Friday, 2 October 2015

How To Be an Academic

I began this blog as a newly graduated MSc student (Master of science! How exciting!), fresh-faced and enthusiastic about a life in academia. Soon it will be time to write papers! Publish books! Right? Back then I had a feeling I had either missed a memo somewhere about the steps a person takes to make this career work, or that there were no memos.

I'm more certain now - there are no memos.

I've realized that the bumbling feeling of not knowing the 'next step' continues. But what also starts is an acceptance that this is the way the path wends for most people. And maybe that makes it a little better. I had thought before that if I documented the minute steps that went along with making a career in humanities/social sciences research, I could create that step-by-step pamphlet that another confused student could use to find their way a little more confidently - so for example they would know early on that technical skills need to be hoovered up quickly or else you pigeon-hole yourself into a corner where you're holding your degree in one hand and your CV in the other, and fear that you will not have anything to offer a research team.

It hasn't worked that way, as my patchwork of posts from 2013 show. But looking back on the posts and their topics, and more importantly what I wasn't writing about - has made me reflect on how things have changed so quickly. I found a research question that I am passionate about. I started a PhD. With colleagues I started a Palaeotechnology society. I've networked and felt I 'belonged' in a community of researchers. I've learned to knap flint and can fletch an arrow. I've even run an experiment and collected data! And now, as the third year of my PhD begins, and the 'afterwards' looms, I realize that the next step from here is as opaque as the last was. The word 'post-doc' is as impenetrable as 'PhD' was three years ago.

I've found my way so far, but don't quite know how. And if this is a similar experience that others have, it might be why there is no memo.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

New Linguistics Discussion Forum

We've opened a new linguistics discussion forum and would love some new members!  Check us out at (I'm member Corybobory ;))

Whether you're new to linguistics, study it as a hobby or as part of your research, the forum is a great place to find other people and have some great and fruitful chats with other interested minds.  Syntax, phonology, historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, evolutionary linguistics, semantics, computational linguistics, typology, language morphology, language acquisition, pragmatics... whatever floats your boat!

Saturday, 21 December 2013

BBC: Neanderthals could speak like modern humans, study suggests

Fantastic painting by James Gurney
A new article about language evolution has been published by the BBC, on Neanderthals and speech:

In the 80s, a Neanderthal burial was uncovered in Kebara Cave, Israel, which was complete enough as to include a hyoid bone, the only free-floating bone in the human body.  

The hyoid is is a bone positioned at the base of the tongue root in humans.  In Australopithecines, the hyoid lacks the scoop shape of modern humans.  This Neanderthal hyoid, however, was just like modern humans.

The other day, PLOS One published a new article on the Kebara hyoid: 

The BBC article linked above described the article as arguing for Neanderthals having speech just like modern humans - which I find a bit of a stretch, since a quote from the abstract is:

"Similarity in overall shape does not necessarily demonstrate that the Kebara 2 hyoid was used in the same way as that of Homo sapiens... Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals."

So their findings are 'consistent' with the idea of Neanderthal complex speech, but the morphology isn't a demonstration of it like the BBC would print in its headlines.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Archaeology Jewellery - Interview with Kirsty from DiGgeek

Over on my other blog, which receives far more attention than this one, I did an interview with a fellow Etsy seller who runs DiGgeek, an Etsy shop full of Indiana Jones LEGO men, beautiful trowel necklaces, and lots of great jewellery for the fashion conscious archaeologist (and hey, we are a pretty fashion conscious, right?  I mean those muddy boots paired with a smart blazer at the conference is such a statement...!).  Have a gander if you'd like, it was part of my craft newsletter's special archaeology edition I did for October. Ohhh the fun I have on the internet!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Organizing a large amount of information?

One of the questions I have now that I'm approaching the start of a PhD is about organization. I've written piddly little papers, a few articles, and a larger dissertation, though only 12,000 words. Compared to this a PhD thesis is a huge undertaking!  I'm wondering how people go about organizing their thoughts and work - both for smaller academic papers, and larger projects as well.

I need to organize my cats.  I mean my work.

My mother-in-law is a fiction writer who also has an academic background, so her advice in this has been really useful.  For her writing she uses Scrivener: "Scrivener is aimed at writers of all kinds—novelists, journalists, academics, screenwriters, playwrights—who need to structure a long piece of text while referring to research documents. Scrivener is a ring-binder, a scrapbook, a corkboard, an outliner and text editor all rolled into one."

Sounds good to me!  So I've downloaded a free trial (, which allows you to use it for 30 different days (they don't have to be consecutive).  Afterwards, it's only $40 to buy which sounds quite worth it if I find it's a useful organizing tool!  We'll see how this goes and if it's a good solution.  I can use all the help I can find.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Talk or Poster? Talk or Poster?

