Helen Alderson decided to become an archaeologist when she was nine years old, reading the Greek classic, the Odyssey.
After she’d added it to her spelling list, she set out on a path from her home in Nelson that this year will take her to the University of Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge Scholar.
Her journey brought her through Victoria University to Otago to complete an honours degree and a Master’s degree in Archaeology, specialising in Oceanic prehistory, working particularly on the monumental architecture of Micronesia.
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 yet been studied in great depth”.
“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.
It was the knowledge and contributions of her Otago supervisors to their fields which drew her south to study. But Helen is also keen to point out the many other advantages of the Otago Anthropology and Archaeology Department – not least “the amazing labs”. “The state of the art equipment and the accessibility granted graduate students is really great. Plus the ability to tutor – I found that opportunity really beneficial – sometimes you learn more teaching something.”
That experience is likely to hold Helen in good stead once she completes her PhD at Cambridge on her fully funded scholarship – one of only 54 international Gates Cambridge Scholars and the only New Zealander so rewarded this year.