Professional associations: Lise Meitner Independent Group Leader, Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology
EAA member since: 2019
TEA: Why do you do archaeology/How did you decide to get into it?
E. Scerri: Like many children I was dinosaur obsessed and utterly fascinated by the fact that there had been so many different worlds before our own. It seemed like the past was another planet. As I got older, my interest in geology, palaeoenvironment and fossil fauna didn’t wane, but I needed a human dimension to maintain the same level of fascination. I read everything I could about human evolution and past hominins. I then decided to study archaeology at university. After a class on human evolution, I knew this had to be my calling.
TEA: What is the most important and relevant part of your work?
E. Scerri: Understanding how humans have been modifying their environments for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and what the societal feedbacks and ecological legacies were down to the present day. We are facing a dual biodiversity and climate crisis, with a global conversation about how to restore ecosystems to a pristine, natural state, and how to live sustainably. My work is helping to unravel what we even mean by a pristine ecosystem, if humans have been impacting the diversity and structure of floral and faunal communities for millennia. It is also showing how humans sometimes managed to live sustainably in the past, and how they also failed, and what the consequences of failure were. So there is a lot of relevance and important to current global challenges about the consequences of biodiversity collapse and global warming, and how we can halt and even reverse some of the damage.
TEA: How do you see archaeology changing in the future?
E. Scerri: Emerging technologies from other fields will continue to be adopted in archaeology to resolve ongoing debates and reveal new questions. Archaeology and the allied geosciences are also finding ways to work more remotely and many in the field are passionate about ensuring that sustainability is mainstreamed into everything we do as archaeologists. Archaeology is also becoming more and more interdisciplinary, with people from many different fields uniting to answer archaeological questions. This presents certain challenges because sometimes these fields can be very diverse and lacking a common ‘grammar’ if you like. In future, archaeology courses need to incorporate greater interdisciplinarity and exposure to the range of scientific methods that are increasingly becoming common in the field so students have a good conceptual grounding in them.
TEA: What is the biggest issue facing European archaeology?
E. Scerri: There is a funding crisis which cascades down into a squeeze in positions. It also affects the nature of funding applications, which have become really focused on delivering ‘firsts’ and ‘oldests’. In contrast, methods development and blue skies research has become much less fundable. However, we need slow, milestone science and we need investment in methods to push the field forwards.
Rules and regulations for the spending of tax payer funding can also differ across Europe, making it difficult to cooperate across borders. We are an international community of scientists so this can be a problem. We need less red tape!
TEA: What is your best/worst/funniest or oddest archaeology story?
E. Scerri: There have been a few close encounters with wild animals, from giant West African scorpions to hippos! One of the weirdest was driving down to Salala in Oman from the Desert with a corer that looked like a machine gun strapped to the back of the truck. After making it through security checks, we celebrated by going for a swim. We noticed that nobody else appeared to be swimming, and the currents kept almost sweeping me out. Then we noticed the fins. At that point I decided this was all a terrible mistake and got out of the water as quickly as I could. My colleagues were rather pleased as they noticed a very big fin rapidly making for me just as I swung into shallower waters. It’s an area where tiger sharks are reasonably common, so it feels like a close shave.
TEA: If you could have a conversation with any archaeologist living or dead, who would it be, and what would you choose as the topic?
E. Scerri: I’d love to meet Gertrude Caton-Thompson. I feel that I’ve unwittingly followed in her footsteps so we’d have a lot to talk about. She focused on North Africa and the Aterian technocomplex of the Middle Stone Age, which is what I did my PhD on. Following my PhD, I started working in Arabia, which is where she also worked, in many of the same areas. Since 2019, I’ve been working in Malta, which is where I am also from. A century ago, she was also in Malta digging at one of the sites we’ve been revisiting. I’d love to discuss what we’ve found now in these places, versus what she hypothesised one hundred years ago, and tell her how right she was about so many things.
TEA: If you could go back in time, would you go? Where and when?
E. Scerri: Yes! I’d go back to the Pleistocene and look at our first meeting with Neanderthals, probably somewhere in the Middle East. I don’t think I’d want to stay very long since I am far too used to my 21st century creature comforts, but I’d love to have a window into that ancient humanity and really see beyond the scattered artefacts they left behind. Instead of reconstructing their lifeways, I’d be able to see into their music, their art, their speech, and their relationships.
TEA: Describe your workspace in five words or less
E. Scerri: Light, green, spacious, peaceful.
TEA: What is the one piece of gear that you can’t live without in the field?
E. Scerri: Other than my trowel, my thermos full of coffee :)