Tuesday, 16 January 2018

In Memoriam Alison Weisskopf (1960-2018)

Alison and Oryza nivara in
Orissa, Sept. 2010
Alison Weisskopf (1960-2018), passed away peacefully in hospice in the presence of her immediate family on 11 January 2018. She was a beloved colleagues at the Institute of Archaeology, a fixture in the archaeobotany laboratory for many years and a leading figure in archaeological phytolith research, respected globally. Her research legacy is substantial as her work takes a distinctively ecological assemblage approach to reconstructing rice cultivation ecology as well as crop processing. This has proved innovative and has proved fruitful, and can be expected to continue to inspire further research and agricultural ecology approaches to phytoliths around the world. Despite first being diagnosed with late stage cancer in 2010, she soldiered on was at her most productive as a researcher over the past half dozen years, which is readily evident from her publications list. 

Bangladesh, Nov. 2013: ethnobotany

She has made lasting empirical contributions on archaeological research in China, Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia), and South Asia (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India). Through ethnobotanical fieldwork (in India, Thailand, Laos) and archaeological projects (in China, Bangladesh, Fiji), many further collaborations she was a key colleague in many international networks and she leaves behind many friends around the world.

Alison joined UCL as a BSc Archaeology student in 2000/01, essentially a career reboot as a mid-life adult. She demonstrated a strong affinity for environmental archaeology and archaeobotany from the beginnings of her studies. She took my “Plants and Archaeology” in 2001/02, and a new course on “Origins of Agriculture” the following year. Her BSc dissertation on phytoliths (“A study of the phytoliths from the late Bronze Age site of Krasnoe Smarskoe, Samara Valley, Russia, and the information they provide on agro pastoral economies and environments”) supervised by Dr. Arlene Rosen was passed with distinction in 2003. In receipt of a AHRC scholarship, she continued her studies in the MSc Palaeoecology of Human societies, with a dissertation on “An investigation of the Neolithic ash mound and settlement at Sanganakallu in the south Deccan, India, using phytoliths and macro-archaeobotanical material”, combined analyses of plant macro-remains and phytoliths and received a distinction in 2005.

Liu River, near Huizui, Henan, China, 2006
She began her PhD in 2005, again funded through an AHRC studentship. She submitted her PhD thesis, Vegetation, agriculture and social change in Neolithic north central China, a phytolith study, in 2009 and was awarded her doctorate in 2010. Her doctoral research took her on field to China several times, such as to the sites of Huizui and Xipo, where she worked alongside colleagues including Arlene Rosen (now University of Texas at Austin), Gyoung-Ah Lee (University of Oregon) and Liu Li (Stanford University). Her PhD represents years of dedicated laboratory work. She later published a revised version of her PhD as a monograph in 2014.

Sept 2010: Sampling Oryza rufipogin in Orissa, with
Rabi Mohanty and Mukund Kajale

In 2009 she took up a post-doctoral research associate position funded as part of a NERC project  'The Identification of Rice in Prehistory' (2009-2012), which came to be dubbed the Early Rice Project, and spawned follow on research projects, including 'The Impact of Evolving of Rice Systems from China to Southeast Asia' (2013-2016), and 'The impact of intensification and de-intensification of Asian rice production: transitions between wet and dry ecologies' (2016-2019). During a intermission between the first and second NERC projects she secured funding through a British Academy small grant to explore comparisons between phytoliths and diatoms in rice paddy soils, and she received a travel grant from the Thai Ambassador to the UK for ethnobotanical fieldwork on non-rice plant use in Thailand. Her research, and her development of phytolith approaches to rice cultivation ecology was central to these projects and their success. This sent Alison into the field to study modern rice ecologies, both cultivated and wild, in far flung parts of Asia, from central China to Laos and the highlands of northern Thailand, through Bangladesh and Assam, remote parts of Odisha state in India, and the Western Ghats mountains along western coast of India. Her unique experience and expertise has meant that she attracted archaeological collaborations and samples for analysis from an even wider range of countries. She authored 29 academic papers or book chapters, in addition to 1 monograph, with many more still in the pipeline. For a list her published academic papers and chapters: see here.

