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On Environmental Archaeology Research in Turkey Interview with Assoc. Prof. Evangelia Pişkin


Environmental Archaeology as one of the sub-disciplines has an increasing contribution to archaeological research all over the world in the last half century. 

Today in Turkey there has been a growing interest that almost all archaeological projects collect and process environmental data. Despite this growing interest, the position of the discipline at the academic institutions has not yet been strongly established and defined. There is only a small number of research facilities today in Turkey within international scientific institutions (i.e. BIAA) and under the auspices of universities (i.e. Koç University, METU(ODTÜ) and İstanbul University), and there is still room for improving the comprehensive research potential offered by such initiatives.

2017-2018 ANAMED-GABAM Post-Doctoral fellow Mustafa Tatbul, who followed an interdisciplinary approach in his PhD research at METU, brought the matter to the table. He made a short interview with his former professor Evangelia Pişkin (Vicky), at Ankara about the current state of the environmental archaeology research in Turkey.

Pişkin is a faculty member at the Graduate Program of Settlement Archaeology at METU, where she has established an Environmental Archaeology Research Unit in 2010.  She has been conducting zooarchaeological research in Turkey for almost two decades.

MT: Zooarchaeology has become an essential element of archaeological explorations in the last decade in Turkey. Today almost all excavations have a specialist. While foreign scholars are participating in the fieldworks, a significant number of Turkish scholars, especially trained abroad, are contributing a lot into the field. As one of the few senior zooarchaeologists, how do you see the development of zooarchaeology in Turkey? Maybe you can make some comparison with the recent past.

EP: It is true that zooarchaeology has gained a lot of ground in recent years in Turkey. We have even a handful of relatively newly given positions at Turkish universities for zooarchaeologists. Nevertheless, there is a big gap to be filled yet. Compared to the potential of the subject and the truly vast amounts of such materials recovered every year from  numerous excavations, by no means we have enough colleagues in residence nor enough facilities. Another important problem here is that zooarchaeology or to put it wider, environmental archaeology, is not sufficiently incorporated to curricula for undergraduate archaeology students. Few departments include it, in some departments it will be mentioned as part of another course and in many it is totally missing. This is one of the most important barriers for making these works properly understood and applied in Turkish archaeology. Without taking this step, no matter how many specialists may work at excavations, local or foreigner, the picture will remain patchy.  

MT: I know you have a strong background in Classics and Field Archaeology. But how did you decide to focus on zooarchaeology? Did you have any doubts, because you were not coming from biology or zoology discipline? What do you advice to those who are coming from different backgrounds and were in the decision threshold?

EP: Since my undergraduate studies, I had a strong interest with what constructs everyday routines of past cultures and especially activities related to food both as a necessity as well as a vehicle of expression of various social and economic relationships. Related to my background and bridging disciplines, yes, you have a point. I think, all types of interdisciplinary research face this problem; at any subject… In the particular case, the researchers with background in sciences have to deal with “learning archaeology.” And we, who come from archaeology and go to zooarchaeology or archaeobotany, etc., we have to learn what is needed from the related science disciplines. It does require some extra work but it is perfectly doable. I wouldn’t say that any direction is better than the other but often the construction of the research questions and the approaches taken by different background researchers are also different, usually reflecting exactly these “undergraduate times” backgrounds.

MT: You have been working for a while to establish an environmental archaeology laboratory at METU. What was your dream? How much of your expectations were fulfilled?

EP: My aim is to provide an environment for local research and teaching on these topics. Especially one that would have been inclusive of various branches of the discipline. At the moment, we study aspects of zooarchaeology and archaeobotany and I hope soon we can expand on other topics. Actually, we do have various places in Turkish and foreign (but located in Turkey) institutions which contain facilities or equipment that can be used for such research purposes; nevertheless these often remain unused or rarely used because there is only a handful of academics-in-service permanently residing in Turkey and working on these topics that could enliven such places.  Moreover, we have no specific degree to accommodate students with such research interests. Of course, this is a complex matter with various elements and cannot be covered comprehensively here or be solved by a single lab or person but some help, I hope, has been provided.

MT: You also need some students around, interested in specializing in environmental archaeology. I know many students show great interest at the beginning but very few continue in graduate level. Are you satisfied with the number of trainees which will contribute to the field in the future?

