Meet Dr. Hella Eckardt, 2018's Archaeologist of the Year

21st March 2018
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Meet Dr. Hella Eckardt, 2018's Archaeologist of the Year

At the end of February, Current Archaeology magazine hosted its annual awards ceremony and crowned Dr. Hella Eckardt Archaeologist of the Year for 2018, a prize that was sponsored by Andante Travels.

An Associate Professor in Roman Archaeology & Admissions Tutor, Hella currently works at the University of Reading and we caught up with her to find out more about both her career and archaeological journey so far.

What are your areas of expertise?

I am Roman archaeologist, working mainly on the north-western provinces and in particular Roman Britain. My research has mainly been about artefacts - I am really interested in what objects can tell us about the people who used them and I try to find out by systematically examining the contexts of these artefacts. For example, lamps are rare in Roman Britain and mainly used by the military and urban populations. All sorts of people used tweezers, but other toilet instruments such as nail-cleaners appear to be more strongly associated with people who lived on smaller settlements.

I am also interested in the evidence for migration and diversity. For this I worked with colleagues at Reading specialising in human remains and isotope analysis, comparing their data to the exotic artefacts we occasionally find in Romano-British graves. Some people look ‘foreign’ archaeologically, but the chemical signature preserved in their teeth suggests that they grew up locally, which raises some interesting questions about second generation migrants, and the influence of families, spouses and friends on the burial rites.

What first interested you in archaeology and also in the specific era you chose to focus on?

I studied Latin and Greek at secondary school, and my teachers were very interested in archaeology. My school was even named after Wilhelm Dörpfeld, the famous excavator of Troy! I also had a family background in archaeology - my parents are both historians and met on an early medieval excavation in Germany. At university, my interest in Roman Archaeology crystalised – I had some amazing lecturers and the opportunity to excavate in world-famous Roman sites like Mainz, Pompeii and Silchester.

What has been the most surprising thing about the world of archaeology and the topics you have researched?

My latest work about the material culture of literacy has been really fun - I didn't know much about how Roman school children learnt to read and write, and I didn't know that there were very specific containers to transport papyrus scrolls, for example. Inkwells are surprisingly small, but can be very highly decorated – there must have been specialist workshops in which they were made, some of which were probably located in northern Italy.

What has been the most fascinating thing you have been able to work on?

The scientific evidence for high rates of human mobility in the Roman world is really fascinating, as is the opportunity to pinpoint origins. For example, recent work on the 'headless Romans' from York shows that one individual was of Middle Eastern descent, and he also has a very unusual isotope signature, suggesting that he could have come to Britain from somewhere like Syria. This kind of data really opens a window onto the past.

I also think it is important that we relate these findings to current debates – the recent abuse of Mary Beard on Twitter when she highlighted the evidence for Africans in Roman Britain is a case in point. or see my blog for the migration museum.

Current Archaeology have been welcoming comments on #EqualArch on their Twitter page, shining a spotlight on equality and diversity in the world of archaeology. What are your thoughts on this and experiences of it?

This is clearly an important debate to have – many people commenting on Twitter talk about the fact that there are more female than male undergraduates at universities, but this is not maintained in later career stages. I think mentoring is really important here: I have been really lucky in that respect, having been mentored by a previous CA Archaeologist of the Year winner (Prof. Roberta Gilchrist) and Nina Crummy (a Roman artefact specialist); I try to do the same for people now. It is also important to consider diversity more broadly, as the National Trust did recently with its ‘Prejudice and Pride’ campaign.

You just won Current Archaeology’s Archaeologist of the Year Award. What does it mean to you and how do you think it will help or shape your journey?

It is a huge honour to win this award - I am only the second woman to do so, and the first artefact specialist. I am keen to take this as an opportunity to promote the potential and value of artefact studies in archaeology – and if your readers are interested in learning more, they could for example join the Roman Finds Group, which holds regular conferences and meetings all over the UK. This is also a time where university Archaeology (and university education in general) has been under pressure, but archaeology is an amazing degree that allows students to acquire a very wide range of skills, to think about the past in new ways and to have an impact in the modern world.

(Photo credit: Adam Stanford)

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