Academic Profile

Heather Viles is a geographer with major interests in geomorphology and heritage science. Much of her research focuses on the application of science to heritage conservation. She is currently Professor of Biogeomorphology and Heritage Conservation, having previously been a University Lecturer and then Reader in the University of Oxford. She is a Fellow of Worcester College, and a lecturer at St Hilda's College. She is also an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand. She obtained an MA in Geography from the University of Cambridge, and a DPhil from the University of Oxford. Her D.Phil. thesis focused on the role of microorganisms in weathering limestone and was based on fieldwork on Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. After completing her D.Phil. she undertook post-doctoral research on the contribution of acid rain to the deterioration of English cathedrals. Heather was awarded a 650th anniversary Gold Medal, by Charles University, Prague (1998) for her contributions to international research collaboration in geomorphology.

Examples of areas where geomorphology can contribute to the understanding and conservation of cultural and natural heritage - rock art on sandstone in Libya Examples of areas where geomorphology can contribute to the understanding and conservation of cultural and natural heritage - sandstone peak forest, Zhangjiajie, China

Examples of areas where geomorphology can contribute to the understanding and conservation of cultural and natural heritage. a) Rock art on sandstone in Libya, and b) Sandstone peak forest, Zhangjiajie, China.

Over the years, Heather has carried out field-based research in NW Australia, South Africa, Namibia, Washington State, the Atacama Desert in Chile, South Germany, the Sahara Desert in Libya, as well as many places within the UK.

Setting up a 2D resistivity transect to measure moisture levels in sandstone, Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa Monitoring water permeate into sandstone in Belfast using a Karsten tube

Setting up a 2D resistivity transect to measure moisture levels in sandstone, Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa (left), and monitoring water permeate into sandstone in Belfast using a Karsten tube (above).

Currently, Heather is Deputy Chair of the British Society for Geomorphology, and will become Chair for a two year term starting in 2012. From 2008 to 2011, she was Vice-President (Expeditions and Fieldwork) of the Royal Geographical Society with IBG. She sits on the advisory panel of the 6.5 million AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme, and was also a member of the National Heritage Science Strategy steering group co-ordinated by English Heritage and charged with developing a UK-wide Heritage Science Strategy which will shape UK-wide policy over the next 25 years. Heather also represents the University of Oxford as a trustee of the Oxford Preservation Trust. She is also an Associate Researcher at the Oxford Biodiversity Institute.

Recently, Heather has been asked to give keynote lectures at the German Geographical Congress in 2009 (where she talked about the role of physical geographers in conservation), and the 2011 Binghamton Symposium (where she will discuss the importance of microorganisms to geomorphology). She gave one of the Nigel Seeley Memorial lectures at the Bartlett School for Architecture (on greening the conservation of ruins). She is also giving (with Dr Tom Spencer, University of Cambridge) an invited talk to the 2011 Lyell Symposium at the Geological Society of London on island geomorphology. In Autumn 2011 she is taking up a three month Conservation Guest Scholarship at the Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles.

Current Research

Prof. Viles' research is highly interdisciplinary and involves studies at the interface of geomorphology with ecology, engineering geology, environmental chemistry and materials conservation. In recent years she has focussed on three specific themes in my research, namely:

  • Biological contributions to geomorphology;
  • Weathering, geomorphology and landscape evolution in extreme environments (hyper-arid, coastal, cold, and Mars); and
  • Building stone decay and conservation.

She maintains a strong interest in developing and applying novel techniques and ideas to the study of these themes, including 2D resistivity surveys using Geotom equipment (with Prof. Dr Oliver Sass, University of Graz), and the Equotip hardness tester (as discussed in this recent paper). She has recently set up the Conserving Stone Heritage website which showcases some of the methods used. Heather also has a strong interest in the practical applications of 'green' methods of conserving cultural heritage (using plants, animals and microorganism communities) and linking this to biodiversity conservation.

She currently collaborates with many colleagues around the world, including Prof. Andy Whiteley (CEH, microbiology); Prof. Bernie Smith (Queen's University Belfast, geomorphology); Prof. Stefan Grab (Witwatersrand, geomorphology), Dr Phillip Fletcher (British Museum; materials conservation); Dr Mary Bourke (Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona; planetary geomorphology). Heather runs the Oxford Rock Breakdown Laboratory Group (OxRBL) which has extensive laboratory facilities and a field test site at Wytham Woods near Oxford.

Walls built for the soft capping research project, part of OxRBL's Wytham Woods experimental field site.

Walls built for the soft capping research project, part of OxRBL's Wytham Woods experimental field site.

In recent years her research has been funded by EPSRC, AHRC, the Leverhulme Trust, University of Oxford Fell Fund, English Heritage and NASA.

Selected Research Projects

Teaching

Prof. Viles was Director of Undergraduate Studies from 2008-2011, during which time the department completely revised its undergraduate course. She contributes to the 'Geomorphology' lecture course of the 'Earth System Processes' core course for Prelims, as well as to the 'Environmental Geography' and 'Earth System Dynamics' courses in the Final Honour School. She also convenes the 'Heritage Science and Conservation' Option.

Heather welcomes applications from students wishing to undertake graduate research in any aspect of biogeomorphology and heritage conservation.

Current Graduate Research Students

Samin Ahmad

Algal greening of sandstone heritage: investigating the causes and impacts of patchy colonisation

Cristina Cabello Briones

Preventative conservation of archaeological sites. Strategies to reduce the impact of climate change on exposed archaeological remains: reburial and shelters

Shuaishuai He

Heritage conservation and urban revitalization in China

Katrin Wilhelm

Heritage stones - understanding deterioration processes by using non-destructive analysis

Noreen Zaman

The role of soil as a method for conserving cultural stone ruins: effects of physical and chemical characteristics on stone weathering

Recent Graduate Research Students (since 2006)

Jennifer Booth
Completed in 2014

Back to Nature: Geologically informed consolidates for stone museum artefacts

Lisa Mol
Completed in 2011

Sandstone weathering, electrical resistivity tomography, and the deterioration of San rock art in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa

Abigail Stone
Completed in 2009

Multi-proxy reconstruction of late Quaternary climate dynamics in western Southern Africa.

Bethany Ehlmann
Completed in 2007

Developing quantitative techniques for evaluating rock breakdown morphology: a case study of basalt boulders in the channelled scablands, Washington, USA

Satish Pandey
Completed in 2010
Dynamics of the transport, distribution and crystallisation of soluble salts in sandstone: implications for conservation of historic buildings. (Registered in RLAHA, Oxford)

Selected Publications

Publications are those that were listed on the old website. Publications database integration forthcoming.
Books
  • Cover: Landscapes and Geomorphology: A Very Short Introduction Goudie, A.S. and Viles, H.A. (2010) Landscapes and Geomorphology: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press, 144 pp. ISBN-10: 0199565570.
  • Cover: The student's companion to geographyRogers, A. and Viles, H.A. (eds.) (2003) The student's companion to geography. 2nd edition. Oxford; Blackwell.
  • Cover: Understanding and managing stone decayPrikryl, R. and Viles, H.A. (eds.) (2002) Understanding and managing stone decay. The Karolinum Press; Prague.
  • Cover: Salt Weathering HazardsGoudie, A.S. and Viles, H.A. (1997) Salt Weathering Hazards. Wiley. pp. 256.
  • Cover: Coastal Problems: Geomorphology, Ecology and Society at the CoastH.A. Viles and T. Spencer (1995) Coastal Problems: Geomorphology, Ecology and Society at the Coast. Hodder Arnold. pp. 360.
Edited Volumes
Papers and Articles