PhD in Classics, Trinity College Dublin
BA in Philosophy and Greek & Roman Civilization, University College Dublin
What got you in to history? In to equine history?
I’m in that particular branch of history called archaeology. Part of what I work on is actually pre-history, meaning there are only limited evidence from literary sources. I started in Classics, but the courses I found the most exciting were always the archaeological ones, and slowly I was drawn more and more into that perspective. There is something very tangible about archaeology that appeals to all the senses, and for me at least, it has a way of being more reliable. This is in the sense that it is less susceptible to ancient hidden propaganda or personal agendas – anybody can write or say that they did so and so, but archaeological remains are harder to ‘fake’ (of course, there is a whole other set of challenges instead!). Then there is the undeniable thrill of discovery, of slowly peeling away layers of soil deposited by people living over 3000 years ago. I’m not talking about Indiana Jones moments of finding golden cups, but a small change in colour or texture, or that gradual reveal of one stone, then another, and a third, and soon you have a wall (this has become a bit of a joke in archaeology, there’s even a recent book titled after it). It may sound banal, but it’s the sense that something happened here a long time ago, and if we are careful to get as many clues as possible, we can work out what. Maybe a small family had a meal, maybe there was a battle that signified the end of an era. From small everyday acts to large-scale events, I think that quest for knowledge and connection with a deeper past and identity is there no matter what.
Equine history (or archaeology) is an almost inevitable combination of my research and my personal interests. I’ve lived with horses my whole life (ridden, trained, broken in, competed). I think I was in my first competition when I was five or six years old, and although I’ve had breaks for studies, it’s never been far away. The fascinating thing about any kind of training with a horse is that it always requires two, and you have to find a way to work together. My research has involved animals in one way or another from the start, but for a long time I’ve wanted to do something dedicated to a specific animal. I chose equids partly because of my personal experiences, and partly because it is an animal that is treated differently in the archaeological record.
Who is your favorite historical horse?
I have two.
The first is Bucephalus. He was the horse of Alexander the Great, and according to the ancient historian Arrian, Alexander loved and admired him. He is the bold war horse that Alexander uses in his campaigns across western Asia. A city was named after Bucephalus. Arrian writes that “in former days he had shared with Alexander many a danger and many a weary march. No one ever rode him but his master, for he would never permit anyone else to mount him. He was a big horse, high-spirited – a noble creature.”
The second is Hickstead (if I may call him historical). What a horse! This is totally influenced by my own preference for showjumping. The passion and love of jumping that is evident when watching him is just fantastic. Although the combination of Eric Lamaze and Hickstead could probably not have been better, it is such a joy to watch Hickstead take four different riders on a clear round for the Rolex Top Four Final. All excellent riders, but this was Hickstead taking them for a ride. I also love the fact that Hickstead as a personality and as an athlete was honoured by a minute of silence by all participants after his death in the Verona arena in 2011. This says a lot about human-equid relations in athletic contexts.
What are you working on right now?
My current project is about human-equid relations in the ancient Near East. It is an EU-funded project (under the 2020 Horizon programme) which lets me do research on this topic in a holistic manner. I’m combining faunal, iconographic and epigraphic material.
I have just finished looking at one of those incredibly controversial parts of equine history: that is, when horses were first domesticated. There are all sorts of challenges when attempting to identify equid species in the faunal record, and even more so when finding markers of domestication – as I’m sure many of the members here will know much about. What is of interest to me is how humans and equids related to each other, and hunting ‘wild’ animals for meat is a very different kind of relationship than one where they are ridden, or even kept and bred for meat/milk.
I’ve just moved on to looking at the use of various kinds of chariots in the ancient Near East. Equids were ridden, but chariots were much more common. Since I am more familiar with riding, I’m now learning more about how the different parts of chariots and other wheeled vehicles affect how it can be used or what it is most suited for. It’s important because, to put it crudely, it comes down to a difference between war and peace. Were horses (and other equids) used mainly for peaceful activities (agriculture, processions) or for aggressive activities (battle, hunting)?
My particular take on this topic is to look for the agency of equids – to recognize their behaviour (an attentive turning of the ear, an impatient stamping with a leg) and their shaping of human lives as well as the other way around.