Spotlight on Stephen Shennan

1 March 2012

Spotlight on Stephen Shennon

This week the spotlight is on Stephen Shennan, Director of the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am now in my seventh year as Director of the Institute of Archaeology. With more than 150 staff, including our field archaeology unit, and more than 600 students, it’s by far the largest archaeology Department in a British university and one of the biggest in the world.

This makes the running of the Institute a complex and challenging operation! There are always issues to be addressed and you never know what the day’s emails are going to bring. I have an excellent set of administrative and academic colleagues who take on many of the key tasks and carry them out brilliantly, but they just keep on increasing.

Now, like everyone else, we’re heavily involved in preparations for the REF [Research Excellence Framework] and at the same time we’re rethinking our undergraduate syllabus in response to the £9,000 tuition fees and the increased emphasis on employability.

Archaeology as a discipline is fortunate in that it already incorporates both quantitative and qualitative approaches and, through fieldwork, the development of teamwork and organisational and interpersonal skills, which are so valued by employers. This makes it possible for an Archaeology degree to lead to an enormous range of different careers - though sometimes parents need to be convinced of that.

This year is the Institute’s 75th anniversary – it was founded by the legendary Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1937 – and a lot of special events have been arranged, not least a series of five Inaugural Lectures in the first half of this term by recently promoted Professorial colleagues.

This is an opportunity to show the world why they’ve been promoted and I must say I’m rather in awe of the way that they’ve all been able to get to the heart of their subject and convey it to a broad audience.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I’ve been at UCL for more than 15 years. I came here as Professor of Theoretical Archaeology and my main interests concern the way in which we can use ideas and methods from evolutionary biology to help explain the past. Before that, I was at the University of Southampton for 20 years, working my way up the academic ranks.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

It’s an honour to be Director of the Institute of Archaeology, a post with quite a weight of illustrious tradition. I was pleased that my colleagues wanted me to continue when my first term came to an end, since the respect of this large number of very bright and often critical individuals is not to be taken for granted.

I hope they haven’t regretted it! I very much enjoy facilitating the progress of colleagues and students and it’s great to be in a position to do so.

What is your life like outside UCL?

My wife is Professor of World Cinemas at the University of Leeds so we see a lot of films and spend a lot of time on trains. It’s refreshing to be able to escape for walks in the Yorkshire Dales occasionally.

Other than that, I still continue rock-climbing, which I started as a teenager, but these days it’s mostly weekly visits to the indoor climbing gym in London - fortunately only three minutes walk from home.