Nerd of the Week

Meet Victoria, an Archeology Nerd

Interview by Terra Olsen

You’re an ‘archeology nerd’. How did archeology spark the ‘nerd’ in you?

Archaeology plays into several of my favorite childhood activities: digging in the sand, reading, and going to museums. I grew up near the beach, spent most of my summers reading and maxing out my library card (yes, there is a borrowing limit), and going to museums like the Getty (back when there was only one such named museum) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I was originally studying history at UCLA, but the second I tried out field archaeology, I was hooked. The spark came when I was working my first season in Pompeii and realized that this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I enjoy reading highly technical reports about Roman pottery, which would put most people to sleep faster than the phone book or the manual to an ’89 Toyota Camry.

How did you discover archeology?

I discovered archaeology when I was invited to go on a dig in Pompeii, Italy, by my Roman history professor back in 2005. Originally I wanted to go into international relations after I graduated, and to prepare for this career I was concentrating on 19th-20th century European history. The only reason why I had enrolled in a Roman history class was because I was told the instructors at UCLA were particularly excellent in this area. The idea of excavating at such a famous site piqued my interest, so I went. I lived in a tent for six weeks with about 120 other people from all around the world, but mostly from the UK. We worked from 8 am to 6 pm on site with a short lunch break during the hottest part of the day. The work was hard: troweling away deposits, hauling dirt, and sifting through the soil looking for artifacts was backbreaking but fun. I took two years off until I returned to Pompeii and I have been working with the much smaller Via Consolare Project, run by the same professor who introduced me to fieldwork, as their pottery specialist to this day. I also have been given the opportunity to dig at a Roman site in Egypt this upcoming spring, and I am hoping that the political climate cools down enough that I will be able to go.

Working outdoors is wonderful, but the wind often gets in the way when I illustrate pot sherds.

Working outdoors is wonderful, but the wind often gets in the way when I illustrate potsherds.

How has archeology impacted your life?

Being an archaeologist is a fun job, but it makes life a bit hard. Summers are spent in the field, which means that I miss out on a lot of weddings and other family events that often take place during the season. Being in Italy for one to two months a year is a blessing, but oftentimes I wish it did not prohibit me from celebrating special occasions. Also, people often think that I am going away on vacation when I am doing fieldwork. Does doing complex statistical analyses in an unairconditioned bungalow sound like a fun time to you? If yes, please turn to page 79.Good, you followed me. Welcome to page 79. Actually, the positive impacts are numerous. I feel like I have a giant extended family amongst my teammates, may of whom I remain in close contact during the rest of the year. The team has also become close to several Italian families who live around Pompeii, so it is a blessing to see them as well. I also feel like the team sets a positive image for Americans abroad. Thousands of tourists visit Pompeii each summer, and we try to be kind and courteous to any that come into contact with the project. Many are shocked that we are from the States because we speak several languages between all of us and try to answer their questions in their native tongue. “But you are so nice” they often say when they find out where we hail from. I guess I landed a career in international relations after all!

The Via Consolare Project's Trench in 2012

The Via Consolare Project’s Trench in 2012

Where do you want to take your passion for archeology?

Right now I am working at an all-girls primary school in the UK as a science teaching assistant. One of my jobs is to run an after school club of my choice, so naturally the girls are excited about the archaeology club that is starting after the Christmas break. My goal is to make them feel connected to the artifacts they see in museums and relate the human experience to the natural world around them. Museums present cultural history in sterile, controlled environments, and I want the girls to have a hands-on approach and discover that fine-turning our understanding of history often means getting a bit dirty.Beyond the classroom, I continue to remain active in the field and the world of professional archaeology. I hope one day to receive my PhD working on ceramics from dining establishments and storefronts in Pompeii. In the meantime I am concentrating on publishing my master’s thesis, which examined the ceramics from three Pompeian commercial properties to determine their function, and presenting the results of my investigations at professional conferences.

What challenges do you face as a female archeology nerd? 

Fortunately, females have been involved in archaeology for a long time. Women have traditionally been in charge of pottery and other artifact studies, so I am following in the footsteps of many female ceramic specialists. However, the main ceramicist specialists who work in Pompeii are nearly all men, so I am a bit of an anomaly in my geographical area. Most of the people on the team are women, too, which means the men I work with get teased by the Italians for having a harem.

Dining on some authentic Italian food on site

Dining on some authentic Italian food on site

What advice would you give to others interested in exploring archeology?

If going abroad is not financially feasible, get involved in a local excavation. There are numerous excavations around the United States (and the rest of the world, for that matter) where you can volunteer for a few days or weeks and try out fieldwork yourself. If fieldwork isn’t your cup of tea, remember there are other less physical jobs, like artifact and environmental remains studies, that put you in the lab instead.

Favorite moment or memory involving archeology?

The Pompeii excavation team stays in a campground near the site during the season, which means that we cook all of our meals outdoors on a barbecue. One year, around week four of six, I really wanted a burrito, which cannot be readily purchased in southern Italy. My teammate and I went to the supermarket and managed to find alternative ingredients to make the meal work: plain yogurt for sour cream, flat bread for tortillas,cannellini beans for pinto, etc. The grilled chicken combined with the freshly made salsas made the substitutions fade into the background. Now burrito night is a staple dinner when we get a bit homesick and want something less Italian.

Matching a pot handle to the pottery on her shirt

Victoria Keitel recently graduated with distinction with a master’s in archaeology from the University of Reading, UK, with a concentration in Roman ceramics. She previously attended UCLA, where she majored in history and bravely ran away from biological anthropology. Victoria currently excavates with the Via Consolare Project in Pompeii, Italy, and the NYU/Reading project in the Roman town of Amheida, Egypt. When she isn’t in the field, Victoria enjoys wandering through museums, watching ‘Top Gear’, reading classic fiction, and trying new recipes. If she wasn’t an archaeologist, she would probably be a graphic designer.

Do you know a self-proclaimed nerd we should interview? If so, please contact Terra at terra@haveyounerd.com and tell us about them.
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