Dr Ashley Coutu

Research Summary

My research is interdisciplinary, reflecting my interests and training across fields such as historical and medieval archaeology, African archaeology, isotope ecology, zooarchaeology and historical ecology. Over the last decade, I have studied exchange networks in southern and eastern Africa from the last 2,000 years, particularly investigating how natural materials such as ivory shaped these networks. I am particularly interested in the use of scientific techniques such as stable isotope and ancient DNA analyses to understand how past people utilised ivory, but also to explore its trade, use, and value over time in different cultures. This research has involved me spending time analysing ivories in natural history and archaeological collections across Europe, North America, and Africa, and has included the design of temporary exhibitions and public outreach events based on these research visits. My research also contributes to historical ecology by unravelling the relationship between humans and elephants in the past and applying that knowledge to modern conservation as well as preserving cultural heritage in protected landscapes such as national parks and game reserves.


Ashley Coutu is Research Fellow at the Pitt Rivers Museum.  She received a BA from Boston College, USA in 2005, then moved to the UK to complete an MPhil in World Archaeology from the University of Cambridge in 2007. From 2007-2011, she completed her PhD as a Marie Curie Early Career Researcher on the EU-funded Historical Ecologies of East African Landscapes project (HEEAL<https://www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/research/current-projects/heeal>) at the University of York. Her PhD used a combination of archival, archaeological, and biomolecular data to understand the impacts of the 19th century ivory trade on elephants, humans, and landscapes along caravan routes in East Africa. In 2012, she moved to Denmark as a postdoctoral researcher on the Entrepôt project (Entrepot<https://www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/research/current-projects/entrepot/>) and from 2013-2017 was based at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, holding a Claude Leon fellowship and then a Marie Curie International fellowship.  The two fellowships centred on a project to map African ivory trade networks from the last 2,000 years by analysing ivory working materials, ivory objects, and other small finds from archaeological sites across southern Africa. After moving back to the UK in 2017, Ashley spent time as a Visiting Research fellow at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia and then took up a post as a Lecturer in Archaeology at Newcastle University, where she developed curriculum in global medieval archaeology with collections at the Great North Museum.


Flamingh, A. de, Coutu, A.N., Roca, A.L., and Malhi, R.S. (2020) Accurate Sex Identification of Ancient Elephant and Other Animal Remains Using Low-Coverage DNA Shotgun Sequencing Data. G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics. DOI:10.1534/g3.119.400833

Coutu, A.N. and Damgaard, K. (2019) “From Tusk to Town: Ivory trade and craftsmanship along the Red Sea” Studies in Late Antiquity 3 (4): 508–46. https://sla.ucpress.edu/content/3/4/508

Coutu, A.N. and Damgaard, K. (in press) 'From Tusk to Town: Ivory trade and craftsmanship along the Red Sea'. Studies in Late Antiquity.

von Holstein, I., von Tersch, M., Coutu, A.N., Penkman, K.E.H., Makarewicz, C.A. and Collins, M.J. (2018) 'Collagen proteins exchange O with demineralisation and gelatinisation reagents and also with atmospheric moisture'. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry. DOI: 10.1002/rcm.8064

Coutu, A.N., Lee-Thorp, J., Collins, M. and Lane, P. (2016)  'Mapping the elephants of the 19th century East African ivory trade with a multi-isotope approach'.<https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0163606> PLoS One. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0163606.

Coutu, A.N., Whitelaw, G., LeRoux, P. and Sealy, J. (2016) 'Earliest evidence for the ivory trade in southern Africa: isotopic and ZooMS analysis of 7th-10th century AD ivory from KwaZulu-Natal'. <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10437-016-9232-0>  African Archaeological Review 33 (4) 411-435.

Coutu, A.N. (2015) The elephant in the room: mapping the footsteps of historic elephants with big game hunting collections.  World Archaeology 47 (3) 486-503.

Coutu, A.N. (2018) Ancient molecules connect the past to modern conservation.  In Daryl Stump and Christian Isendahl (eds) Applied Archaeology, Historical Ecology and the Useable Past. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199672691.013.14

Ashby, S.P., Coutu, A.N. and Sindbæk, S.M. (2015) 'Urban Networks and Arctic Outlands: Craft Specialists and Reindeer Antler in Viking Towns'. European Journal of Archaeology, 18 (4) 679-704.

Frei, K.M., Coutu, A.N., Smiarowski, K., Harrison, R., Madsen, C.K., Arneborg, J., Frei, R., Guðmundsson, G., Sindbæk, S.M., Woollett, J., and McGovern, T.H. (2015) 'Was it for Walrus? Viking Age Settlement and Medieval Walrus Ivory Trade in Iceland and Greenland'. World Archaeology 47 (3) 439-466.

Coutu, A.N. (2015) 'Investigating ivory trade with ZooMS analysis'. In Sian Tiley-Nel and Annie Antonites (eds) Archaeological worked bone and ivory: A guide to best practice in preservation, research and curation. University of Pretoria, South Africa, 34-36.

Coutu, A.N. (2015) 'Elephants, humans and ecology during the nineteenth century East African caravan trade: a bioarchaeological study'. Proceedings of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists and PanAfrican Historical Congress, Dakar, Senegal, 1-7 November.

Coutu, A.N. (2011) 'Elephants, humans and ecology during the nineteenth century East African caravan trade: a bioarchaeological study'.  Antiquity Project Gallery, 85 (327).  http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/coutu327/