excavation.

JE: Why did you choose Crete, and the Minoan Bronze Age, as your focus?

RK: I had long been interested in the Mediterranean, the environment, and human reactions to the environment. The Mediterranean is a unique environment because, in this region, we see human society sustaining itself across so many different time periods, but there has also been a lot of change; some of the largest research questions have revolved around the issues of the rise and fall of states and the anthropogenic and/or environmental factors that influenced these transformations.  Generally, there is a dichotomy in research approaches between focusing on 1) environmental science data and 2) complex notions of social theory to explain major societal and landscape changes, but the actual evidence of whether such changes were caused by human or environmental triggers is not so clear-cut. When multiple forms of environmental and archaeological evidence come together, it becomes clear that there is frequently more than one possible explanation to account for certain (geo)archaeological observations. This is where we have difficulty drawing conclusions about the archaeological record.

JE: What have you found so far about the Minoans and their relationship with the environment?

RK: My research is in its preliminary stage, so we have no answers yet.  However, around Crete we have seen many changes in the landscape – such as those caused by erosion, etc.  There are disagreements in academic literature as to how these landscape changes originally came about since varying types and scales of environmental science data can frequently provide conflicting and/or confounding results. Therefore, what I am trying to accomplish is a multi-stranded reconstruction of what happened in the environment, through merging different forms of data.  The goal of multi-stranded reconstruction is to take comparable types of evidence and fit them together in a ‘cable’ or ‘web’ construction (cf. Alison Wylie) in order to form a composite of archaeological information that builds a picture of past human societies and environments.  Common issues persist in developing consistent and accurate pictures of the past environment,
Rachel drawing profiles
landscape, and human activity due to the generally restrictive nature of the data acquired—the missing strands in the cable.  Simply applying new scientific or archaeological data, which does not fit the unique informational ‘gaps’, is not helpful in reconstructing this picture.  However, by “weighing in” on the amount of confidence that one can have in each particular strand of data, a solid picture may be developed from the composite of archaeological data gathered.  I am using geoarchaeology as one strand in the cable of evidence, which will help reconstruct a picture of Minoan Palaikastro.

I also want to draw attention to the community involvement in the project, which has been integral in supporting the research at Palaikastro.  In addition to the 2013 excavations being conducted as a field school for students from the University of Toronto, the University of Nottingham, and the University of Bristol, we had a number of community members involved. They are really interested in their local history.  My supervisor, and Co-Director of Excavations, Dr. Carl Knappett, arranged site tours for the local schools, which was a treat for the students  because the site is very well preserved.  Additionally, several students from universities in Greece, and specifically Crete, participated in the excavations and studies this summer. 

JE: Could you tell me about how you got to this point in your academic career?

RK: I did my undergrad at Cornell, where there is an excellent Archaeology Program for undergraduates. I was beginning to focus on Near Eastern archaeology but then additionally became interested in the archaeological sciences.  My advisor at the time suggested that a one-year Master’s program would allow me to develop my skills in the archaeological sciences without having to focus on one particular geographic area. I did a one-year MPhil at Cambridge, in the UK, during which I studied bioarchaeology, isotope analysis, and geoarchaeology.  Interestingly, the area of my Master’s dissertation is completely unrelated to what I’m working on now!

After my MPhil, I worked outside of academia for a year, and I consulted with my former professors and advisors regarding PhD programs. During this year, I met with Dr. Carl Knappett, who discussed with me the program options available at U of T, and how I could tailor a PhD program in the Art Department to suit my archaeological interests. The key in determining my career path was simply to talk to many people involved in different aspects of archaeology! Profs and TAs are great resources.

JE: How did you get involved with a dig?

RK: That was part of the incentive for me to come to Toronto! Dr. Knappett was beginning a new phase of the Palaikastro project, and before I officially started my PhD, he gave me the opportunity to visit Crete and do archaeological illustration there for a summer. That experience was my first taste of Cretan archaeology, and I really enjoyed it.  For me, figuring out which project was right for me was a matter of traveling and seeing what fieldwork I enjoyed the most.  As an undergraduate, I participated in field schools all over Europe, but the environment and the levels of archaeological preservation in certain areas of the eastern Mediterranean were most attractive to me.

JE: Tell me about working in Crete!

RK: Working on Crete is incredible. When you are working on a project, the lifestyle is much different from going on a vacation. You interact with the local community at the cafes, restaurants, and stores, and you become regulars at the village events.   The daily schedule during fieldwork always involves an early morning start at 5 or 6 am, because of the heat, and work lasts for 7-8 hours. This past summer, the first two weeks of the excavation were more like landscaping and gardening than archaeological excavation –our work involved a lot of soil moving! When you finally get down to the archaeological layers, the preservation of the finds is amazing. We came upon more archaeological layers during the last week.  Working with brushes and picks is hard work, but all of the effort is definitely worth it. What is most rewarding for me is teaching the undergraduate participants how to excavate, and watching them learn and improve. I find it really rewarding to share with them the joy of excavating.

JE: What was your favourite moment from Crete?

RK: The most exciting part this past summer was when we first reached an archaeological layer at the site. While I had excavated at other sites in Europe before, the quantity of material on Crete is impressive.  I had approached the excavations this summer not expecting to find anything substantial. Even though the geoarchaeological surveys suggested some buried features, we couldn’t be certain until we actually excavated, that we would find ancient features.  I remember well the moment when one of our unit supervisors struck the ground with his pickaxe and, all of a sudden, we saw artifacts everywhere—all of very high preservation quality. The look of excitement on everyone’s faces was something to remember, for sure.

JE: What advice would you offer people looking to get into archaeology and do what you’re doing?

The Team
RK: I would definitely suggest talking to people who are already involved in archaeology at your university, but don’t restrict yourself to just looking in the anthropology and archaeology departments. I have found that researchers in other departments are often doing archaeological research as well.  Look into art history departments, geology departments, classics departments, etc. Some classics and geology professors are also archaeologists!  Also check out museums.  If you have the opportunity, try to participate in a bunch of different excavation projects during your summer breaks, especially if you aren’t satisfied with your first experiences – often, projects are completely different from one another.

Don’t be afraid to take time off after your undergraduate degree to think about your career direction – sometimes, trying a different path can really help you find your way. Taking a year off after my undergrad gave me the time to think about my archaeological interests, read and expand my subject knowledge, and not rush into a program about which I was unsure.

I’d like to thank Rachel for participating in being profiled by Inside Anthropology. I had a great time interviewing her, and I learned a lot along the way! Visiting Greece is definitely something on my list of things to do.
*This interview has been condensed and edited.

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