It's done!  It's done and finished, a neat 7 page paper related to my proposed PhD topic, ready to be submitted to Evolang X.  But - I'm torn.  Do I want to be considered for a talk or a poster?

I've done 4 posters at conferences now, and I should really start stepping up and getting experience speaking in front of people (and answering terrifying questions at the end).  However, while I like my paper and where I'm going with it, it doesn't really offer all that much original material or any new findings or research results.  So... I'm not really sure it deserves a 20 minute spcheel.

I'm including this picture simply because it's useful.
If you're presenting a poster - how big is it going to actually look?

But!  It is original in that it says 'hey guys, there's this interesting research material that could totally be applied to these other research questions in new and interesting ways'.  And that is relevant and interesting.  But 20 minute talk interesting?

But I would like to do a talk.  And maybe in 6 months I will have more information to speak about.  And maybe it doesn't matter what I think, because it will be decided by a comittee anyways whether or not it will be selected for a talk.

So maybe I will request to be considered for a talk, and then I will know whether or not there's enough in the paper that deserves people's attention that long, all eyes on me, complete with challenging scary questions at the end.

It will be a learning opportunity, whatever happens.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Back from excavation, nursing archaeology wounds

I woke up with morning with a start - I'm late for site, everyone will have left without me!  But no, I'm back at home in England, no longer smelly and dirty, and with marginally less grit from layer 7 still stuck to my face.

I spent the last 6 weeks at Menez Dregan, hands down the most brilliant and interesting Lower Palaeolithic site in all of Brittany.  Many photos and musing are to follow, as it was inspiring and eventful.  More than anything, I want to return next year.

But on my mind today is finding a bandage or support for my hand - trowelling through concrete-like sediment for so long has left my right thumb prone to dislocating if I so much as tie my shoe.  It's probably something I should see the doctor about.  But maybe it will, you know, just go away...

Another archaeology injury I've acquired is very similar to my bookshelf necklace-making craft pain I will call the 'shoulder blade of fire'.  The muscles used to hold arms extended complain in the evening, as if I've been holding cinder blocks at arms length all day.  It does make typing a bit of a pain.

But all this has been so worth the beauty and the learning I got to experience, with my husband, making new friends, eating delicious food, bumbling along in French.

I promise to share my most favourite of these experiences in later posts.  Along with some yummy recipes.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Neanderthal or Neandertal?

Both of these spellings (and pronunciations) are commonly found - is either more correct to use?

In short, nope!

Neanderthals get their name from the Neander Valley (or Neandertal in German), near Dusseldorf in Germany.  This valley is where the first Neanderthal fossils were found, around 150 years ago.

OMG, it's a Neandertal baby!!
Or is it a Neanderthal baby...?
'Thal' is an old form of the word 'valley', so Neandertal (the place) used to be called Neanderthal.  Nowadays 'thal' is spelled as 'tal' after a German spelling reform at the beginning of the 20th century (people loved those back then, didn't they?), which is probably why we see Neandertal in spelling now and again.  It tends to be less
common I get the impression...

Neanderthals' taxon is Homo neanderthaensis, with the 'th', so I guess purists could argue that it's better to spell it with the 'th'.  But what is appropriate in language is defined by what people use (generally), so whichever!

'Thal' and 'tal' in the German are both pronounced the same, which reflects how some people (like me!) spell Neanderthal but say 'Neander-tal'.  However, pronouncing the 'th' is totally common and often used in the English pronunciation of the species.

In short, say whatever, spell whatever... it's language!  As I said, what is 'appropriate' is all about what people use, and in what situation.  It's all about conventions, and there are conventions of using both :)

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Neanderthal Language: did we once have a linguistic cousin?

In a recent paper ("On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences"), Dan Dediu and Stephen Levinson argue that modern language was a feature of both Neanderthals and modern humans, and therefore of our common ancestor as well.  This takes their date for the origin of language to around 4-500,000 years ago at least, far beyond the common (though what I consider as very conservative!) view that language emerged around 100,000 years ago.

Illustration of hypothesized dates and
communication systems, shown alongside
tool technologies and hominin species 
Whether or not Neanderthals had complex language, or any form of complex communication system such as a protolanguage, has been debated for decades.  More and more though, the evidence seems to bolster the idea that our very close cousins were more similar to us than the classical brutish view, both cognitively as well as behaviourally.

In my previous post "Are we being a bit unfair to Neanderthals?", I discussed the tendency for people to be quite negative when thinking about Neanderthals, to compare their culture to more modern examples of our own, and scorn them as "the other" - languageless, dumb, and trying-to-be-human-but-not-quite-getting-it.  It's an unbalanced view, when humans and Neanderthals had broadly similar behavioural and cultural signature in the record, especially when you look at contemporary examples in the record.

