Shells and subsistence in southern Africa: Interview with Emma Loftus


What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of Cambridge and why?

Freedom. I enjoyed my doctoral studies, but I really love being part of the Cambridge department in my role as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow. I’ve found Cambridge to be very well set-up for my research, and I feel like I can really steam ahead with it now. The collegiate system is fantastic for newbies too, and I’m having a great time as a research associate at St John’s College.

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests? How did you come to focus on molluscs? (Is the term malacoarchaeology appropriate?)

I’m a South African archaeologist from Johannesburg, specialising in stable isotope applications for palaeoenvironmental and subsistence reconstructions, and radiocarbon dating of Middle and Later Stone Age sites, all in southern Africa.

Marine molluscs offer one of the few opportunities for seasonally-resolved climate records in southern Africa, as their incremental growth structure preserves a geochemical record of the annual sea-surface temperature fluctuations (this field is known as sclerochronology, while archaeomalacology is the study of archaeological shells, species representation, etc.). They can also reveal the season in which the shell was harvested, and so contribute to a picture of how prehistoric people timed their subsistence activities. South Africa has some of the most incredible coastal hunter-gatherer sites in the world, with tens of thousands of years of deposits preserved in rockshelters. These sites are central to debates about the emergence of behavioural complexity in humans, and the shells are an abundant class of evidence within them. It is quite a difficult technical challenge to develop sclerochronological records from archaeological shells over these timescales, but by the time I was looking to begin my PhD I had acquired research experience in stable isotope ecology, hunter-gatherer archaeology and palaeoenvironmental reconstructions so was well prepared. My research also benefited from previous student research that laid the groundwork and made the project feel possible!

What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge?

A bit twisty – I started an undergraduate in Law at the University of Cape Town, but was fascinated by my best friend’s studies in Earth Sciences and Oceanography and I always knew I wanted to study Archaeology. The South African undergraduate degree is happily quite broad, so I switched to a BSc, and also wound my way through Chemistry and Geology courses. UCT has one of the oldest archaeological stable isotope laboratories in the world, where I gained some research experience as an undergraduate. I moved onto Oxford for my Masters and then DPhil, picking up some radiocarbon expertise and branching into sclerochronology. I enjoy my research, and didn’t want to start a post-doc working on an entirely different topic: I was fortunate to have people around me who supported me and encouraged me to take the time to write fellowship applications while I worked part-time for a few months as a rather negligent receptionist. Happily, the gamble paid off and I was awarded two fellowships!

You mentioned that you are currently in the field in Cape Town. What’s your most memorable field experience in archaeology?

I’ve become a “lab archaeologist” but I spent nearly a year living in Germany, digging in Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sites around the country. When I arrived I spoke no German, but I was based in a tiny town (Schöningen) where very few people spoke English, and so I pantomimed my way through three months of schlemming and sorting while frantically learning nouns and verbs from a dictionary. I spent a LOT of time by myself, in a local cherry grove – it was quite zen, in retrospect.

What do you do in your spare time?

I stress-read the news, do craftsy-type projects (knitting socks, embroidering cushions, etc), read novels, watch TV, plan trips abroad, swim, practice French, waste baking ingredients (I’m terrible), drink wine (never wasted). I get SAD living in the UK, so also try to spend a lot of time outdoors during the warm months.



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