While many have approached phytoliths typologically and metrically to attempt to look at morphological differentiation between domesticated and wild rice (e.g. bulliforms or double-peaks), Alison’s innovation was to focus on the plant communities that occurred with rice and were sampled in harvests, sub-sampled in crop-processing and ended up to systematically recorded, quantified and discriminated in the micro samples from archaeological sediments. In her fieldwork and analyses, her focus on plant communities and how human communities intersected these is evident. It offers a legacy for phytolith archaeology.
Ethnobotanical fieldwork in Thailand,
Nov. 2012: with Katie Manning.
Alison, herself was a key node in our community. Having worked in the archaeobotany lab as a post-graduate student and post-doctoral staff member for some 15 years, she was often the focus of discussions, both of science and of social life. She has also trained and supported numerous students, offered countless cups of tea, words of encouragement, and a warm sense of humour. She is warmly remembered.

I invite comments to be posted to this blog by those who knew and miss here. And I append below various photos of Alison in action.

Gyoung-Ah Lee and Alison on the Liu river, Henan, China (2006)

Alison collecting rice weeds in Bangladesh, Nov. 2013.

Nov 2011: Northern Thailand: Cristina Castillo (Left) and ALISON (right) with Karen rice farmers in Northern Thailand

Ellie Kingwell-Banham and ALISON WEISSKOPF in Maharashtra, India (Sept. 2010)

14 July 2004, IoA foyer on lab botanical shirt day: Phil Austin, Emma Harvey, Meriel McClatchie, Jon Digby, ALISON WEISSKOPF, Emma Jenkins. Alison was an MSc student at the time, and was apparnelty the original source of the idea for this day.  Below a full photos of the whole lab group.

Dorian, ALISON, and Deepika Tripathi at the IWGP in Thessaloniki (2014)

Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association conference, Siem Reap, Jan. 2014. Participants in session on "Foraging and Farming". Alison fifth from Left.

Early Rice and Its Weed Flora, Symposium at Peking University May 2011


Rebecca Roberts said...

What a warm, positive, intelligent, fun friend and colleague we have lost. It is no exaggeration to say that it was Alison's support as one of my supervisors which got me through my PhD, and as a friend her humour helped me to face difficult personal circumstances during that period. As highlighted above, her response to her diagnosis was to carry on, work even harder, and to give her all to her family, friends, colleagues, and career. She continued to take every opportunity which came her way, travelled as much as possible, made time for all her relationships, and maintained an impressive research output. She managed to turn a cruel and sad diagnosis into an incentive to live the fullest life possible with an overwhelmingly cheery and positive outlook, refusing to let this one aspect of her life overshadow all the other wonderful parts which she cultivated. It is a privilege to have known Alison, and I remember her with respect and joy as an impressive researcher and loyal friend. My deepest condolences to her family for their loss.

Emma Jenkins said...

Alison was a truly inspirational person who battled her illness bravely to the end; she will be greatly missed. She once described herself as being ‘very good at life’ which anyone who knew her would agree with I’m sure! She took every opportunity that was given to her and made the absolute most of her last seven years. She travelled extensively, attending many conferences while still finding time for her family, friends and her allotment!
Alison was the first friend I ever made at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL back in 2004 when we were both new to phytolith research. I had just started working in the Archaeobotany lab as a PDRA for Arlene Rosen and didn’t know many people. I was feeling a bit lonely when in walked one of the Masters students with a big smile on her face who started chatting to me. I explained how welcome that was because I wasn’t even getting so much as an email (those were the days!) and the following morning I opened my inbox to find an e mail with a joke in it. After that we became good friends, eating lunch together every day in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine and counting phytoliths while chatting and listening to audiobooks. I still have very fond memories of that time: laughing so much tea came out of my nose, the great Penguin/Tim Tam blind testing and the Hawaiian shirt day (I have never seen Dorian look so stunned before or since). Our friendship endured to the end but I suspect that it was our love of food and a similar sense of humour that bonded us from the beginning! Perhaps one of my fondest memories is of an EasyJet flight to Barcelona for a phytolith conference where a conversation we had made me laugh so much I nearly fell off my seat (that one will go with ME to the grave)!
During that time Alison went from being a Masters student to one of the leading phytolith researchers in the world (not bad for someone who left school with few qualifications) and I would often turn to her for advice and help; I feel her loss keenly on both a personal and a professional level. During this sad time, I take heart from an answer she once gave me when I asked her how she was able to carry on so positively with life knowing that her time was limited. She told me that when things were bad she took comfort in the small things and tried to stay in the moment. As I sit here in my garden office looking out at a fine winter day I try to remember this advice and give thanks for having had such a fun and loyal friend for the past 13 years. My thoughts and deepest sympathy go to Alison’s family.

