Interdisciplinarity, collaboration and why the past matters
Dr Ashley Coutu, Research Fellow and Deputy Head of Research, Pitt Rivers Museum
In our current world, it is crucial to understand how social justice issues link to environmental precarity, how the past has so much to teach us in the present, and that the only way we can face these challenges is through collaboration – through people and ideas from different backgrounds and disciplines, places in the world, working together.
As an archaeological scientist, I thrive on interdisciplinarity. One day I love being outside excavating and getting mucky, while the next I am desperate to get into the lab in a crisp lab coat. This is a real strength of Oxford, where interdisciplinary conversations and connections are made. Being an archaeological scientist (and working in a museum!) affords such variety in a way that no other job ever could. And it all started with a shipwreck…
It’s the stuff of kids’ adventure books and the enduring fascination of my nieces and nephews: “Auntie Ashley, tell me again about the shipwreck: how many gold coins? How many canons?”. The idea of a ship that wrecked on a rocky outcrop in 1533 on the southern African coast and was then found in a diamond mine…it’s just the sort of story that can capture attention, young and old alike. When I started my Claude Leon and Marie Curie fellowships at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in 2013, I was thrilled that my colleague, Professor Shadreck Chirikure (currently a British Academy Global Professor at Oxford), brought me on board the incredible team of museum curators, archaeologists and scientists working on the wreck. We assembled an interdisciplinary team to analyse the 100 elephant tusks, which ended up in a series of research trips with curators in Namibia, lab and archival work in Cape Town, workshops with Portuguese historians, and a new collaboration with a team of elephant geneticists in the USA.
Fast forward to 2020, and the end of a hard year for the world, was also, personally, a great moment for my research career. Our ivory shipwreck paper was being published in Current Biology, and we could celebrate the many years of research and dedication it took to get us to that moment. My colleagues and I answered telephone calls and emails from journalists all over the globe, and got to do what I love most about my work: talk to the public about the archaeology of the African continent, science and why the past matters.
One of the many reasons that I love my job as a research fellow at the Pitt Rivers Museum is that I get to share my research and passion with so many different people: from University of Oxford undergraduates to 10-year-old budding archaeologists. And that no two days are the same. Even in lockdown, one day I am teaching a student how to interpret scientific data by sharing a screen of charts and graphs, while the next I am in engrossed in a discussion with colleagues at the museum on anti-racism and decoloniality, and the next I am writing a grant application on a new technique to sample proteins from museum objects. In our current world, it is crucial to understand how social justice issues link to environmental precarity, how the past has so much to teach us in the present, and that the only way we can face these challenges is through collaboration – with people and ideas from different backgrounds and disciplines, places in the world, working together.