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Mike Field to head the Bioarchaeology Labs

Dr Mike Field is the newly appointed Head of the Bioarchaeology Laboratories (Zoology, Human Osteology, and Botany). The new laboratories provide members of the Faculty with a first class infrastructure. “I see the laboratories as available for everyone to use.”

Bioarchaeological democracy

In his new position, Mike will be the leader of the Bioarchaeology team, consisting of Laura Llorente Rodríguez (Zoology), Sarah Schrader and Rachel Schats (Human Osteology), Erica van Hees, Marieke Doorenbosch, and himself (Botany). Mike will represent the team in the Faculty.

Strength in fossils

The strength of Bioarchaeology at Leiden University lies in its morphological expertise - the study of fossil form. “We study human and hominin fossils, as well as zoological and botanical fossils. Not only vertebrates, because since the arrival of Laura we also have non-vertebrate studies in our portfolio, particularly molluscs.”

Morphology, however, has been under fire with a trend in the last 20 years to decrease funding for morphological studies of fossils. The result being that much expertise has been lost. Priorities have been elsewhere with molecular investigations grabbing a large piece of the research funding pie. It is Mike’s ambition to hold on to the expertise and infrastructure in the labs and employ these in international collaborative projects. “There is a need to understand the contribution of morphological studies leading to collaboration between morphological and molecular bioarchaeologists.”

So Mike intends to encourage the bioarchaeolgical team to explore collaboration with internal partners in two areas: isotopes and DNA “We have the infrastructure to collect, identify and prepare sample specimens for these types of analyses. We can offer chemical laboratories determined material that has a well understood stratigraphical and environmental context.”

Organic research

While Mike is working on large externally funded research projects, he also engages in a type of research he calls organic. “An important type of research is that which comes up unexpectedly, such as the research opportunities presented by rescue excavations. You do not have time to write grant applications for funding for that, but still the work is of value.” He points to a large glass cabinet located next to the entrance to the Botany Lab which displays six recent internationally refereed papers in a range of journals. “Most of the work contained in these papers came from studying new sites which yielded something really interesting”. He will encourage colleagues not the ignore this type of research.

Three types of research

Firstly, he supports other research groups in the Faculty with their research efforts. He comments “I am involved in activities supporting other members of the Faculty, like the Caribbean group, because of my broad botanical background.” Earlier in his career, he explains, he spent time botanizing in the Caribbean region, particularly on the island of Montserrat.

Secondly, he works in large multidisciplinary teams developing research projects, hopefully, which will successfully obtain funding from Research Councils and other sources. For example, “I am a member the Avellino project funded by NWO. This collaborative project focusses on an early Bronze Age eruption of Vesuvius in Italy. The team of three PIs and three post-docs explore how populations around the cone responded to the volcanic activity and where they may have potentially fled to.”

Last but not least, is the organic research mentioned above. It usually features research in fields Mike is passionate about. “Studying the morphology of fossil plant remains, determining the identity of the specimens, and understanding their taphonomy allows detailed, accurate palaeoenvironmental reconstructions and, on occasion, an assessment of the biostratigraphy. This allows the archaeological to be put into a sound palaeoenvironment and stratigraphical context. An example of an organic research project is the study of an elephant kill site in Greece, making a detailed reconstruction of the environment. “Every piece of environmental information adds to the larger multidisciplinary jigsaw puzzle.”

Giving students a real buzz

Mike makes sure that his students get involved in the research projects. “I believe strongly that Bachelor students in their final year and Master students should work with actual materials.” He uses the materials as a tool to develop students to a higher level. “This bridge between education and research gives students a real buzz. They gain hands on experience working with real fossils from ongoing projects.” The Botany Lab now supervises 14 students, working on sites from 6 different countries.

In his new role, Mike will encourage the team to go to conferences and to build up their network. Fieldwork is similarly important. “It is the best way to teach. Because our goal is to reconstruct environments it is very important to see modern environments. We are not arm chair paleobotanists!”

Recently Mike attended a conference in Ireland. Naturally, he also went to see the local environment.

Not ‘my’ laboratory

Mike sees the laboratories as a Faculty wide infrastructure. “Occasionally people say to me ‘your laboratory’. I don’t see it as my laboratory. I see it as everyone’s laboratory.” He and his colleagues try to interact with as many people as possible in the Faculty to get this point across.

So how does one make use of the laboratories? “People come in with material and ask ‘can you do this?’ Within the Botany Lab we have a very large portfolio of what we deliver.” Mike and his colleagues specialize in studying wood, pollen, and fruit and seeds. People with other expertise, for example in starch and phytoliths, are welcome to work in the laboratory. “We do not want to become jack-of-all-trades, master of none. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to be an expert in one particular field.”

Built for botany

Mike feels privileged in the number of staff and facilities at the Faculty of Archaeology. “I don’t think people realize how lucky we are here. We have unbelievable facilities. I’ve been in this game since 1987 and I have seen many of the laboratories in western, central and eastern Europe; ours is something special.”

So if you compare it to the Reuvensplaats, how was it there? Mike bursts out laughing. “I spent seven years in the Reuvensplaats. The old set up cannot be compared with the new. I designed the Van Steenisgebouw laboratory! It was built to be fit for purpose!”

International Man of Paleobotany

Seeing the wide arrange of international projects Mike is working on, we asked if we could call him the International Man of Botany. He grins. “Rather the International Man of Palaeobotany”. To support this claim he notes that at present he is working on a number of archaeological sites. For example, he is part of a large team studying a Middle Pleistocene Palaeoloxodon elephant skeleton that shows signs of being butchered in Greece. In France he is investigating plant remains from a Last Interglacial (Eemian) river channel. The river sediments contain lithic artefacts. His work will enable collaborators to put the hominin activity into an environmental context. In Britain he is collaborating with members of the British Museum and Natural History Museum who are excavating a Middle Pleistocene lake deposit which contains two types of lithic assemblages. In addition, there is the Early Bronze Age project in central Italy mentioned above.

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