Conversations with: Professor Anthony Sinclair

Today’s conversation is with Anthony Sinclair, Professor of Archaeological Theory and Method in the Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool. Anthony specialises in Palaeolithic archaeology, and has conducted field research in Western Europe, southern Africa and Saudi Arabia. He is also interested in archaeology as a discipline and is currently working on ‘The Atlas of Archaeology: a Scientometric Study of Discipline Growth‘, a Leverhulme Trust funded project which uses bibliometric data to explore how the field has developed over the last 60 years. At the University of Liverpool, Anthony teaches several undergraduate and masters courses which cover Palaeolithic archaeology, especially the Upper Palaeolithic and Palaeolithic art, archaeological theory and issues in interpretation, ethical and political issues in archaeological practice, material culture and technology and archaeological field skills.

Professor Anthony Sinclair, University of Liverpool

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

I am interested in craft, people making and doing things, how and why they chose to become good at some activity whilst having to invest, sometimes, considerable time in doing so.  Craft is not just temporal, in terms of the manufacture of items or the careers of makers; it is also spatial – distributed across landscapes that are both geographical and socially structured and material.  As a palaeolithic archaeologist I explore this primarily through the analysis of lithic assemblages recovered from sites sometimes identified through landscape survey undertaken in Western Europe, South Africa and most recently Saudi Arabia.  My other interest is in the nature of the discipline of archaeology, its history, theoretical developments, production of literature and the challenges we face in attempting to pass on an effective knowledge of this changing discipline to our students.  This is, in part, research for teaching.  Binding the two together is expertise: the learning and practice of a skill, in the past and in the present.

What originally drew you towards studying human evolution?

I wanted to be an archaeologist from my early teens. I thought then that archaeology was a study of the Greek and Roman Worlds and perhaps something medieval as well; so, I chose Latin and Ancient History as A-levels along with Maths. However, when I started my undergraduate degree in Archaeology & Anthropology, archaeology was taught chronologically from the beginning, and roughly in proportion to a period’s duration. We did lots of human evolution and later prehistory to begin with, followed by the origins of the early states: in Egypt, the Near East, the Americas and China.  At the end, there was just one lecture on the Greek World and two on the Roman.  My other archaeology course was on the theory, method and history of the discipline. I also chose to study physical anthropology – the primates and hominin bones side of human evolution then and the social anthropology of small-scale societies, along with anthropological theory (gift exchange and politics, symbolism, and so forth). The anthropology of complex societies (states and empires) was taught in social and political sciences.  When it came to specialise, I wanted to keep up my social anthropology and I had developed a taste for the theoretical side of archaeology. Choosing to specialise in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic or later prehistory (Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age) seemed the way to go; I had been persuaded that the important developments in human life occurred early on and these were the periods of archaeology that were most theoretically engaged – debates between Processual and Post-Processual approaches to archaeological interpretation, as personified in the form of Colin Renfew and Ian Hodder, were in full swing at this time.  A new interest in primates and physical anthropology was the final pull towards the study of human evolution. 

Anthony in the field in Saudi Arabia.

Tell us a bit about your PhD. How did you find your PhD experience?

I did my PhD in the 1980s.  I originally started researching whether we could determine the origins of human language through a study of the lithic evidence.  However, within a few months I read the first papers using experimental methods to study animal communication, especially play-back recordings of sounds that animals made to see how they react – for example, the famous study by Cheney and Seyfarth in 1985 about the warning calls of vervet monkeys. It struck me that this research would very quickly change all we knew about communication in other animals and my own research would probably be irrelevant in the 4 years in would take to complete. Ironically, these studies are still not common, though I have just seen reports of playback studies amongst humpback whales also revealing the complexity of their communication. And, of course, the work on symbol systems with chimpanzees and bonobos has demonstrated that the communication we observe in a natural setting is not the same as what these animals are capable of. 

So, I chose to change direction to follow a different interest: whether the investment in time and skill required to make the most elaborate stone tools of the Upper Palaeolithic – the Solutrean – could be explained in purely utilitarian terms or, as I thought more likely, through social, stylistic and symbolic reasons.  This was in effect the application of postprocessual ideas to a data set, stone tools, that was almost exclusively considered through processual approaches.  Using a chaîne-opératoire approach, along with a study of raw materials, I examined the manufacture of a range of tools in assemblages excavated from 8 sites – chosen as examples of ‘home-base’ / ‘specialised site’ pairings across southern France, northern Spain and southeastern Spain.  The conclusion was that whilst many tools could be interpreted in utilitarian terms, there was consistent evidence of great technological skill particularly in the most elaborate Solutrean tools requiring time and ‘apprenticeship’ even though working edges of the same quality could be made more simply. Solutrean techniques of stone tool retouching were symbols of expertiseWhen used as butchery knives, as the largest Solutrean points are most likely to have been, such technological symbols could work to emphasise the moment of food sharing creating social obligations at a time when mass hunting and food storage might separate the moment of distribution from hunting when such obligations are commonly seen to be made amongst contemporary hunter-gatherers.  This is a time period and a problem that I still return to as new ideas come to mind such as the problem of finding experts to learn rare skills from when living in mobile societies at a low population density.