Liviu Giosan said...

Alison was always so full of life, kind and discrete in the same time... Even for those who met her only briefly it was a remarkable encounter. My thoughts are with her family.

Dorian Fuller said...

Nicole Boivin, Max Planck Institute, Jena, emailed: "This is very sad news. Alison’s work was excellent and so important for the field, she will be missed. It was wonderful to have known her. I am so sorry to hear this."

Dorian Fuller said...

Prof. Rabi Mohanty, from Deccan College Pune wrote: "It is very sad to hear her sudden demise. Alison was such an affectionate lovely person, it is hard to believe she no more with us. Her recent Christmas greetings are so fresh in mind. I pray to the God to rest her soul in peace. My heart felt condolence to her bereaved family."

Dorian Fuller said...

Prof. Charles Higham, University of Otago wrote "I am deeply saddened. Alison was such a vital member of our research community, and was so welcoming and helpful for the rice meeting not so long ago. "

Dorian Fuller said...

Mizanur Rahman, Dept. of Archaeology, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, wrote: "Its very shocking news for world archaeology community. I can't believe it now! She emailed me before the Christmass for greetings! I sincerely express my condolence to her bereaved family members and remembering her contribution to archaeological research specially on environmental archaeology as well as Bangladesh archaeobotany. I can recall her visit Bangladesh during 2013 while she showed her enthusiasm. She is with us in the first archaeobotany paper of Bangladesh, will publish very soon. I got her very friendly and caring during the working time at the UCL archaeobotany lab. Department of Archaeology, Jahangirnagar University also expressed deep shock to her death and expressed sympathy to her family.
I pray for her departed soul."

Dorian Fuller said...

Prof. Mukund Kajale, Pune, India, wrote: "I am shocked and grieved to learn sad demise of Alison Weisskopf. In fact , I received new year greeting from her (sent via iPhone) on 26th Dec.2017 while I imagine, she could have been precarious situation.

I shall ever remember Alison as a meticulous researcher,an excellent colleague in field (as experienced during our Orissa fieldwork Sept-Oct.2010 ) as well as UCL Archaeobotany laboratory.

May her soul rest in peace and eternity."

Dorian Fuller said...

Wijerathne Bohingamuwa, University of Ruhuna, Matara, Sri Lanka, wrote: "This is shocking news. Please convey our sympathies to her family. What a nice person she has been. Great loss!

Dorian Fuller said...

Dr Jixiang Song, Sichuan University, China, wrote: "What a shocking news! I can't believe it! I still remember her smile vividly. I just talked about her research with students one month ago. She made great contribution to phytolith research!

I am very sorry for this."

Cristina Castillo said...

As everyone else has already said Alison was a very special person. She was funny and always had a great story to tell. I shared some incredible times with her. And when I think back now... there were so many memorable trips - Mongolia, Northeast Thailand, Fraser Island, Cambodia, Istambul and on and on. I had hoped we would do more. She loved to travel and lived for food. She was passionate about her work and devoted to her friends. She adored her family, Alan and Max. I have a lot to miss and what truly saddens me is that I did not get a chance to say goodbye. It will be difficult to be back in the Institute without Alison sitting by her microscope and telling me some interesting story or bit of gossip. However, her work will carry her memory forward and it will definitely continue to inspire future scholars.

Ruth Pelling said...

So sad to hear this news. Alison was one of the people I most enjoyed bumping into when I was in the Institute. She was an undergraduate while I was working on my PhD. Always warm, welcoming, funny, helpful, supportive and endlessly positive. I think I last saw her in Paris where we discussed, amongst other things, nit treatments while eating crepe on a park bench. Archaeobotany is very fortunate to have had her within our community the last 15 years or so and it will miss her immensely. She leaves a fabulous legacy.

Maureece Levin said...

I'm so sad to hear this news. I've admired Alison's work for a while, and when she came to Stanford for a conference last April, I was delighted to learn that she was a warm and friendly person as well. I wish I had the chance to get to know her a little better. This is a big loss for the global archaeobotany community, and she will be remembered fondly.

alison betts said...

This is very sad news. Alison has been working with us on paleobotany in Chorasmia and there were plans for new work very soon. I am at this moment completing an article containing her work. She was a lovely person and will be sadly missed. Alison Betts

Tim Denham said...

