Trailblazing woman in Archaeology

  • October 5, 2017
Trailblazing woman in Archaeology

Suzanne Pilaar Birch has combined her research on migration and environmental change with promoting the role of women in Archaeology.

By drilling the teeth we can get their isotope signature. We can see if animals were migrating from different climates through studying their teeth.

Suzanne Pilaar Birch

How do human populations adapt to environmental change? One answer is to look at ancient civilisations who have undergone similar change. Suzanne Pilaar Birch’s research uses oxygen isotopes to investigate animal and human migration patterns in ancient times. The isotopes vary with factors such as temperature and are absorbed into animals' teeth. “By drilling the teeth we can get their isotope signature,” she says. “We can see if animals were migrating from different climates through studying their teeth.”

She has combined her research with working on Trowelblazers, a pioneering website which highlights the often hidden role of women in the fields of archaeology, palaeontology and geology. The Trowelblazers team have given talks and guest lectures at academic conferences about past female archaeologists, geologists and palaeontologists. They have also been consulted over the design of a doll, Fossil Hunter Lottie. This year they have collaborated with photographer Leonora Saunders on a photographic exhibition which has been touring the UK where two of the team are based. Suzanne attended the launch of the Raising Horizons exhibition at the Royal Geological Society in February and the tour continues until early next year. It covers two centuries of women’s achievements in the fields of Archaeology, Palaeontology and Geology and consists of portraits of 14 contemporary women working in these fields and posing as their historic counterparts. There are plans to take it to the US in 2018/19.

One issue that comes up for women is the impact of starting a family on their career. Some of the women Trowelblazers have featured have taken their babies on digs with them. This is a pertinent issue for Suzanne, who has just had her first child, a son. The Guardian recently featured an article on Suzanne and being pregnant on fieldwork.

Archaeology and environment

Suzanne [2010], who was born in New Jersey, had been interested in Archaeology from an early age, although she was intending to major in biology at Rutgers University where she did her undergraduate degree. She soon discovered Human Ecology, however. “I was always interested in Biology and Archaeology,” she says. “I realised I could put them together and study human environmental interaction in the past.”

She majored in both evolutionary anthropology and something called paleoecology, a subject not offered before at the university but which she put together with her adviser at the time. During her undergraduate degree she did several internships, including one at the Smithsonian where she did research on early domestication of sheep and goats and how to distinguish between the skeletal remains of the two.  She looked at changes in the way people managed animals, based on evidence excavated from sites in Iran and Iraq in the 1970s, and published her research in an academic journal in her final year.

For her masters, which she did at the University of Cambridge through a Gates scholarship, she focused on changing human mobility and the transition from hunting and gathering to using domestic animals on one Adriatic island. She was looking at whether existing societies were becoming more sedentary and adopting animals while continuing to hunt and gather or whether other groups were coming in from outside to replace them.

She stayed on at Cambridge, where she was based at St John's College, and did her PhD in Archaeology, also with support from Gates Cambridge.

Research findings

Her research connected changes in diet and human mobility with environmental change in the Eastern Adriatic between 11,000 and 7,000 years ago. This was during the early Holocene period which saw the transition to the introduction of domestic animals and agriculture in Europe. Suzanne studied excavated bones to check what people were eating and whether they were migrating from other areas. She also used stable isotope analysis to study environmental change. She compared these and other evidence from isotope analysis of shells with information on pollen levels to get a broader picture of environmental change at this time.

What she found suggests that people were becoming less mobile and settling into local regions. “They might still be moving around, but they were not roaming so far,” she says, “and they stayed longer in the same place. They were also eating a greater variety of food, including plants, and incorporating shellfish and fish into their diet as sea levels rose.”

During her master’s Suzanne had a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science based on her undergraduate work and then submitted several papers on her research at Cambridge. So far she has published seven articles and book chapters based on her PhD work.

Suzanne graduated in summer 2013. She moved to a post-doctoral fellowship at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University and began work on a new research project. She also taught one class per semester.

Suzanne stayed at Brown for a year and a half and then moved to the University of Georgia to her current position which she describes as “being written for me”. As Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Geography, her role brings together the temporal and spatial aspects of her research. In addition she is Director of the Quaternary Isotope Paleoecology Laboratory and Adjunct Curator of the Georgia Museum of Natural History. She also teaches two days a week and will cut back on this for the next few months while she is on maternity leave while continuing her research work.


Since leaving Cambridge, Suzanne has worked in Turkey, Malta and Cyprus with the aim of reconstructing past environments using the same isotope analysis of animal teeth that she used at Cambridge. In Cyprus she was working on a Bronze Age site – around 5,000 years ago – and in Malta she was researching the Pleistocene era.

Suzanne has been doing her research alongside her work on Trowelblazers. The founding of the organisation dates back to her time at Cambridge. When she was finishing her PhD she won a small Arts and Humanities Research Council grant to develop a social media knowledge exchange project. She made some animated videos to explain her research and began sharing them on Twitter.  Through a conversation on Twitter about how women tend to be “casually erased” from the history of Archaeology, Geology or Palaeontology, Suzanne got together with three other women with PhDs in the disciplines to found Trowelblazers. It aims to highlight women’s contribution across all three disciplines.

“It was the product of a certain time,” says Suzanne. “I was leaving friends in Cambridge and being able to be online and make connections helped me. We had no grand visions at the time. We just set up a blog to write about the women we knew about.”

From humble beginnings, however, it has now become one of the main focuses of her work. “It felt like we had fallen down a rabbit hole and we found out about so many other women,” says Suzanne. “The lone wolf narrative is not true. There were so many connections.”  Trowelblazers launched its website in 2013 and has built a lot of followers on social media. Now Suzanne and her colleagues hardly write at all because they are getting so many submissions, all of which they source and edit. They have built up good relationships with archivists and have, in some cases, been the first site to publish photos of some of the women.

Suzanne says her experience of being a Gates Cambridge Scholar continues to have an impact on her career and that some of her best friends are scholars. She has also advocated for other students to apply for the scholarship. Towards the end of her PhD she worked with fellow scholar Corina Logan on research on red deer. Corina’s work is on animal behaviour. She needed some deer skulls to work on and this overlapped with research Suzanne was doing at the time. “I’m really grateful for the opportunities the scholarship gave me,” she says.

Suzanne Pilaar

Suzanne Pilaar

  • Alumni
  • United States
  • 2008 MPhil Archaeological Science
    2009 PhD Archaeology
  • St John's College

I earned a BSc in Evolutionary Anthropology and Paleoecology from Rutgers University in 2008 and a MPhil in Archaeological Science from Cambridge in 2009. I completed my PhD in Archaeology at Cambridge in 2012. My PhD combined zooarchaeology and stable isotope analysis to identify changes in human diet and seasonal mobility in response to environmental change from the Pleistocene/Holocene transition to the introduction of domestic animals and agriculture (11,000-7,000 years BP) in the Eastern Adriatic.


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