Aman Kang grew up in the small country town of Leeton, NSW, on her parents’ vineyard.
“It was a huge outdoorsy experience and I think that's why archaeology suits me so well,” Aman says.
She’s just graduated with a Master of Archaeological and Evolutionary Science from the Australian National University. But before that, she majored in archaeology and completed an Honours thesis as part of her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney. Moving from Leeton – population 7,000 according to the latest census – to Sydney was initially difficult. Canberra, by comparison, hit that Goldilocks sweet spot.
“Canberra felt familiar,” Aman says. “It’s the perfect blend. I see myself living here long term if the opportunity ever arose in the future.”
Aman had heard about the Masters degree from people she’d met during her undergraduate studies and while working as an archaeologist. Memorably, she spoke to an alumna of the degree in the Czech Republic, where they were both excavating Pod Hradem Cave.
There, she worked alongside Dr Duncan Wright, who would become one of her future lecturers.
“People couldn't recommend it enough,” Aman says. “And I really wanted the archaeological science experience. So anecdotally and also from what I was reading about online, it seemed like the right opportunity to enhance my scientific skills that I lacked from doing a humanities degree beforehand.”
She started her Masters just before the pandemic took hold in Australia. In the wake of the travel bans and lockdowns, the overseas field schools she’d been hoping to participate in didn’t eventuate. Still, Aman made the best of the situation.
“The ANU has amazing scientific labs and researchers that are qualified to teach you scientific skills such as stable isotope analysis, zooarchaeological analysis, and human skeletal analysis,” she says. “So I decided that I was going to focus on those areas.”
The Master of Archaeological and Evolutionary Science primarily involves coursework, but also enables students to undertake their own research, which is what Aman did. She applied the skills she learned through coursework to her two self-directed research projects, collaborating with ANU archaeologists.
In her first project, Aman conducted a taphonomic assessment of hundreds of rat bones.
“I successfully identified some species that hadn't been done before by the previous researchers,” Aman says, “and that was able to tell us about the environmental processes that were happening at the time – what sort of environment the cave would have had to be in for such microfauna to exist.”
In an interesting twist of fate, the rat bones were actually from Pod Hradem Cave.
“It was a really fun project because I was able to use my excavation experience, my knowledge, and my familiarity with the site to a project that I never thought I'd be doing in the future when I'd excavated in 2016.”
For her second research project, Aman also focused on rat bones; this time, undertaking a stable isotope analysis, which she says she’s always wanted to learn how to do. She describes both projects as being difficult, but rewarding at the same time.
“I worked ridiculously hard during COVID to keep going, to not give up,” Aman says. “It was extremely challenging to continue with the Masters and do it in the timeframe that I'd set for myself – a year.” (The Master of Archaeological and Evolutionary Science is a two-year full-time degree).
Aman’s efforts across her years at university are continuing to pay off. In October, she’ll be moving to the UK, where she’s landed a Cambridge Australia Newnham Scholarship to do a PhD at the University of Cambridge. Her thesis supervisor pioneered the Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) technique, which Aman will be applying to bone points from Neanderthal-human occupation sites from Palaeolithic Europe. Her aim is to identify the species or genus the bone tools belong to, hoping to provide new insights into the origins of hominid cognition.
“The research question that really prompted me to want to use the technique is understanding that burning philosophical question we have: what makes us human?” Aman says.
As for how Aman has reached this point, she cites doing the Master of Archaeological and Evolutionary Science, as well as her extra-curricular activities while undertaking her undergraduate degree. Namely, serving as President of the Archaeology Society, Chairman of the National Archaeology Student Conference, and her overseas excavation experience.
“I've always been very conscious of the fact that there's always going to be someone in your cohort smarter than you; someone might be getting a few marks more than you,” she says.
“I bring something else to the table which a lot of people can forget about when they're solely focused on their studies. Archaeology is so much more than that: we impact culture and society around us and how we will talk about the past in the future. So that's the sort of thing that I look for when I make those decisions.”
While her parents were initially skeptical of her decision to pursue archaeology, Aman says, they’ve since come around and are now very proud of her accomplishments.
“Coming from an ethnic household, especially in a small farming town like Leeton, I saw my fair share of challenges just to be from a minority background,” she says. “So I think it's a really big achievement not just for my family, but for the Punjabi diaspora, they're so proud that this is possible.”
She adds: “I thought Cambridge was an unattainable dream, let alone finishing this Masters during a pandemic. However, anything's possible if you put your mind to it and if you surround yourself with like-minded people.”
Even as she prepares to leave the ANU, she’s already looking forward to returning.
“The ANU is one of the few places in Australia that does groundbreaking research in archaeology, but also has time for their students,” she says.
“It would be amazing to come back to the ANU one day. I've loved my time here and I can see myself here long term.”
Written by Evana Ho / ANU