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Guardian: The first shovelful, introducing our new archaeology and anthropology blog

The first shovelful: introducing our new archaeology and anthropology blog

Here we go, a new archaeology and anthropology blog, bringing you tombs, treasures, tribes and high adventure. Well maybe; we’re hoping there’ll be even more interesting and unexpected things than those to be honest. There’s plenty more going on than the stuff that usually makes the papers and together the five of us will aim to bring you a view from the inside on some of the most important discoveries and ideas that are shaping archaeological and anthropological research right now; the things that the experts are excited about. We’ll take you on a tour of some of the most fascinating excavations, past, present and future. We’ll reveal the studies being done with contemporary communities around the world, and the secrets being revealed by evolutionary and forensic anthropologists.

What unites archaeology and anthropology is that they are about people – past and present – based on the complex, multi-layered evidence available. We are interested in everything. No other research areas approach the study of humanity in such varied and encompassing ways.

Archaeology bobs and weaves between rock-hard science and the softest subtleties of social theory. It tickles the most remote boundaries of our origin as a species and digs through our grandparents’ rubbish. The questions we ask range from the minutia of household economy to the ideology of gods and kings; one archaeologist might be teasing isotopes out of a bone sample with a mass spectrometer while another’s pulling a colossal pharonic statue out of a building site with a crane.

Anthropology is about much more than remote field studies with tribal peoples. It embraces theories from philosophy, psychology and sociology. It deals with material culture and biological samples as well as the intangibles of human belief and cultural worlds. One anthropologist may be helping hunter-foragers defend their land rights in Amazonia. Another may be trying to find out how dating apps are impacting attitudes to intimacy in Amersham.

We’re people who like a challenge and who enjoy asking questions. We hope you’ll have plenty of questions for us as we go along.

We’re beginning our blog at an exciting and unsettling time for our disciplines. What we do and how we do it is being transformed by innovations in technology at a pace not everyone is comfortable with. New techniques are sparking new debates about what it means to preserve and present the past, and how to engage with communities and individuals. For example, the era of open-access data is bringing fresh audiences to archaeological research but also making archaeological sites more vulnerable by helping professional looters.

Archaeology has rarely found itself so much in the spotlight as it has been over the last few years. Islamic State has caused a crisis in the protection of cultural heritage by holding some of the world’s great archaeological sites hostage almost in the same manner as their human victims; filming their executions and broadcasting them to outrage the international community. Archaeologists have struggled, and continue to struggle to find a response. In this case, it’s the very fact that the world values archaeological remains which has made them a target.

The past and its remains are always political, and form an active and integral part of the present.

The scope of anthropology is wider and fuzzier than ever before. Communities that might once have been research subjects are now authors of their own work – the idea of the expert wrestles with embedded, ‘lived’ knowledge. Some anthropologists have been accused of using ethnographic research to help armies win battles, others celebrated for providing insight into radicalisation. Some focus on the minutae of modern life, others try to explain why Homo sapiens is the pre-eminient species on the planet.

The five contributors to the Past and the Curious have an equally wide range of experience, spanning the academic, public and commercial spheres. Our specialisms reach from the heart of the desert to the high rise apartments of modern mega-cities, and from the depths of prehistory to tea time yesterday, and into the future. We hope we can show you some new perspectives, as well as intrigue, entertain, and occasionally confuse you along the way. We might even convince you that there’s more to archaeology and anthropology than treasure and adventurous hats.

Meet the bloggers:

Mary Shepperson is a freelance archaeologist specialising in urbanism in Bronze Age Mesopotamia. She loves excavation and spends most of the year in Iraq covered in dirt.

Mary-Ann Ochota is a freelance broadcaster and writer. Her interests are broad – from Nomads in Tibet and crofters in Orkney, to landscape archaeology and the stories behind artefacts discovered by members of the public in Britain.

Jennifer Raff is a geneticist who specialises in the study of human variation among contemporary and ancient populations. She hunts for clues to our histories that are embedded in our genomes, working in both the laboratory and in the field (usually the Arctic).

Peter B Campbell is an underwater archaeologist who researches shipwrecks, sunken cities, and underwater caves. His work spans every time period, from the earliest seafarers to contemporary maritime societies, to explain the human connection to water.

Holly Kathryn Norton is a historical archaeologist focusing on political violence and a public servant working in the compliance process. She’s a bit of a policy geek, and wants to bring to light some of the laws that help protect our most precious non-renewable resources.