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Getting lost in foreign worlds

Tasked with uncovering ancient deaths and demystifying them, THEO PANAYIDES meets a scientist who says we have a lot to learn from the past

Unless you’re a fellow academic, the most eye-catching part of Kirsi Lorentz’s CV – you can find it on the website of the Cyprus Institute, where she’s an Assistant Professor – probably isn’t her impressive list of conference papers and publications, but the fact that she speaks (at least) nine languages. In addition to her native Finnish, Kirsi can hold a conversation in English, Greek, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, Estonian “and others”, notes the CV – that final “and others” being the cherry on the cake since those ‘others’ include most of the languages (Arabic, Turkish, Farsi) which she uses in her fieldwork, excavating ancient sites as part of researching the ‘human bioarchaeology’ of the Near East.

Is she fluent in all nine? “Well, ‘fluent’ is…” she begins, and laughs. “You know, you’re talking to an academic so we twist and turn all the time, and analyse and so on”. She does twist and turn quite a bit, her answers prone to caveat and circumlocution – and ‘fluent’ is of course a matter of opinion, but a YouTube clip of an interview she gave to the CyBC programme Apo Mera Se Mera shows that her Greek, at least, is quite fluent, barring the occasional stumble; what’s more, that interview dates from 2009 so she’s had plenty of practice in the decade since, not least because she’s married to a Cypriot (they met in Cambridge, where she did her PhD; they have two boys, five and two). At one point I remark on her accent – which isn’t British, Nordic or Cypriot, but somewhere in between – and she laughs again: “I’m a bit of a chameleon with accents. By the end of this interview, I’ll probably pick up your accent!”.

That may be a key line in describing her personality – because Kirsi has a scientist’s knack for exploring other cultures (or indeed accents) rather than imposing her own. Most of her interests, both professional and personal, seem to hinge on losing herself in foreign worlds, whether it’s the bottom of the sea as a keen scuba diver (and certified instructor), the world of exotic cuisines as a committed foodie – and of course the world of the past, human bioarchaeology being the study of ancient human remains. “There’s this one lady in Larnaca,” she says at one point, and I crane forward to hear more about her friend – “who was found in a sarcophagus,” she goes on, and I realise that the lady in question lived (and died) thousands of years ago.

Turning the spotlight on herself doesn’t really come naturally. It’s not that she’s standoffish, far from it – but I get the sense that a fair bit of planning has gone into our meeting, in her office at the Institute. I start to sit down in a chair but she points me to another one, with my back to the door. A small plate of nougat sweets has been placed in the middle of the table, next to neatly-stacked piles of leaflets. “If the noise outside disturbs, we can close the door,” she suggests with impeccable, slightly fussy politeness (in fact, there’s no noise to speak of), then later: “Do tell me if you’re not comfortable”. She’s 44, in a high-necked black top adorned with a pendant which belonged to her grandmother, her skin so pale it must suffer terribly in the 50-degree heat of the Arab deserts where she does her excavations. She has the Finnish face, she says cheerfully, her narrow, pale-green eyes seeming almost to vanish when she laughs or squints. On the wall is a black-and-white photo of an elephant herd, taken by her husband on a trip to Botswana; travel is another of her pleasant devices for losing herself in foreign worlds.

She’s not the first Finnish archaeologist to specialise in the Middle East, indeed there’s a bit of a tradition (Jaakko Frösén is apparently the big name among her predecessors) – but it’s still unusual to see her here, especially as a woman in a part of the world that’s notoriously hostile to women. It may have helped that her childhood was slightly unsettled, she and her five siblings following their neurologist dad on his postings around Finland – but it also helps that the region, simply put, is nowhere near as dangerous as it’s made out to be. “To be perfectly honest,” says Kirsi, slightly nonplussed as I probe for tales of close calls and witnessed atrocities, “I felt much more safe in this region than walking around in certain parts of New York or San Francisco”.

But isn’t Tell Zeidan in Syria – an archaeological site where she carried out a human bioarchaeology project funded by the University of Chicago – just five kilometres from Raqqa, the de facto capital of the ISIS ‘caliphate’?

“Well, Raqqa was a different place,” she replies. She was there the summer before ISIS invaded, and “Raqqa was a sleepy town with a nice Friday market, with goats and sheep and spices and cheese and those little bottles of local perfumes and whatnot. And the local baker was friendly to us, and we had trips with the students. It was a normal humdrum place to be, as an archaeologist”. She doesn’t meet raging Islamists, she meets “normal people” with normal lives, people who often go out of their way to help her – especially as a woman travelling alone. I start asking about terrorists but we end up talking about food, the “absolutely fabulous” food of the region. “In Iran there’s this dish called fesenjan, it’s pomegranate molasses, ground-up walnuts and meat – it used to be duck, but nowadays it’s mostly chicken – cooked in this wonderful sauce and served over rice. Another one – I hope you’ve had some lunch,” she adds thoughtfully, watching me salivate – “another one is zereshk polow…”

It’s fitting that Kirsi has worked in a region that’s become synonymous with death, yet makes it sound pleasantly ordinary – because that, more or less, is her job, to uncover the deaths of the past and demystify them, make sense of them, turn them into science. At Tell Zeidan, for instance, soil samples from the pelvic area of an ancient skeleton revealed the remains of an intestinal parasite which causes bilharzia, the earliest evidence of the devastating disease that now affects some 300 million people (she ascribes it to the growth of urban settlements, leading to irrigation agriculture where the parasite thrived). “Looking at bones, looking at how people buried their dead, looking at how they buried their children”: there’s a sadness in what she does, a ghostly humanity inscribed in old bones and soil samples. It’s even more poignant – though that isn’t, strictly speaking, her specialisation – when remains are found, say, with lesions in the head area, or lying face-down with no evidence of a formal burial: the signs of violent death.

