Meet Victoria van der Haas, an archaeologist who examines the diet of prehistoric people!

How did you choose your field of study?

Ever since I was a young girl I have been interested in the past. The person to thank (and blame) for this is my father, who studied history. He bought be books, showed me documentaries, and took me on numerous museum trips, as he believed it was important for my development and understanding of the world. Through all of this I gained an interest in the past, and particularly archaeology. The idea of finding objects in the soil is of course rather invigorating for a small child. I’m happy to say that feeling never went away. I ended up applying for a bachelor degree in archaeology at Leiden University, partially because they offered such a wide range of topics and I didn’t know yet what direction to take.

So how did you end up choosing prehistory?

Honestly, when I started taking my first-year courses I thought prehistory would be the least interesting subject. Back then I cared about early civilizations, temples in southeast Asia, and how colonialism impacted past (and current) lives. Not to mention, I didn’t have a proper understanding of human evolution yet. It wasn’t until I took a required course called Human Origins that my speciality had been decided. It made me question everything and anything about what made us human. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we headed? So I always like to think prehistory chose me, no the other way around.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

Absolutely. I still doubt myself on many occasions; whenever something doesn\’t go right, when I feel as if I got nothing done, or when I get up to talk at a conference and share research with my peers. It stems from insecurity, a fear of failure, and the good ‘ol “imposter syndrome”. I tackle these feelings a number of ways 1.) to remind myself where I am and how I got there, which is through hard work and dedication, 2.) to step back and take a break, my Ph.D. is important to me but it does not define me as a person, and 3.) to simply talk about it. For me it’s about separating the rational from the irrational thoughts and I do this by talking about my fears and doubts with friends. Keeping it hidden isn’t going to make it go away, and in my opinion, only makes matters worse. The mind can be a toxic environment if you’re not careful. Over time I have come to realize that I am not the only one who occasionally feels like this. I’ve yet to meet one person that has never doubted himself or herself, scientist or not.

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?

My biggest achievement so far is without a doubt to have been part of a team of researchers that found evidence for shellfish consumption and the use of shells for tool production and engraving by hominins on Java, Indonesia. Not only was it a very exciting project to be apart of, but it also introduced me to geochemical analysis. I got to examine volcanic residue from an engraved shell and prepare minerals for isotope analysis.

Apart from the occasional failure and setback in the lab or not getting a grant, my biggest failures in academia would be the times I wasn’t accepted for a Ph.D. position. In the end, it doesn’t matter because otherwise I never would have ended up where I am today. However, I do remember how hurt I felt by being rejected. I took it personally and even considered leaving academia altogether. In hindsight, I’m glad those rejections happened. I think it toughened me up a little and it made me realize that nothing comes easy. If you want something, you have to keep at it. That’s a valuable lesson in a science. I also once glued myself to a deer tooth by accident. That wasn’t a proud moment either.

What is a typical day like for you?

As of right now, it’s not the most exciting I’m afraid. My days mainly consist of interpreting my data and writing my thesis. However, in summer my days are quite different. That’s when I’m usually in the field. As a member of BHAP, I’ve spent a number of years excavating in Hokkaido, Japan and teaching undergraduates how to do archaeology. Excavating is what I always look forward to the most.

In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?

In ten years time, I hope to have a position where I am continuing what I love, which is archaeology. Hopefully, I am able to lead my own research project and share my knowledge and passion for the past with the next generation of scientists. Maybe I will even have written a book or two by then. It is exciting to think what this field will be like in ten years time though. Who knows what kind of fossils we’ll have uncovered by then and what kind of technological advances will be available to us.

If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?

I would tell myself to not be so afraid of failure. It’s ok if you mess up. What’s important is that you get back up again. There’s only real failure in never trying. I’d also tell myself that cargo pants really are the way to go when you’re in the field.


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