Adding animals to the archaeological equation of the past: Interview with Laerke Recht

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

Social. I think this is the most engaging place I have been, at least in academic terms. There are so many researchers with exciting stories and work, and so much to learn. I think especially the large amount of postdocs makes for a very vibrant community. I’m not saying it’s all perfect, but for me it’s very stimulating and productive.

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests? In particular, how does your work meld your personal history with horses and equestrian pursuits with a more academic interest in their domestication?

First of all, life is too short. There’s just not enough time to delve into all the things I want to. So I tend to let myself be led by things that puzzle and fascinate me. Archaeology to me is like playing detective. You know those TV shows or films where you see a detective in the middle of a crime scene and they go into their mind palace, nothing every little detail to try and piece together what happened. Or the coroner going through the same procedure with a body. Archaeology is a bit like that, and there are so many ways to play the game: with pottery, with GIS, big data, isotopes, graves… you name it. In Cambridge, there are so many of these ‘games’, so many ways that we try to tell the stories of the past, and I think that’s fantastic.

So I’ve done work on ceramics (especially Mycenaean/Aegean and Near Eastern), religion/sacrifice, exchange networks, gender, iconography, metal production and human-animal relations. The latter is what my current Marie Curie project is about, and more specifically equids in the ancient Near East ( This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, not just because of my interest in animals in general but, as your question hints at, because of my personal experience with horses. I have been training horses my whole life, with hiatuses due to studies at different times. My parents basically put me on a horse (well, probably a pony) before I could walk, and I learnt very early on to take care of them myself. I competed in shows from when I was 5 – mostly show jumping. It’s an exhilarating experience that mixes skill, teamwork between rider and horse, and a good bit of luck. There’s very little time for it anymore, but I do still occasionally compete.

Anyway, this lifelong co-habitation made me realise that knowledge (or lack thereof) of animal behaviour actually has a significant impact on how we interpret the past, and past human behaviour. And animals are everywhere, so if we get that all wrong, we are missing something really important about how we as humans shape and are and have been shaped by the world we live in. Since I can’t do it all at once, I start with what I know best: equids.

I’m not actually super interested in their domestication as such (I actually find archaeology’s obsession with the search for origins a little disconcerting). But it comes with the territory, since a lot of narratives are based on when, where and how horses were first domesticated. What interests me more is the nature of the relationship between human and equid, and what this means both on the micro and the macro scale. For example, I am just now revising a paper that is very much a micro-scale-agency type of paper, trying to see how we might identify equids resisting certain human interventions in the Near East.

What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge?

Like many postdocs here, I’ve moved around a fair bit. I did all my studies in Dublin, and after that I’ve worked or had visiting fellowships in Heidelberg, Los Angeles, and Italy, interspersed with fieldwork especially in Cyprus. The last five or so years before coming here, I have mostly worked on the Tell Mozan/Urkesh project (Syria).

You’ve organized a conference for this term – can you tell us about the conference topic, the process of funding it, and how the ideas you’ll be exploring relate to some of your other endeavours at the McDonald, like the animal-human relations reading group?

Yes! I’m pretty excited about this. It’s an attempt to bring more animals into the archaeological equation of the past. Augusta McMahon and I are organising this – with a little help from our friends, thankfully. I have a habit of coming up with slightly crazy titles, and this might qualify as one of those instances. We’ve called it Fierce lions, angry mice and fat-tailed sheep: Animal encounters in the ancient Near East ( I’m excited because we had a lot of interest and received more abstracts than we really bargained for, and as a result we decided to expand the conference quite a bit. I think this is a good thing because it means there are a lot of people out there also working on giving the animals a larger and more dynamic space in our interpretations of the past. A large part of the funding for this comes from The British Institute for the Study of Iraq, and we also received funding from the McDonald Institute (DM McDonald Grants & Awards). It probably goes without saying that without them, we wouldn’t be able to put this kind of event together.

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