On interdisciplinarity and intellectual curiosity: An interview with Rachel Ballantyne

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

Energy. A tiny, diverse and beautiful city that thrives on aspirations and shared inspiration. It is only ever when I leave Cambridge that the vigour of the place becomes fully tangible (often accompanied by some much-needed sleep and perspective).

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests?  Your profile on the McDonald website emphasizes the deeply interdisciplinary nature of your work, which brings together archaeobotany, experimental archaeology, ethnoarchaeology, and public archaeology (among other things). You’ve also worked on a number of international projects composed of teams with broad-ranging interests. What advice do you have for other postdocs looking to conduct this kind of interdisciplinary and collaborative international research?

Hmm… I have always been fascinated by what other people think, what they believe in and why; both in the past and in the present. There is such an impressive degree of variation in individual and communal dogmatism versus relativism. Otherness can only be addressed through interdisciplinary, collaborative research, since it transcends all aspects of human societies. Secondly, perhaps part of me has never grown-up as whilst I appreciate disciplinary boundaries, my brain still goes where it wants. Specialising in one way or another allows for focused energies and skills alongside the support and rigour of peers with shared interests, but it’s so important to traverse, define and redefine where the boundaries lie. “What happens if you do…. this…?!”

In terms of advice; stop and think honestly about whether you enjoy engaging with others’ opinions without necessarily agreeing. Are you playful with methods and good-humoured in debates? Can you respond to conflicting ideas in constructive ways that open-up new possibilities? Collaborative, interdisciplinary environments are rarely straightforward to navigate socially or intellectually, but they provide the most vibrant arena for devising new methods and interpretations.

What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge?

In the beginning, endless hours as a child outdoors, looking really, disturbingly, closely at the living world. All those poor woodlice, caterpillars, earthworms, rat-tailed maggots* (yay!), snails, leeches and tadpoles who dwelled in ice cream tubs and pots of water – usually released with success, thank goodness. It left me with an intrinsic understanding of the scent and texture of bark, lichen, soil, stagnant water and much more. And, from an early age being perplexed by history and time. As a child, I remember when the herringbone walling at Silchester was bathed in evening sun, the elegant Roman glass in Reading Museum and being utterly baffled by West Kennet Long Barrow (whilst somehow not noticing Silbury Hill).

Later, science/maths A Levels alongside the realisation that humanity was the biggest puzzle I ever wanted to engage with. Arch and Anth at Cambridge, a year digging with BUFAU, a year on a wonderful Environmental Archaeology MSc at Sheffield, three years of digging and archaeobotany with the CAU, a PhD back with Martin Jones at Cambridge… and much travelling. Working as a Science Advisor for English Heritage (as then was), before rejoining Cambridge as a post-doc. Since then, I have continued to oscillate between developer-funded archaeology, increasingly in a consultative role, and post-doctoral research. For me, it’s been the perfect mix and I am deeply grateful to all whose kindness and provocation have shown the way.

*Editor’s Note: For those unfamiliar with rat-tailed maggots, a primer.

As a person obsessed with beer, I am extremely curious about your connections to the East Anglian brewing community, particularly since I know that you were responsible for the festschrift beer for Martin Jones that debuted at the Cambridge Summer Beer Festival last year. Have you done any experimental archaeology related to beer? What are some of your favorite English breweries?

Work and pleasure are usually separate, though I once convinced my husband to brew a spelt wheat beer that was fun (and delicious), but it had to use barley malt. I’d love to try using spelt malt one day, if a sensible professional source can be found. The festbier for Martin’s retirement was tremendous, especially the five-grain theme (including millet, naturally) and all the help from our lab colleagues.

Favourite breweries? Not quite. One favourite brewer, plus favourite pints of Theakston Old Peculiar, Brakspear Bitter (old version), Guinness, Milton Brewery Mammon and Bitburger Drive. They are in chronological order of appreciation as, in reflecting upon this important question, it transpires that the quality of a pint is as much the social context as the content.

What do you do in your spare time?

I enjoy being very quiet and thoroughly outdoors on the allotment. Somehow, it’ll be 20 years this autumn, which means that’s the most stable place in my adult life. Homes and jobs have come and gone, but a small patch of land endures.

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