Conversations with: Professor Nena Galanidou

It is my pleasure to introduce my next guest, Nena Galanidou, Professor in Prehistoric Archaeology of the University of Crete! Nena obtained her PhD in Palaeolithic Archaeology from the University of Cambridge in 1996, where she later became a research fellow until 1999. Since 2000 she has been teaching Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Crete. She has conducted fieldwork in Greece, Croatia and Israel. She has participated in international projects studying the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic of southeast Europe and directs Palaeolithic research on the island of Lesbos, excavating the Lower Palaeolithic  Lisvori-Rodafnidia, and the Inner Ionian Archipelago excavating the  Middle Palaeolithic Panthera Cave on the islet of Kythros.

Professor Nena Galanidou, University of Crete PalaeoArch Group Lab, December 2020

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

I am a Palaeolithic archaeologist currently working on three thematic areas: the Acheulean, the Middle Palaeolithic puzzle, and Continental Shelf Prehistoric Research. My early work on Spatial Archaeology and Hunter-Gatherer Ethnoarchaeology reflects two more research interests that are always alive and sparkling.

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies?

It was this internal need to explore the human condition. Upon making a career decision I chose to leave aside the wonders of Greek archaeology, a siren that I closed my ears to, and opt for the beauty of Palaeolithic archaeology. Also, for a while I oscillated between my penchant for maths and my passion for the past. I hold an M.Sc. in Archaeological Computing that gave me a permanent job at the Benaki Museum at the heart of my beloved city, Athens, but I gave it up to pursue around the world my true love, the archaeology of human evolution.

My point of departure was a humanistic view of world history. Through my research, I wanted to take a leap, go beyond the differences and reach our deep roots to those things that unite humans as a species, as a common heritage before today’s national, linguistic, religious, class, race or gender differences. Of all archaeological specialisations, the archaeology of human evolution offers its practitioners world views that are planetary (think globally act locally) and tolerant (we humans are diverse yet fundamentally united through a shared past and common threads such as genes, evolutionary habits, technological innovations).

In due course I came to realise the excitement that comes from Palaeolithic work in the field or the lab. Human evolution is a book that is continuously being re-written. New finds and new readings of old finds shed new, often unexpected, direct or oblique light on the old threefold question: who are we – where do we come from – how did we get here. Whether it is a submerged cave, like Cosquer, a lion pack depicted in the Chauvet Cave, a small Homo sapiens fossil bone from the Misliya Cave lady, a jaw bone belonging to a Denisovan from the Baishiya Cave on the frigid Tibetan Plateau, the hidden hearths of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov that speak eloquently of fire mastery at the onset of the Middle Pleistocene, the hibernating Atapuercans, or the Lomekwi tools that push Palaeolithic beginnings further back in deep time, all are landmarks showing that palaeoanthropological discovery and debate will never let us be bored. The canon of our field is a fast-changing one, a bit like iPhone models, there is always a new launch coming soon.

Tabun Cave excavation, lunch break above the site, February 2020

What was your PhD topic? Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor? How did you find your PhD experience?

My topic was the Upper Palaeolithic use of space in cave sites, and my supervisor was Geoff Bailey in the Dept. of Archaeology, Cambridge University. In this work I brought together three themes I was fond of: hunter-gatherer archaeology, architecture and mathematics. Using archaeological material from Epirus and Bosnia in southeast Europe, I examined the origins of architecture: if and when some structure is identified in an otherwise unstructured space. The caves offered a natural shell for protection, which varied in the area available or in the constraints present. The study employed an array of statistical methods to map the distribution of finds and concluded that in this early use of space, hearths acted as the primary cohesive elements in the spatial organization and activities of the social group.

The social milieu at Cambridge during the 1990s was very international, certainly thought-provoking, sometimes lonely and more often exciting. Little has changed since then; it is the sort of place that begets innovation through a very stable annual routine. My tempo was as follows: long study winters in the UK (sometimes even up to June, when college heating was turned off no matter what the thermometer suggested), interspersed with short summers conducting fieldwork in Greece. This formation period endowed me with some of my lifetime friends, a taste for Scandinavian architecture and furniture, as my college, Clare Hall, was designed by Pritzker prize winner Ralph Erskine, and a preference for single malt. At Cambridge I loved the Haddon Library and its friendly staff but could not stand the freezing temperatures of the University Library stalls. I cycled everywhere no matter the weather and loved the flea markets at the town hall and the live gigs at the Corn Exchange. Beyond my archaeological formation, I am grateful to the Cambridge ecosystem, for it gave me some superior lessons in British diplomacy.

