How risk, resilience, and Big Data can teach us about change in the past: Interview with Erik Gjesfjeld



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

I would probably say unique. Simply walking around Cambridge you can’t help but be struck by the distinctive history of the city, the colleges, and the university as a whole.  However, I also feel that “unique” encompasses the incredible diversity of interests, backgrounds and research of the people here. I think this is especially true in the post-doc community where I am constantly amazed by the array of different projects and fascinating research questions that people are working on. I very much enjoying being part of such a vibrant research community, especially in a city that has such a long history of intellectual curiosity.


Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests? Also, can you please define the term ‘resilience’ for those of us who have increasingly begun to hear the word used in archaeological contexts?

I broadly view my research as lying at the intersection between archaeology and evolutionary anthropology as my research interests center around concepts of risk and the strategies used by communities to build resilience. My previous work has focused on examining how maritime hunter-gatherer communities engage in different strategies of risk-reduction, such as social networks and technological innovation. I am specifically interested in how communities faced challenges associated with sudden and unpredictable environmental change, such as natural disasters. These interests are what encouraged my work in remote landscapes such as the Kuril Islands of Northeast Asia, which has one of the most unpredictable environments in the world, but also an 8,000-year history of human occupation. I also have a strong methodological interest in the application and development of quantitative approaches to archaeological data.

Resilience has become an increasingly common term not only in archaeology but across the social and natural sciences. While the term has multiple meanings, I tend to use an ecological definition, which highlights resilience as the ability of a system to absorb or withstand perturbations. I think resilience can be a powerful concept for thinking about transformations in the archaeological record by acknowledging the multiple spatial and temporal scales in which change can take place. Unfortunately, the concept of resilience has been difficult to operationalize into archaeological research, which continues to be one of my main research goals and the focus of my current fellowship.


What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge? As someone who has also held postdoctoral positions in interdisciplinary centers, such as the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, how does the experience of being at an archaeology and biological anthropology-focused department compare? Finally, do you have any tips for postdocs who are interested in teaching at Cambridge?

I received my PhD from the University of Washington in 2014 and like most recent PhDs, started the difficult task of looking for academic jobs, eventually being offered a post-doctoral fellowship at UCLA. As a post-doc at UCLA, I had the opportunity to move away from archaeology for a few years and engage with a diverse group of researchers from evolutionary biology, human genetics, science and technology studies, computer science, and sociology. This experience really helped me to think “bigger” about my research and understand that many disciplines also struggle to answer similar questions to archaeology. There is no doubt that being in an interdisciplinary research center can be difficult as learning new concepts, terms, and research traditions can be time-consuming. After these initial difficulties, I found many sources of intellectual inspiration from engaging with these scholars and I was excited to come back to my home discipline of archaeology in order to apply some of the new ideas and methods that I was exposed to during my time at the Institute for Society and Genetics.

Despite having taught many courses during graduate school and my post-doc at UCLA, I have found teaching at Cambridge to be quite different, not necessarily better or worse, just different. For me, becoming a supervisor at Cambridge was largely a result of my research background in statistics and quantitative analysis and that need for people to help with those courses. My only advice would be to make sure that your mentor or other faculty members are aware of your research strengths and your interest in gaining some teaching experience.


You’re organizing a conference at the end of the month titled “Big Data in Archaeology: Practicalities and Possibilities” (March 27-28). What’s the aim of the conference, and who will it interest?

The aim of the conference is to facilitate a dialogue about the growing complexity of archaeological data. The conference will have fourteen speakers that are broadly engaged with archaeological data science and the challenges in working with various archaeological data types. This includes developers and managers of archaeological data repositories as well as researchers using and collecting large volumes of data. Broadly, I want to use the conference as a forum to investigate whether the data-intensive research framework that has become prominent in other disciplines has real potential for asking and answering novel archaeological questions. In that sense, I think this conference is for anyone that wants to understand their data better and wants to investigate how they can use their data better.  Further details about the conference can be found at the following website:

Lake District

What do you do in your spare time?

I love to travel. Experiencing the culture, food and scenery of new and interesting places is what initially drew me to archaeology and is one of the things I love most about my job. I am also an avid sports fan, devoting more time than I should to watching American football, ice hockey, baseball, and the premiership.


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