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Uncovering the past from an international stage

Students walking through the Quadrangle

Thursday, 21 May 2015 8:29am

Helen Alderson image
Gates Cambridge Scholarship recipient Helen Alderson

University of Otago Master’s student Helen Alderson has won a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship to undertake her PhD in Archaeology in England.

Helen specialises in Oceanic prehistory, working particularly on the monumental architecture of Micronesia. Her work has won her the scholarship, which is funded by Bill and Melinda Gates and will provide for her study at the University of Cambridge.

She is one of 54 international Scholars selected from a total pool of 3535 applicants, who were assessed on their intellectual ability, leadership capacity, academic fit with Cambridge and their commitment to improving the lives of others.

Helen studied at Victoria University before moving to Otago to complete her honours year.

The University of Otago is a world leader in archaeology in the Pacific, Helen says, and she was “really inspired” by the opportunity of studying the “incredible things right on our doorstep which have not been studied in great depth yet”.

“Micronesia has some of the largest monumental landscapes in Oceania, yet is the most understudied Pacific region.”

Her thesis took her to the island of Pohnpei, where she worked on geochemically sourcing the monumental architecture of Nan Madol, a prehistoric hub. “I used the data to examine how the paramount chief’s geographic reach and ability to control labour changed over time.”

By calculating the location of the source stone for the structures, and the size of the blocks, Helen could work out how much power the chief had, and later lost to another when the size and source became smaller and more local.

“One of the things I love about Otago is the way in which it works with the indigenous cultures of the areas it is studying, to offer a complementary perspective.”

This was true of her own thesis, under Dr Mark D. McCoy, which provided a different angle to come to the same conclusion as the oral histories handed down by the Pohnpeian people.

Her two month-long field trip in Pohnpei was a highlight of her thesis. After graduating in 2014, Helen has worked in Vanuatu and Hawaii, and most recently as a consultant archaeologist in Christchurch.

Her dream is to become an academic, preferably in a Pacific Island university, to continue her studies and contribute to the Pacific Island community as it continues its journey of discovery into its past.

Helen will begin the next stage of her career in Cambridge in October this year.

For more information, contact:

Helen Alderson
Tel 027 425 5134

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