Kirsi in Iran

What could’ve been so important, all those thousands of years ago, to justify the snuffing-out of a human life? How trivial and unnecessary it appears from our own perspective – rather like the mass graves in Syria will someday appear to archaeologists of the future. Kirsi nods, taking a sip of tea from a formidable-looking black thermos on the table beside her: “When we see these kinds of things in the past, and think ‘Well, that was pointless, wasn’t it?’, with our benefit of hindsight…” She trails off, shrugging helplessly: “If we would be able to put that perspective to the events that are happening now, I think as humanity we would be much better off”.

There’s a larger question here, one that extends to the whole practice of archaeology; after all, the distant past seems especially distant to a generation for whom even the 20th century is an alien planet. We send messages to the other side of the world in a matter of seconds now, and call up knowledge at the touch of a button; we’ll be colonising Mars soon, or downloading our consciousness into new bodies, or whatever the futuristic gurus would have you believe. Hasn’t there been a paradigm shift? Can we still care about Bronze Age people in the age of technology?

Kirsi pauses, weighing her words: “I personally think we have a lot to learn from the past,” she replies unsurprisingly. After all, the usual narrative of the future as a destination – as progress – is just a narrative; we tend to picture ourselves walking forwards into the future, she points out, but for instance many Aboriginal tribes in Australia (Kirsi’s studies were in both Archaeology and Cultural Anthropology) picture themselves walking backwards, facing the past. “Whether we like it or not, we’re always informed by the past,” she affirms, adding that “this kind of hubris of ‘We are technologically advanced’ also existed in the past”. You only have to rummage around in history (either physically, as archaeologists do, or figuratively) to find ancient texts speaking of some major innovation, societies transformed by technology – but human concerns have always remained much the same, trying to find “some comfort in our life”, some security and happiness. And of course everyone ends up in the ground eventually.

“My line of work is really something that puts into perspective birth and death and everything in between,” she says wryly, “and gives a sense of the fragility of life. Both in terms of what I actually do in the laboratory and the field, in studying these remains, but also in terms of travelling in this region… So, with that in mind, we should live our lives and do our research like it’s the last day we’ve got to do it,” she smiles, reaching for the punchline – “but [also] plan it like we’ve got forever!” she adds unexpectedly, and I think of the planning that seems to have gone even into our casual encounter.

Kirsi Lorentz is a planner, I suspect – an organised, practical type – which is also why she makes a good explorer. Even the aforementioned thermos is proof of good planning, a habit she picked up at the ESRF (European Synchrotron Radiation Facility) in Grenoble where you only get so many hours of “beam time” and can’t afford to waste time getting tea. The ESRF provides microscopic analysis by beaming synchrotron-generated light on (say) human remains, 100 billion times brighter than the X-rays used in hospitals – part of the increasingly high-tech nature of bioarchaeology, and indeed another such facility (SESAME, in Jordan) recently opened in the Middle East, a collaboration between eight members including Cyprus. “I had the privilege of being the very first person using the synchrotron radiation for research there,” she reports with a smile.

Cutting-edge synchrotrons are one aspect of what Kirsi does. Squatting for hours in the baking sun is another aspect, trying to coax out a mud-brick wall from surrounding soil or using the most delicate of instruments – a tiny little brush, even an air-puff – to expose skeletal remains without breaking them. Then there’s her region, the Near East, maybe not dangerous to one’s health because of terrorism – but dangerous to one’s health nonetheless. On one occasion, she came back with what doctors called a “non-specific infection” (translation: we have no idea what’s wrong, but you need to be hospitalised). Another time, in Jordan, it was cystic amoeba from contaminated food – oh, that food! – and she ended up on a drip where, to make matters worse, the bottle containing the drip fell from where it had been imperfectly secured, and cracked her on the forehead. “It was a glass bottle of substantial size,” she recalls with an academic’s dry self-deprecation.

Overall, she seems quite low-profile – a woman who plans and studies and observes and dissects, a picker-up of other people’s accents, a soft-spoken type who most enjoys connecting with people, those of the past and those of the present (she even likes talking to the random folks seated next to her on transatlantic flights, which is surely beyond the call of duty). I don’t know if she relished having to talk about herself, and suspect she probably didn’t – except that she also has a missionary zeal for her work, doing what she can to attract (especially young) people to the bioarchaeology lab at the Cyprus Institute. She tells me of ‘Researcher’s Night’, the annual event where researchers present what they do, and how she set up “little mini-excavation areas, with sand and human remains and so on” to get her message across to the general public.

What is that message? “Getting people to appreciate their ancestors,” says Kirsi – especially, perhaps, when our newfound technological nirvana is also, potentially, a closing of the mind. Once we start believing so fanatically in a brave new world, something is lost, an awareness of the key similarities that exist across Time; to forget the past is to place limits on our own intellectual curiosity. Her five-year-old is a boy entomologist, she reports at one point: he loves insects, all kinds of insects, even crickets and cockroaches. “That’s the kind of curiosity I’m talking about,” concludes Kirsi, and smiles fondly.

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