Invisible Dust

London | Thursday 21 June
Pollution level: Moderate

Hearing From Our Fellows: Isabel Cook


My PhD is based at the University of Sheffield, and combines my interest in archaeology with my drive to address climate change and environmental issues. The impacts of climate change, such as sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and changes to precipitation patterns all have the potential to damage or destroy archaeological sites. Soft coastlines, for instance estuaries and saltmarshes, are particularly important for archaeology as they often maintain favourable, waterlogged preservation conditions, and have been known to contain middens, submerged Mesolithic sites, shipwrecks, and submerged forests. Therefore, it may be the coastlines that have the greatest archaeological potential that are at the greatest risk of erosion. Along some areas of the coast in Britain, whole villages have been washed into the sea over the last millennia or so, along with any earlier archaeological sites that also existed there. With climate change, coastal erosion will worsen and large areas of land will be at risk of flooding, further threatening the archaeological resource. My research therefore models the vulnerability of coastal archaeological landscapes to climate change, and identifies options for sustainably managing the risk.

Mesolithic tree-trunks, part of an ancient forest now submerged off the coast of Tywyn, Cardigan Bay, Wales (Credit: Izzy Cook)

Since starting my PhD research, although I have increased the depth of my knowledge on my specific area, I am conscious that I have had to significantly narrow the breadth of topics I study. However, climate change and other environmental crises cannot be addressed effectively, or even understood, without holistic, multi-faceted approaches from a range of disciplines and sectors. The Under Her Eye fellowship presented a unique opportunity to expand my awareness of the different ways that climate change is being explored and communicated across a range of academic disciplines as well as through photography, journalism and art. My personal experience prior to Under Her Eye was confined to mainly academic spaces, so including non-academic fellows such as artists and photojournalists in discussions around climate change was not something I had considered before. I was struck by how unique an opportunity this was for an interdisciplinary PhD candidate, as we often feel either trapped within the discipline of our university department, or indeed torn between two different fields but with little in common with either. My PhD research is influenced jointly by my undergraduate and Masters degrees (BA Joint Honours Archaeology and Ancient History/Geography, University of Birmingham; MSc Climate Change and Environmental Policy, University of Leeds). I feel extremely lucky to have been able to study within so many departments and experience different ways of looking at the world. However particularly during my BA and now my PhD, the worldviews and norms held by the two disciplines in which I am working feel at odds with one another, leaving me feeling as though I am in the ‘no-man’s land’ between them. Because of this, I had slight reservations about how fruitful the discussions and debates could really be between such a range of academics and artists, physical science, social science, humanities and arts students. My worry was that, due to our different backgrounds, expertise and terminology, the hurdles to meaningful debate may be too great, and we may end up talking past one another.

Funnily enough, I experienced the exact opposite of this during the Under Her Eye training weekend, and the discussions we had came to be my favourite part of the experience. Invisible Dust provided a space for us to explore the commonalities between our subject areas while celebrating the different perspectives that our unique disciplines and backgrounds provided. Furthermore, as we were all coming from a pro-environmentalist point of view, we were able to have much more nuanced, deep and challenging discussions than if we were not all invested in environmentalism in some way. My biggest take-away from the training weekend was just how rewarding it was to step outside of my comfort zone and have stimulating discussions with such a wide range of people. We also reflected on the fact that, for some of us, using art and other creative approaches to represent our work is very alien. I feel my strongest method of communication is through academic-style writing, however as this is not particularly accessible for most people, it may not be the best way to share my research. This made me realise that I should be thinking far more about different ways to translate my research to make it accessible, rather than focusing only on how to make it sound as scholarly as possible.

Prior to the Under Her Eye training weekend, I was also guilty of sometimes seeing my research as work to be done, without considering what impact it would have beyond my thesis submission. During the weekend, we learned about the different projects run by Invisible Dust, and the wide range of different public engagement activities that we have the opportunity to get involved in. This really made me think about the potential impact that my project could have, and the way that I could engage with, and communicate my research to the local people in my study area. I think it has made me more conscious of the potential power I hold as a ‘researcher’, rather than remaining a passive ‘student’.

When applying to this fellowship, the main focus of my application was that my research is specifically related to climate change, as it looks at the impacts of climate change on archaeology. Before taking part in the training weekend I hadn’t really considered how my research was related to the theme of women and climate change, beyond the fact that I am a woman. However, the archaeological record may actually provide a more ‘gender neutral’ perspective on history than historical records. Until relatively recently, the majority of historical, political and legal texts were written about wealthy men, for wealthy men, by wealthy men (or their male scribes). Much of what we know of the Roman Empire comes from the writings of Tacitus, Pliny, Seneca and Livy, to name a few. Their histories are undoubtedly influenced by their male perspective, and the fact that the subjects of their histories were almost always men. Women were often included only to make a statement about their husbands. In contrast, the archaeological record itself is just the material remains of human activity, and so is not biased towards any gender, race or class. That is not to say that archaeology is unbiased; the easy assumption that graves with beads in are female, and graves with spears in are male, has had to be challenged. However, as a resource it offers a uniquely neutral evidence base from which to study past human societies. This makes the potential loss of archaeological sites due to climate change even more worrying; as a finite resource, any site eroded into the sea may have held information that was preserved nowhere else.

Being given the space to have this kind of reflection and deeper thinking about my PhD reinforced the importance of my research to me. Indeed, I had the feeling of being consumed by the small tasks I needed to do day-to-day and week-to-week, and as a result was losing a sense of the overall goal of my thesis. I can’t thank Invisible Dust enough for the opportunity to work with such inspiring people on other projects, and for the introspection they have given me on my own research. I would also like to thank my funding body, the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities, for supporting me in my involvement in such exciting projects.

Eroding WWII pillbox on Tywyn beach, Cardigan beach, Wales (Credit: Izzy Cook)




Isabel Cook is a doctoral researcher in the Archaeology Department at the University of Sheffield. Her research studies the vulnerability of archaeology to climate change, and sustainable management approaches, with a focus on historic landscapes. Her study area is the Dysynni Valley, a glacial valley in Cardigan Bay, at the southernmost point of the Snowdonia National Park.
Tweet: @Bizibel
Insta: dysynni_archaeology





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