Some might say that the classic image of the Neanderthal has had a makeover - we now know that sometimes, some of them buried their dead.  Sometimes, some of them pierced teeth or shells, and used red ochre and black manganese as colourants.  Often, they made beautiful stone tools with great skill and knowledge of flint working.  Sometimes they interbred with modern humans.

But still, the nul hypothesis for some has remained that Neanderthals are crap versions of humans.  Equally, if you are going to attribute intelligence to a species, don't you also need evidence to attribute them with a lack of intelligence?

Now, with evidence of interbreeding between the species, and the Neanderthal genome sequenced, it's harder to think of Neanderthals so simply as 'the other'.  Dediu and Levinson's article doesn't contain the Neanderthal racism I often find myself complaining about.

Most interesting and unique about their article is the implications for studying language evolution and linguistics, suggesting for example,
the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.
It's a great article synthesizing lots of relevant information on Neanderthals as well as language origins research, and I recommend it as a good read for anyone with an interest!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Book Launch Tour: The Vesuvius Isotope, by Kristen Elise, Ph.D.

This post is part of a book launch tour for the release of The Vesuvius Isotope, a new book by drug discovery biologist Kristen Elise.  This book might be of interest to those of use that enjoy a thriller with a bit of archaeology thrown in :)  All the posts on Kristen's blog tour are related in some way to the content of her new novel - see below and be intrigued, maybe you've found your next Summer read!

The Crocodile Library of Tebtunis

[F]or some of the Egyptians the crocodiles are sacred animals... and each of these two peoples keeps one crocodile selected from the whole number, which has been trained to tameness, and they put hanging ornaments of molten stone and of gold into the ears of these and anklets round the front feet, and they give them food appointed and victims of sacrifices and treat them as well as possible while they live, and after they are dead they bury them in sacred tombs, embalming them.
-The Histories, Herodotus (ca. 484–425 BCE) 

In the winter of 1899/1900, an expedition into the Fayoum Oasis outside of Cairo, Egypt was initiated. The expedition was led by the University of California at Berkeley and the Hearst Foundation. Its goal was to excavate an ancient site: the ancient city of Tebtunis. The researchers were looking for human mummies; what they found instead were mummified crocodiles.

One of the workers from the expedition was so disgruntled that he took a machete and began hacking at one of the mummified crocodiles. And this was how it was discovered that within some of the crocodiles, an incredibly large collection of papyrus documents had been preserved for two thousand years. Papyri were found both in the crocodiles, where they were sometimes used as part of the mummification process, and within the city itself. More than 30,000 ancient texts were eventually recovered from Tebtunis, comprising the largest collection of ancient papyri that exists in the United States today.
Mummified crocodile, Naples Archeological Museum

The majority of the texts date to the second century BC, although others hail from the first or second centuries AD. This is the same era that produced the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, offering an Egyptian counterpart to the Roman resource that is still mostly buried beneath the ash from Mount Vesuvius. And, like the texts from the Villa dei Papiri, the ancient papyri of the Tebtunis excavation are still legible to this day.

Mummified baby crocodile, Naples Archeological Museum
Within the library were more than a dozen fragments of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. Also found were birth, death, and tax certificates, and petitions to Queen Cleopatra from her subjects. It is unfortunate that no texts have ever been found - either in this database or any other - that were actually written in the hand of Egypt's enigmatic last pharaoh.

Also excavated at Tebtunis were several scientific and medical texts, including at least one example of an illustrated treatise on the medicinal properties of plants. Contrasting with these are a number of astrology and magic texts. The juxtaposition between magic and medicine in the same era underscores a critical transition that was underway at that time - the transition from superstition to true science.

Tebtunis illustrated medical text
It is interesting to note that the Tebtunis papyri are written in both Egyptian and Greek - sometimes within a single document. The demotic Egyptian language was common among earlier pharaohs but rarely used in the later years of the first milleneum BC. A gradual replacement of Egyptian with Greek evolved with the Ptolemaic Dynasty, and the Roman conquest of Egypt brought with it an increase in the use of Latin.

Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, was the only one to speak all three languages.

For more information about the Tebtunis Papyri, visit the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri.

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, a novel by Kristen Elise, Ph.D. Order your copy at

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego,  California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at and The Vesuvius Isotope is available in both print and and e-book formats ( for Kindle, for Nook, for Kobo reader.) 

The Vesuvius Isotope_ebook_cover 12.5.jpeg
The Vesuvius Isotope:
When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the 

secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to 

a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic 
women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend 
as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest 
will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the 
twenty-first century.
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