|33 Questions|

33 Questions for our Archeologist and Historian Aleksandra

“In the series “33 questions” we introduce, in no particular order, our WiRe Fellows who are currently working on a research project here at the University of Münster. Why 33? Well, if we think of the rush hour of life, it is kind of the age that lies in its middle. And we also like the number😉.

Dr Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider, archaeologist, historian of religions, ancient historian, epigraphist (all-in-one) in the area of the Near East after the conquest of Alexander the Great, passionate about Palmyra, the ancient city on the Syrian Desert with splendid ruins, as well as passionate about deciphering ancient inscriptions in various dialects of Aramaic.

1. What motivated you to work in the field of Antiquity?

When I was 10, bored sitting at home in a rainy and dark evening, I fell on a book about geography of different countries and started to read about Egypt. It was enough to light up my passion to the archaeology, ancient history and ancient languages. Since then I wanted to be a discoverer and learn all these fascinating languages and scripts like ancient Greek, Latin, hieroglyphs. The biggest motivator was my history teacher in the high-school, dr Hanna Skierczynska who maintained the interests and encouraged me in this slopy path, helping in preparations for the hard entry exams. During my beloved studies on archaeology, my passion changed from Egypt to the Graeco-Roman Near East thanks to the epigraphy classes and my first excavation season in Palmyra in Syria in 2005 where I fell in love with its history, architecture, texts and localization in an oasis full of palm trees somewhere in the middle of the Syrian Desert. And nowadays, my motivator is my husband (also a Near-Eastern archaeologist) who overflows me with papers and who is the best partner of a daily scientific exchange.

2. Describe your daily work in three words.

Not 3 words but the best description of my work: 

Matching puzzles without any helping picture and any knowledge about the number of elements. 

A view of Palmyra’s archaeological site. / Photo: © Dr. Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider

3. Describe your research topic in three words. 

Understanding ancient beliefs.

4. A good Antiquity scholar needs …? 

… to be curious and openminded. The open-mindedness helps to get out from the stereotypes in looking at other cultures through the western eye and curiosity is a basic element of making research and going forward in learning about different domains of life.

5. What is the best experience you have had as a scientist/researcher? 

Reading, touching and enjoying inscriptions directly from the original objects in the original places.

6. What was your biggest research disaster? 

Doubting myself as a researcher and will of quitting every time when it does not go as I want.

7. Which (historical) important scientist would you like to have dinner with? What would you ask?

I think, maybe banally, that it would be Maria Sklodowska-Curie, we would chat in Polish about being women researchers and combining scientific life with family and kids. I would ask her for some advices in the matter of sharing time with kids and doing science, because it is very often very hard to connect these spheres of life.

8. If time and money were no object: Which research project would you like to do?

Excavating below the remains of the sanctuary of Bel in Palmyra (if really time was no object and I could wait until the conflicts in Syria are over).

Temple of Bell, the most important sanctuary of Palmyra. Build from 1st Century CE up until 108 CE – it was destroyed by ISIS-Terrorists in 2015. / Photo: © Dr. Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider
Gardens around Palmyra and palms which probably gave the Greek name to the ancient city. / Photo: © Dr. Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider
Daily work when in the field: Trying to decipher inscriptions, which are often not well preserved – a lot of guessing and filling in the gaps included. / Photo: © Dr. Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider

9. What is your favorite research discipline other than your own?

Definitely astronomy with the planets, stars and this big unknown if we are alone in the Universe.

10. What do you consider the greatest achievement in the history of science/your field? 

I say deciphering ancient scripts, like cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Phoenician writing in the XIX century. Thanks to that we have an access to the ancient documents and the richness of information about different domains of life of the people in the past and to their thoughts, beliefs and perception of the world (as well as to the culinary recipes, e.g. how to make a beer). 

11. Which experience in the world of science disappointed you most?

There are two such experiences which disappointed me most in the world of science. First one is jealousy of the other researchers (mostly more experienced colleagues) who do not want to build any network, exchange with the young researchers and who keep running the rivalry instead of bringing help and encouragement. Second is not constructive critics without any reasonable explanation or argument, just pretending that the criticizer is the all-knowing person having simply a title of a professor.

12. What was the funniest moment you had in science?

I was attending a conference on Palmyra with my (back then) 5-month-old daughter in the carrier. A colleague of mine started to presenting his topic with a calm, steady voice making my daughter falling asleep like it was the best lullaby in the world. Afterwards, during the break he wanted to check how she enjoyed his speech, but a quiet snore came from the carrier located on my chest. He is still laughing that she was the best critic of his research.

13. How did you survive your PhD time?

I want to know that too 😀 After my final exam I had to make all-inclusive holidays abroad to work this time out.

14. What direct or indirect relevance does your research have for society?

For the first glance, people may ask why at all bother about the old, dead, stuff, but my research has an input in the question of multiculturality and religious tolerance. I am studying the ancient traditions visible still in the great religions of nowadays: Islam, Christianity and Judaism, like the concept of divine mercy. They are based on the same roots and share similar concepts linking to the people who believed in more than one god. It opens an inter-religious dialogue and leaves space for acceptance and understanding, instead of intolerance and discrimination. I am also working on the communication strategies (rituals, prayers) within the ancient religions which reveals the same strategies as in modern times, showing that religion is a big part of human nature and that we need rhythms and celebrations in our lives. I use always to say that from the past we learn about today and future. Through my study on the two gods from polytheistic societies I can follow the changes in their perception when the Christianity and Islam were on their rise, so the human behavior within the new religious phenomena.