This is very sad news. Alison made significant contributions to the archaeobotany of Southeast Asia and East Asia (the elements of her work that I am familiar with). She was innovative, meticulous and diligent in her research, and always a friendly face at conferences and meetings.

Andy Fairbairn said...

This is a sad loss for archaeobotanists globally and from the comments here I am not alone in that sentiment. I was unaware that Alison was so ill and it says much that she got on with life and work with such a serious condition. She was a thoughtful and careful scholar and will leave a big gap in her field, which was so exciting and bringing new insights to bear in a region that needs more phytolith work done. Of course she was a lovely person too and I remember her joy at being over here in Oz for our symposium in 2014, drinking up all the new experiences and revelling in the strange animals and plants. Condolences to her close colleagues, friends and family. Andy Fairbairn, Brisbane

Leo Aoi said...

I felt so surprised and sad by this news. Alison cordially accepted to be a member of our session for the coming SEAA conference at Nanjing, and I was so looking forward to catching up with her and developing discussion on East Asian archaeobotany. It is really a sad loss. I still cannot believe I cannot see her sweet smile any more. Her family have my deepest sympathies. Leo Aoi Hosoya, Tokyo, Japan

Deepika Tripathi said...

I was stunned and so sad to learn about untimely death of Alison. Though I met her only once at IWGP (2013) at Greece but we remained in touch via emails always. She was very warm and friendly and always responded my mails quickly, provided me proper advice. I still just can't believe this sad news. Alison was very nice lady with a rare combination of kindness and intelligence and displayed happiness wherever she went. I will always remember our first and only meeting. She will always be in my thoughts and prayers. I salute her attitude to live life fullest despite her condition. May Alison rest in peace.
May God give her family strength to endure this irreparable loss.
Deepika Tripathi, Allahabad, India

Li Liu said...

We are very sad to hear this news. Alison was such a fine person and a great scholar. She worked with us in the Yiluo survey project in China, and collaborated on various research papers. We were very lucky to have her to attend our conference on early agriculture at Stanford in the spring of 2017, and she has sent us a paper abstract for the upcoming publication. Now it is very sad that we have to complete this volume without her. We will always remember her as a good friend. Li Liu and Xingcan Chen

Gyoung-Ah Lee said...

We met during the Yiluo valley fieldseason in November 2006. I instantly knew Alison would become a dear colleague and a friend, while we were working inside deep, small pits for hours with laugh. Ever since, I had such a privilege to collaborate with her, to learn from her works, and to enjoy local scenery, food, and friendship in London, San Francesco, Stanford, Kyoto, and Brisbane. I miss her quirky humors and warm personality. I admire her strength, never-defeated spirit, and high work ethics that produced amazing works while she was coping with illness. Needless to say, I am deeply sad but also want all to know that the field of archaeobotany further advanced with her works. My thought is with her family, Alan, Max, and her feline and canine family.

Elizabeth Brite said...

I regret having lost the opportunity to work with such an impressive scholar and person. I reached out to Alison not long ago, an unknown and significantly more junior scholar seeking collaboration with her. She was so kind and generous in our exchanges, supportive of the project and enthusiastic about its potential. I was so looking forward to working with her in the field. My deepest sympathies to her family and colleagues. Her passing is a loss for the entire community.

Hyunsoo Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hyunsoo Lee said...

Such a sad news to hear.. I had met her once at Stanford workshop last April for four days, which was enough time to know how passionate and wonderful person she is. I was so looking forward to meet her and talk again soon. She kindly replied in last email how happy she is to help and give advice with phytolith works. My deepest condolences and thoughts are with her family. May her soul rest in peace.

Heejin Lee said...

I am so saddened by this tragic news. I met her in 2011 when we both attended the conferences held in China. She was a very special lady in many respects and I was always fascinated by the stories she told. I will truly miss her witty humor and laughs we had together over a cup of tea.

Chad Yost said...

This is very sad news indeed. I first meet Alison in 2011 at the 8th International Meeting on Phytolith Research held in Colorado, USA. Since that time, I have meet her at various meetings around the world, and I fondly remember her charm, wit, and friendliness. She was extremely passionate about her research, which, by the way, was first-rate. Among the often competitive and egocentric personalities that pervade academia, Alison was a down-to-earth breath of fresh air. She will be missed but not forgotten. Happy travels in the great beyond.