Dr Reb Ellis-Haken is an archaeologist who specialises in animals and humans in La Tène and early ‘Celtic’ art. She’s been carrying out innovative research in digital imagery with ideas about art and society.

British Archaeology is a publication from the Council for British Archaeology — an educational charity. It focuses on the latest archaeology news, discoveries, and research within the UK and from British Archaeologists working overseas.

1) What inspired you to get into archaeology?

I remember watching ‘Time Team’ as a kid with my parents and being fascinated by this ‘otherworld’. I was also lucky enough as a teenager to be invited onto a community archaeology project in Leeds. After that, and after becoming involved with a local society (South Leeds Archaeology) where I learned to excavate on sites all over West Yorkshire, I was just hooked. I loved the scientific process, I loved the exploration, and I loved being able to share that with people. As someone who never found a passion in school, it was finally a subject that I felt a genuine interest in, and I never looked back.

2) Why do you specialise in animals and humans in La Tène/early ‘Celtic’ art?

I was first introduced to this art style during my MA course at the University of Bradford and I immediately saw a challenge outside of my comfort zone. At the time, I was looking for a dissertation topic that would help expand and develop my CV, and I felt that this was the artefact-based challenge I needed. So in a way the start was very unpassionate and practical.

But this soon turned into giving a voice back to the populations that have long been overshadowed by the Roman Empire. In the first centuries BC and AD in particular, the focus is so often on Roman movement, the influx of Roman goods, the fashions of Roman aesthetics. But focusing on the specifically local Iron Age aspect allows us to give a voice back to these groups and helps to dispel these very old-fashioned myths of unintelligent, violent, barbarians.

3) Can you tell us about what you’re doing with digital imagery in your research?

One of the problems we sometimes have in archaeology is not being able to disseminate publishable, high-quality images of important artefacts for academic (non-commercial) purposes. This means that we cannot easily analyse and incorporate artefacts effectively into our current research projects, nor share them easily with the public. Then, as illustrated by recent work on the Marlborough Bucket, taking high quality imagery can help you see details which are no longer easily visible with the naked eye, and these can help us to understand the artefact so much more. So my approach is not only about making a record of an object available for the public and the profession alike (working with the institutions that look after these objects), but also using these images as a means of artefact analysis.

‘The Marlborough Bucket: A Symbol of Alliances?’ by Reb Ellis-Haken (November/December 2022 issue of British Archaeology)

4) Why is the Marlborough Bucket one of the most important surviving artifacts from 1st century BC Britain?

The Marlborough Bucket is the most figuratively decorated vessel of its kind in Britain, despite its fragmentary state. So when we know so little about how figurative decoration was used as a vehicle of social communication in late Iron Age society, it is immediately of interest and of value to us as researchers.

Given that it is in Britain, and that some of the imagery appears to be of specifically Gaulish symbols (e.g. the horses like the style of those seen on coinage of the Parisii of the Paris Basin), it is also representative of long-distance social relationships with Europe. Yet, it is in a location which is well away from other bucket burials in south-eastern England (e.g. Hertfordshire and Kent, which are much smaller but also highly decorated vessels), which means we don’t quite fully understand why it is where it is.

So the Bucket isn’t just important for those of us looking at what it may symbolise with art, but tells us so much more information about long and short distance social connections between Late Iron Age populations during this period, which is a complex time with lots of changes seen in the archaeology such as the building of oppida, changes and development of burial rites, combined with the political upheaval of the Gallic Wars.

5) And finally, are you currently working on anything that you wish to share?

Currently I am working on post-doctoral fellowship research applications, and am focusing on writing a book based on my doctoral thesis ‘Animals in the La Tène period art of England and Wales’, which I hope will be out next year.

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Thank you for taking part in the #MeetTheContributor series, Reb!

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