Profile with Catherine Frieman

Catherine Frieman (Connecticut & Merton 2005) is a Lecturer in European Archaeology at the Australian National University. She previously taught at the University of Nottingham and was a research fellow at the University of Oxford. Her research interests include material culture, archaeological theory, and flint, ground-stone and other lithic technologies. Catherine holds DPhil and a MSt from the University of Oxford and a BA from Yale University, all in Archaeology.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Catherine Frieman: Where my books are! I’m onto continent number three and country number five. I don’t really get attached to places. The big moment moving here was when my books and the books that I’ve had stored at my parents’ house for 8 years finally showed up. It was a moment of “Ah, my babies have finally come back to me!”

 Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Catherine Frieman: I wanted to be an archaeologist, except when I was four. When I was four, I wanted to be a garbage-truck driver because I thought the trucks were cool. But by the time I was seven or eight, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I was the kid who checked all the books on Egypt out of the school library at least ten times a year.

Rhodes Project: What surprised you most about Oxford?

Catherine Frieman: A good surprise was how easy it was to live there and not feel so foreign, because there are people from all over the place. A bad surprise was how difficult people found it to step outside their discipline and have conversations outside of their world. As an undergraduate in the states, my friends and I would have all these late night conversations about philosophy, politics, or television. It took me years at Oxford to find people I could talk with like that.

Rhodes Project: If you hadn’t gone into archaeology, what else might you have done?

Catherine Frieman: I really doubt I would have done anything but archaeology. It’s been a passion of mine for so many years. I read constantly and write a decent amount, but I never found English classes very stimulating as an undergraduate and I doubt I could hack the life of a free-lance writer.

Rhodes Project: What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened to you in the last year?

Catherine Frieman: When I was in Japan last June for the first time, I was visiting a colleague who took the opportunity to dare me as an “Anglo” to eat things he thought would horrify me because I had told him, “I’ll eat anything you put in front of me, anything at all.” So he took me up on it! I was eating raw horse sashimi, whale tongue, etc. and he wouldn’t tell me what any of it was until I’d already eaten some of it.

Rhodes Project: Are there any aspects of the field of archaeology that you wish students learned in school? If so, which ones?

Catherine Frieman: It would make my life a lot easier if they learned any of it! But there are three things I would like to get across.

First, the Romans are not that interesting! You want interesting from that period? Han China, or even earlier, Shang China! Amazing stuff – that should be in schools all the time.

Secondly, everywhere has archaeology. When I was in Britain I would get these smug Brits going “Oh, clearly you’re working in Europe because there’s no real archaeology in North America.” There’s amazing stuff in North America! People just don’t get taught it in schools. St. Louis for example is built on the edge of a major pre-Columbian urban centre. There are all these impressive sites that you don’t learn about unless you’re local.

Thirdly, I’d love people to think more about time-depth. You always hear historians go, “Oh it was so long ago, a thousand years” or political scientists say, “The ancient structures of society and barter systems in the 16th century.” Human history is so much longer, and we know so much more about it than most people realise!

Rhodes Project: Have you found any differences between teaching in the UK and teaching in Australia in how students approach the material?

Catherine Frieman: American students get trained up in a system where you’re expected to have opinions and debate. Oxford to a certain extent works the same way where you teach students and expect them to talk back to you. They do a lot of reading, but they’re not necessarily as good at forming their own opinions on reading as Americans are. Over here though, they have a thing they call “Tall Poppy Syndrome” – that is, it’s the tall poppy that gets the shears. Nobody wants to stand out; so they do a canny guessing and judging game and if it looks like nobody in their reading group has read one paper, they won’t admit to reading it. They’re protecting themselves – you don’t want to stand out or seem like you’re putting yourself above people around you.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite past project?

Catherine Frieman: The best thing I worked on were with these beautiful 4,000 year old Scandinavian flint daggers. They are absolute artworks of stone working, and I got to go into museums and handle some of the nicest in the world. There’s one in Denmark that’s called the Hindsgavl dagger and it’s a national treasure. I actually got to examine it, though I had three curators staring over my shoulder while I did so! It was a really spectacular experience.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to devote to any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Catherine Frieman: There are a lot of big picture problems like climate change, poverty, hunger which are constant problems, and which a lot of my Rhodes classmates are actively trying to ameliorate. But, if we’re talking hypothetical situations, one thing I’d really love to see happen because I don’t really think it’s on most peoples agendas – and I have no clue how you’d do it, and I don’t think all the resources in the world could do this – is that I would love to get people more involved in local politics. I’m a big believer in that change comes from the ground up, and unless people feel like they have control of their local systems and a say in how their communities function, they won’t feel as empowered to demand change on national or even international levels.

Rhodes Project: What’s something you’re looking forward to?

Catherine Frieman: I’m looking forward to running a small excavation in Cornwall early next year. A British colleague and I are going to be excavating a later prehistoric (probably Iron Age-Roman period) hillfort in April 2014. There’s almost no history of archaeology in this corner of Britain (which is insane) so getting this field project off the ground is a BFD.

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