Interview with Professor Steven Shackley, recipient of the Fryxell Award for Interdisciplinary Research

Professor M. Steven Shackley has recently been awarded with the prestigious Fryxell Award for Interdisciplinary Research. A symposium was held accordingly in his honour at the past Society for American Archaeology meeting in Albuquerque. But, this is not the only thing that is worth celebrating for Professor Shackley, as he has also turned 70 (belated happy birthday, Steve!) Here are the highlights of the conversation I have had with Professor Shackley. 

C: Carmen; S: Steve

C: First of all, congratulations on the Fryxell Award. How do you feel about the award and the symposium that was held in your honour in the past SAA meeting? 

S: It was very emotional for me. I got to hear about the incredible research that some of my former students have been working on. The symposium had brought old friends, colleagues and students together. This also provided the opportunity for some participants – whose regional specialisation do not normally overlap – to meet, discuss and generate new ideas and collaborations. Actually, Robin Torrence (Australian Museum) and Bruce Huckell (University of New Mexico) met at the symposium and they are now collaborating in a new project.

Steve and all participants (except Bruce Huckell) of the session that was held in his honour at the past Society for American Archaeology meeting in Albuquerue (Photo courtesy of Steve Shackley).

C: Based on your long and successful research career, do you think the nature of lithic studies have evolved in the past decades?

S: Absolutely. Previous research on lithics focused largely on the metric measurement, but the works being conducted by me and my colleagues have demonstrated the potential of geochemical analysis in lithic studies, especially in terms of reconstructing patterns of resource procurement, trade and exchange. If you go through the journal Lithic Technology, you will notice the trend of using more research using science in lithic studies in the recent decades. 

C: Since you specialise in lithic, particularly obsidian, I do have an obsidian-related question to ask. Do you watch the ‘Game of Thrones’?

S: Yes.

C: So, what is your opinion on the ‘dragonglass’ in the final series? I am asking because it seems to have touched the nerves of a lot of my archaeologist friends who specialise in lithics. The opinion on the matter seems to have been half and half. 

S: Haha...I like it, mostly because it has drawn the general public’s attention to obsidian. I wonder why the producers of the show picked obsidian as their choice of dragonglass. Actually, I am working on a popular book on obsidian. What bothers me is they went great length to look for this dragonglass; but when it came to the actual killing of the Night King, Arya pulled out another dagger instead, at least that's what it looked like on the screen.  

C: Back to more serious questions, tell us about how did you get into archaeology or anthropology?

S: I grew up in the rural area in California. When I was 14 years old, I got a job to mend the fences of these large ranches that spanned over 14 square miles. There were these projectile points scattered on the ground within these ranches. I found these projectile points very fascinating, which inspired me to choose to study geology in college. Unfortunately, the war broke out not long after I started college, so I was into the Marine Corps and stationed in Vietnam. When I came back from the war, I used the ‘GI Bill’ to finish my college education, graduating with double majors in geology and anthropology. I continued to pursue a Master in Anthropology. After that, I went into the field of Cultural Resources Management (CRM). However, the funding for CRM was severely reduced during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. This had urged me to go back to graduate school to obtain a PhD in Anthropology.

Steve and the La Union ash flow tuff obsidian source in Honduras in 1998 (Photo courtesy of Steve Shackley).

C: I can see that you were trained in both disciplines – geology and anthropology – do you think we have made enough progress in developing archaeological science into truly interdisciplinary? 

S: This question makes me think of the discussant chapter that Rosemary Joyce wrote for my book ‘X-Ray Florescence Spectrometry (XRF) in Geoarchaeology’. Some people may find it strange that I asked Rosemary Joyce, who is known for her post-processualist approach, to write the introduction of a scientific volume; but, very few people know that she actually had a major in mathematics. Precisely because of this, she was capable of summing up the value of science in archaeological research by commenting that many of the 21stcentury questions we archaeologists are asking can best be addressed through archaeological science.

When I first started applying scientific methods in archaeological research, only a few archaeologists had a background in science. Then, in the 60s and 70s, there was a boom in the applicability of different analytical techniques. In a way, the later post-processual theories were being developed in response to this increasing emphasis on science in archaeology, although few would have admitted it then. Nowadays, science has become an integral part in archaeological research, especially so when the portable analytical methods are getting cheaper and better in terms of detection limits and accuracy. These developments have definitely encouraged researchers to be more willing to incorporate certain scientific elements in their research. Some may even argue that since the technology is getting better and better, we do not even need to have a background in science to conduct analysis. This is a very dangerous approach! We have to be careful when it comes to producing data; and even more careful when it comes to interpreting the data. 

In answer to your question, I think there is definitely better integration between science and theory in archaeological research now than before, but things can be better still. 

C: What is your advice for students who would like to undertake studies in lithics or geochemistry? 

S: Don’t be afraid of science! The research environment is getting more and more competitive, with fewer academic jobs per capita.  Having a background in a science field, whatever that might be, has helped my students procure academic employment.  Even in government it seems more important than in the past.  As the world becomes increasingly technological, for good of bad, it will increasingly be an requirement for archaeologists to have a science background.  Whether academic programs will recognize this or not is still not clear.

C: When I was browsing through your CV before the interview, I notice that you are currently listed as the Director of the Geoarchaeological XRF Laboratory. Can you tell us more about this new venture? 

S: I helped the company that sells the Thermoscientific Quant’X Energy Dispersive X-Ray Fluorescence to set up systems all over the US and Canada. When I retired, the company offered me a discount on purchasing the XRF instrument. I took my chance, bought a Quant'X XRF instrument, and then moved to Albuquerque to set up my laboratory because it is more convenient for me to sample and analyse the obsidian sources here. 

I collaborate with researchers from different disciplines, such as archaeology, chemistry and geology, but I also work with the non-academic sector. This allows me to get involved in very diverse and interesting projects. For example, I work with a company that produces cement. The cement that is poured at different time of the year should have different composition because the cement reacts with the environment. This is why we work together to monitor any changes in the composition and to make sure that the recipes for the mix are as accurate as possible. Recently, I also got an opportunity to work with a retired architect on analysing the glass that covers these 19thcentury photographs. Most of the glass at this period was produced in France, which would have given a slight purplish taint. The analysis of the glass points to the glass source in Pennsylvania. 

C: Sounds like you have a very packed schedule, do you have any time to relax?

S: Yes. I’ll go on to geological field trips from time to time. I am also a drummer in a band. We mostly play covers of rock and blues music. Actually, the beginning of my band career can be traced back to high school. After that, when I was in the Marines, a couple of us formed a band called the ‘Green Machine’ in Da Nang. We used to play in different clubs in Vietnam. My granddaughter thinks I am really cool!

In case you would like to discover this artistic side of Steve, go visit his YouTube channel! Here’s the link: