Secret Scientist: Andrew Meek

Andrew Meek: Research Scientist at the British Museum

Andrew Meek is a research scientist at the British Museum specialising in the study of ancient glass and ceramic artefacts. His role has seen him working on artefacts from as far afield as the Middle East and from as long ago as Saxon Britain. His work is of paramount importance in understanding how historical artefacts came into being and how best to preserve them for future generations.

Have you always been interested in science?
Yes, I was always interested in how things worked when I was growing up and was forever taking things apart and forgetting how to put them back together. I studied science at school and left with A-levels in physics, chemistry and maths.

How did you come to work at the British Museum?
When I got to university I started out studying chemical engineering for one term at UCL and then physics for two weeks at the University of Nottingham, but the courses were too focussed on theory for me and I wanted to be doing something more practical. I hadn’t really thought about archaeology as a scientific subject before, but after a discussion with the head of the department at Nottingham I decided to switch. Studying archaeology allowed me to learn a lot of new skills that could be complimented by my scientific background. I learned that the application of science plays a very important role in archaeology; from working out where to dig, to finding out the age or provenance of what is found. After my undergraduate degree I went on to study for an MSc in archaeological materials and focussed on the chemical analysis of glass. I then went on to study for a PhD, again focussing on glass. As I was nearing the end of my studies a job was advertised at the British Museum, for a scientist specialising in the analysis of ancient glass.

What does a typical day in your working life consist of?
Every day is different and can be very varied. I can go from working on ancient Egyptian faience, to Anglo-Saxon glass from Kent, to medieval lustreware ceramics from Iraq, in a single day. The majority of my time is spent chemically analysing ancient glass, glazes and enamels in an attempt to answer questions on their production for curators and conservators at the museum, or as part of a larger research project. These questions can range from; where/when was an object produced? to why is it deteriorating and how can we prevent it? Information on the origin of objects can advise curators in the preparation of exhibitions and allow a far greater understanding of the museum collections.

What excites you the most about your job?
Applying scientific techniques to answering questions about how people lived in the past and trying to understand what was going through a worker’s mind when they were producing something two thousand years ago are fascinating aspects. It is like putting together a jigsaw without the box. Slowly building up a picture using strands of research from many different disciplines, until you arrive at a conclusion, which can be entirely unexpected as there is often little or no previous knowledge on the subject.

Could you tell us about something cool you have been involved with recently?
Using a particle accelerator located underneath the Louvre in Paris to analyse medieval lustreware ceramics. This is part of an ongoing international project aimed at working out how these objects were made and distributed throughout the Islamic Empire.

How does your work impact on people’s daily lives?
The information I can discover about objects has an impact on the way they are exhibited in the museum. People are interested in the past, and the work we carry out at the research laboratory helps the Museum to inform the public about how people used to live and the lessons we can learn from this. The information we gather from objects is disseminated to the public via panels in the museum, gallery talks and our event ‘Zoom in: a closer look at science’.

What excites you about the future of your work?
The idea of making new discoveries that can completely change the way we think about the past.

How do you see your work as being different from stereotypes of science?
That depends what the stereotypes are. I do still occasionally wear a lab coat and goggles. I suppose the difference is that the materials I work on are the remains of past civilisations. Rather than using the data I have to try and discover more about the materials themselves I use it to discover more information about the people who produced and used them.

This is one of a series of interviews conducted by the British Science Association for National Science & Engineering Week 2011 and published here with thanks.

The British Science Association is the UK’s nationwide, open membership organisation that exists to advance the public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering. Established in 1831, the British Science Association organises major initiatives across the UK, including National Science and Engineering Week, the annual British Science Festival, programmes of regional and local events, and an extensive programme for young people in schools and colleges. The Association also organises specific activities for the science communication community in the UK through its Science in Society programme. For more information, please visit the British Science Association website.

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