Excavating adventure: Dr Ceri Shipton on stone tools, deep time and the thrill of archaeology

03 August 2018

Dr Ceri Shipton is an archaeologist and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Centre of Excellence for Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH). He spoke to the School of Culture, History & Language (CHL) about his research and love of archaeology.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I’m a specialist in stone tool technology from Wales in the UK. I studied my degrees in Cambridge, graduating from the PhD in 2008. Since then I have worked on commercial projects in London and Papua New Guinea. Before I came to ANU I held academic posts at the Universities of Oxford, Queensland, and Cambridge.

What drew you to archaeology?

Aside from the Indiana Jones films and the Tomb Raider computer games, growing up in Wales every town and village has its own castle and my parents used to take me to see these. One castle near where I grew up is built on the edge of a cliff and has a secret cave in its basement. My uncle lives in London and used to take me to the Natural History Museum every time I went to visit him, so I was also very interested in dinosaurs. Palaeolithic archaeology seemed a natural halfway point between dinosaurs and castles.

What are your research interests, and why do they matter?

The main theme of my research is the evolution of human cognition and sociality. Our unique ways of thinking and interacting make us a radically different type of organism with a complex cultural inheritance system. In the popular literature the emergence of this often boils down to a single trait that distinguishes us from other species, such as making fire, being creative, or even gossiping. However, despite the striking similarities, there are in fact many ways in which we think and interact differently from our closest living relatives—chimpanzees and bonobos. My research takes a deep time perspective on human behaviour and looks at multiple transitions that have occurred over the last 2 million years. Each of these was critical in shaping who we are today.

You are currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Centre of Excellence for Biodiversity and Heritage. What are you working on?

I am looking at the phenomenon of miniaturization in stone tools – deliberately creating very small tools from very sharp stones—at sites in northern Australia, East Timor, and eastern Indonesia. In my previous job working in East Africa I found there was a dramatic transition about 70,000 years ago when people started doing this and I want to investigate the phenomenon elsewhere in the world. I think it might reflect some important changes both in technology (such as using bows and arrows) and in social behaviour (such as tattooing and hairdressing). These changes might be underpinned by a new way of thinking that set our ancestors apart from other human species.

What do you love about being an archaeologist?

I love the adventure! Some archaeologists will tell you that their career is nothing like Indiana Jones, but it can be. I have worked on four different continents in remote and beautiful jungles, deserts, and islands. And in doing so I have explored tombs and caves, been attacked by wild animals, and witnessed many unusual rituals.

What has been your most exciting find so far?

I get asked this question reasonably often and I try to vary the answer. Human sacrifice, gold artefacts, crayons that are tens of thousands of years old, and elaborate stone tools are all high on the list. But this time I am going to go with some spectacular rock engravings in Saudi Arabia. On some large boulders next to a dried-up lake in the Nefud Desert in northern Saudi Arabia we found several larger than life naturalistic depictions of voluptuous women wearing grass skirts. We can show that these are about 10,000 years old, pre-dating farming in the region and very different from the equally beautiful, but stylised and exclusively male art associated with the first farmers a couple of thousand years later. It’s not often that we can link stone tools to people’s art, beliefs, and what they considered important, so for me this is really special. We have even found the stone hammers that were used to make the engravings!

What advice would you give to budding archaeologists?

Dig a lot of holes. No matter how good your ideas and writing are, most archaeologists are known for what they find, so try and do lots of fieldwork. Get experience with different excavation methods so you can see what is most effective and can adapt to the particular circumstances you are faced with.

Image credit: Maria Guagnin




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