My life sci­en­tific

Ar­chae­ol­o­gist Brenna Has­sett talks to He­len Pilcher about her ad­ven­tures, and won­ders whether cities will be the mak­ing – or the death – of us

Focus-Science and Technology - - Contents -

He­len Pilcher chats about In­di­ana Jones and de­stroy­ing an­cient arte­facts with ar­chae­ol­o­gist Dr Brenna Has­sett.

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 Aladdin-style, 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 9,000year-old plas­tered wall. We had to tread on it to get over it, but when I stepped on it, it crum­bled to dust…

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