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Changing the face of archaeology

Former ERC Advanced Grant holder Christopher Henshilwood leads an exciting new project with roots in archaeology, but drawing on various disciplines. The project is in the final round of qualifying for Centre of Excellence status in Norway.

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Christopher Henshilwood
REDEFINING ARCHAEOLOGY: Professor Christopher Henshilwood leads an interdisciplinary project, which is in the running to become a Norwegian Centre of Excellence. He believes the project will catapult African archaeology in Norway into the world elite.

Experts from several disciplines join forces to learn more of the evolution of our early ancestors, Homo sapiens, in an archaeologically based research centre that aims to catapult Norway into the world elite.

A ground-breaking project

“This is a different project completely. We are drawing on experts from climate research, neurological science, geology and social sciences,” says Professor Christopher Henshilwood at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion at the University of Bergen (UiB) and the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

Between 2010 and 2015, the renowned archaeologist held an Advanced Grant from the European Research Centre (ERC) and since 2007 has held a Human Origins research chair at the University of the Witwatersrand.

He is the principal investigator of the project Centre for Early Human Behaviour (EHB) Homo Sapiens Behavioural Evolution 100-50 000 Years, South Africa, which is now in the running to become a Norwegian Centre of Excellence (SFF), a scheme administered by the Research Council of Norway.

Out of 150 centres applying for the SFF status, 34 have been invited to submit a more detailed application for the second and final round. Four of the centres in the final round are from UiB.

Interdisciplinary excellence

The project will draw on techniques and expertise from several excellent research environments to learn more about how our early ancestors lived and acted.

“Professor Kenneth Hugdahl of the Bergen fMRI Group, who was recently awarded a second ERC Advanced Grant, is part of the team, as is Professor Eystein Jansen, the former scientific director of the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research,” says the archaeologist.

“It is a multi-facetted project, involving specialists from various institutions. The group needs to be strong, with a mixture of both genders as well as older and younger researchers. We need that continuity for the future of this research,” says the archaeologist.

As an interdisciplinary project, it will draw on the main strengths of the university – its broad scientific expertise.

“The research should be comprehensive and the group diverse. We have outstanding researchers ready to join, like archaeologist Francesco D’Errico, geologist Nele Meckler, and psychosocial scientist Andrea Bender,” Henshilwood says.

Inspired by climate centre success

The Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research serves as an inspiration for Henshilwood’s archaeology-based centre. Bjerknes held SFF status between 2002 and 2011, creating a strong and international research environment, which is still going strong.

“Much like the Bjerknes Centre, we want to bring the international expertise in and teach the next generation of Norwegian students, thereby building a robust centre. And through this collaboration, the Bjerknes Centre is expanding their research southwards,” says Henshilwood about Eystein Jansen’s engagement with the new centre. “I find this very stimulating.”

Redefining archaeology

Henshilwood believes that African archaeology in Norway has been generally regarded as research that falls largely within the humanities.

“It should also be seen as natural science, as is the case in most of the EU. Now we have the opportunity to bring in top specialists, for example Karen van Niekerk and Carin Andersson Dahl, who research ancient subsistence practices from a totally different perspective. We are also introducing revolutionary technologies for dating the past that will be led by Simon Armitage. This has seldom been done before,” he says.

See FACTS section for a full list of the group leaders in the project.

According to Henshilwood, the way that we look at African archaeology at UiB will now be re-thought and expanded.

“Our team is interdisciplinary, with cutting edge science and technology. I think, in a positive way, that this will change the face of African archaeology in Bergen. The centre has the potential to rival all institutions carrying out research on early Homo sapiens. It will catapult Norway into the world elite,” says Christopher Henshilwood about the project.