A Greek emporium. A Roman fortress. A Byzantine outpost. An ancient settlement with more than 10 centuries of human history, nestled into the countryside of present-day Romania.
It’s all familiar territory for Emily Hanscam ’12, a Ph.D. student in archaeology at Durham University in the U.K. and site manager at Halmyris, an active archeological dig since 1981 where evidence of classical civilizations is still being unearthed.
“Halmyris has a lengthy and diverse occupation history,” she said. “It is also in one of the poorest regions of Romania, and by developing the site we are able to directly benefit the local economy.”
Hanscam, who majored in anthropology and history at Whitman and studied abroad in Athens, has worked at the excavation for the past four years, during which she earned her master’s in social archaeology at the University of Southampton, also in the U.K. In the process, she has recruited more than a dozen Whitman alumni and students to join her for stints at Halmyris, which is located near the port city of Constanța in a marshy delta where the Danube meets the Black Sea.
“I love how Whitman students are active, curious and eager to learn whether it relates to their major or not. We’ve had students from a range of departments—history, anthropology and classics obviously, but also physics, drama and geology.”
Since 2011, 14 alumni and current students have taken part in the dig: Anne Bauer ’12, Kelly Chadwick ’15, Sam Crosby ’16, Madeline Duppenthaler ’16, George Felton ’15, Sean Glascock ’15, Rosemary Hanson ’14, Marin Meades ’15, Melanie Medina ’14, Alex Norman ’13, David Otten ’12, Zack Thomasson ’17 and Marie von Hafften ’13.
“It’s like a treasure hunt,” said Hanson, an anthropology major who volunteered at Halmyris in 2012. “But instead of treasure, you’re looking for the stuff that fell between the couch cushions. A single earring, part of a wine glass, some nails, some coins, a key—stuff some Roman soldier was sure he left in his other pants.”
The focus of Hanscam’s research is a bit more up-to-date.
“What I’m studying right now is the relationship between archaeological work on the Roman frontier in the 19th and 20th centuries and the development of Eastern European nationalism and identity,” she said. “I’m using this research to critically analyze archaeological theory and its role in creating the conception of borders and exclusion, which is currently driving the immigration crisis in Europe.”
For her master’s dissertation, Hanscam conducted an archaeological ethnographic study on dig workers, surveying their experiences in Romania and questioning how the cultural, religious and political atmosphere surrounding the site—also a shrine—affected their development as archaeologists and their awareness of the impact of social context on archaeological research.
Her interest in the social impact of archaeology emerged during a 2012 dig with Whitman anthropology professor Gary Rollefson in Jordan, during which she was struck by the interactions between the excavation team and local Bedouins. She cites Rollefson, in addition to
classics professor Dana Burgess and history professor Brien Garnand, as mentors who encouraged her to pursue her passion.
“Whitman is very socially aware and engaged. It prepares student to think not only about their own interests and careers, but how the work they choose to do and the questions they choose to ask can impact the lives of others. I hope to meet many Whitman students over the years in Romania, and watch them discover their own agency in a place potentially vastly foreign to anything they’ve experienced before.”