Prehistories caught up with Emilie Sibbesson, Lecturer in Archaeology at Canterbury Christ Church University.
Ask an Archaeologist: Emilie Sibbesson
What is your specialism?
I’m a prehistorian, trained in ceramic analysis, and interested in food remains and food technologies.
My mug at the 2012 An Doirlinn dig
Why did you become an archaeologist?
Who knows! My dad is interested in history and when we visited a historic site, he’d say ‘imagine what it would have been like…’. I think he said it more to himself than to us, but it must have sparked something. I also read a lot of historical fiction as a teenager – Swedish authors like Olov Svedelid, Vibeke Olsson, and Jan Fridegård. I’m still more interested in the human scale than the grand narratives.
At university, I had intended to focus on Classical studies but then I was exposed to prehistory and that was that. I stayed in archaeology after the degree because it is so diverse. It’s got a bad reputation as a narrow subject, but it isn’t. I love that I can combine elements of, for example, chemistry, philosophy, and politics almost daily in my research and teaching.
Which archaeologist (past or present) would you invite onto an excavation?
I have a soft spot for Gordon Childe, so I’d invite him. We’d have tea and biscuits and he’d tell us about the Skara Brae dig. I’d put Indiana Jones to work on finds washing and flotation. I’d have pints with Sally Binford in the evenings.
Choose one of the following: trowel; museum; archive; library; landscape; laptop.
I’d have them all, but if I must choose I’d say museum because there is interpretive mileage in the material gathering dust in museum stores.
What is your dream find?
Pottery on securely dated Mesolithic site in Britain would be brilliant, or an Early Neolithic site with the same level of organic preservation as at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire – the bowl with in situ nettle stew and wooden utensils from that site were fantastic.
Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)
Absolutely! But it shouldn’t be involuntary and arbitrary like in Slaughterhouse 5. I’d go to the early 4th millennium BC and write an eye-witness account of the Neolithic transition, although I wouldn’t want to prepare the risk assessment.
If you had to relocate to the past, which era would you move to?
Victorian England perhaps, if I could be a woman of independent means. I’d love to have seen the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace in 1851. Food-wise, I’d find it hard to stomach certain Roman or Renaissance ‘delicacies’, but the Iron Age seems tasty. Beer, bread, meat, and herbs – I could live with that.
Is there a work of art (e.g. novel, painting, music, film, etc) that has influenced you as an archaeologist?
Bach’s St Matthew Passion helped me finish my thesis, although I’d call that first aid rather than influence. Also, the opposite is true: being an archaeologist influences the way I look at a painting or craft item. I have been archaeologically conditioned into seeing the choices and stages of the manufacturing process, which is as fascinating as the finished product, if not more so.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on bringing food studies and archaeology closer together. Food is an excellent vehicle for historical understanding, both as something that shapes and changes society and on the smaller, experiential scale. Teaching is also taking up a lot of my time at the moment. Why pretend that it doesn’t? I’m developing a theory course this year – it’s hard work but it has reminded me that I love theory. I wouldn’t be an archaeologist today if I couldn’t do theory.
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