Research Spotlight: Derek Pitman



Please introduce yourself?

My name is Derek Pitman. I am a Research Assistant in the Centre for Archaeology and Anthropology in the Faculty of Science and Technology.

What are your main research interests?

My main research interests are predominantly people and how they produce and consume material. Those materials are a direct way of identifying people’s individual identity, the communities they lived within, how their economy was structured and the wider social organisation. So in studying the production and consumption of materials we can gain an understanding of how people lived all those years ago.

How did you become interested in this field of research?

I have always been hugely interested in ‘things’, the things we have on us, the things we wear and the things we use. They are an expression of not just who we are, but our vocational identity, our group identity and our cultural identity. But in truth my interest probably began here at Bournemouth University, I was an undergraduate here 12 years ago.

While many of my colleagues were getting interested in human bones, osteology and excavation, I became more and more interested in how everyday objects are produced and why they exist. On the one hand bones, people and burials can tell you a great deal about that individual, that place and the time. But how people produce and make things tells us, to me at least, a much greater range of information which you can’t access through other techniques and study.

What research are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on the Building Roman Britain project, which is funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund. We are working in partnership with The Roman Baths in Bath and Fishbourne Roman Palace. We are aiming to explore the Romanisation of Britain through a scientific study of Roman building materials: the ceramic roof tiles and the bricks they use in their structures. While they may seem fairly prosaic items, they actually hold the secret to understanding the wider economic and sociological shifts in that period.

During the Iron Age, people predominantly built their structures with roofs of reed and circular walls. When the Romans came to Britain, they built more permanent structures from stone and with ceramic roof tiles. In many ways it’s a genuine expression of Roman identity; perhaps even the greatest expression of Roman identity at the time.

It’s a bit of a paradox, because although it was an expression of Roman culture, they were using resources from the local area, procured from local craftspeople, local quarries or mines and local production centres.  So on the one hand you have an expression of Roman identity and then on the other you have local resource networks, exchange, use and contact which they had to rely upon to maintain their culture. So by understanding the materials used in those structures, we can begin to understand how early Roman settlers interacted with local communities.

What has been the biggest challenge when carrying out your research?

A great deal of my research to date, methodologically speaking, has been trying to incorporate field archaeology, archaeological science and experimental archaeology.

This has been primarily using novel techniques, one of which we use on the Building Roman Britain project: a portable x-ray florescence machine. This allows us to carry out archaeological science very quickly in both the field and laboratory context. But in doing so it produces a significant amount of data, which is almost a burden.

It can be quite difficult to work through that amount of data, but we’ve had support to process it from an Undergraduate Research Assistant – one of our Archaeology, Anthropology and Forensic Science students who has been helping us to gather data, sift through it and make more sense of it.

What advice would you give a researcher starting out in your field?

Archaeology and heritage generally can be a difficult thing to get into, so the real advice I would give to anyone trying to get into our field would be to find something you love. There will be times when it is a struggle; there will be times when financially, emotionally and stressfully where you will find it difficult. But if you’re interested, if you care, if you want to do it, you will find a path through. So anyone starting out either in Sixth Form, undergraduate level or in later life, it would just be to find that area of research that you are interested in and going with what you love.