So you want to study… Archaeology
Pictured above: Dr. Ophélie Lebrasseur, “I was interested in acting, but I soon came to realise that what I really wanted to do was not to play or portray historical characters, but get to know them and discover their stories through the evidence they left behind. That drove me to study for a degree in Archaeology.”
Dr. Ophélie Lebrasseur is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology, University of Oxford. Ophélie’s background is in Archeology, and her area of work is absolutely fascinating – she’s currently working on a project that examines the natural and cultural history of chickens! How did this come about? Well, she says, “it all started when my grandfather took my 7 year old self to an exhibition on dinosaurs…”
What is your field of work/study?
I am an Archaeogeneticist: I extract and analyse DNA from archaeological remains in order to answer questions about our past.
I am currently working on a project entitled ‘Cultural and Scientific Perception of Human-Chicken Interactions’ which aims to examine the natural and cultural history of chickens in the West. For instance, we hope to answer questions such as: How and when did chickens spread in Europe? What is their social significance and did it change through time? What phenotypic and behavioural traits were selected at the beginning of their domestication?
Our project brings together researchers not only from archaeology, but a range of other disciplines including but not limited to anthropology, art history, ecology, biology and cultural geography. By combining all these lines of evidence, we hope to provide a comprehensive understanding of the social, cultural and environmental impact of this very popular yet under-researched bird.
What is your job like?
What I love about my job is that it is a combination of many different types of work: it mainly consists of fieldwork, laboratory work and data analysis. Most of my year is spent indoors in the lab extracting DNA from bones and analysing the results in relation to the questions we are trying to answer. But when the opportunity presents itself, it is with pleasure that I head back to the field and take part in archaeological surveys and excavations. I also get the wonderful opportunity to travel across the world to present my research at conferences or collect samples in museums. It is a very enriching experience.
When did you decide to pursue a career in Archaeology?
It all started when my grandfather took my 7 year old self to an exhibition on dinosaurs. That triggered my desire to become an archaeologist (or a palaeontologist, to be exact). I was even terrified that by the time I had my degree, there wouldn’t be any more fossils to dig up! Later in life, I became interested in acting. However, by the time I reached the last few years of high school, I soon came to realise that what I really wanted to do was not play or portray historical characters, but get to know them and discover their stories through the evidence they left behind. That drove me to study for a degree in Archaeology.
What were your favourite subjects in secondary school? What did you study at university?
I took pleasure in studying all subjects but had a particular interest in History, Biology and Physics/ Chemistry. I remember one of the exercises in my A Level Physics exam was entitled ‘Radioactivity in the service of Archaeology’. We had to date Ötzi the iceman using radiocarbon dating. That was possibly the best exam exercise I ever had to do.
I went on to study for a BSc in Archaeology at the University of Durham in the UK, where I learned about the principles of Archaeology, the scientific methods applied to Archaeology and, of course, was first introduced to Biomolecular Archaeology.
Who are your personal heroes?
I am extremely lucky to be surrounded by incredible people in my life who inspire me, support me and keep me going. They are my personal heroes and I look up to them every single day. But if I had to give a historical hero, it would probably be Charles de Batz-Castelmore, more commonly known as d’Artagnan. His life and deeds (captured in his biography written by one of his friends 27 years after his death) have always inspired me.
Do you have any advice for young students who might want to pursue a similar career?
If you are given the opportunity to take part in an archaeological excavation as a volunteer, I would definitely recommend it. It equips you with some basic knowledge on fieldwork and the principles of archaeology, something I was lacking when I arrived at university. Attending public archaeology open days is also a brilliant way of trying things out and talking to professional archaeologists about their area of expertise and past experiences.