Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A tribute to Alice Berger, a research student lost too soon

A personal tribute from Alice’s PhD supervisors at UCL

This week we learned the sad and shocking news of Alice Berger’s passing. As Alice’s PhD supervisors at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, we extend our deepest sympathies to her family and friends. Alice came to the Institute from the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University. Her Masters thesis on “Plant Economy and Ecology in Early Bronze Age Tel Bet Yerah” won the prestigious John Evans postgraduate prize, awarded by the Association for Environmental Archaeology, and her achievements were recognized by the further award of UCL’s Overseas Research Scholarship and Graduate Research Scholarship to support her PhD research.
Alice was a fiercely independent researcher of extraordinary capacity, breadth, and originality. She possessed a flair for environmental archaeology that was quite unusual, mastering techniques of botanical and zoological analysis that are often treated as isolated specialisms, and reminding us all that these are simply vehicles in a wider project of understanding the human past, and its changing relationships to the non-human world. Her doctoral project, teasing out the environmental correlates of Early Bronze Age urbanisation and migration in the southern Levant, was producing exciting results, presented by Alice at conferences around the world with a style and confidence that always rose to the surface when she spoke in public. She was deeply passionate about her research, which was attracting widespread praise and attention.
Alice was also a gifted and natural teacher, seeming happiest and calmest when instructing students. While some specialists are intellectual hoarders, Alice’s approach to knowledge was democratic to the core. She excelled as a teaching assistant at the Institute, and in the field at Tel Bet Yerah she transformed her laboratory into a centre of learning, taking pride and delight in the ability of undergraduates to identify prehistoric animal remains after just a short time in her company. Anyone who had the privilege to know or work alongside Alice will also know the struggles she faced on a daily basis, and the courage with which she confronted them. One always had the feeling that, whatever the obstacle, Alice would eventually emerge, smiling, resolute, and in search of her next challenge. Hers is a dreadful loss to our subject and our community, and we will miss her terribly.
But we also feel sure that Alice would not want our brief tribute to end on a sombre note. So we will finish with a recollection that perhaps captures something of Alice, and the intensity with which she seized life, both inside and outside the laboratory. It relates to Alice’s first encounter with the Institute in London, when she undertook Dorian’s intense short-course in archaeobotany. David Wengrow, her host at the time, recalls her coming to his office within a few days of arrival, to explain that she had suffered a concussion while attending a Rob Zombie concert. ‘But don’t worry’, she reassured him, ‘I actually find that as a result I can stare down the microscope for much longer periods of time’. May you rest in peace, dear Alice.  

Many more posts from Alice's friends and colleagues can be found on her facebook wall.

Early Rice Project symposium last week

Last week we hosted in London a symposium for the Early Rice Project, 
Investigating the evolution and impact of rice cultivation through the later prehistory of monsoon Asia. We brought in colleagues and collaborators on the archaeology of India, Southeast Asia and China, from countries across several continents, and had a success full exchange, not just on the archaeobotany of the region and new data (much of it generated at UCL through our NERC and ERC projects), but also on the stories of domesaticated fauna, our current understanding of Neolithic spread processes, Mesolithic persistence, demographic growth and the emergence of complex societies and irrigation. What is clear is that there is much new to say about rice, when it first arrived in several regions of monsoon Asia, and as it was transformed into the cornerstone species in the subsistence base of large complex societies. Nevertheless the meeting highlighted also the major gaps in empirical evidence, both geographically and chronologically. We hope to be able to pull this together for publication to further broaden out our dialogue on what we know and what we need to know. There has certainly been a rapid increase in data as the chart (below) of published, or recently counted archaeological spikelet bases indicates (from my introduction presentation)..

Some recent outputs from the Early Rice Project include publication of ancient DNA from charred rice grains from sites in Thailand and India (Castillo, Tanaka et al.), which add some flesh on the skeleton of the Proto-indica hypothesis; and publication of the first of a new generation spatial modelling of the early geography of rice, this one aimed at deducing the most like region (or regions) from which rice originated and spread, in particular the originals of early japonica rice that was so important to the Neolithic developments in China and throughout Southeast Asia (Silva et al. in PLOSone).  See also, the paper on phytoliths as a reflection of weed flora (Weisskopf et al 2014), the first of several in the pipeline that will illustrate new and more robust approaches to determining past rice ecology.