First impressions are often lasting. The first gulp of muggy air blowing into Austin Bergstrom’s arrival terminal certainly came as shock to Belgian citizens – I’m lucky enough to be travelling with my wife – accustomed to the hardiness of north-European climates. In these last days of September, temperatures in central Texas still tower beyond the 90°F around mid-day to reach a pleasant 75 throughout the night.
For the next nine months, the green oasis of Austin will be our new home and new work environment. As an archaeologist active in the Eastern Mediterranean region, the possibility to spend almost a year in one of the world-leading centers of geoarchaeological research (my own academic specialty) was difficult to ignore. And if this epicenter happens to sit right in the heart of the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World, what else could be more desirable to a classic rock enthusiast?
The first weeks spent in the Department of Anthropology of the University of Texas – more precisely in Prof. Arlene Rosen’s Environmental Archaeology Lab. – turned out to be extremely productive on many levels: new ways of thinking, new ways of working, stimulating research discussions, and from week one, hands-on training in laboratory techniques in environmental archaeology – a necessary step for the successful fulfillment of my postdoctoral research project. In a few months from now, I should be able to better understand the way phytoliths (those minute grains of silica forming in living plants and deposited in soils and sediments through plant decay) can inform us about subsistence economies – foodways, agriculture, storage practices – at two prehistoric (Bronze Age) sites currently investigated by AegIS, my home research group at Université catholique de Louvain (UCL): Sissi, on the Greek island of Crete (www.sarpedon.be), and Pyla-Kokkinokremos (http://sites.uclouvain.be/arc-crisis/?page_id=11853), on the island of Cyprus.
As an invited lecturer at UCL since 2012, one of the most striking observations I could make during the past weeks relates to the surprising level of involvement of US students in academic research. In Prof. Rosen’s group, students are already involved in laboratory work at bachelor level and get the opportunity to learn – needless to say, during their free time – the skills that will give them this “something extra” that so many Belgian archaeology students struggle to develop at the end of their Masters years. This is of course not to say that US students are somehow inherently more interested than their Belgian counterparts, but it seems to me now more obvious than ever – speaking from the perspective of my own academic niche, geoarchaeology – that a more precocious and active participation of students into research projects should be considered as an integral part of their academic curricula. Already something to think about for the future.
Among the many highlights of living in Austin are the endless possibilities to go out, eat fantastic Tex-Mex food, and hear world-class musicians performing free of charge. In this perspective, the most difficult part about Bat City – another of Austin’s well-earned nicknames, a reference to the colony of bats dwelling under Congress Ave. Bridge – is certainly getting to (and staying at) work. This is precisely to get around this dilemma that the “Environmental Archaeology Music Nights” were created by my host laboratory. Next concert in line: the great Paul Oscher, a blues virtuoso who once worked along the likes of Muddy Waters. Nothing less than that!
2015-2016 Fulbright/WBI.World postdoctoral researcher
Department of Anthropology
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin TX, USA