Malawi: Passion for the Field

Jessica ThompsonInterview with MEMSAP Co-PI Dr. Jessica Thompson

Excerpted from the UQ News, Issue 602, May 2012, p. 14-15

For archaeologist Dr Jessica Thompson, fieldwork experiences demarcate her life. “I sort of keep tally of the passing years by remembering where I was and what I was doing in the field at a given time,” she said. “It is a normal part of my year to be away for two or three months at a time in places like Spain, Croatia, the United States, Tanzania, South Africa, Ethiopia, or Malawi.”

As a child, Dr Thompson (pictured) fantasised about becoming an archaeologist, but it was her first experience in the field that cemented her career path. The year was 1998, and the trip to a Middle Woodland-period burial mound in Kampsville, Illinois, formed part of her anthropology degree at the University of New Mexico. “The experience was amazing; I felt like I learned so much more from being a part of a real excavation than I ever had in class,” she said.

Since then, Dr Thompson has been actively involved in fieldwork, while also completing a Master of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a PhD at Arizona State University. “The real fascination this job has for me is the way stories about the past are pieced together from small fragments of material things,” she said.  “You use science to document them, logic to interpret them, forensics to reconstruct a coherent story from them, and possibly a bit of creativity to put it all together.”

Now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Social Science, Dr Thompson is sharing her passion with UQ students. In July, she will be leading a group of students on a two week fieldtrip to Africa, where they will participate in the Malawi Earlier-Middle Stone Age Project, investigating the evolution of human behaviour. Dr Thompson said the students would benefit personally from the experience of applying their knowledge to an overseas dig. “They will take home valuable skills about survey, excavation, and community liaison that will be more broadly applicable,” she said.

“Archaeology is booming in Australia at the moment, because any disturbance – for example, mining or development – requires heritage impact assessments to be done. There is a growing number of graduates in archaeology, but it is the ones who have done well in their degrees and gotten field experience who will be the firstto be hired.” Twenty-five students will participate in the field school.

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