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Mike Field’s Leiden Experience: ‘I try to make research teaching and teaching research.’

Mike Field has been at the Faculty of Archaeology since 2008. As a driven archaeobotanist, he is consistantly contributing to the study of plant fossils encountered in many faculty as well as external projects. ‘Flexibility, spontaneity, creativity, these are all parts of being an academic.’

Nineties' Mike Field (left) who was invited to the excavations in Schöningen by Thijs van Kolfschoten.

Strange bloke

Mike’s early career took place in Cambridge, where he finished his first postdoc in 1994. It was in this year, that he found out about an Anglo-Dutch archaeological expedition to Western Russia, in the Don Valley. ‘So I contacted this strange bloke called Thijs van Kolfschoten and he said: come along.’ Focusing on paleotlithic and Quaternary paleobotany, during this trip, Mike started to get to know his Dutch colleagues. ‘I kept those contacts going all over the 90’s. At the end of the decade there were a number of meetings in Kerkrade, Limburg, where I cemented my ties.’

Moving from one temporal position to the other, after some 8 years, Mike was offered a senior lectureship at University of Coventry. ‘It was my first permanent job after 15 years of postdoc positions! And after six months they closed the department.’

String quartets in the wilderness

So Mike left academia to spend some years in ‘the wilderness’. ‘It was a period in which I was broadening my experience in the higher education sector, representing University of Northampton nationally.’ Mike attended meetings at the House of Commons and various NGO’s. ‘It was quite an exciting time, because Lord Sainsbury’s Labour government had decided that Britain would focus on becoming a knowledge economy.’

‘The job was well paid, I travelled to lots of interesting meetings in beautiful buildings. There were string quartets, champagne, politicians.’ He sighs. ‘I hated it. At home I had my microscope and reference collection, and I was waiting for an opportunity to get back to research.’

Power of networking

That was the moment that everything fell in place. ‘A job opportunity came up at Leiden. Thijs was interested in me, I applied, I got the job. A contact I made in 1994 got me a job in 2008. That’s the power of networking.’

As an archaeobotanist, Mike has a fascination for all plants. Here he explores plantlife in the Irish countryside.

Small army

At the moment, Mike is working on a number of sites. ‘I try to make research teaching and teaching research. That’s an important part of academic life.’ Mike has a small army of dedicated BA and MA thesis students, whom he works with. ‘This enables us to work on a number of sites.’ He lists of some of the current projects. ‘We’re working on a French last interglacial site around 120.000 years old; a site east of Berlin, called Lichtenburg, with a presence of Neanderthals at the very edge of their habitation range; a site in Southern Greece with an incredible Mediterranean locality.’ For years, Mike has also been involved in a British Museum excavation at Barnham, UK.


The project in Greece is in collaboration with Tübingen University. Asked about how he gets involved in these projects, Mike replies: ‘Most of what I do is based on my reputation. People need a multidisciplinary team and they know that I can offer botanic knowledge.’ Mike also supports areas outside Europe. ‘I have studied botany in the Caribbean in the past. Now I work with Corinne Hofman and her group, publishing two papers at the moment. Flexibility, spontaneity, creativity, these are all parts of being an academic.’

In the Summer of 2019, Mike joined the Mongol Derby, an off-road horse race in Mongolia.
In the Summer of 2019, Mike joined the Mongol Derby, an off-road horse race in Mongolia.

Interpretation and testing

Mike makes it clear that he will continue on his current trajectory. ‘It will always interest me to study new sites and data. I still look at a sample from a new site like I’m a little kid looking at a Christmas present. I never lost that enthusiasm.’

However, lately, Mike is toying with the idea to start working on review papers. ‘I ought to bring all this information together with my modern plant ecological knowledge. Start to hypothesise…’ he laughs. ‘I always make this joke with my first year students. There is raw data, which is useless. There is interpretation of raw data, which is very important. There is interpretation of raw data and testing hypothesis which is very important. Then you cross the threshold into theory and dream kookooland. I like to sit on the line of interpretation and testing.’

In 1975 the second edition of Godwin’s standard work The History of the British Flora was published, describing every botanical record in Britain in the Quaternary. ‘Since I have been working I have added 15 to 20 new records to this collection. All I have done for the moment is publish about each find, instead of brining it all together. It makes sense to bring it together, adding to that body of published data that already exists.’

Carly Henkel (middle) was nominated for the Leiden University Thesis prize 2020.


Mike will also continue to invest in his students. ‘I like to see them doing well. One of my Master’s students was recently shortlisted for the university thesis prize. I still find that tremendously rewarding, to help establish the next generation of academics.’

On the other hand, Mike experiences an overwhelming teaching load the last couple of years. ‘With the new teaching load policy, I look forward to getting a better balance between research and teaching, as well as between work and home.’

Pass on the trowel
In this series we ask a staff member to pick a colleague of whom they would like to know more. Mike Field passed on the proverbial trowel to Raymond Corbey. He will be interviewed for the newsletter of April 2020.

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