In high school, Elise Jakeman really loved history.
“I was a massive history geek,” she confirms, “however, I felt a bit removed from what I was reading and studying. I didn’t feel that, by reading other people’s accounts of historical events, I was really able to participate in it myself.”
Her interest in both history and wanting to explore it in a hands-on way led her to doing archaeology at ANU.
“I’m a Canberra kid, so that was part of the choice,” Elise says. “But ANU is also the best option for studying archaeology in Australia.”
In doing a Flexible Double Degree, Elise completed her Bachelor of Arts, majoring in biological anthropology, last year. She’s graduating in December with her Bachelor of Archaeological Practice (Hons).
“ANU has the most courses to offer for archaeology,” she enthuses. “It has a devoted degree to archaeology but through the FDD you can combine it with a Bachelor of Arts and do complimentary subjects such as biological anthropology and biology, classics – a whole range of stuff.”
Elise’s passion for archaeology saw her participating in five field schools during her studies. She went to the UK twice for the Ribchester Roman Fort excavation, Germany twice for the Nienburg Wölpe excavation, and Tasmania to help excavate the Triabunna Barracks.
“I love learning about archaeology in the classroom, but it wasn’t until my first dig that I realised that I love doing archaeology,” she says.
“To get a proper feel for a site, its history, and how it changed over time, I think you need more than four weeks, so going back really gave me a deeper appreciation of what happened at each site – not to mention that there are as many ways of doing archaeology as there are archaeologists, so going to different sites means you get an understanding of alternate systems and techniques, and you can also develop your own way of doing things.”
She adds: “Going on five field schools has given me the skills I need to get a job. I haven’t just studied its theoretical aspects in the classroom; I’ve gone and practised it in the field.”
The broad experience and exposure Elise has had within archaeology perhaps explains her ability to see gaps in the discipline and go against convention. For her Honours thesis, she used anarchist theory as an interpretive lens to critically examine the use of hierarchical models in investigating Anglo-Saxon mortuary practices – doing what she describes as “applying a new and different theory in order to explore ideas that we’ve never even considered before”.
She explains that for a very long time, in Anglo Saxon mortuary archaeology, archaeologists have been using hierarchy-based models to examine graves and mortuary practices with the intention of finding indicators of social wealth and ranking the social value of age and gender in order to separate ‘classes’ of people.
“The problem is that mortuary practices in the early Anglo-Saxon period are really varied,” Elise says. “So, it’s a really improbable expectation that one, rigid theory will fit all the evidence.”
She thought she’d try applying anarchist theory instead, which no one has done before.
“Anarchist theory can be used to challenge established theories and ways of interpreting evidence,” she says.
“It looks at individuals – their personalities, likes and dislikes, community involvement, friends, foes – all those sorts of things. It can be used to explore alternate ways of constructing identity and doesn’t rely on the assumption of gender roles which match biological sex or even the idea of two genders. It stops treating people as simply numbers or the result of social status and actually looks at them as people.”
“Effectively, it’s completely open-ended and it can be used to go against all the norms.”
Among the people she uncovered through her research were two young males, as indicated by skeletal analysis, who were intimately entwined and buried in the same grave.
“In Anglo-Saxon archaeology, the idea of gendered artefacts is rife – in many situations, preference will be given to a gendered artefact (such as a ‘masculine’ spearhead) over the scientific skeletal sexing,” she says.
“One of these individuals had grave goods that have been traditionally used to infer a feminine gender, despite the remains being skeletally male,” she says. “This burial wasn’t examined further because everyone assumed it was a ‘classic’ gender-conforming pairing of a man and a woman, even though the skeletal reports said otherwise.”
“These two individuals had been marginalised from any gender (non-conforming, alternate, or otherwise) or sexuality conversation because people were disregarding that this could’ve been anything other than what has been classed as a normative, adult male-female burial.”
Elise adds: “I can’t for sure say what the burial represents or what the identities of the pair were – a valuable aspect of my thesis was asserting that we can’t actually explain the meanings behind mortuary practices, because each one is unique and highly meaningful to the people who created them.”
“Instead, through anarchist theory and its principles, I was able to show why we should be exploring alternative interpretations.”
After spending five years studying, Elise is looking forward to her hard-earned break. By the time she crosses the stage to collect her testamur, she’ll have been working as a graduate archaeologist for almost two months with a Canberra heritage consultancy.
“It seems like a really good opportunity to not only do more archaeology but also learn more about the organisational processes, legislation, and heritage factors that go into running excavations,” she says.
“I couldn’t go to work every day doing something I don’t want to do. Archaeology has given me direction and it’s absolutely a passion.”
Elise is keen for other students to pursue archaeology as broadly as she has.
“You walk into a discipline thinking you might want to come out with a particular expertise or an idea of where to go,” she says. “But it’s important to keep your mind open.”
“Two years ago, I wasn’t even sure I was going to do an Honours thesis, never mind what it was going to be on. There are so many different aspects of archaeology – you should try them all!”