Thursday 17 September 2009

Interview: Estelle Lazer

The publication of Estelle Lazer's book 'Resurrecting Pompeii' last month has caused a bit of a stir. This is hardly surprising, for two very good reasons.
Firstly, we have been waiting for this book for a long time. Until now the only publications of the skeletal evidence from the Vesuvian settlements have been Sarah Bisel's studies of the bodies found at Herculaneum, and there has been nothing from Pompeii to compare to Bisel's work. Estelle's study fills a gaping hole in Pompeian studies.
Secondly, Estelle is, without a doubt, one of the nicest Pompeianists you could hope to meet. It must be more than 15 years since we met one summer in Pompeii, and I remember it as a particularly fun time. So, because not everyone who works at Pompeii will have had the opportunity to meet Estelle, I asked her to answer a few questions for this blog. Here's what she had to say ...

1. Can you tell us a little about your academic background and how you got into studying the human remains from Pompeii?
My first degree is a BA Hons in archaeology, with particular emphasis on Classical, Near Eastern and Historical archaeology. My interest in human remains commenced with my honours thesis, which involved skeletal studies in Near Eastern archaeology. At that time no courses in forensic archaeology were were available in Australia. The forensic pathologist who was responsible for the investigation of skeletal remains at the city morgue and coroner's court offered to take me on as a volunteer apprentice and I learnt anatomy by attending autopsies and was called in to assist whenever bodies came in from the bush. Eventually, I did a formal anatomy course at the University of Sydney. The opportunity to study the human remains at Pompeii came as a result of the involvement of the University of Sydney in a multinational, multidisciplinary project in Pompeii. I was amazed to discover that there had not been a modern systematic study of this skeletal collection and I applied to the Superintendency of Pompeii to undertake this work. I completed my PhD on this topic in the Anatomy Department of the University of Sydney.

2. What problems did you encounter when studying the human bones?
The human skeletal remains were not appreciated as a valuable scientific resource until the latter part of the twentieth century. While they had been stored, they had not been adequately curated and as a result had become disarticulated. This meant that I had to design a research project to accommodate the limitations of the material.
The bones were stored in unoccupied ancient buildings in Pompeii with other uncatalogued artefacts. These bones had to be studied in situ with no laboratory facilities, or even tables or adequate light. I had to be locked in with them as these stores also contained precious finds, like portions of marble statues. Only three custodians had security clearance to handle the keys to these buildings. Occasionally the morning custodian forgot to tell the afternoon one about my location when they changed shifts. This meant I had to suffer many hours of incarceration. They were invariably quite apologetic when I was eventually liberated. Although I worked alone I had many companions as these buildings also housed their own ecosystems. These included bats, rodents of various kinds, snakes, insects, lizards and birds who found empty skulls to be convenient nesting places.

3. Your book is as much about the history of the excavations as the human remains - how do these two topics fit together?
It was essential to engage with the history of the excavations to understand why the bones had been neglected for nearly 250 years and to determine the impact of the "culture of bodies," which involved romantic storytelling based on specific skeletons and their context. Nineteenth century literature, notably Edward Bulwer Lytton's Last Days of Pompeii, exerted a huge influence on the interpretation of the skeletal evidence, which has continued into the twenty first century. The aim of my project was to separate myth from the actual evidence and establish what the skeletal remains reveal about the lives and deaths of the Pompeian victims of the AD 79 eruption.

4. You also work in the Antarctic. What exactly do you do there and how does it fit in with your Pompeian studies?
The work I do in Antarctica is very different to my work in Pompeii. I have studied American sealing sites in the Sub-Antarctic and a site associated with an early twentieth century scientific expedition on the Antarctic mainland. This work has involved both excavation and the development of strategies for cultural heritage management in these remote areas. We have pioneered various techniques for ice excavation, including the use of ice cores and chainsaws.
Field work in Antarctica is a bit more challenging than in Pompeii. My first expedition experience involved sailing down to Antarctica in a 21 metre boat, which was not ice strengthened. It took three weeks each way. We camped in the ice. The wildlife is larger, noisier and often more aromatic than any I have encountered in Pompeii. This is especially true for sites located within the territory of mating fur seals and three hundred thousand nesting penguins.

5. Do you have any future plans for working in Pompeii?
While I will always continue my interest in the human remains from Pompeii, especially the casts, I am currently involved in the development of a new research project in conjunction with the Department of Architectural Science, University of Sydney. This project aims to apply modern techniques of environmental analysis to ancient buildings in order to gain a quantitative understanding of the living experience of the ancient occupants of houses of various types in Pompeii.

I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of 'Resurrecting Pompeii'. And I'm sure I'm not the only one. Congratulations, Estelle!

1 comment:

Ramiro said...

Hello everyone,

I have translated this interview (quite literally) for my Spanish readers.

Hope you like the idea!

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