Conversations with: Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes

It is my pleasure to introduce today Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Palaeolithic archaeologist and author of new popular science book: Kindred! Rebecca is primarily interested in the Middle Palaeolithic, specifically in the material and symbolic life of Neanderthals. Following her PhD at the University of Sheffield where she worked on analysing the evidence for late Neanderthals in Britain, in 2013 she won a prestigious Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship at the Université de Bordeaux to study Neanderthal landscapes in the Massif Central mountains. Following that, she has been working largely outside of scientific research, nurturing projects in creative heritage consultancy and popular science writing as well as co-coordinating TrowelBlazers as part of her advocacy work to improve equality in archaeology. Her most recent project has been the writing of her first book titled Kindred: Neanderthal Life Love Death and Art, published yesterday by Bloomsbury Sigma, which explores our ever-evolving understanding of Neanderthals and their culture. Kindred has been listed as one of the ‘Best Books of 2020’ by the Times and is listed as the #1 Prehistoric Archaeology book on Amazon, with outstanding reviews from the likes of Nature, Professor Lee Berger,  Professor Brian Cox and Professor Alice Roberts. 

Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes

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

I’m interested in all of the Palaeolithic, however I’ve honed in specifically on the Middle Palaeolithic and Neanderthals. Funnily enough, what had originally attracted me to the University of Bristol for my undergraduate degree was that they had an Upper Palaeolithic rock art course, but my research ended up going back further in time. Whilst the Upper Palaeolithic is abundant and interesting, I like the challenge of the Middle Palaeolithic as you have less evidence to deal with. Plus, assemblages with tiny bladelets scare me…! 

I’m primarily a stone tool person and I’m trained in lithic analysis. During my masters at Southampton, there was an awesome teaching collection based on 19th century sites  which fostered my interest in Middle Palaeolithic stone tools. I decided to study the Middle Palaeolithic of Kents Cavern for my masters project. But, although I love lithics, I’m interested in all aspects of Neanderthal life. The quality and breadth of the data that we now have allows us to explore the interconnections between these different aspects to really understand our not-so-distant relatives. I really like looking at interconnections – something I learned from my supervisor at Southampton, Professor Clive Gamble!

What originally sparked your interest in human evolution studies? 

I have always been interested in the past. I am one of those cliché archaeologists who dug up pot-shards in their back garden and collected dead creatures as a child! As a family, we went on many holidays to historic sites so my desire to imagine the past was always there. Ultimately, I had to choose between going to art college or to do archaeology at university and, though neither of them had great career prospects, I thought I might have a slightly better chance at making a living as an archaeologist!

In terms of prehistory, like many people, I was somewhat attracted to the mystery and that deep-time connection to our ancient human past. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a fan of The Clan of the Cave Bear books when I was a teenager; people can critique the story but I was totally absorbed by Jean Auel’s descriptions of the environment and how prehistoric people lived. I didn’t understand what she meant by “striking platform” at first but I eventually worked that one out! As I have found in writing Kindred, describing lithic technology to a lay-audience is really hard without a lot of visuals. Considering that, her books are very impressive and she took a lot of time to research them, so they’re definitely something that has stayed with me.

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience? 

My PhD was the first full analysis of the British Mousterian, the lithic culture created by late Neanderthals. As part of my project, I also addressed the faunal record and landscape in relation to these lithic assemblages. Prior to my PhD, little work had been conducted over the last 20 years on this material, despite there being many shifts in the chronological frameworks adopted and how we consider and analyse stone tool assemblages. I used techno-economic methodologies in my analysis, moving away from typological assessments as has typically been done previously, as I wanted to bring a coherence and consider the assemblages as a whole, despite there not being a lot of material. Compared to continental sites, the British record is minuscule but this doesn’t make it useless. That said, we do need to be extremely careful as many British assemblages were excavated very early using entirely different excavation and recording practises; the only British late Middle Palaeolithic site that has been excavated to modern standards is Lynford Quarry. I studied the main assemblage at this site which was fascinating. 

