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  • Position: Associate Professor and Director of the Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory, University of Waikato.
    Field: Radiocarbon dating.

    Rights: Dr Louise Furey

    Sampling shell and charcoal

    Dr Fiona Petchey (left) and C-14 pretreatment technician Katy Anderson on location at a Māori midden. Fiona is sampling shell and charcoal for radiocarbon dating.

    Associate Professor Fiona Petchey is Director of the Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory based at the University of Waikato. Currently, her research is focused on the dating of bone and shell from sites in Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific, specifically marine C-14 reservoir offsets and the influence of diet on human bone C-14. Fiona has a particular interest in using shell and bone artefacts to better refine the conversion of C-14 dates on marine samples to calendar years. Fiona’s research is underpinned by wanting to better understand the movement of ancient people around these areas and the environments in which they lived – particularly how environmental conditions may have influenced human movement.

    If we were to just … to make predictions based on what people think is going to happen rather than actually looking back at the past and seeing what has happened, there’ll be things that we miss. So it is very important to look back at the past and see how we’ve dealt with it to stop us making the same mistakes again

    Associate Professor Fiona Petchey

    Fiona has been involved in dating some of the earliest known sites of human habitation across the Pacific and Aotearoa. She has contributed to a variety of research looking at how early people lived, where they lived and how they moved and spread out across the Pacific. In Ancestral Māori adapted quickly in the face of rapid climate change read about Fiona's contribution to research that has refined dates to give a precise timeline for the arrival and settlement of Māori ancestors into Aotearoa.

    Rights: The University of Waikato

    Dr Fiona Petchey’s research

    Dr Fiona Petchey’s main research interest is in marine shell dating. Shell dating is one of the main ways of tracking the movement of people through the Pacific region, since shellfish formed part of the diet of these people. Fiona is an archaeologist at heart; she is constantly fascinated by the challenge of trying to trace human movement through the Pacific and into New Zealand.

    Fiona trained in archaeology and geology at the University of Auckland where she completed a master’s degree looking at Lapita ceramics from Samoa. Fiona obtained her PhD in radiocarbon dating at Waikato University.

    Sometimes the past amazes us at how different it was and how resilient people were and how they came up with different ideas for different things.

    Associate Professor Fiona Petchey

    In early 2021, Fiona was promoted to Associate Professor and Director of the Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory. The University of Waikato acknowledged her promotion with the following summary of her work: “Fiona’s research centres on the interpretation of radiocarbon dates of animals that uptake carbon from both marine and terrestrial sources. By investigating the interaction between natural ecosystems and human economies, she has tackled some of Pacific archeology’s most difficult chronological problems.”

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Associate Professor Fiona Petchey

    Fiona (pictured here in 2009) with collagen extracted from a moa bone, for dating. Extracting the most reliable form of carbon from a sample is key to the work of the lab. Fiona was promoted to Director of the Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Lab in 2021 and she continues to play a hands on role in the laboratory while also working on her own research.

    In November 2021, Fiona and her team were awarded a Marsden Royal Society grant to research improving the reliability of dating marine shells from New Zealand archaeological contexts.

    Related content

    The following articles feature Fiona’s research:

    Carbon-14 was used by Fiona to date artefacts of historical importance in archaeological digs.

    Read about Fiona's contribution to new research that shows ancestral Māori adapted quickly in the face of rapid climate change.

    Understand the difference between conventional radiocarbon dating and AMS in the video Comparing radiocarbon dating methods.

    Activity idea

    The activity Exploring Lapita pottery through observation and art is a cross-curricular activity that uses Lapita pottery as the context for enhancing scientific observation by recreating designs on paper or in clay.

    Useful link

    Visit the Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory for more information about their research.

    This article is based on information current in 2023.

      Published 28 October 2009, Updated 2 February 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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