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University of Cambridge connects MPW student to the British Museum

Posted by: MPW Student - Michael - 07 August 2019 - Activities & Sports - Read time: 2 Minutes

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk at the University of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. This talk appealed to a recently sparked fascination for ancient migration patterns and lifestyles, developed as a product of the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) which I undertook during my first year at MPW. While discussing the progress of my EPQ with my personal tutor (and Principal) Markus, he picked up on my enthusiasm for the subjects of anthropology and archaeology and connected me with Dr Cameron Petrie, Reader in South Asian and Iranian Archaeology at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity College.

Indeed, it is through his time at Trinity College that Markus met Dr Cameron Petrie and they still play cricket together in the Trinity Fellows cricket team. For me, this really exemplifies the importance of regular contact with personal tutors, which MPW ensures, as they are able to help you pursue your interests in ways which would be difficult or even impossible without their help.

My topic of choice for the EPQ was comparative Indo-European Mythology, which involved a significant element on anthropological and archaeological research. As well as the EPQ allowing me to research in depth on my chosen area before attending university, the grade that I achieve will also have a positive impact on my UCAS application as the EPQ is equivalent to half an A level. Furthermore, Russell Group universities may also reduce the grade entry requirements as a direct result of achieving a high EPQ grade.

Many students across the UK enrol in degree courses with very little experience of the subject itself, especially with subjects such as archaeology or anthropology which are no longer taught at A-Level. This can be quite risky, sometimes resulting in the student transferring to another course, or, in the worst case, leaving university altogether. Being able to attend events on these subjects is therefore invaluable, offering insight into the course that may be hard to find elsewhere and giving you a good inclination as to whether the course is right for you. This was certainly the case for me – I found the talk so engaging that it confirmed to me that I would thoroughly enjoy archaeology and anthropology. I now feel I can apply for them without the fear of regret. There is also a significant element of reassurance when attending these talks; some students may find highbrow academics somewhat intimidating, especially when it comes to those from prestigious institutions like Cambridge University or the British Museum. Having the opportunity to actually meet them one on one in a friendly setting will likely have the effect of alleviating this feeling, and potentially give the confidence boost necessary to apply for Cambridge or Oxford. It also goes without saying that attending talks and the like is an excellent addition to a personal statement – it demonstrates to universities that prospective students are serious about studying a subject.

The talk was delivered by Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist at the British Museum about the landscapes of Bronze Age Jordan and Oman. Specifically, the talk focused on two sites, Ra’s al-Hadd in Oman and Tell es-Sa’idiyeh in Jordan, and the interaction between the land and its inhabitants. It’s fascinating how much can be inferred about the lifestyle of a people from the nature of their surroundings, and also what can be learnt about ancient landscapes from what people left behind. For example, a large basalt millstone was discovered at the Tell es-Sa’idiyeh site, many miles south of the nearest basalt deposit, raising the question of how it got there. Were the inhabitants of Tell es-Sa’idiyeh dynamic merchants, trading with their neighbours or was the basalt carried down the Jordan River during a flood? Similarly, the remains of various grains and fruits were found which no longer exist in the region, implying either trade or a significant change in flora since the Bronze Age.

The Ra’s al-Hadd site was even more mysterious. An inhospitable, barren stretch of coast in the Gulf of Oman with scant food sources, Ra’s al-Hadd appears to be the last place anyone would choose to establish a settlement. Even more bizarrely, some of the few food sources were not even utilised, notably date trees which grew not too far inland. Indeed, the only food which appeared to be eaten in this settlement was seafood – fish, shellfish and crustaceans caught in the nearby lagoon. So why was the settlement there? A few likely suggestions were made – perhaps it was a trading post for merchants travelling across the Gulf of Oman to Iran and Pakistan, only briefly inhabited as a stopover on a longer journey. Alternatively, it could have been a basecamp for seasonal fisherman who would fish the lagoons for a while before returning home with their preserved catch, a possibility supported by the discovery of ancient fishing equipment on the site. While both scenarios are perfectly plausible, a efinitive answer to the mystery is yet to be found.

The discussion of Ra’s al-Hadd also had a somewhat disheartening note – the destruction of the landscape and native wildlife due to rampant urbanisation and overfishing. The organic finds on the beach was a testament to the incredible biodiversity of the lagoons and Gulf, biodiversity which is now a shadow of its former self. This destruction of native wildlife is especially noticeable in the case of current housing developments along the coast, the light from which confuses baby green sea turtles who go towards the lights (turtles navigate by moonlight) only to be stranded on the road and crushed by cars. However, there was one encouraging development. The Omanis have recently made a significant effort to repopulate the coastline with mangrove bushes, which were prevalent in the region historically. Hopefully, these will provide a hospitable habitat and help reduce the decline of wildlife.

To conclude, I would like to thank Dr Cameron Petrie for inviting me to attend the talk and for the fascinating conversation we had beforehand. I would also like to thank Markus for putting me in touch with Dr Cameron Petrie. I really appreciate both of you going the extra mile in order to help and encourage me in the pursuit of my interests.