My PhD was very data collection intensive as a result of early British excavators who had a philanthropic tendency of wanting to distribute their collections across different museums. Because of this, I had to go to a huge number of  museums across the UK, sometimes to only study three artefacts! The assemblages were so tiny so I wanted my analysis to be as comprehensive as possible, only missing a few collections in the US and Cork. I really enjoyed this aspect of my PhD, especially the independent study and getting an idea about the realities of archaeological collections. I also had a great time with my fellow PhD cohort at the University of Sheffield. I was one of two studying the Palaeolithic, but I through my other friends was exposed to ideas about later prehistoric and historical archaeology. I found this really benefited my development as an archaeologist as, before I started my PhD, I was very much a part of the scientific-positivist trend in archaeology. I found being exposed to a wider theoretical approach at Sheffield challenging but I enjoyed the broadening out a lot. During my PhD, I set up a journal discussion group at Sheffield with my fellow research students and I edited the student peer-reviewed journal Assemblage, which was great. 

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

After the PhD, I didn’t have much luck getting positions, like a lot of people. In total since my PhD  I applied to 20 positions and I got 1 interview offer, which was difficult. I was eventually awarded the Marie Curie post-doctoral fellowship in 2012, which I didn’t start until June 2013. I ranked sixth in the reserve list of the thousands of applicants and so I didn’t find out I had been awarded the fellowship until months afterwards, by which time I had already prepared myself for not getting it. It was a bit of a shock! I moved to France in 2013 and stayed there for four and a half years. The fellowship was only two years (which was super intensive) but I had a child, so my maternity leave extended the postdoc a little, plus I stayed over there for a while afterwards applying for more positions and writing Kindred. My postdoc was great because although it was really challenging moving abroad and into a completely different research culture, I had some French language ability which made it a little easier. 

Silcrete from Saint-Pierre-Eynac quarry excavations

The project was focussed on looking at landscape-scale lithic sourcing and connectivity between sources and sites. The site I was excavating was a silcrete quarry in Massif central, a material source site used throughout prehistory by Neanderthals and later populations. We surveyed the hill where the source site was believed to be and, right at the top, there was an immense spread of knapping debrief. So, we hit the jackpot right away! However, this particular silcrete is not easy to analyse as it has strange fracture plains, which makes it difficult to differentiate which rocks were modified by humans and natural processes. It took me a while to get my head around it. Also, it was clearly a mixed age quarry site, which made sampling very difficult. We took some surface samples and dug some test-pits, where lower down we found evidence for Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthal presence, which was great. What was also really nice was that, although it was primarily a silcrete site, when we did the surface survey we found two tiny flint artefacts which were directly sourced from far south in Ardeche, France. [article: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2017.07.022]

TRACETERRE Marie Curie fieldwork team: Dr Jean Paul Raynal, Vincent Delvigne, Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Erwan Vayssié

After my postdoc I again applied for a lot of positions but, eventually I decided to stop since the thought of potentially moving to a third country was too much with a young family and Brexit on the horizon.  Our only option was to come back to the UK, where I’ve been focussing on writing my book, alongside other creative and writing projects as well research consultancy work, for the two and half years since.

Tell us a little bit about your new book ‘Kindred’ that is coming out soon. What is the book about, why did you want to write a book about this topic and how did you find the book writing process?

Kindred is an up-to-date definitive book about the Neanderthals which is accessible to all. Whilst it is not an academic text, it draws on my academic expertise and dives deeply into selected archaeological sites. I wanted to show people how mind-blowing 21st century archaeology is, exactly what we can do and how we connect across different subdisciplines. I’ve tried to show the aspects of the archaeology that are fascinating but never seem to get into the headlines which have informed the revolution of how we understand Neanderthals over the last 30 years. Lithics aren’t easily explained by media stories! I’ve tried to make it accessible for everyone and something useful even for academics, particularly for students who have no background in Neanderthals or those who study prehistory but want an overview of the current debates, evidence, knowledge and the types of data. The book does have some narrative exploration, which of course I would never be able to put into academic papers. It has been wonderful to let the creative side of my writing flourish and develop. I really hope my colleagues find the book interesting! 

