Dr Catherine Batt • Head of School in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences
How would you describe your role?
Somehow herding cats sprung to mind! I manage one of the schools within the faculty of Life Sciences. As a school we have undergraduate programmes, postgraduate programmes, research students, staff research projects, commercial work, a whole range of things that the university is involved in, focusing on archaeology and forensics. My role is to coordinate all of that, to facilitate people working within the school to do the things they want to do, both staff and students.
I have been with the University of Bradford for probably 25 years! I came on a one-year contract, initially to run adult education classes in archaeology, and then moved into a lectureship and moved my way through to my current role. Time has gone really quickly.
It’s always exciting to interview someone who has been with the university for so many years. How has the environment and atmosphere around campus changed over the years?
Physically, the campus has changed beyond recognition. The quality of the environment, the green spaces around campus and the buildings have improved enormously to better fit what we do. The general feel around campus feels a lot more open yet integrated. The atrium has helped as well, it has made the campus feel more friendly.
How has the lockdown affected you and your work?
The main challenge has been the uncertainty. At the point at which we first went off campus in March 2020, it was challenging as teaching online was new for all of us, but we knew what we were trying to achieve. The difficult times have been the uncertainties around whether events were going ahead on campus or not, whether teaching would return to campus by a certain date or not. It had a massive impact on the students, and that was very challenging to start with, particularly for postgraduate students because it was very difficult to deliver their master’s projects. We tried to reconfigure what they wanted to do and make sure that they were happy with what they got and that we did the best for them despite not being able to carry out their original plans. Also, some international students were required to return home by their governments which added to the uncertainty. For other international students, it was important to make sure they didn’t feel very lonely, suddenly locked down in Bradford without the stimulus of lectures and interactions with staff. Initially, we spent quite a lot of time reassuring students and trying to provide as much online contact as possible. At that point, it was very challenging because we just didn’t know how long it was going to be a problem for, so the open-ended nature of the situation was difficult.
Personally, I enjoyed working from home because I got into some good habits like going for a walk in the mornings instead of the usual train commute. But the novelty wore off eventually and what I missed most was being around colleagues and being able to talk about things with colleagues and students face-to-face. Being cut off from people was the hardest bit, I missed bumping into people and catching up over a coffee.
What exciting projects are you working on right now?
As a school the most exciting thing that has happened recently is that we were awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Archaeology. We found out just before Christmas and it’s very exciting! The process of writing the submission was exciting because we brought together lots of things we have been doing in archaeology over years and were able to step back and realise how interesting and important it all is. It ranges from Stonehenge to refugee camps in the middle east, from very technical developments in scientific methods, to working with people with bereavement. The award comes with a series of events, like an invitation to the formal dinner at the Guildhall in London to celebrate, and we’re planning events in Bradford as well.
Research wise, being head of the school does mean less time on my research but that’s the price you pay. My research specialism is scientific dating, so telling people how old things are. I’ve worked on projects all over the world; currently in Orkney, the Northern Isles of Scotland. The school has a big excavation project there but haven’t been able to visit the site in two years due to Covid. There’s a chance we’ll make it over in 2022, so I’m really looking forward to getting back to an archaeological site to collect samples, process them and talk about what has happened in the past. We’ve really missed it in the last two years!
You mentioned a few projects, for example, one around a refugee camp and another around bereavement. How does your field interact and work with those themes?
Another person you might enjoy speaking to is Dr Karina Croucher, this is her research, and she can talk to you about it in detail. Part of the research we’re doing is about the wider impact of archaeology, for example, we have a specialism in digital heritage, particularly recording archaeological sites and producing virtual reality interpretations of them. One of our projects has involved collecting data from photographs of sites that no longer exist in locations like Syria, that have been destroyed as part of the war, and creating 3D virtual reality experiences of them. The project team has been to refugee camps in Jordan where there are people who have lived amongst those archaeological sites and have now been displaced and we shared the VR experience with them. This has been really powerful. It’s partly about saying that the heritage was really important and is still recorded in some way, even though it’s not the same thing at all. It’s also about people in those refugee camps being able to show their children where they lived and what it was like. The children can’t remember it now but can at least get some experience of it. It’s about making sure people understand how much that heritage is valued.
In Archaeology we deal with death and burial all the time, and one of our main sources of evidence is skeletons. In fact, we have the largest collection of human remains in a UK archaeology department in Bradford, we have 4,500 skeletons in the store here. That’s a large source of information about people in the past, their diet, how they died, how they were buried and what accompanied their burial and so on. People are often happier to start a conversation about that than their own death and their own burial. What we’ve been trying to do is put these ideas together using archaeological examples as a tool to get people to talk about what they would like to happen when they die or how they would like to remember people that they were close to who have died. For example, we’ve been running Death Cafes, where people talk about all this but starting with the archaeology as a way to open up about subjects that are difficult but important to talk about.
