“Geo everything”: An interview with Ian Moffat

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

‘History’. While, of course, there is an abundance of beautiful historic buildings I feel particularly awed by all of the talented people that have previously passed through Cambridge. To walk the same streets and drink in the same pubs as Newton, Darwin, Byron, Garrod and many others is very inspirational (and, of course, quite intimidating).

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Your university bio suggests you’re a self-identifying archaeological scientist specializing in any sub-field that starts with “geo.” Can you tell us a little bit about your research interests? Having sat next to you at the Big Data conference, I was curious as to what you thought about one of the presenter’s assertions that archaeology falls somewhere between a social science and a hard science in terms of bibliometric stats. What role do you see archaeological science playing in terms of moving the field towards one end of the spectrum or another?

I love the description of my research as ‘geo everything’! I actually trained as a geologist and drifted into archaeology through working in near-surface geophysics. While I was mainly consulting on engineering and environmental projects I was occasionally talked into doing a grave detection or shipwreck surveys by persuasive archaeologists. I’ve also subsequently worked in petroleum geology and did my PhD in an Earth Sciences department (albeit on an archaeological topic) so bring a very broad and earth science focused perspective to my work.

Overall, my research falls into two broad areas. The first is examining archaeological landscapes using geophysical and (increasingly) 3D modelling methods. An interesting aspect of this research which is very active currently is working on rock art sites in Northern Australia; where my colleagues and I are using drone and ground based photogrammetry and laser scanning to record sites and geophysics to map buried landscape features. I’ve done similar work on a number of other interesting projects including mapping classical Greek cities in the Peloponnese, mapping a shipwreck in the Murray River in South Australia, reconstructing a Neolithic landscape in Mongolia and helping to understand the abandonment of a former capital of the Khmer empire in 10th century Cambodia.

My other area of interest is using isotope and trace element geochemistry to understand mobility and diet. This grew out of my PhD research on the mobility of fauna from Palaeolithic archaeological sites in Israel and France and has now been broadened to include a wide range of species and materials including pearl buttons, colonial immigrants to Adelaide and cave sediments. I’m particularly interested in using laser ablation methods to look at heterogeneities in chemical composition across teeth, as it provides the opportunity to look at changes over time. For this work to make sense you really need baseline isotope values to compare your archaeological results to which has led my colleagues and I to start working on modern koala teeth from South Australia. It turns out that koalas are pretty much the perfect isotope mapping species as they don’t move very far, drink almost no water and only eat leaves from a very specific range of tree species—if only they lived all over the world!

Your question about the relationship between archaeology and archaeological science is very timely as I think we need to redefine how we do collaborative research in archaeology to get the best out the exciting potential provided by scientific methods. The breadth and complexity of analytical techniques being used to ask archaeological questions is increasing at a staggering rate and so there is an increasing trend towards technical specialisation amongst researchers. This is understandable, as it is absolutely impossible (at least for me) to keep up with the literature across all of the sub-fields of archaeological science. To make this even more challenging, the potential for these methods to contribute to answering sophisticated questions about human behaviour can only be properly harnessed by researchers with high level skills in (for example) anthropology and ecology who interpret these scientific results in a nuanced and sophisticated way. To use these methods effectively I think we need to get better at pulling together the results from multiple archaeological science techniques into one study and integrating them with other disciplines in a way that is probably not possible for a small team. While I don’t think we will ever see the 4- figure author lists that have started to become popular in physics in archaeology, perhaps bigger teams and less focus on author order is a way to synthesise more (and more disparate) data more effectively?

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You’re one of a handful of Australian postdocs currently at the McDonald Institute. What is a Commonwealth Rutherford Fellowship, and how did you go about getting one? Also, as an American, I’ve experienced a number of differences between the Oxbridge system and the US university system, particularly when it comes to the college system and the structure of teaching. What are the largest differences you’ve notice between the Australian and UK systems?

The Commonwealth Rutherford Fellowship scheme was a funding source for 50 researchers from Commonwealth countries to come to any UK university to do research for 1 or 2 years which was first offered in 2017. Sadly, the scheme hasn’t subsequently been advertised so I was very lucky to grab one! This funding has allowed me to take leave from my position as a Senior Research Fellow in Archaeological Science at Flinders University and come to Cambridge for 12 months where I’ve been based in the Charles McBurney lab.

The biggest difference I have noticed between the UK and Australia is the large number of postdocs.  We (sadly) have very few postdoc schemes in Australia and so those that we have are very competitive and tend to go to the more senior (say 4-5 years post PhD) of the early career researchers. Postdocs are available which are linked to specific projects, although these are also fairly rare in archaeology.  This is, in some ways, a good thing as it forces most Australian researchers to do a few years overseas to build up their track records before returning for a slightly more senior research or teaching position. On the other hand, it makes it hard for ECR’s that can’t travel and does deprive us of the kind of vibrant community of research focused staff that we enjoy at the McDonald.

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We recently followed each other on Twitter, and I noticed that you have an impressive social media presence, with over 3,200 followers. Why did you start using Twitter, and how do you find it useful in academic networking and research? For the Luddites among us, what are your tips for those new to the medium? (For the curious, Ian’s twitter handle is @Archaeometry).

I was fortunate to be introduced to Twitter by a few colleagues during my PhD (especially the masterful @drspacejunk) and have slowly grown my social media profile from there. I find it a great way to promote my research and broaden my outreach, which seems to be more and more important in a system where impact and engagement are measured.  I’ve also gotten to know some fantastic people on Twitter that I might never have met otherwise.

My advice for those not on Twitter is just to dive in and set up an account.  If you are too shy to post much of your own content (as I was!) just retweet things that catch your eye or post about some interesting papers you are reading. I don’t think you can really survive as an academic without a social media profile these days so the sooner you can start getting your head around this strange medium the better!

I also very much suggest writing articles for The Conversation website. This is hugely popular for academics in Australia (where it started) but it seems to be a little less prevalent in the UK.  I find it both incredibly challenging and rewarding writing about research (particularly other people’s work) for a general audience but the editors are fantastic and really help polish the articles.

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What do you do in your spare time?

I love to surf (difficult in Cambridge), kayak, camp and basically do anything outdoors. My partner Anika and I love to travel and have taken advantage of Europe being 2 rather than 24 hours away to do many weekend trips.  We also have two small scruffy dogs back in Australia (Instagram: @thedoglets) who we love to spend time with.

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