From tourism to trading to tap dancing: Interview with Nancy Highcock

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

Collaboration. The last year or so of my PhD was so lonely! At Cambridge there are lots of opportunities to work with people with different research interests whether that is through research projects, reading groups, organising workshops, or just going for a coffee to bounce ideas off each other. For example, I am currently creating a hands-on activity with a PhD student in material science for the Science Festival. We are exploring peoples’ emotional responses to different natural and synthetic building materials: I am coming from the Mesopotamian side of things and he from the contemporary.

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests?

I work on collective identity formation in the ancient Near East with a particular focus on mercantile communities: how do long-distance traders maintain civic or kinship ties whilst working and living (and sometimes permanently settling) “abroad”? How to merchants organise themselves socially, politically, and legally while away from home and what types of familiar material culture do people hold onto? While at Cambridge, I am the postdoctoral research associate on the Cambridge/Uppsala project “Memories for Life: Materiality and Memory of Ancient Near Eastern Inscribed Private Objects” which is also focused on identity construction. We are analysing several hundred objects inscribed and dedicated by non-royal individuals to temples from the 3rd-1st millennia BCE in Mesopotamia to better understand how people wanted to represent themselves for time immemorial through the combination of text, art, and object.

What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge?

I completed my PhD at New York University in April 2018 where I had been part of an interdisciplinary programme in Assyriology and ancient Near Eastern archaeology and had also worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I have a BA in Classics and an MA in early medieval studies so my training has always been interdisciplinary but without an actual degree in archaeology. As it happened, I was all set to move to the UK anyway as my partner lives here when several colleagues in the UK and US sent me the job advert for my current position. When I checked it out and learned that it required experience in Assyriology, archaeology, and art history, I was ecstatic to finally find something that perfectly suited my skill set!

How has your training in medieval studies and Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian studies affected your experience of travel? As an archaeologist who works in multiple popular tourist destinations (e.g. Cambridge, Turkey, Egypt), you likely have different sight-seeing priorities than the average tourist. What are some of your favourite destinations off the beaten path?

I have to admit I still like doing all the touristy stuff! As I am interested in exchange and markets, I try to find the local market places or time my visits for market days wherever I am so that I can see what types of goods and services are important to the local area. It is also a chance to see different groups in any given community come together—we all like stuff. I know Turkey best so I would encourage everyone to travel to the northeast of the country. A few years ago, I took a road trip with some colleagues to the city of Ani located on the Turkish/Armenian border near the city of Kars. It was a major city located at the nexus of several trade routes that was sacked by the Mongols and then fell into ruin in the mid 14th century. Its churches, mosques, and Zoroastrian temple all speak to the diverse population of people who came together there to exchange goods and ideas. It was the most beautiful place I have ever been.

What do you do in your spare time?

I am currently based part time in Nottingham so my partner and I enjoy exploring the various historic sites and countryside of the Midlands and try to get to the Peak District for proper walks when we get the chance. I also love detective fiction though work has sadly meant that I am not as caught up in my various book series as I would like to be. There is nothing like getting cozy with a good murder mystery.  I was a pretty serious tap dancer growing up and picked it up again when I was finishing my PhD in New York as a stress reliever so if anyone knows where I can take classes in Cambridge, please let me know!



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