My research turns the eyes on the care on the world cultural heritage and its preservation, also in making people aware about their history and culture.  The lack of this consciousness about historical identity and roots (where we come from?) leads to the destruction of monuments like in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places in the world. Keeping the studies on Antiquity, especially concerning the endangered zones, can prevent such acts of intolerance as destruction and lootings of the ancient sites in 2015 in Syria and Iraq. 

Aleksandra (on the right) discussing and looking at the geographical landscape together with a colleague. / Photo: © Dr. Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider

15. How did you imagine the life of a scientist / researcher when you were a high school student?

Exactly like it is, reading a lot, traveling and living abroad, doing important things 🙂

16. Is it actually different? In what way?

Different is to have all the time a mobile office and being here and there without any stable place of attachment. And not going on the excavations because of the war and conflict reasons.

17. What do you like most about the „lifestyle“ of a scientist? And what least of it? 

I like discovering new places and new people to work with, presenting at conferences, being flexible in time and place of work. I don’t like this unknown: what after this project? Where I will be? How to (re)organize our life as a family again? What if I don’t get this position/grant/job? And I don’t like the attitude of others (close and distant family, acquaintances), who are not related to academics, asking all the time if you couldn’t choose something more productive or financially rentable.

18. Do you think your career would have evolved differently if you were a man?

Absolutely yes (in many reasons)!

19. If you were the research minister of Germany, what would you do to improve the situation of women in science?

This question is too difficult for me to answer. I see the dynamics in the change of inclusion of women in the research and in my opinion, it goes in the right direction. I would maybe set an accent on the family issue and possibility to create a space (or at least positive atmosphere) at the universities for working mothers with babies (or small kids).

20. If you had a daughter, what would you advise her not to do?

Actually, I have a daughter and I would advise her not to bother with the people who don’t accept her and not to let herself be taught that certain domains are for men and other for women. She can be whomever she wants to become!

21. What is the biggest challenge for you when it comes to balancing family and career?

The first of the biggest challenges was lockdown last Spring in France and working with my daughter on my lap, second one was dealing with intolerance and judgmental character of the French education system in the outcome to juggle with my husband with the care of our kid during the day when I was at work the whole day and third one is: when I will have time to clean the house when there are always much more important things to do 

22. How often do you as a friend / partner / mother / daughter sometimes feel guilty when you have to meet a deadline again?

Often and it is a huge stress factor.

23. How did you imagine your future as a child? What profession did you want to pursue?

When I was in kindergarten age, I wanted to be nurse. Then in primary school I became interested on astronomy (it went to oblivion after first troubles at physics and mathematics), but when I was 10 I wanted to be exactly who I am now: working with the mysteries of the past.

24. How do you keep your head clear when you are stressed? 

Dancing, going out with friends and speaking with other people.

25. What is your favorite German word?

My German is affected by living in Austria for quite some years already. My favorite is (by far!): Oachkatzlschwoaf (which means: “tail of a squirrel”)  a classic Tyrolean tongue breaker! I like also the expression “Das ist mir Wurst” to say I don’t care.

26. What makes you most happy about the world?

Mountains, nature and good food 

27. What or who inspired you to become an Antiquity scholar?

What: a book on geography I read when I was 10, TV programs  and the stories on deciphering the ancient languages. 

Who: my history teacher in high school, colleagues in my field who do amazing things and all people who said: it is too difficult and not rentable way of living (you will not gain a lot money-wise).

After a day’s research on site: Aleksandra back at her headquarter’s, analysing her notes concerning her finds.
/ Photo: © Dr. Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider

28. Which of your traits bothers you the most in your daily work? 

Panic: what if I don’t do it on time/right/in an interesting way? Choleric character and low level of being frustrated when something doesn’t work as I want. Plus having always not enough time for all.

29. What worries you most about the world?

Sicknesses and health issues, especially of the close ones, terrorism and wars.

30. Your favourite TV series?

The Simpsons (to laugh and relax), Gilmore Girls (something girlish), the Mentalist (to take part in solving the mysteries).

31. If someone asks you about your age, what do you respond spontaneously?

The truth. But I like to see shocked faces of shopkeepers when I show my ID in a Polish market when I buy beer or wine 

32. Which hobby have you given up for a life in academia?

None!

33. If you could travel in time: in which epoch and at which discovery or event would you have liked to have been there?

I would love to travel back in the Roman times (1st-3rd century CE) Palmyra to observe and experience their religious life, ask them about their beliefs, admire their buildings still in the intact state.

34. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing a Research@home-WiRe-fellowship?

A huge advantage is to stay at my place and having a family stability for this academic year – without moving out and organizing everything abroad. Disadvantage is not to be in Münster, meeting people in live (other fellows and my supervisor) and having no calm, clean office 

35. What is your favourite place to relax from research during Corona? 

Mountains, forests around my place and my bed in the evening.

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