Like most students I think, my experience of doing a PhD was great fun, challenging and stressful towards the end.  Collecting my data in France and Spain meant moving often from place to place such that I never spent long enough in one location to get to know people. However, I learned Spanish and improved my poor French and this has been of great use since.   Back in the UK, I was a member of a large and active postgraduate community in a big department.  I attended and chaired research seminars and often met visiting archaeologists from abroad.  I got involved with the student journal, the Archaeological Review from Cambridge, editing two issues on ‘Technology in the Humanities’ and ‘Writing Archaeology’ as well as being production manager for several others.  I wrote articles and book reviews for other issues and each year I aimed to give a paper at the annual conference of the Theoretical Archaeology Group.  I did some non-PhD research, examining lithic sourcing in an island setting for the Southern Hebrides Mesolithic Project directed by Steve Mithen and Bill Finlayson, along with episodes of excavation work for a professional archaeological unit as my grant ran out.  I believe that involvement in these other things made the difference when it came to getting my first permanent academic post.

Attending a workshop on agency and lithics at the University of Boulder, Colorado, 2002.

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

I was employed as a part-time lecturer in the last year of research to replace a colleague on research leave and at the same time became Curator at Ely Museum in Cambridgeshire. This gave me some funding to finish my PhD.  From 1990, and with my PhD complete, there were very few academic posts advertised and at that time there were no Post-Doc positions in archaeology.  Inspired by discussions with visiting Japanese archaeologists, I applied for a two-year Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship to learn Japanese and to study Japanese Palaeolithic archaeology in Tokyo. When that ended, and still without a job, I worked as a guide taking tourists from USA, Australia and, to my surprise, many from Israel around the sites of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland in coaches.  Amongst many other things, I attended three traditional Burns Night Suppers in Edinburgh across consecutive weeks in August, several Welsh Medieval Banquets in the dungeons of Cardiff Castle – for the paying guests these were described as ‘the original dining halls’ of the Castle, and endless numbers of Irish Ceilidhs.  Whilst this might seem like a step off the academic path, it taught me about the commercial use of the past and has informed my teaching on heritage ever since – and how not to lose people on field trips.  After still more unsuccessful applications, including one in which I tried to persuade a university that they did not really want a Lecturer in Roman Archaeology because the Palaeolithic and human evolution was more interesting, I was finally appointed to a Lectureship in Archaeological Theory and Method at Liverpool. This turned out to be the last job for which I could make a genuine application for the next few years. Indeed, I thought it would be my last application to an academic post before moving on to try something else.

I have also been fortunate to be able to get involved in contemporary national developments in academic work whilst still employed at Liverpool.  From 2005, I worked for the Higher Education Academy in the Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology, originally as the Lead for Archaeology, and then Director of the Subject Centre as a whole.  With the Centre staff, I spent several years travelling to departments around the country, organising workshops, conferences, and projects to support the teaching of Archaeology and later Classics, with a big focus on supporting postgraduates as teachers.  I worked with the Institute for Archaeology, the Council for British Archaeology, English Heritage and the Archaeology Training Forum looking at ways to bridge the gap between the professional and academic worlds of archaeology. The Centre conducted the first research on the employability of archaeology graduates in the UK and provided an opportunity to write about the teaching of archaeology in general and start thinking again about the specific conceptual problems of teaching a multi-disciplinary field like Palaeolithic archaeology. Funding cuts led to the dissolution of the Subject Centre Network in 2012 and I returned full time to a teaching portfolio that was mostly in human origins for the first time in my academic career.

What current projects are you working on?

I have just started working on The Atlas of Archaeology: a Scientometric Study of Discipline Growth for the Leverhulme Trust.  This project uses bibliometric data from Scopus and the Web of Science to explore how archaeology has grown as a discipline and how its social structures and cognitive frameworks have developed across the last sixty years using the techniques of network analysis and science mapping.  Large sets of bibliometric data will allow me to explore the relationships within and between disciplines, national and international collaboration and conceptual developments from 1960 to 2021. The evolution of Palaeoanthropology as a research field will be a significant case study for The Atlas.  The genesis for this project was my experience of coming back to teach Palaeolithic archaeology after many years teaching other courses.  The quantity of published documents and the range of concepts and disciplines involved was so much more than when I was a student and a subject that I thought would be straightforward to teach was incredibly difficult. I started looking at the journal outputs, and reading in the broader literature about conceptual growth, interdisciplinarity and threshold concepts. I encountered scientometrics, bibliometrics and science mapping along the way and an idea was born.

