Cyprus: an introduction

For the past month, I’ve been working as a lecturer and field supervisor for the Odyssey Field School in Limassol, Cyprus. It’s been rather exciting to be in charge of my own field site, although there were many times the first two weeks when I didn’t know what to do and looked around for a grown-up before realizing that I am the grown-up. There’s been a steep learning curve, but it’s also been a good test of whether I’m capable of running a site — surprise, I am!

I arrived four weeks ago at 1am. For no obvious reason, flights into and out of Cyprus are scheduled at bizarre hours. I either had to leave London at 6 am or arrive here at midnight, and my flight home (on August 3) arrives at Stansted at 2:40am. (No, it doesn’t make them cheaper.) Our city doesn’t have an airport, and the customs queue was so long that I missed a shuttle. After taking the next intercity bus, which dropped me on the side of a highway at 12:45, I saw an off-duty taxi who took me the rest of the way. I knew the address of the apartment but not the name, which is apparently the important thing here as Google maps has all the numbers wrong. I was informed upon arrival that we’d be waking up at 6am to be at the cafe at 7:30 to meet our director, Xenia. I was to start lecturing at 8. This was definitely the longest lecture I’ve given on such short notice, as I talked all that day and all the following day, giving a crash course in bioarchaeology. My students were mostly American (one British), undergraduate and masters level, and it was a challenge to engage everyone at appropriate levels and keep them awake from 8-4 while jetlagged. I pulled through, and could see by the time they had analysed a few skeletons that they were able to apply theoretical knowledge to actual cases.

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Me, travel edition

The skeletons: as a bioarchaeologist, I’ve primarily looked at individuals from a few thousand years ago to the middle ages. The majority of the individuals I’ve examined – for my thesis, hundreds; for my career, thousands – died before they were 50 (although people in the past did live to old age, it was not very common at the sites I’ve studied). Their bones also suffered from being in the soil so long, making many of them fragmentary and crumbly. This site’s collection houses individuals who died in the 20th century and were disinterred for various reasons over the last 20 years. Most of them are named, and we can look up their dates of birth and death – apparently the oldest one is over 100! Looking at the names of the boxes, I can assess the gender of the individual, which useful when the students are learning assessment of skeletal sex. (The pelvis and skull have traits that differ between males and females, but as with these things — it’s a spectrum rather than a strict line.) In a population where most people are cisgender, it’s useful to be able to say “this skeleton has mostly female characteristics” and then check the box to see if they have a woman’s name. Many of the skeletons here have had medical interventions – dentures, hip replacements, metal screws to fix fractures – that I’ve never seen before, since surgery didn’t exist when the people from my other assemblages were alive! Having complete skeletons is very useful, as it makes diagnosis easier. Many diagnostic criteria for joint diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis) ask whether the joints are affected symmetrically or asymmetrically. If you only have one hand preserved, it’s impossible to tell. I’m learning a lot, and feel like I’m really able to solidify my knowledge of pathology by finally seeing the complete picture.

I should also clarify that while Cyprus has many human remains from the war in 1974, the ones we are working on are not war dead. We can’t talk in great detail about the cases we work on as some of them are forensic, so when we tell local people (like the bus driver, who keeps asking why a horde of Americans get on the bus to the cemetery every day) we are purposefully vague. But everyone is still curious, and assume that if we can’t talk about it, they must be from the war. Nope!

We work in a historic cemetery in central Limassol, using its central ossuary (repository for bones) as a lab and lecture room. It’s underground, which one would expect to be cooler than above, but it actually boiling. Everywhere is boiling. It has ben 40°C and humid all day everyday. At night the temperature drops a bit but the humidity increases. The only way to cool down is to jump in the sea. I wish I could spend all day in the sea.

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The cemetery is home to many cats.

Cyprus. I’d never been here before. I had very little time to research what I was getting into. I assumed it would be similar to Greece, so I refreshed my Greek and prepared to only eat Greek food for months. I was totally wrong. Cyprus is very international, with lots of shipping, business with Russia, and links to Southeast Asia. We live in a Russian neighborhood with shops that sell furs, and advertizing is in a confusing mix of Greek and Cyrillic characters. (Since I can read both, it sent my brain into a tailspin trying to figure it out.) I go to the Old Town market on Sundays, where one can buy fresh local vegetables, cheap Asian imports of bedsheets, curtains, rather horrifying fashion, and used electronics. I speak to the veg seller in a mix of Greek and Arabic. On the way back, I saw some Sri Lankan women threading each other’s faces in the street. I asked if I could get my face done and they were a little confused; I figured they were just doing it for friends and not as a business, and they only asked for 5 euros. The first meal I ate out was Nepalese. Most people speak enough English to get the message across, which is rather a shame as I wanted to practice Greek.

We finished the Human Remains Training Certificate two weeks ago and then started the field school. Four students left and a few more arrived from Canada and the UK. We were then able to split into two crowded apartments instead of one very, very crowded apartment (one room had three single beds, which was… weird #fieldlife). The site is quite small – it’s a part of the cemetery with commingled remains that need to be excavated and moved. It’s fenced in by concrete walls, with an open top – we can’t put up sunshades because, as mentioned above, people get curious and then suspicious. (At least a few times a week, someone walks by the ask what we’re doing and whether we have permission.) We leave the apartments at 5:50 for the (sometimes on time) 6:00 bus, getting to site at 6:25. We start with photos, measurements, then the plan for the day. After 6 days of bone fragments and dirt (we’ve excavated down over 40cm), we finally reached complete human bones, and I let out a whoop that definitely attracted the attention of a passerby. We were also able to open up an adjacent text pit that contained more bones, and we’ve now joined that onto the main trench. I’m particularly proud of the very very straight trench walls.

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Some of my students in our PERFECT trench

This is our final week of digging; next week I’ll be teaching the Paleopathology course, so need to write all my lectures for that. More on the dig and travel later!

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