What do you think parents and teachers nowadays should do to help children develop a love for the pre-historical human culture?
I still remember those museum visits, and the one you mentioned stands out the most memorable. The image is still vivid in my mind: A Neolithic burial, staged under a glass floor in a dark room: crouched skeletons with grave goods, among them pots and jewelry and stone tools.
All kinds of questions were circling in my head: why do they have all this stuff in the grave – they’re dead, aren’t they? And what are these things. Were they theirs? I was consumed with curiosity, and I couldn’t wait to get my questions answered.
And this may answer your second question too: parents and teachers should try address the curiosity in children by educating them about the past that not so much focus on certain keywords or specific dates, but more on the people and their stories – people from the past who share very similar thoughts, ideas, needs, and problems as ours.
Q, I quote this line from the internet, it says, “Living the life of a true experimental archeologist is not for everyone. You really need to be a bit of an adventurer and prepared for long and hard days.” Having been an archeologist for almost 20 years, what does being an archeologist mean to you?
Many people (my younger self included) tend to paint an image of archeologists as intrepid explorers with an adventurous temperament – like the fedora wearing man we see in movies. This description, maybe not surprisingly, is only half true though. Sure, a large portion of archaeological research consists of obtaining sources by excavation. And field work comes with its own challenges such as calling a tent home in some remote (but really fascinating) spots in the hinterland, coupled with long days of hard work, regardless of weather conditions.
But aside from excavation work, there is much more to modern archaeology – from conducting lab analyses, analogies research in the library, and processing data at the desk to discussing and presenting our findings to peers and the public. There’s a lot of ways of ‘being an archaeologist’ and ‘doing archaeology’, and it comes with different means of participation.
Archeological research covers a lot of interests and abilities: interest in how societies form and engage, in information technology, in biology, plant and animals, architecture, politics, skills in data visualization and many more.Q. You have participated in many excavations and field trips. What is a typical day like on an excavation trip?
I wrote a little essay about a typical day in the field (https://medium.com/p/417a92bd31a9). Each excavation is different and has its own way of performing – with its own specific questions to ask, affordances and tasks. The rescue excavation of a medieval city center which turns up in the course of modern-day construction activity is different from, for example, a long-term research excavation and again different form a field survey examining possible further sites and so on.
That said, field archaeology is a lot about documentation, which is a requirement for all kinds of excavations mentioned above. We have to carefully document the sites we are examining, the finds, and especially the find contexts.
These contexts refer to, for example where the object is found, things that are associated with this find, the depth where it is located, the presence of a pit, of architecture, and anything else like the specific sediment surrounding it. These are telling the real stories we are interested in. Revealing a lot more than only the object itself. Unfortunately, these contexts are to be removed during the digging process – so, a careful and thorough documentation is a key element of archaeological field work.
Undocumented and unprofessional excavations will result in a loss of context.
Q. You are also an illustrator. Why is illustration important being part of an archeology research? Why can’t it be replaced with photography?
Despite all the technological innovation, drawings still play a crucial role in archaeological documentation. Drawing plans and sections, as well as finds and find details pretty much is a common practice on any excavation.
This does not mean that photography is not necessary. Quite the contrary, we also take photos of the same excavation areas and sections, finds and details. Many of these features are e.g. photogrammetrically processed, laser-scanned, and 3D-modelled too. But drawing is crucial in the interpretation process.
A photograph depicts a scenic excerpt as it is, varying under the influence of lighting and shadow, but remaining a static set-up. Drawing, on the other hand, forces us to take a long look, to observe and more dynamically interact with our motives.
We select and focus on specific details while leaving out others (which may be of less interest at that moment). We may move around it, get closer, consider different lighting, angles, and perspectives – and still put all this insight into one drawing. This, in my opinion, serves an advantage that makes drawing a valuable scientific documentation tool.
Besides, illustrations are a great communication medium to visualize research results. And, admittedly, I have a weak spot for early expedition painters – and will (only half joking) advocate to revive the profession in a heartbeat.
Q. You have traveled to Romania, Poland, Turkey, and Jordan etc for your archaeological research projects. What is one trip that stands out to you the most and why?