In terms of fieldwork, I am in the middle of a programme of work in Saudi Arabia looking at the evidence of hominin dispersal into the continent along the Red Sea coast.  With colleagues I am also planning a return to South Africa to start continue around the World Heritage Site of Makapansgat following up on earlier work conducted around the millennium.  In comparison to the other sites in the Cradle of Humankind (Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdrai, etc.) that are close to Johannesburg, Makapansgat and the Cave of Hearths located nearby are off the beaten track and seem forgotten to tourists.  We hope to enhance the resources available to support local communities trying to gain a greater benefit from their heritage by using biographies to map people, places, ideas and evidence in the past and present. “2001” and its Dawn of Man sequence will be somewhere in the middle.

Anthony’s first field school season for Liverpool at Carden Park in 1996.

Finally, I have been boring my colleagues with plans to build a mammoth bone house. These are the first permanent human dwellings, enabling communities to live in perhaps the most hostile environments of the Pleistocene. And yet we don’t really know how they were constructed, or how they worked as thermal, illuminated or human environments.  Contemporary climate data is detailed enough to be useful, architectural software exists to model the flows of air and light inside and out, and there is even research now available on Palaeolithic clothing.  Additive printing, or CNC milling might allow the construction of artificial mammoth bones.  I imagine half-size replicas packed like giant Lego in the back of vans on the way to schools for children to make and stimulate their interest in human evolution and environmental change.

How has the COVID19 pandemic affected your work?

Fieldwork in Saudi Arabia and South Africa has stopped and will probably continue to be difficult or impossible for another 18 months.  Otherwise – and quite by chance, in The Atlas of Archaeology I have a research project that is digital, internet-based and essentially COVID-19 resilient.

What career achievement are you most proud of?

I think everyone feels a great sense of accomplishment when they see their first article in print.  For me this was an examination of changes in style through time and across apprenticeship networks in 18th century English silverware as revealed through an attribute analysis and a study of hallmarks.  Since then, I am usually most proud of what has just been published, or in anticipation of what I am currently working on and hope will be distinctive.  As a committed teacher, however, I am most proud of my students, the excitement gained from research that we might do together and then, the careers they move on to. At Makapansgat, for example, this included an exploration of the hominin experience of landscape using ideas derived from environmental psychology and the data capture techniques of sports science. Seeing and helping students develop as scholars and individuals is one of the genuine pleasures of an academic life.

If you could use a time machine, when would you go back to visit and why?

The sensible thing would be to go back in time to look at some aspect of life in the Palaeolithic – perhaps in those mammoth bone houses.  But I am not sure I really want to be able to see this in reality, since the challenge and fun of the job is to try and discover this.  Instead, I would use a time machine to see my musical heroes in action. 

Much to my children’s dismay, I listen to jazz, specifically modern jazz – which like modernism in design is now many years old.  Modern jazz is probably better known as Bebop and Hard Bop, the first distinctive styles of jazz created after World War II.  The great Jazz performers display an extraordinary mixture of technical virtuosity and cognitive flexibility as they improvise on a tune.  A bit like making a Solutrean point perhaps ….  I have two dates in mind.  The first is 15th May 1953, to see Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach playing at Massey Hall in Montreal.  This is sometimes called the greatest jazz concert in history.  It was the last time the two great innovators of Bebop (Parker and Gillespie) played together; Parker died the following year at just 34 years old. For human evolution specialists by the way, Charles Mingus recorded one of only two musical tracks I know of named after a hominin species – Pithecanthropus Erectus. The other date would be 8th October 1963 to see the John Coltrane quartet (Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones) play at Birdland in New York.  I heard a recording of this concert for the first time whilst drinking too much whiskey with archaeological friends in a jazz coffee shop in Japan. It combines an interest and a fond memory. If, one could stop off between the two, I would love to spend the morning of 12th August 1958 on East 126th Street in New York.  Look it up – “A Great Day in Harlem”.

What advice would you give students interested in human evolution?

“Enjoy every minute, you have made a great choice.  Human evolution can take you anywhere and everywhere and although the evidence may seem slight, your interest is only limited by how you can think about a problem.”

For someone serious about an academic career in human evolution, I would say don’t focus all your energies keeping up with papers published in your research area right now. Take the time to read outside your topic and ideally the discipline; many great developments are inspired by or come from applications of ideas seen elsewhere.  And in the same vein, don’t be afraid to hold on to a broader set of research interests and move around them from time to time; the juxtaposition of different things stimulates new ways to look at old problems.  As my colleague Matt Grove has shown, extreme specialists are a step away from extinction…..

Anthony introducing a practical on Upper Palaeolithic typologies at Liverpool in 2010.


Published by lucyjt96

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

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