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Conversations with: Professor Ben Marwick

I am delighted to introduce today Professor Ben Marwick, an archaeologist from the University of Washington! Specifically, Ben‘s research interests are focussed within Southeast Asian and Australian archaeology, such as hominin dispersals, forager technologies and ecology. He also is interested in how archaeology engages with local and online communities, in addition to popular culture, as well as techniques and methods for reproducible research and open science. Based in Seattle, Washington, he is locally affiliated with the eScience Institute, the Burke Museum, the Center for Statistics and Social Sciences, the Quaternary Research Center, and the Southeast Asia Center. He has also been recently elected as a Vice President of the Society of Archaeological Sciences.

Professor Ben Marwick at the University of Washington

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

I’m interested in the emergence of modern humans, specifically the dispersal of hominins into the Eastern hemisphere. I’m interested to understand how they adapted to new environments, and what their relationships were with other hominin groups and other species. My technical archaeological expertise is in stone artefacts and geoarchaeology. I also love to explore, analyze, and visualize any kind of archaeological data using the free and open source R programming language. I like to help others do their research with R also, because I think using open source code to do, and to communicate, scientific research is important for the sustainability of our field.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

I am drawn towards studies of human evolution because of how it helps us understand our experience as humans, and how our cultures and societies came to be the way they are today. As a young kid I was interested in history, and the material traces of history. I spent a lot of time during school holidays working in remote sheep shearing sheds in the southwest of Western Australia. Probably a bit too much of that time was spent wondering about all the old rusty bits and pieces accumulated on the farm, and what life was like for people who used those antique tools. Later I was delighted to find out that researchers were analysing artefacts like these with chemistry, statistics, and so on, to understand past human behaviour. Then I knew I’d found the perfect combination of studying history, doing science, and working outdoors. I’m fascinated by scientific analysis of material culture as a way to learn about human behaviour and relationships in situations where we can’t ask anyone directly. The unifying qualities of evolutionary theory are very inspiring to me, and the application of cultural transmission theory and behavioural ecological theory to understand changes in material culture appeals to my intuition. I think the understandings that come from studying material culture of the past are important for defining our individual and collective identities in the present, and how we identify ourselves is important for determining what we think is good, right and important, and how we behave to each other.

Ben working at the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi, Vietnam, with Prof. Lam My Dzung, Dr Pham Thanh Son, Dr Nguyen Doi and Eric Kelley.

What was your PhD topic? 

The title of my PhD thesis is “Stone artefacts and human ecology at two rockshelters in Northwest Thailand” (data and R code are on Dataverse). I studied stone artefacts and oxygen isotopes from shellfish to see how technology changed as climate changed. I found that technology didn’t change much, but the way the landscape was used changed a lot. Although this is an arcane topic about a time and place that is exotic for most people, the results are immediately relevant to handling our contemporary problems relating to climate change and global warming. The message is that technological solutions don’t need to play a major role in adapting to climate change, the big payoff is in changing human behaviours and routines.  

Ben at Khao Toh Chong Rockshelter, Thailand, after excavations co-directed with Dr Cholawit Thongcharoenchaikit and staff from the Krabi Department of Culture.

Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor? 

I had a great time doing my at the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at the Australian National University. My primary supervisor there was Professor Sue O’Connor, who was wonderfully supportive and a really inspiring role model. Professor Rasmi Shoocongdej generously allowed me to join her big project in northwest Thailand, and her support and encouragement has been vital to my success in archaeology. Professor Peter Hiscock was also my supervisor at the ANU, and he strongly influenced many of my views about archaeology and science generally.

After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

I had the rare good luck to get a tenure-track job as an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington before I’d finished my PhD. My work there has been punctuated by some highly fulfilling fellowships, for example to spend time in Southern Thailand working with Rasmi and Cholawit Thongcharoenchaikit (thanks to ACLS/Luce), in Dublin with Helen Lewis, and in Tubingen with Chris Miller and the geoarchaeology group there (thanks to the DAAD). Most recently I was at the University of Wollongong as an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, working with the amazing group in the UOW Centre for Archaeological Science. Currently I’m back in Seattle working as an Associate Professor at the University of Washington.

Excavating on the Chauk Plateau, Myanmar, with co-director Kyaw Khaing and students from the Field School of Archaeology, Pyay.

What current projects are you working on? 

