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From woolly mammoths to the Bronte sisters


Prof Andrew Wilson

Bog bodies, Bronze Age shields and building 3D digital worlds

As the University of Bradford celebrates winning the Queen's Anniversary Prize 2021 for its outstanding work in the field of archaeology, Prof Andrew Wilson, who is leading some of the University's most cutting edge archaeological projects, talks about his career and reveals how a Roald Dahl book first got him hooked on the subject...

Professor Andrew Wilson can trace his fascination with archaeology, heritage and forensic science back to an obsession that began in childhood. He read Roald Dahl’s The Mildenhall Treasure, one of a collection of short stories that told of the real life discovery by two farmers of a Roman horde in 1946. He also recalls the raising of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, in Portsmouth in 1982. 

“I was captivated from an early age and my interest in archaeology evolved through childhood. I remember dragging primary school friends to the British Museum to visit the Mildenhall Treasure,” recalls Prof Wilson, from the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford.

After visiting the Jorvik Viking Centre during a family holiday to Yorkshire, he was hooked on all things archaeological. He attended his first archaeological dig in Sussex aged 15, and whilst in sixth form, he helped excavate and record damage caused by the hurricane at the famous landmark of Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs.

Today his research spans a number of areas. He is a world-renowned expert in human bioarchaeology, specialising in the study of ancient mummies, bog bodies and other preserved human remains. By analysing keratin from ancient hair, fingernails and wool, he can tell you what a person (or animal) ate and what their lifestyle was like before they died. Over the years, he has studied remains from Greenland, South America, Egypt, Europe and the UK, and has attended every World Congress on Mummy Studies since 1998.

From woolly mammoths to the Bronte sisters

Prof Wilson was involved in conserving the Late Bronze Age Yetholm-type Shield excavated from South Cadbury, Somerset, which won the Museums & Galleries Commission National Conservation Award in 1999. He has worked with Turner Prize nominee Cornelia Parker to image mourning jewellery made from the hair of the Brontë sisters as part of an exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage called Brontëan Abstracts. He helped excavate a 19th century crypt in Sunderland to recreate tombs in Peru to understand the mechanisms of survival and decay and in arid environments, has worked with the hair of mammoths from Siberian permafrost, and has created detailed interpretations of the life histories of Inca capacocha (child sacrificial victims) from Volcán Llullaillaco, often described as the world’s highest archaeological site.

He lists these as “trigger points”, linking an interest in the survivability of buried materials and human remains with conservation, analysis, forensic science and most recently the use of digital innovations for heritage and archaeology. For more than 10 years, he has built up the University’s capabilities in digital documentation for 3D imaging and visualisation, now under the banner of ‘Visualising Heritage’.

Digital future

The future of archaeology is digital, says Prof Wilson, citing the University of Bradford's ‘Visualising Heritage’ project, which at its heart is about making archaeology more accessible and understandable, to both academics and the public. He cites two Bradford projects - Digitised Diseases and  Fragmented Heritage as examples.

“The digitisation of archaeological collections and sites is important because it not only helps to preserve their relevance - and prevents damage through repeated handling - it also enables anyone to gain access to them. A good example being the University of Bradford’s collection of human remains within the Biological Anthropology Research Centre, which is one of the largest and best of its kind in the UK and which featured in our collaboration with the Royal College of Surgeons, Museum of London and Museum of London Archaeology.

"Digitised Diseases employs high resolution photo-realistic 3D models of human bones affected by chronic disease. This is now used across the globe in teaching and research within biological anthropology and palaeopathology.

"Our Fragmented Heritage project explores transformative use of digital technologies in the digitisation of bones, artefacts, buildings and even entire landscapes. It seeks to engage anyone as a 'citizen scientist'. It uses the 'web-scraping' of imagery to document heritage at risk within the hugely successful Curious Travellers workflow, which seeks to recreate heritage sites that have suffered destruction through conflict, such as Palmyra in Syria, or natural disasters like earthquakes.

“Of course, heritage is a complex and often quite personal thing, in that it encompasses the physical structures we all recognise in buildings, monuments and landscapes, but also the intangible: the stories, memories and personal recollections of individuals for whom those sites are important.

"We’re now using that approach to connect communities and share heritage narratives with new generations who might otherwise have no experience of the original. We took 3D imagery of sites such as Palmyra to refugee communities in Jordan through the BReaTHe project and explored its relevance for wellbeing." 

He adds: “Our research has tended to take us all over the globe and yet one of the most rewarding aspects is being able to share these leading advances with partners closer to home. The Virtual Bradford project for instance sees a strengthening of ties between the University and Bradford Council, which will deliver an open-source digital twin of the entire city centre. This will support planning decisions, regeneration, manage heritage assets and help to realise Bradford’s ambition of being a leading clean-growth city. 

Additional information 

Prof Wilson is Member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of World Prehistory and a member of the Forensic Archaeology Expert Panel with the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. He is published in major interdisciplinary publications including Nature, Science, PNAS, Current Biology, Nature Scientific Reports and PLoSONE. A jointly-edited book Visual Heritage: Digital Approaches In Heritage Science will be published later this year.

Even before his undergraduate studies, Prof Wilson developed a keen interest in the study of human remains. His dissertation supervisor was due to be the late Prof Don Brothwell (1933-2016), who led research on Lindow Man, the well preserved bog body discovered in 1984. Although Prof Don Brothwell took up a post at York in 1993, he became Prof Wilson's external PhD examiner. From 2004 onwards, he was invited to work with the National Museum of Ireland on their Irish Bog Body Project, together with Prof Don Brothwell and Prof Niels Lynnerup, following the discovery of two Iron Age bog bodies, known as Old Croghan man and Clonycavan Man.  

His first degree was in Archaeological Conservation from University College London and concentrated on approaches to reveal, document and preserve information embodied in fragile materials - anything from earthenware ceramics excavated from burial mounds on the South Downs through to corroded metalwork and human remains. He honed a passion for archaeological science after graduation when he moved to Washington DC to work for a year-and-a-half at the Smithsonian Institute, where he examined protein (blood) residues on stone tools, and more specifically, what such residues could tell us about the people who lived in the past. 

The parallels with forensic science are clear. The fact that the discipline of Forensic Archaeology was first established through casework at Bradford was one of the factors in selecting Bradford for postgraduate training, where he gained an MSc in Osteology, Paleopathology and Funerary Archaeology, in a programme run jointly with the University of Sheffield.