My Life Scientific
Helen Pilcher chats to archaeologist Brenna Hassett about her adventures, and whether cities will be the making or death of humans
What do you do?
I dig up dead people and study their teeth and bones so I can work out what their lives were like.
An archaeologist, eh? How like Indiana Jones are you? Indiana Jones and I have different policies on artefact acquisition. I go with the systematic, planned scientific excavation and generally try to avoid any sort of death trap. The travel and the worrying choice of clothing are, however, accurate. Hats are critical. I cannot stress how important hats are.
Ever found a ‘Lost Ark’?
No, but I have found lots of cool stuff. I once found an Aladdinstyle, ceramic lamp on a remote Greek island. At the time, I had no idea of its age or origins. I later learned it was a pilgrim’s lamp that had been made in the Holy Land during the 6th Century.
Where have you worked?
I’ve done archaeological surveys in Greece, which involves walking in straight lines for unreasonable amounts of time in unreasonable amounts of heat, staring at the ground looking for artefacts. I worked on the workers who built the pyramids at Giza. I’ve studied the teeth of children who lived in London 500 years ago, and I’ve investigated the remains of people who lived in early Turkish settlements 10,000 years ago.
Tell me something clever that you’ve learned…
We’ve made major changes to our species in the 15,000 years since humans went from being hunter-gatherers to a settled society. Our rapid evolution into an urban species has affected our bodies and health. Urban living has led to disease and dental decay. Cities created inequality because when you get so many people living together, someone always appoints themselves manager. City life is killing us.
Should we ban cities?
No. Cities create problems but they’re also the place where solutions are born. Cities are bastions of progressive thought. I live in a city. I’m ‘Team City’. Has your work ever got you in trouble?
I once did an archaeological survey in Thailand. I was walking through a banana plantation when I got attacked by fire ants.
They drop out of the trees, get under your clothes and start biting. Shortly after that, I learned it’s inappropriate to run screaming, taking off your clothes in front of a Buddhist monastery.
So can anyone do archaeology?
That’s a great thing about it. Archaeology surfaces any place where land is disturbed. Look in the flowerbeds in St James’s Park in London, or anywhere people have lived in the last 300 years, and you’re highly likely to find artefacts, like little clay pipe stems. They’re the cigarette butts of the early modern era!
Have you ever trashed a priceless artefact?
Yes, I have. I was working in Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic village in Anatolia. My team was visiting part of the site where a student from Istanbul was lovingly excavating a 9,000-year-old plastered wall. We had to tread on it to get over it, but when I stepped on it, it crumbled to dust…
DR BRENNA HASSETT “Indiana Jones and I have different policies on artefact acquisition. I try to avoid any sort of death trap”
Archaeologist Brenna Hassett talks to Helen Pilcher about her adventures, and wonders whether cities will be the making – or the death – of us