Two current projects I’m especially excited about are with colleagues and community members in northern Vietnam with Pham Than Son, Mai Huong Ngyuen and colleagues at the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi, and in Myanmar with Kyaw Khaing, Mae Su Ko and colleagues at the FIeld School of Archaeology at Pyay. We have a few locations under investigation that appear to preserve traces of early modern human activities in mainland Southeast Asia. Results from these projects will help us understand how people moved across the Eastern hemisphere, interacted with other hominin groups, and adapted to the unique conditions of this region. In these locations we are testing hypotheses from a model I proposed in 2009 to understand the ways that humans arrived in the region.  

To the north of these projects, I’m working on stone artefacts in southern China with Li Bo, Hu Yue and colleges that indicate prepared core and Levallois strategies. And to the south, I’m part of a big group led by Chris Clarkson and the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, working on the analysis of materials we excavated from Madjedbebe, northern Australia, where people were living 65,000 years ago
Since COVID-19 brought lab and fieldwork to a halt early in 2020, I’ve been spending a bit more time on purely computational research, including reviving an interest I previously explored with Ian Kretzler. There have been some exciting recent developments in machine learning and text analysis that my lab group has been exploring and getting very interesting results with.

Where do you hope these go in the future?

In Vietnam and Myanmar we are excited to investigate some very promising locations with high-resolution excavation. We also are planning to combine this work with student training, in the form of undergraduate field schools, and local community participation, especially through local schools. We have grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Geographic Society to support this work. For the Chinese and Australian projects we have some pretty substantial publications in preparation to advance the debate and respond to critics.

Ben giving a keynote address at the conference “Digital Heritage in a World of Big Data”, Stirling, Scotland.

What is ‘Open science’ and why is it important in archaeology?

Open science is honouring the ideals of science that drew many of us to archaeology: transparency, reproducibility, objectivity, cooperation. As John Ziman put it, science ‘is a cooperative enterprise, in which the enemy is ignorance, not the [person] in the other laboratory’. In practice, open science means access to scientific research that is unrestricted by financial, technical or cultural barriers. As for many sciences, the historical transition of archaeology from vocation to profession introduced incentives that have made it tough for researchers to adhere to these values. However, many fields have adopted innovative practices and technologies to revive and strengthen these values. Posting preprints of papers to enable free access to papers appearing in paywalled journals has been standard practice in Physics for over a decade. Since 2016 the American Journal of Political Science will only publish papers that are accompanied by raw data files and computer code files to reproduce the results presented in the manuscript (because when a paper says ‘data are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request’, that’s often not true) Over 5,000 journals and scholarly societies are signatories to the Transparency and Openness Protocol, as a pledge of their support of the principles of openness, transparency, and reproducibility (including a handful of archaeology journals).  

Getting our papers, data, and methods into the hands of as many of our colleagues as possible, as easily as possible, is not just an idealistic vision. It is vital for the long-term sustainability for archaeology as a discipline, because it supports the rapid and efficient accumulation and evaluation of new archaeological knowledge. Disciplines that are slow to realise this are going to increasingly balkanise and fade from relevance to the broader research community and society (and so struggle to attract funding and students). Among archaeologists, it has often been noted that resistance to transparency, openness and reproducibility sometimes comes from anxiety about perceived loss of status because of fear that sharing leads to a poverty of currency to trade in the traditional prestige economy of knowledge. To me, this resistance is part of the colonialist baggage of archaeology – knowledge and power practices that reproduce a logic of subordination. We now recognise it is necessary to reject these logics from our discipline. Open science is important for decolonising archaeology

If we are serious about doing collaborative scientific work and producing results that are relevant to the communities we work with, we need to ensure they have access to our papers, data, and methods. This has a special urgency for human evolution researchers, because we are often working in parts of the world where our local colleagues lack many of the resources that researchers at Western institutions take for granted. Their university probably doesn’t have a site license for ArcGIS, and their internet isn’t fast enough to download a huge zip file from a dropbox. Many of our current ‘good enough’ practices for getting research done are not effective for properly including our collaborators. What do we need to change to ethically include our local collaborators in our research, and sustainably support the development of archaeological science and the study of human evolution in our host communities? Answering this question is a long term project, and will involve extra work for many of us. I reckon we can save a lot of time by adopting open science practices that have been already working well for other fields. Not all archaeological data are safe to share publicly (e.g. site locations, culturally sensitive images and objects), so doing open science thoughtfully requires consultation and planning to minimize risks of damage.

