Graduate Student of the Month - Deirdre Elliott

Deirdre Elliott is a third year PhD student in archaeology. She earned her MA in archaeology from Memorial in 2017, and a BSc in anthropology and biology from Laurentian University in 2014. She has spent the last five years working on various archaeological projects throughout Labrador, near Rigolet, Hopedale, Hebron, and in the Torngat Mountains National Park. Her research is funded by a SSHRC-CGS doctoral scholarship, and through various internal and external research grants. What she loves most about what she does is the stories – the stories she hears when she’s in the field and the stories she is able to tell through her research.

How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?

MUN’s archaeology graduate program was recommended to me by alumni and industry professionals, and is one of the few MA archaeology programs in Canada (most are part of anthropology departments). Reasonable tuition and funding packages meant that I would be able to focus on my research. My masters research raised new questions, and the archaeology department had been such a great place to explore and develop new skills that I decided to stay for my PhD.

What drew you to explore archaeology originally?

It was a bit of a happy accident, really. While in my third year of an undergraduate degree in biology, I took an introduction to anthropology and archaeology course as an elective. When I went to the prof’s office one day to ask about an assignment, she (the talented Dr. Alicia Hawkins) asked if I was there about the lab assistant job. Being a broke student, I said yes. (I don’t think I have ever told her that story – sorry, Alicia!) In that lab, identifying tiny fragments of fish bones, I found what I had been missing in biology – a deep connection to people and to history, and the ability to tell a story. I think I added anthropology as a major later that week.

Can you tell us a bit about your current projects?

My main project is delving into the history of whaling and use of whale products by Inuit in Labrador. Whales have always been tricky to deal with archaeologically, because they leave fewer traces than other animals (you don’t haul a whale skeleton home unless you really have to), and because their products were used in so many different ways – food for people, food for dog teams, oil for heating and lighting the home, bone and baleen for making the objects of everyday life and even for building houses, and as highly valued trade goods. Whales have therefore occupied this liminal space – sidelined by archaeologists who study artifacts (and not animals), and excluded by those who study animal remains (and not artifacts). I am having to get a bit creative and use a variety of techniques to draw whales out of the archaeological record. In addition to re-examining existing archaeological collections, I collect soil samples to look for very small traces of whale bone (chips and shavings from carving activities), and I use drone photography to compare site formation processes between whaling and non-whaling sites. I have been so fortunate to include sites from throughout Nunatsiavut, from Rigolet to the Torngat Mountains National Park. This geographical breadth is necessary because access to whales and whale products and to other products for which whale products were traded varies geographically, and so whales were likely important in different ways in different places. I think the roles whales played in Labrador Inuit life in the past is an important piece of the puzzle. And whales make for such interesting history!

This project is a true leviathan, and has since spawned a few other projects. Hunting whales seems to have been connected with so many other aspects of life. Through piecing together the different roles whales played, I have been able to research long-distance travel and trade routes, relationships between Inuit communities in the past, and relationships with other animals. Understanding how all of these facets of life were interwoven is important for reconstructing a coherent and meaningful narrative of the past.

A supervisor can be key to the success of any grad student. What does your supervisor bring to their role as your advisor and mentor?

Having the right supervisor is definitely important – and I have two! Dr. Pete Whitridge, who was also my MA supervisor, has produced some of the most influential research concerning Inuit whale hunting from the central Arctic, providing important context in which to ground my own research in Labrador. Pete also has a brilliant theoretical mind, and encourages me to explore new ways of thinking about and tackling my research questions. Dr. Lisa Rankin has been great at drawing links and seeing where my research fits within the grand scheme of things. Lisa’s experience in working with and for communities in Labrador toward mutual research goals is something I strive for – fostering respectful and candid relationships and friendships is crucial in my research. I rely on community support in ways spanning from project design and permitting all the way through to protection against bears and emergency boat rescues when the weather gets scary. My research wouldn’t be (and shouldn’t be) possible without that community support.

How does studying in the humanities and social sciences affect your worldview?

It has made me realize that in any problem, there might be a multitude of different perspectives to consider, and all of those perspectives might make the problem seem so complicated as to be insurmountable. But studying in the humanities has simultaneously made me realize that just because a problem is complex does not mean it is not worth solving - these can be the problems that matter the most. Just try harder.

What, in your opinion, is one thing Newfoundland and Labrador could do to make the province more attractive for young people and/or immigrants?

Better access to basic health care (more walk-in clinics please).

What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?

The archaeology department is just fantastic. I have the academic freedom to go wherever my research leads me, and I’ve received a lot of support and encouragement in pursuing collaborative projects with other students or faculty both within and outside of the department, and trying new techniques and technologies. The department was also enormously supportive when I expressed a desire to improve our zooarchaeological research facilities. The reference collections I was able to organize and create are among my proudest accomplishments, and it would have taken me decades without their support.

What do you hope to do after completing your graduate degree?

I have a few ideas in mind for a post-doc that would allow me to expand my research, but really I plan on winning the lottery and buying a zeppelin to travel the world. I think the odds are about even there.