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Archaeologist sees the passage of time in human bones


Another year over but the work never ends for a prize-winning busy scientist who studies the physical markers of history, and has even co-written a children’s book about it. THEO PANAYIDES meets her

Another year, another existential crisis. 2022 is over, and what have we done? Where does it all go, the time? Another year closer to death, oy vey. There’s no answer to such thorny, intractable questions – but looking at the bigger picture helps a little. It’s hard to feel too despondent about 2022 shading into 2023, for instance, when you see Efthymia ‘Efi’ Nikita posing in her osteoarchaeology lab with a human skull (excavated in Amathounta) dating from the 7th century AD. We don’t know much about that long-ago person, whoever they may have been – but it’s a fair bet that they too fretted about 658 having been and gone, and were convinced that 659 was finally going to be their year.

Efi herself, an assistant professor in Bioarchaeology at the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia, is unlikely to be feeling too despondent at the moment – not just because she comes off as naturally ebullient, even hyper (“I had a pretty strong espresso before you arrived,” she notes), but also because 2022 was a good year, to put it mildly. Its undisputed highlight, professionally at least, came in March, when she was one of nine recipients of the annual Dan David Prize, one of the biggest prizes in the world of historical scholarship (the other eight winners ranged from Germany to the US to Ghana). Not only is the prize worth $300,000, but it’s also one of the few grants that can be used in part to support the winner in their personal life – “Everyone else, very reasonably, says we give money for research, full stop” – a handy wrinkle for an archaeologist who’s also a mum with a four-year-old son.

Her daily routine is a challenge in itself – not least because both Efi and her husband are from Greece, with no family support here (some of the $300,000 will undoubtedly go on child care). Her boy’s been in nursery school, then kindergarten, since he was four months old – an advantage of Cyprus over Greece, where very few nurseries accept children under a year old. These days she picks him up at five, when she leaves the Institute – then they go home and “I try, I really try to spend two hours with him constructively”, reading books and doing jigsaws, but then her husband takes over and she goes back to work for another couple of hours, also working three or four hours a day on Saturday and Sunday.

profile2She’s a high-flyer, though you wouldn’t know it from her general demeanour. She’s 39 but looks much younger, bright, unpretentious and a bundle of energy; she talks very fast and multitasks easily, placing her laptop on the desk between us and glancing at messages while she answers my questions. The office is functional, just a few books with titles like Skeletal Biology of Past People, its only incongruous touch a colourful poster for the 1958 French comedy Mon Oncle. She just liked the colours, demurs Efi, she’s not a film buff – or at least, not that kind of film buff. Amusingly, this very efficient scientist has a soft spot for films about mad scientists. “I really love horrible movies. Like, trashy mutant-animal horror movies. I love them!… Mutant animals, or some experiment going wrong in the lab”.

Her own lab doesn’t seem like the kind of place where experiments could go wrong – though this particular lab (the one where she poses with the 7th-century skull) is only for “macroscopic analysis, where we clean the bones and record whatever can be recorded macroscopically, visually”. The Institute has another lab for chemical and isotopic analysis – and of course there’s also fieldwork, going on digs to excavate bones in the first place. Efi gives me a tour of the lab, and arranges a group shot with her PhD students and lab assistant – Anna, Antonio, Mahmoud and Gaby – plus a pet skeleton named Suzy. We take the photos, and she gives a little clap of delight as the team disperses; I’m reminded of a primary-school teacher after a child gives a presentation, sending out a bit of encouragement as they walk back to their desk.

The comparison is actually apt – because there’s a lot of the teacher in her makeup. Her parents were both teachers, her mum an English teacher in primary school, her dad Panos (with whom she’s written a couple of papers) a professor of Chemistry at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, where she was born. Efi shows me a leaflet for an open-source textbook called Bare Bones, introducing children to osteoarchaeology, which she co-authored with Mahmoud; she’s involved in outreach activities, and very keen on reaching people beyond academia. “I’m very research-focused, and I publish like a maniac in research journals,” she sighs – “but then you realise, so what? What is the impact of what I do?”. She actually started out wanting to be a teacher, specifically a philologist teaching Greek language, literature and history in secondary school. Archaeology had never crossed her mind, she’d never even met an archaeologist (“I’d watched Indiana Jones, but I was smart enough to know that’s not what an archaeologist does”) – but then someone pointed out that she could become a philologist through an archaeology degree, and it sounded more intriguing than the usual alternatives so she gave it a shot. The rest, quite literally, is history.

profile3What kind of history? What kind of archaeology? Bioarchaeology – or osteoarchaeology, from ‘osteo’ meaning ‘bone’ – is specifically the study of human bones, with the aim of studying and describing the lives of our ancestors. “What did people in the past eat?” asks the text in Bare Bones. “How active were they? What diseases did they suffer from?” Efi’s bio on the Dan David Prize website puts it more grandly: “She is increasingly committed to integrating human skeletal data with archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological evidence as well as historical evidence, in order to form a more well-rounded view of the past”.

