Tiny traces on pottery


Interview with Humboldt Research Fellow Carl Heron

Carl Heron is Professor of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford in the UK. He was selected for a Humboldt Foundation Research Award in 2014 and is staying in Kiel and Schleswig until summer 2015.

From 2010-2014, he was head of the Division of Archaeological, Geographical and Environmental Sciences at the university and he is currently the chair of University Archaeology UK, a national forum of heads of archaeology departments. He specialises in the study of organic molecules from archaeological artefacts and deposits.


Carl Heron, Humboldt Research Award winner - handover with Thomas Schulz

Thomas Schulz, president of the Humboldt Foundation, handed over the research award certificate to Carl Heron in Berlin.

Q: You have been in Kiel and Schleswig as a Humboldt Fellow for several months now. What are your impressions so far?

A: I am very impressed by the close association between the university and the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (ZBSA), Schloss Gottorf, the range of specialisms represented in the studies of the past, the prospects for interdisciplinary research, the dynamic graduate school, the excellent facilities, the number of high-profile visitors from all over the world, the quality of the international symposia and workshops, and the willingness of staff and research students to discuss their work and to collaborate. You should be very proud of your achievements.


Q: You are a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Bradford. Which differences and similarities have you witnessed between the English and German approaches to archaeological research?

A: Good question! Research is an increasingly international enterprise and large teams of researchers are working together across disciplinary boundaries to tackle the big questions that the study of the past requires. So, for example, many researchers at the university and at the ZBSA are already collaborating with researchers in the UK and other countries. I have much to learn about the German approach but I have been impressed by the large-scale research and research training programmes that the DFG funds. I am based in the Graduate School Human Development in Landscapes and have had the pleasure of finding out about how the large group of PhD students are supported from the point of registration through to completion. I have attended presentations given by PhD students as part of their thesis examination. The process is different in the UK. We appoint an external (that is, from another university) and internal examiner, sometimes with an independent PhD viva chair, to examine a PhD student who has submitted a thesis. This is not held in public. Another initiative in the UK is the consortium of universities, funded by the research councils, offering PhD awards and integrated research training programmes. My university at Bradford is a member of ‘The Heritage Consortium’, which offers 12 PhD studentships per annum across seven universities.


Q: When you were awarded the Humboldt fellowship, did you have a special research project in mind that you wanted to push forward during your stay in Germany? If so, has it worked out fine?

A: My principal research interest lies in the study of organic substances preserved in association with pottery containers. One major project that I am developing deals with the adoption, use and spread of the earliest pottery vessels in NW Eurasia. I have already worked with Sönke Hartz (Landesmuseen, Schloss Gottorf), Harald Lübke (ZBSA), Aikaterini Glykou (PhD, Graduate School Human Development in Landscapes) and others on continuity and change in Ertebølle and Funnel Beaker pottery from Northern Germany. I have extended this with a recent project completed in the Southeastern Baltic and I am preparing a bid to the European Research Council on the spread of ceramic technology use from the Urals to the Baltic. This includes John Meadows (ZBSA). However, I also wanted to use my time in Kiel to develop new areas of interest. To this end I have been working with Wiebke Kirleis, Marta dal Corso and Marco Zanon on the detection of miliacin as a marker of broomcorn millet cultivation in Northern Italy, with Johannes Müller and Jutta Kneisel on the pottery from the Bronze Age site at Bruszczewo, Poland and with Johannes Müller, Jan Piet Brozio and Franziska Hage on several Neolithic sites in Northern Germany. I have also visited Tubingen to discuss my research concerning late Roman funerary practices with Nicole Reifarth (Tubingen) and Rainer Drewello (Bamberg).


Q: With a profound background in organic chemistry, you have specialised in the analysis and identification of organic residues such as lipids, waxes and resins in archaeological artefacts. What is so fascinating about these tiny traces and have they already led to archaeological discoveries during your scientific career?

A: My first degree is in archaeological sciences. This degree was a challenging mixture of archaeological method and theory, together with maths and physics. The organic chemistry came later when I did a PhD and post-doc. I am fascinated by the application of analytical organic chemistry to archaeology, but it’s more important to try and use these data to make meaningful statements about people in the past. Until 30 years ago archaeologists knew very little about how pots were used in the past, why and where pottery vessels were introduced, why pottery styles changed through time, at what stage in human history were certain foods introduced and what can be assumed about the origins of cuisine. The techniques of analysis have improved, as has sample size and strategy. I’m particularly proud of two recent projects – determining patterns of continuity and change in Ertebølle and Funnel Beaker pottery during the period when domesticates were introduced and tracing funerary practices involving exotic imported resins, such as frankincense, in late Roman burials in Britain. Both of these projects relied on the detection of microgram quantities of organic molecules which could be identified with specific organic substances.


Q: You were co-nominated by Berit Eriksen and Johannes Müller for the Johanna Mestorf Academy. They represent the partners who have institutionalized their cooperation in the JMA: the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Schleswig, the Graduate School Human Development in Landscapes and the Institute for Pre-and Protohistoric Archaeology at Kiel University. In your opinion, how can this cooperation push archaeological research forward?

A: Another good question! This cooperation is extremely important and already well established. You have a wonderful opportunity to strengthen links between the university and Schloss Gottorf and to secure funding which relies on the skills that such a grouping possesses. In the UK, we have benefited from funding to support ‘heritage science.’ It’s not a clearly defined term, but it spans a wide range of concerns – for example, the impact of climate change on heritage resources, promoting sustainability, understanding decay mechanisms of vulnerable artefacts and promoting public engagement in heritage. The Johanna Mestorf Academy is well placed to make a valuable contribution to this agenda.

Finally, I’m very grateful to Berit and Johannes for their nomination and to John Meadows (ZBSA) who has been so supportive throughout the process. I would also like to thank the members of the Graduate School Human Development in Landscapes who have made me feel so welcome. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Humboldt Foundation. I have tremendously benefited from the opportunity to be based in Germany during 2014-2015 and I hope that those who have worked with me believe that it has been worthwhile too.


Thank you for the interview!