Meet Anthropology student Melissa Herndon

Melissa is a current graduate student in the Department of Anthropology. Her research focuses on the understanding of how climate, environment, subsistence, and settlement patterns influence variations in stone tool technology.

Department, degree, and expected graduation date: MA Anthropology 2017

Current Research:
Broadly, my research interests include understanding how climate, environment, subsistence, and settlement patterns influence variations in stone tool technology.

My current research project centers on the analysis of lithic technological organization during the Late Magdalenian period (roughly 12,500 – 10,500BP) in central Portugal. For my Master’s thesis, I am analyzing a Late Magdalenian lithic assemblage from Lapa do Picareiro, a cave site in central Portugal. This analysis will result in the production of high resolution data sets allowing for a comprehensive understanding of site function at Lapa do Picareiro and enabling a comparative analysis to be conducted with contemporaneous sites in the region to investigate what was occurring regionally, in terms of subsistence practices, settlement, and mobility patterns, during the Late Magdalenian in Portugal.  

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?
Growing up in a small rural town in Indiana, my parents and grandparents always encouraged my curiosity about the world. I never ran out of questions and I always expected answers. One such experience was finding a prehistoric stone point along a creek in Southern Indiana where I grew up. I wanted to know everything about it. Where it came from, who made it, why they made it, etc. Before then, I hadn’t really dwelt on such philosophical questions as ‘who am I?’ and ‘where did I come from?’ But you better believe from that day on, I did. And I wanted answers. So ultimately, it was the curiosity in me – the desire to know more and understand more – along with encouragement from my family that was my inspiration in pursuing archaeology.

You research focuses on lithic analysis, or the study of stone tools. How did you get interested in that and what inspires you to keep digging (pun intended !)?
I became interested in stone tools at a young age when I found a stone point along a creek bed in Southern Indiana. However, the curiosity inspired by that find went relatively dormant until I was offered the opportunity to work in Portugal at Lapa do Picareiro by Prof. Jonathan Haws (department chair, Anthropology) during my undergraduate career in the College of Arts & Sciences. It was while working at this site that I was not only reintroduced to stone tool technology, but to the grater realm of prehistoric lifeways. When looking at stone tools, I get the opportunity to take a brief look into the minds of prehistoric peoples. Preserved forever in stone is a representation of their creativity and innovation in response their environment. It is that connection to prehistoric peoples that keeps me “digging” for more.

What is the last non-required book you read? What made you pick it up?
The last non-required book that I have read was actually a series of books written by Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Honestly, I am not sure what made me pick them up. I just enjoy reading, especially stories that take place in fanciful lands and far off places; they help to make the deadlines and seriousness of daily life less cumbersome.  

You also work as a Research Assistant at the Archaeology Laboratory. Tell me about what you do there and how you got involved in that work?
Yes! I work as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Archaeology Laboratory on campus. I help as a teaching assistant for classes held in the lab, but I also help in the cleaning, curation, and analysis of collections brought to the laboratory.

Do you have any key mentors? Tell me about them.
I have three key mentors and one, whom I like to call, a key advice giver. These guys are simply amazing. They have all challenged me to grow intellectually and hone my curiosity towards an ultimate research objective. They have provided me invaluable advice, constructive criticism, encouragement, and inspiration to pursue my research objectives and beyond.

Prof. Haws (Anthropology) is my primary mentor and advisor. It was at his invitation that I was provided the opportunity to participate in the ongoing excavations at Lapa do Picareiro in central Portugal. His leadership, advice, guidance, and encouragement have been instrumental in my academic and professional success. It is hard to really express the extent to which I owe all that I have learned and experienced in archaeology to him.

There is then Prof. Telmo Pereira (University of Algarve). I have had the pleasure of working in the laboratory at the University of Algarve and in the field at Lapa do Picareiro with him. While being one of my mentors, he is also a dear friend who has provided me with advice, encouragement, brutally honest criticism, and support throughout the past couple of years. I look forward to many more years of friendship, and hopefully future collaboration with him.

Prof. Amanuel Beyin (Anthropology) is the most recent addition to my group of mentors. Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to work with him in the archaeology laboratory at the University of Louisville, and in the classroom both as a student and assistant. He has provided me with countless hours of guidance, constructive criticism, and encouragement. I look forward to growing our professional relationship in the coming months, and hopefully years.

And finally, there is my key advice giver, Philip DiBlasi (University of Louisville). Phil is the curator of the archaeology laboratory here at the University of Louisville and currently that responsibility comes along with having to put up with me. He has provided me with hours and hours of advice, stories, recipes, and encouragement over the past year. While mentors are essential to academic success, I also feel that having someone outside of your mentors is important. Thus, Phil plays possibly the most important role of all. What would I do without Phil?

I cannot express enough how much I owe to these four. Anyone who gets to work with any of them (let alone all of them) should consider themselves extremely fortunate. I know I do.

Tell me about how your research impacts the world outside of academia?
Understanding stone tool technology allows for a brief look into the creativity and resourcefulness of early humans. In a time of reliance on computer technology and its continual advancement, I feel it is important for people to see and understand that innovation is not a new concept, it is something that is at the foundation of humanity’s very survival.

You spent four summers working in the field on the excavation of Lapa do Picareiro in central Portugal. How did you get involved in that opportunity and what has that experience been like?
I was initially provided this opportunity by Prof. Haws because of my interest in archaeology and the desire to gain field experience. Participating in the excavations at Lapa do Picareiro has been rewarding in so many ways. Not only am I getting to work at an immensely fascinating and complex archaeological site, but I am being introduced to individuals from all over the globe, and from all sorts of varying research backgrounds. Being a part of a multidisciplinary collaboration such as this has taught me to never look at things from one perspective, that to truly understand something you have to look at all the interworking parts.

As the field seasons have passed and the excavations have transformed our view of the site, I have also seen transformations within myself occur. The experiences I have had working on this excavation have resulted in my own academic transformation.

What is your goal as a researcher? What do you see as the bigger picture of your involvement in scientific research?
As a researcher, I want to better understand the pressures and processes acting on prehistoric peoples that led to the production and development of various stone tool technologies. Specifically, I want to understand the relationship between climate, environment, subsistence, settlement, and how those result in (or not) variability in stone tool assemblages.

I feel that my current research focusing on the stone tool assemblage from the Late Magdalenian layers at Lapa do Picareiro will help shed some light on the relationship between environment, climate, subsistence, and settlement patterns at the end of the Pleistocene in Portugal. It will also allow for more regional comparative studies to be done to provide a holistic picture of what was going on in the Pleistocene in Western Europe.

Anything you'd like to add?
Part of what makes my research so fascinating is the people I get to work with along the way. In our department there are so many students, past and present, and professors who are doing amazing things that I have been fortunate enough to work with and learn from. I not only look forward to see what the future brings me, but to see what amazing things lay in store for those I work alongside.