What project or publication are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my publications that involve students, particularly undergraduates, and especially where we are part of a big team. That kind of work is more challenging and complicated than solo or small group work, but very fulfilling. Some of these include our paper on a 65 kya age for human activity in Australia, our paper on the transition from foraging to farming in Peninsula Thailand, and our paper on replication assignments for teaching archaeological science. 

A distant second to these is my paper that Enrico Crema mentioned in his interview here, about computational reproducibility in archaeological science. That paper has enjoyed a wide readership far beyond archaeology, and led to many stimulating discussions and follow-up papers, for example with Suzanne Pilaar Birch, Sophie Schmidt, Li-Ying Wang, and others. It’s been very satisfying to see the influence of that paper on over one hundred archaeological journal articles so far, covering all kinds of topics and time periods, with authors making their data and R code available with their publication. This is vitally important for demonstrating the reproducibility of our research, to enable others to combine their data with previously published data, and for others to easily use newly published methods on their data.

Ben excavating at Madjebebe, Australia with the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation.

What advice would you give to a student interested in your field of research?

For a student interested in Southeast Asian Palaeolithic Archaeology my main advice is to aim for a sustainable balance between contributing to the international community of archaeologists (e.g. through scholarly communications at conferences and journal articles, etc.), and contributing to the local communities of students, researchers and community members that host your fieldwork (e.g. by visiting local schools, giving guest lectures and workshops at local universities, etc.). There are many challenges to overcome in achieving this balance, and it can be tough to find fulfilling ways to make useful contributions. One possible starting point would be to find something you like about archaeology, and work on incremental ways to make it even better. 

More generally, for a student interested in archaeology and human evolution, my advice is to read widely and look for inspiration in related fields beyond archaeology, because “chance favours the connected mind”. Connect not only with ideas, but also with people, don’t hesitate to ‘cold email’ a researcher to ask a question about their research or seek advice about yours, and nurture good professional relationships with the goal of having them for your entire career. I reckon that computational and statistical fields are going to be a great source of inspiration for archaeologists in the coming years, but there are many other fields that will be productive also. I’d also suggest approaching your participation in the research community as an anthropological problem: a big part of succeeding in academia is finding answers to the question of what are the unspoken norms that guide the behaviours of the members of that community (publishing, presenting, teaching, etc)? Participant observation is one rather slow way to answer this question, a way to speed this up is to become familiar with research on writing for publication, presenting your research, teaching, etc. Some of my favourites include The Science of Scientific Writing, Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides: A Case for Sentence Headlines and Visual Evidence, and Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. The Nature Careers blog posts are another great source of professional advice that I highly recommend for tips and inspiration on many of the little day-to-day things that we need to do in a research career.

How has academia changed since you did your PhD?

Some of the most exciting and positive changes are the development of quantitative methods of analysing artefacts to formalise modelling of cultural evolutionary processes. Methods for discriminating among different kinds of cultural transmission, and the computational tools for using these methods, have been really impressive at reviving efforts to answer basic questions that are at the core of archaeology. The refinement and application of geochemical methods to archaeological questions, especially the identification of biomolecules with mass spectrometry, has been amazing and fascinating. And of course ancient DNA has improved our understanding of many major events in human evolution. Exciting organizational changes include the rise of team science and big projects with many participants, and open science, when the code and data are freely made public.

Perhaps the most striking change has been in demographics and diversity. It’s great to see how archaeology has become increasingly accessible to people from many backgrounds that I rarely saw in the research community when I was doing my PhD.  Community efforts to enable this accessibility through new teaching methods, new content in undergraduate classes, and dismantling the hidden curriculum, have been making a positive difference. These demographic shifts have highlighted the urgency of the task of updating and clearly communicating our professional ethics and norms of behaviour. For example, we have a lot of work to do to eliminate sexual harassment, bullying, and other bad behaviours that have been difficult to address because individual and institutional power and prestige have been valued more than our community’s wellbeing and its sustainability. Events of 2019-2020 have especially shown that our existing scholarly and professional organisations are struggling to manage how academia generally, and archaeology in particular, have changed over the last decade. Despite these rising waves of discontent, I’m optimistic that our organisations and their leaders will catch up with the new norms, and restore their relevance to the community. I’m inspired by other fields, including some bigger and older than archaeology, who have been very nimble with their professional societies to update their codes of conduct and professional practices. 

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