Riggs Hoenecke Undergraduate Award supports undergraduate Anthropology majors and minors, or any undergraduate with an interest in anthropology, in learning outside of the classroom. Isabel Matias, archeology anthropology junior, received the Riggs Hoenecke Undergraduate award in 2021. Read on to learn about her time in Spain!

What originally sparked your interest in Anthropology?

I quickly realized my interest in anthropology when I first began studying at Michigan. In my first semester, I took Dr. Lisa Young’s course Frauds and Fantastic Claims in Archaeology and became intrigued with this field of study. I found this to be such a valuable course because there was so much conversation focusing on the present day. When people think of archaeology, they believe that it focuses solely on the past. However, in Dr. Young’s class, we addressed contemporary problems of race and ethnicity and discussed how our interpretation of the past is influenced by these beliefs. For me, this class was the perfect introduction to studying at the university level since it challenged me to reevaluate things I take for face value and think critically about claims in anthropology and the world. 

What was a driving factor that led you to apply to this scholarship (Riggs Hoenecke Undergraduate Experience Prize)?

Once I received my acceptance notice from the field school in Spain, I knew that I had to immediately begin applying for funding. It is no secret that archaeology field schools are high in cost. This makes it a barrier for undergraduate students interested in archaeology to take advantage of these opportunities and gain necessary field experience. I began talking to graduate students about my acceptance and asking for advice on ways I could fund my experience. It was through an AUGMENT (The Anthropology Undergraduate-Graduate Mentoring Program) meeting that I learned about the Riggs Hoencke Scholarship. After reviewing the scholarship requirements, I contacted my professor, Dr. Alicia Ventresca-Miller, and she mentored me through the application process. I received a lot of her support and she helped me grow many of my professional skills to best prepare me for the several other scholarship applications I applied for to fund my field school.

Isabel Matias uses the total station to coordinate the exact location of artifacts found at the site.

How did your travels change or reaffirm preconceptions you had about anthropological fieldwork? 

Traveling to Spain and working at a Neanderthal site both reaffirmed and changed my preconceptions about fieldwork. On the one hand, it felt surreal waking up to the realization that my mornings began with excavating a site from over 50,000 years ago. In that sense, my experience was as I hoped it would be. A lot more of the general aspects of fieldwork were things I already was aware of. I came into my field school with three weeks of experience assisting graduate student Hannah Hoover with the field component of her dissertation. I learned a lot from the weeks I spent in South Carolina with her and was able to apply the basics of fieldwork when in Spain. Though I did notice a lot of similarities in the equipment used at both sites and the general process of accurate excavation, I noticed a lot of differences in setting up the fieldwork. Especially since the two sites were so different in terms of climate, landscape, and goals of fieldwork. All in all, any changes to my preconceptions in archaeology did so for the better. 

Isabel Matias (on the left) labeling artifacts from the Roca dels Bous excavation, including small animal bones and stone tools.

What was a pivotal moment or favorite experience while abroad? 

When I think back to my time abroad, one of the most pivotal moments was the morning we arrived for fieldwork and spent the first two hours reassessing our work from the previous days. The site of Roca dels Bous has a complex formation where each archaeological level we worked on was not even across the site. Instead, each level was formed in slopes. So even if it seemed like one person was excavating on the same archaeological level as the person who was ten feet away, these were different. Understanding the formation of each level was a challenging part for everyone at the excavation, and on this particular day, we realized that we had made a mistake the previous day on documenting the correct level. So we spent these first couple hours theorizing and discussing the site formation, where we made our mistake, and how we can fix this. This was a pivotal moment for me because it was a reminder that archaeology is a destructive science, meaning that once a site is excavated, it is gone forever. This experience really highlighted the importance of always evaluating our excavation techniques and always being open to the fact that theories can be wrong and when they are, it is important to recognize that, accept it, and create concrete steps to fix it. 

Can you give a piece of advice for other anthropology students looking to consider fieldwork? 

My advice to any students looking to complete fieldwork is to be patient. Archaeology is the study of human activity through the recovery of material culture, so it makes sense to hope for the recovery of these materials. However, the reality is that since archaeology is a destructive science, careful and calculated recovery is critical, making the excavation process often slow. While in Spain, the tools we used for excavation were typically a screwdriver and a brush (maximum of 2 inches wide). Everyone at the site had no-find periods, but that is the reality. An important thing to remember is that archaeology is not just mindless digging until we find something. There is much to be said about the absence of material as much as the finding of them. Keeping a positive attitude and making observations during those days where there is nothing is so important. 

The Segre River is located right below the site of Roca dels Bous. This river had profound implications on the diet and selection of stone tools for Neanderthals who occupied this rock shelter 50,000 years ago.

How do you encounter anthropology in everyday life/ what have been your biggest takeaways thus far? 

Now that I have studied anthropology for a couple of years, it is impossible to not see the world through an anthropological lens. Though anthropology is part of the humanities, it is still the scientific study of humans. Anthropology today is rooted in careful observation of people and scientific methods to test theories and hypotheses with the hope that we can understand humans better. This makes the field so applicable to the real world and it has allowed me to better connect with people around me. I first began anthropology with an appreciation and admiration for different cultural identities including their past, language, and beliefs. Since then, my admiration for this has only increased and I am now aware of better ways to communicate with other people in a respectful manner. 

How did you adjust to cultural differences? 

When participating in any fieldwork, cultural differences are very prevalent. Many of my fellow field school students came from America, but we also worked with many local students from Spain and people from other diverse backgrounds including Slovakian, Polish, and Sri Lankan, and Hispanic Caribbean. Not only did we work together, but we also lived in the same hostel for the month. I think the most important part of learning about and adjusting to cultural differences was being open-minded and curious. I was always observing other people’s behaviors and whenever I noticed any cultural differences, I would ask my colleagues about them. They were always more than willing and excited to share their perspective with me and it was through those conversations that we became closer.

How has your anthropology academic experience changed since your freshman year? Where do you see it taking you?

Freshman year, I came into the university with the goal to try a range of disciplines before choosing a major. I did not expect that my first-semester anthropology class would be what persuaded me to choose my major. Since then, I’ve gotten to take a course in almost all the subfields. My experience has changed in that the more courses I take, the more I learn what interests me most about the field. Originally, I was interested in pursuing the linguistic anthropology route but soon discovered that archaeology intrigued me most, especially in early human evolution. My hope for the future is to pursue an honors thesis at Michigan during my senior year focusing on the paleolithic. After graduation, I hope to continue my education in archaeology and get more involved in archaeological research. 

How has anthropology impacted your life? How do you, and others, want to impact the field of anthropology? 

Anthropology, in the simplest terms, is the study of human beings. All the subfields of anthropology make this such a diverse major since it draws on biological/evolutionary, linguistic, and social perspectives of humans as well as material culture to create a holistic understanding of humanity. This major challenges you to consider a wide array of perspectives and forces you to question basic assumptions that are taken for granted. You come face to face with complex questions and ideas which make you grow intellectually and force you to consider your own identity. Studying anthropology has helped me become a better person. It has taught me how to examine the current state of the world I live in and how to ask the right questions about the world. Ultimately, I think people who study anthropology want to continue to bridge the gap in our understanding of humanity so that we can apply it to the world. 

The deadline for applications for the Riggs Hoenecke Undergraduate Award is March 9, 2022. The application can be found here. For more information, email: AnthroUGAwards@umich.edu or visit our funding page.