These projects really show how archaeology underpins so many different things. Another example is a project that colleagues are working on around wind farms. There are a lot of wind farms being developed off the coast of the UK and when these offshore wind farms are put in, the archaeological deposits under the sea are being destroyed. Therefore, it is really important that we find a way to record the archaeology before the wind farms go in so that we don’t lose those resources, this presents a lot of technical challenges. This is what attracted me to archaeology in the first place, the wide-ranging things you can do with it.
It had never dawned on me that archaeology could be used across such an array of themes. My mind is a little bit blown!
One of my main jobs is to get that across to potential students and school leavers because it’s a really varied field.
A highlight of your time on campus/ in role so far?
The Queen’s Anniversary Prize is definitely a highlight. Another highlight for me, is graduation. It’s one of the events I ‘ve missed the most during the lockdowns. Seeing students who you have known for three or four years, some of whom have struggled, get to the end and graduate is great. One of the great things about Bradford is that we have students who come from a whole variety of backgrounds. Archaeology departments across the country can be very white middle-class, whereas Bradford is much more diverse. It’s really nice to support these students to make their way successfully through the course and to see their development over that period. Not to mention, meeting their families and supporters and becoming aware of how challenging it has been for some people. For those reasons, graduation is definitely a highlight.
A funny/ embarrassing story from your time on campus?
The most honest student feedback I’ve had was after a lecture from a student who was not very enthusiastic about the subject I was teaching, I teach quite scientific topics, and he came up to me and said, “That wasn’t as boring as I thought it was going to be.”. I decided this probably counted as a compliment!
A surprising/interesting fact about yourself?
That’s quite a hard question. I guess something not many people know about me is that I grew up in Nigeria because my father worked there. I loved living there, it was a great experience as a child and gave me perspective on what it’s like to move from place to place and be a stranger somewhere. I’d love to go back and visit at some point.
What inspires you?
Academically, it’s a combination of the people who have gone before and my current colleagues. I read the work of people who have been in my role before me and I’m inspired by what they have achieved and what they have found out, particularly research-wise. For example, how they have interpreted the archaeological information, how they have developed our understanding of people in the past and how they’ve managed to use that. In the words of Isaac Newton “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”, it feels like I’m building upon the work of people who have come before us. Also, the current people I work with I find inspirational. I find their enthusiasm for their subjects of research and their enthusiasm towards students, it’s inspirational. It sounds cheesy but it’s what has kept me at Bradford for so long and in some ways is what made lockdown difficult, not having in-person contact.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, what would that be?
I think it would be that even when things go wrong you can adapt situations and make it work out for you, for example, I went to university initially to study Physics which was definitely a mistake. But from that, I was able to move to Archaeological Science. At the time, it felt like a disaster, but it was possible to adapt, open slightly different doors and to build from it. When things don’t work out, you can adapt, and move towards something you’re happier with.
If you could time travel 100 years, would you go into the past or the future? And why?
That’s a tricky one. I’d like to go back 1,000 years because there’s a lot that happened 1,000 years ago that we don’t know, we can make educated guesses but there’s a lot of information we don’t know. It would be interesting to see what Bradford was like 100 years ago, it would have been a thriving city with a lot of industry and development going on but I’d like to go 100 years into the future at the moment because it feels like we’re going through a difficult period of time with a lot of uncertainty and I’d quite like to see that things are ok in 100 years’ time and that we’ve managed to address some of the issues around climate change and global inequality. I am afraid that the situation might be worse not better so I’d have to go with the past.
What are you fearful of in the future and what are you hopeful for?
On the global scale, I have to be fearful about climate change because what we see in our archaeology is evidence of climate change that is greater than what we have coped with in the past. The lack of willingness of international governments to deal with climate change and perhaps people on an individual level not realising quite how serious it is, that does make me fearful. That has the potential to disrupt all the ways that we live and much more serious implications for other countries and exacerbating the existing inequalities. My greatest fear is that people don’t realise how big a problem it is until it is too late to rectify, and that’s an impending deadline.
The most hopeful thing in that regard, are the generations coming through. I see in those generations a bit more willingness to not accept the status quo. That’s what makes me most hopeful, and it’s where universities are really important, in providing the generations coming up behind us with the tools to make those changes, it’s a combination of education, awareness and reason.
Can you give a recommendation for a book, podcast, or album that you enjoy?
My favourite podcast has been “The History of the World in a hundred Objects”, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nrtd2/episodes/downloads which is done by the British Museum. Inevitable it has an archaeological theme! They went through 100 objects that changed the world, beginning with the earliest stone tools and finishing with solar powered lighting. They discussed how all 100 objects had changed the way in which people lived, it’s a really good insight into how people had changed the world they’re in and how the world changed them.