How a very international archaeologist was born
From mandrill teeth to the microstructure of bones: archaeology alumna Simone Lemmers (31) is determined to reveal the past by studying old remains. Her curiosity has led to a very international career, also in the UK, where she witnessed the Brexit referendum.
Why did you decide to study Archaeology in Leiden?
‘Since I was a kid, I’ve always been intrigued by archaeology and stories of the past. My grandfather had close friends in Cyprus, so the family often visited the island. Cyprus is a treasure trove for ancient history, and my parents took us to many ancient sites. We would marvel at the Paphos mosaics, play with the echoes at Ancient Kourion Theatre and play hide-and-seek behind classical columns. School trips to Rome and Greece only increased my fascination. Mix this with a passion for biology and earth sciences, a love of nature and the outdoors, and an archaeologist is born!’
How was it to study archaeology?
‘The excavation of prehistoric barrows in the Veluwe led by Professor David Fontijn was an absolute breakthrough for me. I helped excavate a number of cremation burials, and was intrigued by how much you can learn from burned human bones. I decided to specialise in the analysis of human remains. Since cremations are fragmented, you have to pay attention to every little detail. I started to focus on the microscopic assessment of human hard tissue shortly after, and this remains the focus of my current research.’
And how was your student life?
‘I was lucky enough to live in an amazing house in Leiden with 12 flatmates, all from different programmes, who became very good friends. I was also active in the Johan Picardt Study Association for Prehistoric and Science Based Archaeology. We organised excursions to countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, where we visited famous archaeological sites. I have fantastic memories of this time. During my master’s studies, I got my first taste of living abroad, spending a couple of months at the University of Edinburgh, for the MSc in Human Osteoarchaeology. I learned an incredible amount during that semester.’
What did you do after graduation?
‘I was given the opportunity to join the new Laboratory for Human Osteoarchaeology at Leiden University. I love teaching, so combining this with research was a dream for me. I also worked as an osteological specialist, analysing human remains from all kinds of excavations in the Netherlands at VU University Amsterdam. In 2013, I was accepted for a PhD project in biological anthropology at Durham University in the UK. A fairy tale town in the middle of a forest with a large university and an eye-catching Norman castle and cathedral that dominate the skyline.’
What was your research about?
‘In Durham, I could take my passion for hard tissue histology to a new level, stepping out of archaeology and diving into biology and primatology. The project revolved around the question of whether stressful events such as birth leave traces in the microstructure of teeth. I worked on the dental microstructure of the mandrill, a large Old World monkey. For this research, I got to work with leading primatologists and spend time in Gabon where a large colony of mandrills lives. It was an unforgettable experience.’
You were in the UK when the Brits voted for Brexit. What impact did this have on you?
‘I remember 23 June 2016 like yesterday. I watched the referendum result with a huge group of students in the Great Hall at Durham Castle. A big screen had been put up, and we had all gathered for what we thought would be an interesting evening. The atmosphere rapidly turned grim, particularly when the – to us – surprising results of Newcastle and Sunderland were announced: had people actually voted for Brexit? I couldn’t believe it! The next weeks where filled with marches and protests. Disbelief, anger and sadness soared high at the University.'
Did these events influence your decision to leave the UK?
‘Brexit wasn’t the specific reason why I left the UK for Cyprus. I chose to go there for the research and collaboration opportunities, but I must confess that I was – and still am – very concerned about the academic climate in the UK. The problem is that we don’t know what will happen. Among the many problems that Brexit will cause for academia, one is that lots of academic jobs depend on EU grants. What will happen to all those academics in the UK whose research relies on such funds?’
What do you do in Cyprus?
‘I moved to Cyprus last summer to start a fellowship sponsored by the Council for British Research in the Levant. This gave me the opportunity to take the skills, methods and framework from my PhD and apply them back to archaeology. And it was in Cyprus, which had always been at the back of my mind. I work on a variety of projects with Dr Kirsi Lorentz from The Cyprus Institute, many related to synchrotron radiation. Synchrotrons generate powerful light beams that allow us to see inside materials, but with much more power than any conventional microscope. This helps us explain an individual’s health conditions in the past. Combining archaeological and medical approaches is exactly what interests me, so I feel right at home and plan to continue this research!’