Kindred jacket

I found it very different to writing an academic paper, though the amount of literature reviewed was vast. I chose not to include a bibliography in the book as I didn’t want to put lay-people off, but I am doing an online version on my website which is so far over 120  pages long. It’s huge because everything I wrote has been informed by the literature. I went through the detail historically as well as looking deeply at individual sites, following the evidence sometimes right through to unpublished reports. This was very time consuming but I wanted to make sure I did it properly. It was also nice not to have to do in-text citations! I found the process was difficult in another way in that I had to restructure the book twice. I didn’t want it to be chronological as that has been done many times before, so for me it was always going to be thematic. However, the interconnectedness between themes made it very difficult to structure as, for example, it is hard to talk about diet without talking about social cooperation etc. So that was challenging. In terms of the creative aspects of the book, I always wanted to do that right from the beginning but I wasn’t 100% sure at first. After a while, it started really flowing nicely and I think it works well. There may even be a couple of poems in there…

Overall, it’s been a really fun experience and the response from everyone has been absolutely overwhelming! It’s incredibly gratifying that everyone seems to be responding so well to exactly the things the book intended to do, showing people the details as well as the difficulties archaeologists face when dealing with this material to make informed inferences about the deep past. I had hoped to connect and engage people emotionally with Neanderthals and their culture, and it seems to have worked, I think!

You are active in current movements to advance equality within archaeology. Please could you tell the readers about this aspect of your work and what kinds of projects you are currently working on in this regard.

Equality within archaeology has been interesting to me for a long while, but my involvement in these movements largely came about during my postdoc. I was connecting with some other early career researchers on Twitter and on there we discussed how there was a lack of open-access public- facing resources about women in archaeology, leading to the idea for TrowelBlazers. It evolved from being a Tumblr account to a professional website. Since we built the website in 2015,  it has changed a lot as more than 50% of our material is now sourced from the community. People have really responded to what TrowelBlazers represents which is amazing to see. For me personally, I love the creative side of this project. Just after finishing my postdoc in October 2015, TrowelBlazers was approached by the artist Leonora Saunders with a really cool idea to produce a photographic exhibition. I project managed this exhibition (Raising Horizons) for TrowelBlazers as I was the only one not fully employed at the time. I selected and researched all of the women included in the exhibition and, together with Leonora, we came up for the settings for some of the objects they would hold. The whole process took well over a year and required a massive CrowdFund to fund it, which was amazingly popular. Being involved with the exhibition took me back to my early days at school when I was doing art; it was so lovely to be able to be involved with something like that, which would have been impossible in a scientifically-structured full time career. 

Raising Horizons exhibition launch at The Geological Society, London, with Lenora Saunders.

Since then, I have continued to work on the advocacy side of things. We have joined forces with multiple other groups in the UK interested in improving diversity and equality, recently forming the IDEAH federation (Inclusion, Diversity and Equality in Archaeology and Heritage). We were going to start meeting and working on projects before Covid19, though hopefully we can reanimate that and restart as a group amplifying each other’s voices soon. Our aim is to look at how we can practically address issues not only in the professional sphere but also in universities, and we have a lot of ideas about how we can encourage university departments to take proactive steps in terms of equality, representation and harassment. Archaeology has a long way to go in this regard so I’m really pleased to carry on this work. 

What is the best thing about your current situation? What is one thing that you would change if you could?

The best thing about my current situation is the freedom. I do miss doing academic research and working with materials. I haven’t been digging for a long time. However, I haven’t disconnected from intellectual research and writing the book has really helped with that. I also have some papers simmering and academic projects that are ongoing, and I was recently  invited to contribute a chapter to an upcoming Oxford handbook on cognitive archaeology. So I feel like I have maintained my connection to scientific research despite not having an academic position. Twitter has really helped stay in active discussion with the research community too, which has been a god-send as working at home can be quite isolating. I do have a lot of freedom to pursue what I want which I love. But in terms of what my next step will be, I’m not quite sure though I have some ideas… 

If I could change something, it would be the lack of reliable income! I also wish that academia would be more open to proper part-time roles and flexible working, as not everyone who wants a research career can (or want) to commit to a full time post.

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

For a student interested in working on Neanderthals from an academic perspective, I would say learn German! French is great but there are a lot of active projects in Germany right now. Germany seems to be one of the best places for funding and, whilst I don’t want to put a downer on things, if you are a student in Britain right now, things aren’t looking great in that regard. I really hope new research structures are going to evolve to make it possible to maintain international collaborations. That is one of the most precious things about all of the experiences I’ve had, working with different people from different backgrounds and cultures. This is key to human origins. Interconnection between different countries is vital, though we don’t see enough between Europe and the Global South currently. I would say to have an open mind about that! 

In a broader sense and assuming not every student will get an academic position, as I hadn’t for a long time, I would ask them what is it about archaeology that makes them like it, and can they take these skills and apply them to different roles. Don’t be afraid of shifting disciplines or professions and be flexible! It’s okay to have a career more like a braided river than a path.


Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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