On maps and mountains: An interview with Darryl Wilkinson


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

Good question! I’m in a hugely privileged position here, insofar as I have a fellowship where I’m not bound to any other wider project, and I can pursue my own research entirely as I see fit. I have no administrative duties, and teaching is completely optional (and quite strictly limited by my funding body). I won’t have this much freedom again until I retire probably! I often half-jokingly tell my family (none of whom are academics) that I’m basically paid to think. They always seem a little puzzled that what I do is a real job.

Can you tell us a little about you, and your research interests? One of your previous postdocs, and your upcoming tenure-track position at Dartmouth (congratulations!) involve the field of religious studies, in large part due to your research on the archaeology of religion in the Inca and Andean world. How difficult has it been to translate archaeological research for a different disciplinary audience? Do you have any advice for archaeologists at your career stage who are looking to make their work resonate within other fields? Finally, do you see connections between archaeology and other disciplines becoming more common given the current academic appetite for interdisciplinarity, or is archaeology becoming too specialized to make that feasible?

I’m mainly interested in how ancient Andean societies constituted their ritual and political worlds, and how that changed over the millennia. A lot of which means rethinking traditional archaeological approaches through the lens of indigenous Andean perspectives. For example, how should we theorize the “state” in a context (such as the Inka Empire) where mountains could be executed for treason? Or where the sun was the largest landowner? Many of the old anthropological models quickly start to feel pretty inadequate for interpreting those kinds of situations.

But from an institutional perspective, I’ve almost always been based in places where I’ve regularly had to translate archaeology for non-archaeological audiences. At Columbia (where I did my PhD), the integration of archaeology with ethnography was unusually intense, so I was trained to think about the non-archaeological audience from day-one of grad school. Following that, I completed two postdocs at the Center for Cultural Analysis (Rutgers) and the Center for the Humanities (Wisconsin-Madison) where I was generally the only archaeologist in the conversation. Actually, Cambridge is the most “purely” archaeological place I’ve ever worked. So to be honest, translating archaeology for non-specialists feels pretty normal to me at this stage. That probably just reflects my core interests as well… a question that didn’t have interdisciplinary relevance probably wouldn’t attract my attention.

In terms of career advice, I’d say you really have to be serious about interdisciplinary research at an institutional level; not just an intellectual one. What I mean by that is you need to show your commitment to other disciplines in a way that goes beyond research interests alone. In my case, you already mentioned my having a two-year Mellon fellowship that was focused on religion. I also publish my work in, and act as a peer-reviewer for, religious studies journals. Those sorts of things are real signs of scholarly “identity”, and I think they matter quite a bit to search committees and funding panels. Getting people in another field to cite you is one thing, but if you want them to employ you, then you need to be genuinely invested in their corner of the academy. That said, some fields are more inherently interdisciplinary than others. The typical religion department has a lot of people whose primary training was not in religious studies (usually anthropology or history). The same is less true of, say, a history department, who are much less likely to employ someone without a PhD from a history program.

On archaeology’s place in the wider academy, I think there’s certainly a lot of potential for greater interdisciplinarity. People in other fields obviously care a great deal about what archaeologists study, but we probably also need to do a better job of communicating our research to outsiders.

What was your path to your postdoc at Cambridge?

I’d been in the US for over a decade before coming to Cambridge, so it was a bit of strange feeling to return to the UK after so many years. Like many people, I had been on the job market for a while, searching for fellowships while also applying for permanent positions. My position here is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, which is one where the applications go before a national interdisciplinary review panel. I tend to do better with those kind of positions, since (as we’ve just discussed) my work is very much intertwined with the wider humanities. For Leverhulme fellowships you can nominate any university as your host. I chose Cambridge because it’s one of the few places in Britain with a research tradition in the archaeology of the Americas. But I’d actually never been to Cambridge until my first day here as a postdoc, and I didn’t really know anyone at the McDonald Institute either (barring a few brief conference conversations).

I recently learned that you are an avid hiker. Is your interest in hiking related to your archaeological research on landscapes? What is the most arduous route you’ve hiked, and what trails would you recommend in the UK and New Mexico (where the SAA meetings were just held)?

 I enjoy hiking because it helps me clear my mind and to feel less stressed. I think a lot of people rely on some sort of athletic pursuit as a way of stepping outside of the academic bubble every now and then. Since I detest team sports of all kinds, and I enjoy planning things, I guess hiking is my ideal form of exercise! I suppose it’s not unrelated to my interest in landscape archaeology, and I often prefer hikes that include ancient sites. But to be honest, I like landscape archaeology mainly because maps fascinate me. There’s something immensely satisfying about taking the infinite complexity of the world and reducing it to a few nice, crisp lines on a page. Probably the most arduous route I’ve ever hiked is the circuit of Ausangate (a glacier in Peru). It involved crossing a pass at 5000 metres above sea level, which is the highest I’ve ever walked. The air gets pretty thin at that altitude! I’d say the best trail for archaeologists in the UK is the Ridgeway, which is often claimed to be Europe’s oldest road. You get a great diversity of time periods on that one, with loads of cool Neolithic, Bronze-age and Iron-age sites.  I’ve spent a lot of time hiking in New Mexico over the years, but mostly as part of survey transects! However, just before the SAAs I did the Atalaya Trail, which is a short (i.e. 9 km) circuit into the hills above Santa Fe. The views were fantastic, especially since there was still a lot of snow on the mountains. I rarely get to experience New Mexico at that time of year.

What else do you do in your spare time?

I’m secretly a fan of zombie fiction, whether in the form of movies, tv or novels. I even have a co-authored academic publication on zombies.

[Editor’s note: This publication can be found in the volume The Walking Med: Zombies and the Medical Image]

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