EP: To my experience most of the students I had taught have found the field interesting. Most of them wanted, at least, to try their hand on something, have some experience, learn the basics and some have continued to study it in detail. Many of them though have doubts about their abilities to manage such a study because it feels “out of their reach” as archaeologists. This is closely related both to the interdisciplinary nature of such studies as well as to the fact I mentioned before, that these subjects are not taught at undergraduate degrees in Turkey.  Because of this lack of sufficient information about the subject many students consider such topics to be something else than “archaeology”. This is a true misconception. Zooarchaeology or archaeobotany or geoarchaeology and any other such field are nothing but archaeology indeed. We ask the same questions as any archaeologists which, in a very generic way, could be put as understanding/explaining past societies. Only the materials through which we try to reach this aim are different; instead of studying “artifacts”, we study “ecofacts”.  If a student can learn to classify and analyse “artifacts”, in the same way can learn to classify and analyse ecofacts. Another thing they consider as an obstacle is whether they can find a place for themselves in the profession of archaeology after completing such a study. Again, this originates to the same reason, the lack of teaching such subjects at undergraduate level and it is reinforced by the way the Higher Education Council (YÖK) is structured. For example, YÖK has not any “specialization” described as environmental archaeology or zooarchaeology or archaeobotany or geoarchaeology etc. These are fundamental problems for making this research an integrated part of archaeology in Turkey rather than an exotic application executed mostly by foreign researchers. And, I would like to add that there is truly a need for specialists of this kind.  I believe that today universities and colleagues clearly recognize it and many take very favorable positions towards it. I think it is rather a matter of time before these issues are resolved.


MT: Integration of different environmental data groups such as archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological in archaeology is a strength for the researcher. I know you are also competent in archaeobotanical research, and combining the two serves to better understand human diet and economy which is primarily a composition of both animal and plant food resources both in the past and today. Are you a follower of such an approach?

EP: Integration of different data sets for a holistic interpretation is obviously the ultimate goal for the discipline even though not that often achieved. There are many obstacles actually for successfully integrating evidence, a lot of these coming from the nature of the evidence itself since each category of data may have had different exploitation and use, different deposition, different taphonomy and finally different study and presentation method, none of which help integration of results. In fact, we are still in need for a good set of techniques and methods on how to achieve the integration, but there is surely a lot of current discussion and work going on the subject.

MT: Archaeologists conduct interdisciplinary research collaborating with other disciplines such as zoology, botany, anthropology, biology, chemistry, history, geology, computer science, and many more. You are working at one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in Turkey. You must be collaborating with many scholars from other disciplines and also training some students. Can you say something about the collaborative research you are involved in Turkey?

EP: Yes I have collaborations at METU and outside with a number of excavations and groups of researchers. Since you put it as research at METU, I have collaboration with the team of the Komana excavations run by Prof. Burcu Erciyas from Settlement Archaeology and the team of the aDNA group established at the Biology Department by Prof. İnci Togan, and after her retirement run by Assoc. Prof.  Mehmet Somel. The excavation at Komana has given the opportunity to produce a large amount of data for a period that is very little studied in Turkey (11th to 13th centuries AD). Also, it was very lucky that we had excellent conditions of preservation and we have recovered a wealth of animal and plant remains and from at various contexts that gave us a lot of insights on matters of economy as well as everyday life. My collaboration with the aDNA group from the very first steps of it has also being very fruitful. It started with a small project to study ancient sheep DNA through which the first aDNA lab in Turkey was established and now the group has successfully expanded the study to other species and even humans. Recently an ECR European Union Early Career Research grant was received by Mehmet Somel.

MT: You, as the specialist, also have the flexibility to work in projects without any site and period limitations, isn’t it?

EP: Yes, because the materials we work with are not very “sensitive” to time or regional changes. Ceramic styles, for example, change rapidly in time and space. A sheep bone or a wheat grain, in contrast, is the same in the Bronze Age, the Neolithic, and the medieval times, in Turkey, in Egypt, in U.K. and so on. For this, the specialist on the study of plant and animals can indeed work with much less or almost no limitation of space or time as compared to other specialists in archaeology. This flexibility allows for many opportunities for collaborations and research or, may I say, even adventures! Of course, there are variations on wild flora and fauna between regions and at different periods, nevertheless, these can be mastered relatively easily and may not pose serious problems. That is because the majority of the animal/plant remains we are dealing from the Neolithic onwards come from a certain suit of domestic species which are the same across most regions/periods. Overall the amount of local/temporal different animal/plant remains will be a small amount of the total findings.  

MT: Conducting research depends highly on financial sources other than collaboration, a good team, and facilities. Finding funding needs some experience. What do you advise to young researchers? Are there any good opportunities for funding environmental archaeology research projects in Turkey?

EP: Finding funding is definitely very difficult for archaeology and environmental archaeology in Turkey and worldwide. But this is true for many other disciplines too. I think that, save for super—current, super—in-demand subjects, academic research is more or less at the same pot and we should not be discouraged. My advice? The one who will persist, will win: Keep your focus tight and work meticulously.

MT: Congratulations, the 13th quadrennial ICAZ International Zooarchaeology Conference will be held at Ankara, Turkey in September 2018.! You managed to bring ICAZ to Turkey. I think this is a very important stage for the Turkish zooarchaeology community.

EP: ICAZ has a long history going back to the 70s and it is the biggest organization representing archaeozoologists worldwide. Holding this conference in Turkey will promote the subject locally and give the opportunity to researchers and students to attend and listen to a large number of papers covering subjects from all over the world and from many different viewpoints. I believe it will be a valuable occasion for education, exchange of information and an arena for discussions and collaborations from which our colleagues and students would greatly benefit.