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Written By

Rachelle McCabe


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

7 February 2024

Related Study Areas

Exposure to science media at our national broadcaster

When people ask Dr Emma Rehn what she does for a living, she has a tough time giving a quick response. As a current JCU Postdoctoral Research Fellow, she has an impressive and broad resume. Emma is an archaeologist, an ancient fire expert, a science communicator and a talented illustrator.

Emma’s latest projects — the completed SahulArch database and the SahulCHAR database, which is nearing completion — utilises her archaeological and charcoal knowledge.

"These data collections will hopefully have a lasting utility for people,” Emma says of her recent work.

The projects have seen Emma scour literature from multiple sources, including past unpublished theses, seeking out inter-library loans and reading reams of digital data and documents.

Emma Rehn outside doing field work.
Emma Rehn smiling at camera.
Left: Dr Emma Rehn conducts research in the field. Right: Emma spent time at ABC's Radio National as part of a residency program in 2022.

Making New Guinea and Australia’s ancient past accessible

The SahulArch geochronological database, focused on Sahul — which is the combined landmass of Australia and New Guinea — was Emma’s first major project after completing her PhD at JCU. The database was developed by researchers with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), with Emma completing the final data collection.

This work involved collating age determinations from archaeological sites to create an open access database that mapped the different ages of archaeological sites from across Australia, New Guinea and their shared continental shelf.

“The island of New Guinea and all of Australia, for a lot of their history, were one big landmass,” she says.

“My main role was to create the New Guinea data collection and complete the Australian collection.”

Putting Northern Australia on the ancient fire map

Emma’s current work uses her ancient fire and research expertise to compile a charcoal database, SahulCHAR, for the CABAH research centre, thanks to a Legacy grant.

“The  Centre will be wrapping up in 2024 so Legacy grants were offered for projects that would contribute to legacy of the centre, for example, lasting products, or resources that would create something tangible,” Emma says.

“The aim for SahulCHAR is to compile all the charcoal records we have from across Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand. There are large global databases that have some data from Australia, but it’s not extensive.

“It’s been a good challenge digging through so-called ‘grey literature’, like unpublished theses and reports, as well as the easier to access stuff like journal articles and books.

“In the end we had 23 original authors, including myself, who contributed original records, with their original data, to the project.”
Emma says ancient fire data from northern Australia and New Zealand were now accessible for free and online thanks to the project.

“Most records are compiled from evidence collected in permanent lakes, swamps and bogs and you just don’t get them in some environments like the more arid parts of Australia.

“This work has given me the opportunity to consolidate the research we have so we can understand where there are gaps in space or time and come up with a plan to fill those. But, of course, there are natural limits to what you can do.”

An image of a lake.
Archaeological dig site.

Collating the data a ‘good challenge’

Emma says that compiling the information to develop this online fire map presents a unique challenge in tracking down previously overlooked research.

“You do get to do a bit of detective work, and it is satisfying when you manage to track down an obscure unpublished thesis where there's only one copy and it's in one specific library,” Emma says.

“Being able to get the information and include it in the database so it can be accessed is rewarding, as those records were previously locked away.”

Of the almost completed charcoal database Emma says: “Seeing the finished map showing all the dots for all the sites is really satisfying. It’s exciting to see how many records we managed to get, including records for places that haven't been represented in international databases before.”

In pursuit of ancient fires

Emma graduated from JCU in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in both Archaeology and English. She later completed an Honours project in Archaeology in 2014 that explored human-environment interactions through technology.

Her interest in ancient fires flourished during her PhD, which was awarded by the College of Science and Engineering at James Cook University in 2020. Emma’s research utilised new and emerging palaeoecological methods to record ancient fires in Northern Australia’s savannahs and explore human influence in records of past fires.

As part of her PhD, Emma visited lakes across Cape York Peninsula as part of Professor Michael Bird’s research team, using a hydraulic core mounted on a raft to pull up sample layers of mud to find the fire histories of these areas.

She says it was a love of ancient history at high school that inspired her to pursue archaeology at university and the encouragement of JCU academic staff that saw her undertake further study.

“It's mostly driven by curiosity; I just find everything really fascinating, and many of the opportunities I've taken have been because they sounded interesting,” Emma says.

“Whatever the project was, I wanted to find out more. What I found will hopefully help the discipline, or that information will be useful to people somewhere down the line.”

An example of Emma Rehn's cartoon graphics.
Emma experiences broadcast journalism at the ABC.
Left: Emma is a talented artist and specialises in scientific cartoon graphics and infographics. Right: Emma takes the microphone during her residency at ABC.

Exposure to science media at our national broadcaster

Emma was also selected to take part in the ABC’s TOP 5 Science Media Residency program in 2023, which saw her spend two weeks at ABC Radio National in Sydney and online where she worked with broadcasters and journalists learning the craft of science communication.

“I got to interview one of my favourite science fiction authors and the five of us went on live radio with Dr Karl,” she says.

Her side hustle also sees her producing visual science communication illustrations. She specialises in cartoon graphics and infographics and strives to make science accessible and engaging. Emma has also developed user-friendly graphics for the databases she’s been working on.

Emma says that her studies at JCU and her experience through her research has developed a dynamic skill set. “I do find it tricky describing exactly what I do. Am I an archaeologist? Am I a palaeofire scientist? Am I a science communicator? I guess I am lucky because I do all of those things and I enjoy all of them.”

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