While each of these trips and excavations made lasting memories, the one that really stands out is a four-week survey through Jordan’s “Black Desert”. This is a surreal landscape covered with basalt rocks and dust pans. The place is dotted with archaeological sites, many remain untouched by research. And it was just the perfect set-up: Camping in the middle of the desert, watching the sunrise and sunset in the desert, the mesmerizing starry nights in the desert, the tranquil silence of the desert etc.
In the company of only a few fellow friends and archaeologists and the presence of some amazing archaeology sites, those weeks are fond memories to cherish.
Q. I love your description that an archaeological artifact without its context is like an image ripped from a book, something nice to look at but missing the actual story about it. I understand that you are actively promoting and communicating archaeological research. Archaeology is not an easy-to-understand subject matter. How do you help the public understand archaeology in an easy, or probably entertaining way and how do you make it more engaging to them?
Thanks, I do indeed try to convey this notion to the public and cultivate my and their interest in learning about the past.
For me, illustrations and infographics like what you mentioned are certainly the way to go. But research and its results can also be narrated in other fun and entertaining ways as e.g., events like Science Slams, popular lecture series, documentary shows, and Q&As vividly demonstrate.
I swear by these methods to educate the public about archeology and would not hesitate to recommend to other scientists considering communicating their work in similar ways.
Not everyone, though, may feel comfortable being put into such a situation of more popular science communication. And I want to stress that not everyone has to. There are, however, communicators who genuinely enjoy this kind of engagement and in my opinion, it is a great way to address the public interest. There seems to be a huge public interest in archeology.
Q, I happened to read one of your articles “What Dreams May Come: Confronting Death — From Disposal to Ritual”. Part of your research scope focuses on the ancient burial sites. How does that influence your perspective on death?
It makes coming to terms with death seem as something deeply rooted in human nature. The loss of our loved ones is always an intense one, and a reminder of our own mortality too.
There are different ways to cope with death and I am aware it is a somehow controversial topic – but, at least to me, it strikes me as fascinating, and I feel more comfortable talking about it and I am aware of the variety of different cultural perspectives on death and dying thanks to this historic perspective.
Q. You are also an avid outdoor adventurer, tell us about your kayaking expeditions to Greenland on Viking tracks. How did you plan for that trip and what discovery had been made from that trip?
Oh, that’s just where we went for vacation. But one thing that each of my travel companions probably would confirm (maybe even not so secretly sighing) is that I always find ways to keep the trips archeology relevant.
As for the Greenland expeditions, they were born from my deep love for kayaking and a friend’s obsession with the Artic landscape.
And, well, for the archaeologist there are many interesting traces of Viking settlements and activities along the southwestern coast. Planning the trip itself was not so challenging to be honest. Once the transportation (flight to Greenland and kayaks on-site) was sorted out, we worked on route details, supplies and, necessarily, some paddling training.
The experience was worth all the effort. It was an unforgettable one, so precious that we even returned to Greenland three more times since the first trip. I put some of these experiences to paper e.g. here: https://lettersfromthefield.com/2014/03/05/tracking-vikings-southern-greenland-by-kayak
Q, What are the must-have gears you keep in your suitcase all the time?
Sketchbook, pencils, and watercolor kit.
Jens Notroff is a Berlin-based archaeologist, illustrator, and science communicator and has been involved in research projects, expeditions, and excavations from the Arctic to the Middle East. He is currently working at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin in the role of Desk Officer for Science Communication.
His research interests include the Neolithic period and Bronze Age, with a particular concern for the representation of power in prehistoric societies, places of cult, as well as burial customs and mortuary ritual (and a peculiar curiosity for so-called deviant burials).
Still not accepting he might be a bit late for the ‘golden age’ of exploration, Jens spares no effort reaching remote destinations in pursuit of sites and sights, journal and sketchbook inevitable travel companions.
He is also vehemently advocating for the resurrection of the respectable profession of the ‘expedition painter’ – and is gladly contributing his share: Pen on desk, drawing kit in field pack, and pencil in dust.