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Archaeology and Anthropology At The University of Cambridge

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      20.10.2013 17:34
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      Excellent introduction to archaeology - unfortunately I can't speak for the other strands!

      This review is unfortunately already defunct; the archaeology and anthropology course ceased to exist last year, when it was merged with Politics, Psychology and Sociology, to form the new Human Social and Political Sciences course. However, I feel this review is still worth writing, as in the new course, it will still be possible to take exactly the same modules as in the original arch and anth course, and after the first year, students specialise in one particular area, making it no different to the original courses. I will concentrate mainly on the first year, as this is what will be relevant to most potential students.

      The important thing to remember about Cambridge courses is that there is often many different ways of completing it, and so it is possible for two students doing the same degree to have entirely different experiences. I can only comment on the modules which I have taken myself. In first year arch and anth, there were three compulsory modules: archaeology, which is the study of human past, social anthropology, which is the study of how humans exist in the present, and biological anthropology, which is the study of human evolution, and human adaptation to the environment. You could then take a fourth optional module from a choice of politics, psychology, sociology, international relations, or the cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the new HSPS, exactly the same modules will be available, except none will be compulsory; you can pick and choose whichever four you want. I, however, took a slightly different approach in my first year. Instead of taking the three compulsory modules, there is also the option to switch one of the anthropology choices for an ancient language, either Middle Egyptian, or Assyrian, and if you choose this option, you have to take the paper on the culture of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Being most interested in Egyptology, I chose to learn hieroglyphs instead of soc anth, but I have one friend who chose to drop anthropology altogether, and take both ancient languages! This will still be an option in the new course.

      All Cambridge teaching consists of lectures and supervisions, which vary in frequency depending on subject. Supervisions are classes of 2-3 people which you write an essay for, and then discuss it with a member of staff, as well as talking about the subject more generally. All arch and anth options in the first year consist of two lectures per week, and four supervisions per option per term. This should work out to two a week, but as supervisors don't always co-ordinate with each other, there tends to be fewer at the start of term, and more at the end. In the first year, all modules are examined by exam, one three-hour paper for each at the end of the year.

      The first year is incredibly broad. The archaeology paper is essentially a brief overview of all periods, covering the earliest creation of stone tools, the emergence of agriculture, the emergence of cities, and the emergence of empires. This covers the first two terms, and then the final term contains a series of lectures on issues in archaeology, things such as the management of archaeological sites, and the archaeology of Cambridgeshire. In addition to normal teaching, there are three practicals per term, in which you get the chance to look at the artefacts you here about in lectures. I might be biased because this is my area of expertise, but all the lecturers are incredible. In terms of supervisors, it's pot-luck who you get and are stuck with for the rest of the year. My supervisor was a PhD student who was excellent on Palaeolithic issues, but not so hot on anything else, which wasn't great!

      Biological anthropology looks at issues such as primatology, which is of use because these are our closest living relatives, so help us to understand how human behaviour developed, human evolution through the study of bones, human biological responses to the environment, genetics, and issues such as nature versus nurture. I'm not particularly scientifically minded, so this was my least favourite module, as it's quite heavy on biology. There were two practicals associated with this; one that I couldn't go to because it clashed with another lecture (poor organisation!), and one where we looked at skeletons. Unfortunately, this was a large class, so it was difficult for us to get up close to the bones. The archaeology practicals were much better organised as we were split into groups of 10 for them. Most of the lecturers in this course were incredible, but I do remember being bored to death by a couple. I was incredibly lucky with my supervisor though, as she was the head of department, and was incredibly clever, as well as brilliant fun.

      The course focusing on Egypt and Mesopotamia began with an overview of their histories in the first term, and then moved onto looking at specific issues such as religion, writing, and urbanism. This course was far more historical than the ordinary archaeology course. It was more stable in terms of lecturers; one person should take each of the entire Egypt and Mesopotamia lectures. Unfortunately, the person who usually does Egypt was on sabbatical in my year, so it was a bit more disjointed, but this shouldn't usually be a problem. There are no practicals associated with the course, but there are four seminars spread throughout the year, which is a chance to work as a group and present on a small section of a topic. I've found this course is more reliant on PhD students as supervisors than other courses are, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing; my Egyptian supervisor was great, my Mesopotamian one less so, but then it was her first year supervising!

      The language classes are a bit more intense, firstly because they're a lot smaller, and secondly because they're more interactive. Unlike lectures, each student is expected to contribute and do translations during the class. In this respect, they aren't much different from supervisions, which for language papers happen once a week. The main difference is you work on the set texts in classes, and work on unseen translations in supervisions. Unfortunately, both the lecturer and supervisor have since left Cambridge, so I'm not sure what these classes are like any more, but I know they were brilliant when I took them.

      It is in second and third years that the courses become a lot more specialised. I focus purely on archaeology now, although there is an option to borrow from soc anth or bio anth. The archaeology route will be pretty much the same in the HSPS course. The structure of second year consists of three compulsory modules, and two optional ones. Compulsory ones are archaeological theory, topics in archaeology (such as landscapes, death, religion etc), and a practical paper that is based around lab work. These papers look at archaeology broadly, while the optional papers allow you to specialise in a particular period. Options are broad ranging, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, North and South America, Africa, prehistoric Europe, medieval Europe, and India. The only real gaps are Australia, and China. Instead of the optional modules being examined purely be exam, there is a practical project where you choose a specific artefact to analyse. The third year structure is very similar, with a dissertation replacing the practical paper.

      Despite enjoying my first year, it was second year which I really loved (I've just started third year), as I felt I got so much closer to the academics and learnt more about the practice of archaeology. Part of the course is two weeks of excavation in third term, and then four weeks over the summer, which I loved, and there was a departmental field trip to Northern Italy, a fantastic opportunity to see heritage management in action. My main problem was with the theory paper, which often seemed very abstract and had little to do with archaeology. The practical paper on the other hand, never really went into enough detail; I feel that Cambridge is one of those universities that is excellent for theory and academia, but not so good if you want a job as an actual archaeologist, although the fieldwork experience goes some way towards making up for this. Almost all the lecturers and supervisors are brilliant, although I did have some issues with one very disorganised individual, and my complaints about her to the department were ignored.

      One of the best things about Cambridge's archaeology department is the sense of community feeling. The first year is quite large, but once people have specialised in their second years, class sizes become much smaller, and you get to know everyone. Regular departmental parties mean you get a chance to know the staff really well too. The Archaeological Field Club is supported by the department and holds regular talks, while their feast is one of the highlights of the year.

      In terms of facilities, the library isn't the best. It certainly has a good selection of books, but the popular ones are almost always out on loan. I haven't found this to be too much of a problem in second year, but it was a massive issue in first year, although might decrease now there's no compulsory modules. The library itself isn't great to work in, as only two desks have plugs for laptops. thankfully, the incredibly uncomfortable chairs have been replaced this year, a significant improvement! The department boasts a range of other facilities, all sorts of labs, including a computer suite. However, most of these aren't available for undergraduate use; the computer suite for example, is only open to undergraduates for two hours a week.

      I can only give my views on a very small section of the arch and anth course, and an even smaller section of the new HSPS course. Because of this, I've focused more on first year than second, as my experiences here will probably apply to a larger number of people. I hope this review will be useful for anyone considering archaeology at Cambridge though, because it really is a fantastic course, even if it is now hidden away inside HSPS!

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