It’s surprising how much you can tell from human bones. You can’t often tell what people died from, unless it was violence – she’s identified sword wounds on skeletons from the Libyan Sahara, for instance – but you do know how old they were. Most adults died in their early 30s, anything over 50 being “old adulthood”; Efi herself, at 39, would’ve been in late middle age in ancient times – though in fact, she says cheerfully, “I had my appendix removed when I was 10, so I’d be long dead now”.

The work is somewhat morbid, calling for “a necessary emotional distance”; human remains have a certain totemic power, even when the people are anonymous and died hundreds of years ago. But it’s not just about death, it’s about life. Studying children’s bones “we can tell, for example, what was the weaning age, at how many months or years old they stopped breastfeeding”. (It’s done through isotopic analysis of the teeth: because teeth are formed gradually, layer by layer, she can see when the chemical composition of the tooth changes.) We can also tell a lot, indirectly, about the way societies were structured. “For instance, we have some skeletons that exhibit really extensive trauma,” explains Efi. “These people didn’t just survive and heal on their own. For some amount of time, someone took care of them.” We also see ancients responding to climate change – not just a modern phenomenon, despite the hype (though of course “the scale at which it’s happening is unique in post-industrial times, nobody can question that”). Diet may change in response to drought or flooding, mobility patterns change; DNA shows new ethnic groups suddenly arriving in the area. Human bones are the physical markers of history.

‘Were they happy, those long-ago people?’ I enquire, trolling a little, and she laughs out loud; “Oh, I have no idea!”. That’s the one thing the bones can never tell us. It’s unclear if having access to the bigger picture has made Efi herself any happier, or more serene about time passing; if anything, it’s the future rather than the past that’s added perspective, the birth of her son with its sense of “a continuity in life”. (Meanwhile she’s blissfully “in denial” about turning 40 in 2023.) She’s happy at the Institute, anyway, and quite happy living here. “I like Cyprus. I like Cyprus very much.”

Students like it too, that’s no surprise; Erasmus students “literally come in here crying [when it’s time to leave] about how they had a fantastic time and they don’t want to go”. For them, it means late summer nights and trips to the beach; for Efi, however – who arrived in 2017, already pregnant – Cyprus is associated with motherhood and (equally importantly) the flourishing of her career, after years in the wilderness.

She’s a high-flyer, as already mentioned. She was always a serious person, a schoolteacher type; “When we were students at university and people got drunk, I was the one who would make sure everyone got home safe”. She met her husband at uni (he was also studying archaeology, though he’s now in the business world) and they’ve been together ever since. She was also, however, of a generation that “had absolutely no hope” in Greece, “there was never any opening”; all the jobs in archaeology – at museums, universities, the culture ministry – were state jobs, and the state was bankrupt. Efi finished her PhD (at Cambridge) in 2010 and “applied for every post-doc and every job imaginable, everywhere on the planet. And nothing worked out”.

She had interviews as far afield as Canberra in Australia and Purdue in Indiana. She published on her PhD data, just to get something on her CV, and wangled a couple of one-year post-docs in Athens. For two years she worked as “a companion for two teenage boys,” she adds a little startlingly, working as tutor and general secretary. (The family, I assume, were super-rich; she won’t be drawn on the details.) She kept applying, and kept being rejected; she was too young, and her CV – even with the Cambridge connection – didn’t really stand out compared to the thousands of other wannabe academics. “If by 35 I don’t get something with some prospect of permanency, I’m out,” she told her family. “Life is short.” (What would she have done, had she dropped out of academia? “Probably something in admin.”) Then, in the same month in 2015, she got a one-year fellowship at the University of Sheffield – and, more importantly, her current academic job at the Cyprus Institute.

I suspect Efi Nikita would always have been the kind of person to take her career extremely seriously. When you add the years of struggle before she broke through, however, it’s no surprise that she works so hard now. I ask if she reads for pleasure – but there’s no time, “I read a ton for my work”; she peer-reviews papers for journals, and is also on a number of editorial boards. She’s an associate editor at the Journal of Archaeological Science, on the “broader editorial board” of Plos One, co-editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of Archaeology at academic publishers Elsevier, and so on. It’s significant that you don’t apply for the Dan David Prize, you have to be nominated – which is why it’s important (even more, perhaps, as a woman) to be known and respected by colleagues, which is why it’s important to be constantly writing and publishing.

It’s a wry little irony that the academics studying ancient bones seem to be a lot more stressed-out than the ancient people whose bones they’re studying. “It’s a rat race. Yes it is,” admits Efi, speaking of academia. She loves her job, but “it’s manic at the moment.” Her one relaxation is cycling – but “I cycle in the house… I’m not outdoorsy”; after she’s put in the hours, both as scientist and mother, “I get on my bicycle, I put on my laptop and watch my silly movies – and I cycle!”.

It’s a good life, manic but good: a prestigious archaeologist going on digs, supervising students, running isotopic tests, reading research papers, doing jigsaw puzzles with a four-year-old – and now even more prestigious, after her prize (most of which will go “to support young scholars”). And in 2023? “I’m applying for a very big grant now,” says Efi, and she’s also awaiting the results of three other grants in February. Another year, but the work never ends! I assume that 7th-century person would’ve said the same.

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