Out of the shell

Being a terrible swimmer in her younger years saw Kat Szabó spend more time beachcombing than in the water on family trips to the beach. 

“An innate desire to classify and understand the shells I found on those trips turned into a respectable, catalogued collection by around the age of nine and I was the only ‘junior’ member of the Auckland Conchological Society,” she said. 

This life-long passion would see her go on to pioneer internationally‐used techniques for recognising early human shell tools. 

As one of the very few archaeologists worldwide focusing upon shell artefacts, Associate Professor Szabó, an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow, specialises in the analysis of molluscan shell from archaeological sites; whether it be the remains of ancient meals, artefacts made from shell, or shells from the natural environment that give insights into ancient landscapes. 

Very old sites are frequently characterised by the presence of stone tools of various types, but Szabó’s research has demonstrated the presence of equivalent tools in shell, changing the way we think about ancient toolkits, raw material use and procurement, and creativity. Through these approaches, she has established the use of shell tools in sites over 30,000 years old in locations such as eastern Indonesia and the pivotal early Australian site of Mungo. 

Szabó has developed close links with international colleagues, and was founding co‐coordinator of the Archaeomalacology Working Group within the International Council for Archaeozoology – the ‘peak body’ for those who study animal remains in archaeology. 

Her career has seen her complete an ARC Post‐Doctoral Fellowship and a QEII Senior Research Fellowship. She also runs a lab with a cohort of PhD students working all around the Asia‐Pacific region. 

“The enthusiasm of the students inspires me as much as the wisdom of very senior academics. Most of all, however, is the spirit of collegiality and curiosity of my fellow specialists, who are helping to push this exciting research forwards,” she said.