After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

Between 1996 and 1999, I held a postdoctoral fellowship at Clare Hall, Cambridge that gave me the opportunity to do research, publish and teach without the worry of having to earn a living. During that time, I taught Quantitative Methods in Archaeology and Mesolithic Archaeology courses to the demanding audiences of Cambridge undergraduates in the Archaeology Department.

In 2000 I climbed up the professorial ladder (from assistant to full professor) at the Department of History and Archaeology of the University of Crete, Greece.

…Still digging with a broken wrist (!) Panthera Cave, October 2020

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

My current projects study the archaeology of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in Greece through a common denominator Island Archaeology, targeting islands of different scale, geography and resources.

On the island of Lesbos, in the northeast Aegean Sea, my team is exploring the first extensive Acheulean settlement in southeast Europe and western Anatolia. On the banks of small rivers and the shore of what was a big palaeolake, the Kalloni Gulf, and against a volcanic setting, we are unearthing a cluster of stratified Lower Palaeolithic sites, placing Greece on the map of the Acheulean world. Our finds link the Middle Pleistocene archaeology of the Aegean with the corresponding archaeology of Africa and Eurasia, and underline the importance of volcanic geographies. The principal site of Lisvori-Rodafnidia is situated by a thermal spring, as are other Acheulean findspots on Lesbos. From our work a new scenario emerges for the early colonization of Europe: at least half a million years ago, hominins walked into Europe via the Aegean Region, during periods of low sea level stands, following tracks that certainly Early Pleistocene animals and perhaps hominins were following too. Last but not least, a new generation of Greek students is trained in Palaeolithic archaeology.

Greek student training in Palaeolithic archaeology at Acheulean Lisvori-Rodafnidia

Since 2015 I have been heading excavations in the Panthera Cave on Kythros, a small, barren island in the Ionian Sea. Our work on Kythros is yielding a rich and diverse Middle Palaeolithic record and is tied to our long-term research in the Inner Ionian Archipelago and on Lefkas. This research has a strong regional perspective and covers the coast, the islands and the seabed. Beyond the Panthera Cave, we are studying Middle Palaeolithic sea crossing, or mere swimming, in a closed and well protected sea where the destination, the next piece of dry land, was visible and required one to cover relatively small distances by sea.

Mapping the sea bed is part of a new research direction I have taken lately, due to my interest in the islands’ early record. I want to understand how Pleistocene submerged landscapes changed as the sea level changed, when terrestrial bridges were opened, creating new conditions for Pleistocene populations to settle and migrate. This field is tremendously interesting. During the glacial periods, many islands were joined to each other and to the mainland, and the islands of the Ionian Sea and the Eastern Aegean were occasionally joined to mainland Greece and the Asiatic coast respectively. Imagine the archipelagos of the East Aegean and that of the Central Ionian Sea as being like a team of swimmers holding hands under water and all we can see today are their heads above the surface.

Panthera Cave team work, on the rocky shore of Kythros islet, Ionian Sea

What has been your favourite memory from the field?

The first handaxe that came out of Lisvori-Rodafnidia trench VI and was found in situ. I remember my heart was beating like a drum; something like the thrill of one’s first kiss.

The first in situ hand-axe coming out of the Lisvori-Rodafnidia trench, August 2014

 What project or publication are you most proud of?

Palaeolithic Lesbos is my pride, not only for the stunning Large Cutting Tool collection that multiplies every field season and could illustrate any textbook on Acheulean technology, but also for its potential to make the Aegean Region visible in the Eurasian Lower Palaeolithic narrative. I am also proud of my Journal of Anthropological Archaeology paper on forager use of cave space that is still widely cited despite being twenty years old.

Lisvori-Rodafnidia, Lesbos, August 2013

 What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in your field over the last 5 years?

The concept of Continental Shelf Prehistoric Research bringing the seabed into focus. It holds the promise to radically change the ways we approach hominin dispersals, not merely by its potential to increase the sample of sites and finds but also by its call to make truly interdisciplinary contributions and breath fresh air into palaeoanthropology, very much like the Neanderthal Genome Project did a decade ago.

What would you be if you were not an archaeologist?

A mathematician to engage with problem-solving or a politician to engage with building a better future.


Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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