Women in Science: 10 minutes with a Materials Scientist

As part of our Women in Science series, we spoke to Sarah Paynter, Materials Scientist at Historic England, about how her work informs our understanding of the past.

What do you do?

I use scientific analysis to identify what ancient objects, building materials and archaeological finds are, and to find out more about them – for example, where they came from and when they were made.

A site visit to discuss rare Late Iron Age iron smelting furnaces (me on right) © Sarah Paynter

Why is your work important?

It is so important to know about the past, and understand and protect our heritage, and science is an essential part of that. We can now date sites and objects with amazing accuracy; we can look at trade routes, diet, population movements, health, technology, fashion and beliefs.

Science adds an extra layer of interpretation that you just can’t get in any other way. If we are wise, we can learn from the actions of our ancestors and it puts what’s happening in our lifetime in context – it gives you a much broader sense of perspective if you think on an archaeological or even geological scale.

Why should we protect historic sites?

There are well-established monetary reasons for conserving heritage, like tourism and the positive effect that it has on the prosperity of an area, but there are other sides to it as well; enjoyment, education, or celebrating local skills. Also, even if there is nothing visible above the ground, there may be lots of material still buried that we can learn from, but it is very fragile and easily damaged by human activity, so we need to look after it.

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Analysis: using a portable machine to analyse one of the statues in the stunning grounds of Osborne House © Sarah Paynter

What first got you interested in this kind of work?

I worked in industrial research science for a few years then applied to do a PhD on ancient ceramics because I’d been experimenting with pottery for a while. I enjoy the detective work of trying to understand why something happens, but also actually making things, and I’m very lucky that this role combines both.

What skills are useful for your profession?

A good grounding in chemistry, materials science or geology, and an understanding of archaeology and history. It’s also useful to be able to translate scientific findings for a non-scientific audience.

Roman glassmakers (2)
Experimental archaeology: a Roman glassworking furnace, created by Mark Taylor and David Hill, known as ‘the Roman glassmakers’. © Sarah Paynter

What has been your most exciting find / favourite site / best project you’ve worked on?

There are lots of things, but I have really enjoyed working on Roman glass with Professor Caroline Jackson at Sheffield, and the Roman Glassmakers in Andover, because we have tackled it from all angles: we have looked at archaeological objects, read the accounts from the time and tried making it, and it’s completely changed our views.

I was also excited to work on early types of photograph with the English Heritage collections team, including some of the Darwin family, because those were very personal objects belonging to a scientist that had a huge influence on our view of the world. The photographs of the Darwin children were very moving.

What would you say to aspiring young women scientists?

If there are far higher ratios of men to women in your field, it can be a bit intimidating. I found it helps to collaborate with other women because we can give each other support and confidence, but we still need more women scientists in senior positions where decisions are made, on editorial boards and funding bodies.

Another issue is the compromise between career and raising a family. It’s difficult trying to do it all at the same time. Like most people, my priorities have changed at different stages, so I am lucky to have an employer that supports flexible working. With research it helps to keep one foot in the door if you can (I work part-time), because science moves on pretty quickly, and  it’s a bit harder to catch up after a long break.

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The skill of Roman glassworkers: this glass is completely colourless, beautifully cut and perfectly preserved despite being 2000 years old © Sarah Paynter

Do you have a project wish-list or ambition for the future?

I would like to keep working on  collaborative projects so that we can look at changes across a big area or broad time span. These sorts of projects always stand out for me, because they have the potential to really turn the way we look at a particular culture or time period on its head.

Who do you admire, within your profession or otherwise?

There are lots and the list grows all the time, but personally I very much admire my mum of course, who is hard-working, resilient and brave. Professionally I have learned a great deal from particular colleagues and collaborators, who work very hard to juggle lots of different roles, at home and work, and really care about what they do.

Further Reading

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