Saturday, January 12, 2013

Ask the expert: an interview with archeologist Cory Cuthbertson

In The Vesuvius Isotope, biologist Katrina Stone and Egyptologist Alyssa Iacovani trace a two thousand year old medical mystery, in a race to solve the murder of Katrina's Nobel Laureate husband and save the lives of thousands.  When the "Find an Expert" section of Murder Lab was initiated, I was thrilled to hear from paleoanthropologist, paleolithic archeologist and linguist Cory Cuthbertson.  Below is an interview with Cory, describing the profession and how her experiences can play into your next thriller.  

Cory is also a professional jewelry designer - please visit her online shop.

1) Tell us a little bit about yourself.  What is your education and background?
I'm a 28 year old Canadian expat living in Britain with my wonderful English husband.  I grew up in the wilds of Vancouver Island, which made me interested in natural history.  But I was also very interested in languages, and the nature of language itself.  So I moved to Vancouver after high school to do a BA in linguistics.  During the degree I became interested in language's origin and how and why it evolved in the first place.  This led to minoring in archaeology and studying the Palaeolithic, since that is the timespam during which language would have evolved.

I moved to England to do a Masters at UCL in London, and did a degree in the mouthful 'MSc in Palaeoanthropology and Palaeolithic Archaeology', with a dissertation focussed on the evolution of language.  I'm hoping to start a PhD in archaeology starting next Autumn, and am currently working on applications and a project proposal.  Very nervous!

2) Are you currently working in the fields of linguistics, paleoanthropology, and/or paleolithic archeology?

Not yet, but I want to be a university lecturer one day!  Currently I'm a self-employed crafter, selling my handmade book-themed jewellery online ( and working at my kitchen table. I did work in university fundraising after my last degree, but have
gone full time with the jewellery since it has taken off - I literally got to quit my day job!

3) Please explain to the layperson: what is the difference between paleoanthropology and paleolithic archeology?

This is a great question, and I remember being really confused about it!  There is a lot of overlap between the two, as they both concern humans in the past.  Palaeolithic means 'old stone age', when people didn't farm or have metal technology, and tools were made of stone,
bone, or wood.  The Palaeolithic begins with the first stone tools that have been found (2.6 million years old, so it covers an incredibly long period of time and space!).  Archaeology is the study of human cultural material (so coins, stone tools, a building foundation, pottery...).  And we mean 'humans' in the broad sense - we study all ancestral species back to the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees (our closest living relative) 6 million years ago.  That's why we include Homo erectus and Neanderthals etc.  So Palaeolithic archaeology is studying human and human ancestors' materials from the Palaeolithic period. While anthropology is the study of humans, palaeoanthropology is the study of humans during the palaeolithic, but based on their fossils and bones.

So you could say palaeolithic archaeology = stones, and palaeoanthropology = bones!  

Archaeologists are the one who go off in the summer to dig holes, and have tell-tale muddy boots, while palaeoanthropologists are in the lab with a skeleton under bright lights, with clean fingernails and white coats :)  That's my impression anyway!

4) I envision archeologists constantly digging for fossils.  How close am I?  Please describe the typical workday for someone in this field.

Archaeologists do dig, but it's often for things that are too recent to be fossilised.  Historical archaeologists might dig an old medieval church site for example.  The skeletons that archaeologists find are often just good old bones (if you're so lucky)!

If you work as an archaeologist, you are probably doing research with a university, or working as a commercial archaeologist.  Commercial archaeologists will work for a company that might be hired to excavate an area because construction is threatening to destroy the site.  You don't make very good money in this work unfortunately, and it's very gruelling and unstable if the economy means that there's not much development!  I imagine it's like being a construction worker, but one that holds a trowel in a 1mx1m pit for 8 hours a day and draws what he sees every so often.

Research is what I want to go into - this means you either work on funded projects for a university, lecture students, or both!  As an archaeologist you get grant funding for research projects, which might include excavating a site that would benefit what you are studying. If you get the appropriate permissions, you can collect a bunch of little minions (like me) who are willing to not get paid (in fact sometimes you have to pay for your own room and board), and dig in the sun for long hours every day!  It's actually a fantastic way to travel and make friends, and though most people have some training or formal schooling in archaeology, lots of excavations take on people with no experience at all!  Google 'volunteer archaeology' or ask a local university department if you're interested in learning to excavate yourself! :)

5) Is field work/travel-related work a part of your job?  If so, where did you go and for what purpose?

Not all archaeologists dig, but most have experience of excavation. As part of an archaeology degree, you have to complete a certain number of weeks digging on a site, learning how to survey, take care of finds, etc.

As I didn't do my undergrad degree in archaeology, my first ever excavation was during my Masters - where I met my husband who also studies archaeology!  I guess you could say he is my best find :)  We met in central Spain, where we were both volunteer excavators.  Then
last summer I went on my second excavation in the Poitou region of France, digging a site with both Neanderthal layers and modern human layers!  It was amazing, and the stone tools we uncovered were beautiful.  I do love stone tools, and my husband is learning how to make them himself - youtube 'flint knapping' if you want a lesson! It's MUCH harder than it looks!

Another reason I travel for archaeology is to attend conferences, to hear about the latest research, and meet and network with people doing similar research.  I love attending conferences around archaeology and language evolution, and earlier this year I presented two posters in Kyoto, Japan! It's a great excuse for a vacation!

6) Have you ever seen or experienced anything in your work that would make good material for a thriller novel?

When you're digging you're often in a really remote location, with a group of strangers who all really quickly become great friends, often from all different parts of the world.  Sometimes you're camping and it can be a bit spooky - or you're in a tiny village where you don't speak the language.  Or you're exploring a cave or deep in a forest where you can get lost.  So it's all really unfamiliar settings to people, which could be great for a thrilling plot!

7) Please tell our readers anything else you would like them to know about you.

I'm thinking I might like to start doing book reviews of independent authors on my blog.  I'm not a big fantasy fan (except if it involves zombies), but I love any stories that are in any way historical or post-apocolyptic.  Please be in touch if you would like me to review your novel!

8) Please provide your website address or other contact info that you would like our readers to have.

I used to have a blog on my archaeological musings:, but I haven't been posting for about a year.  My new year's resolution though is to start it up again!  My much more active blog is for my jewellery business, Coryographies, where I make book-themed jewellery, and I write about life as a self-employed crafter learning the ropes:  My online shop is on Etsy:  I can also be reached by email at coryographies (at)

Cory, please stick to that New Years' Resolution and start up the archeology blog again!  If Cory's work interests you, I highly recommend picking up thriller Carved in Bone, by Jefferson Bass.  Read a bit about it here.


  1. Kris,

    you have your bases covered. This is great and thank you for introducing folks like Cory to the world.

    Great Job.