Indiana bones

By Lorenza Bacino

Forensic archaeologist Estelle Lazer is an expert on Pompeii. She spends most of her working life locked away in dusty vaults, trying to give ancient civilisations the life they deserve.
Image of Estelle Lazer

Estelle Lazer at her "office" in the Sarno Baths, Pompeii

Forensic archaeologist Dr Estelle Lazer has spent months at a time researching in the ancient city of Pompeii, crouching on a dusty floor, sifting through piles of bone fragments in semi-darkness with only the dim light from a bicycle lamp for company. Green lizards fall from the ceiling at inopportune moments and huge snakes slither among the skulls.

There is nothing glamorous about Dr Lazer’s passion for bones and it certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. She was frequently locked for hours on end in ancient buildings by the guards for security reasons! And even longer when they forgot she was there. “I was fine,” she says, waving aside my look of utter horror at the thought. “Some skulls even had birds nesting in them. There was a whole ecosystem living in there,” she remembers. “I found lots of skeletons of rats and mice among the human remains.”

“My first season was back in 1986 and no-one had been to the site where the bones had been stored for the longest time. The 1980 earthquake had further isolated and cut off access to the site, so the guard and I had to hack our way through thorny brambles and wild fennel with a machete. We had to climb walls and break the locks on rusty gates to gain access to the ancient bathhouse where most of the bones were stored.

“Walking down a dark barrel-vaulted tunnel for the first time was amazing and if you shone a torch, bats would fly out into your face. There was marble from floor to ceiling, sundials, bits of statues – a foot or a hand, and in between, just enough space for the bats to hang! It was fantastic, a bit Indiana Jones with shadows flying up the walls. It was just how you’d imagine archaeology to be.”

Dr Estelle Lazer (BA Hons ’80 PhD’96) doesn’t look the type to scale walls and hack through branches. She’s rather petite with a shock of brown curly hair. But, as they say, appearances can be deceptive.

We meet at the British Museum, which is hosting the most important exhibition on Pompeii in almost 40 years: Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Sydney’s involvement in this exhibition is firmly down to Lazer’s expertise and two decades of work at the site. Her book Resurrecting Pompeii (Routledge 2009) provides a detailed analysis of her research into the skeletal remains there and she was invited by the curator to give a lecture at the British Museum on this topic. It was booked out. (She reprised the lecture at the University’s Nicolson Museum last month.)

Lazer undertook all her degrees at Sydney. Her undergraduate degree was in archaeology and it was at this time that her interest in human skeletal remains began. She did an apprenticeship at the morgue in Sydney and was then offered the chance to study the material in Pompeii.

“I’d dreamed about Pompeii since I was about eight years old, so getting permission to go and work on the bones was a childhood dream fulfilled. No-one had ever studied the remains in Pompeii before, so I was really lucky to be offered the opportunity.
“My classical and solid background in archaeology from my time at the University really helped me put what I found in Pompeii in a broader context,” explains Lazer.

“That, plus my PhD from the anatomy and histology department gave me a nice combination of rigorous science with rigorous arts. So, I can ask questions which are of interest to classical scholars as well as forensic scientists. And for that I am greatly indebted to my inspirational professor and head of anatomy and histology, Cedric Shorey. He was fantastic and gave me massive moral and practical support throughout the last phases of my PhD. In fact, the anatomy department was really great.”

She explains why most of the bones came to be in the Sarno bathhouse. “Excavation in Pompeii began around 1748 but archaeology as a discipline didn’t exist back then. People were more interested in collecting the artefacts and treasure hunting. Keeping skeletons wasn’t done and bones had no scientific value at the time. So they just used to throw them in a pile and they were eventually used as theatre props for vignettes.”

In the 18th century, only important dignitaries were allowed to visit Pompeii. To make it more exciting, houses were sometimes re-excavated in their honour. “They’d stage a scene,” Lazer explains, “and cover over an area that had already been dug up, and often drape a skeleton over an amphora for effect. If they were lucky, the guest would be allowed to take home a souvenir, which they had discovered.”

Lazer is very mindful of the impact popular culture has on a site like Pompeii. The richness of the site means it’s tempting to attribute names, meanings and lives onto the skeletons, which is misleading from a scientific viewpoint. “Pompeii is a destruction site, and its inhabitants weren’t able to remove things, so you find all aspects of life preserved: buildings with stucco decorations, paintings, sculptures and furniture, and the most humble items like dice, tweezers and combs. There are examples of epigraphy and election slogans on the walls, so we can piece together quite a lot.

Image of the walls

A little street in the antique site of Pompeii near Naples in Italy that was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius

“The trouble is, people believe we should be able to know much more than we do, and they begin to over-interpret. I think it’s really important to respect the material. Yes, they’re bones and they’re dead, but they were people and they had lives and dreamed and cared about people. I think I have a responsibility to treat them with respect and in my interpretations I show that by not attributing lives and meanings on them that they did not have.”

In her British Museum talk, Lazer also addressed the issue of ethics in archaeology. “We need to ask what is appropriate when researching human remains. In Australia, we’ve had to engage with the Indigenous issue. A lot of Indigenous material was collected without consent and for nefarious purposes. It was used to justify inequality and the treatment of people was appalling at times.
“But Europe has different cultural traditions, and particularly in Italy where there’s a long tradition of displaying people. Seeing your ancestors is your birth right. So in an Italian context, working in Pompeii is not a problem, but you still need to ask that question about what is appropriate.”

The most significant and exciting discovery for Lazer was when she realised that Pompeii’s unique casts still contained the bones. In fact, the first cast to be x-rayed and scanned was in 1994 in Sydney. The famous resin cast was transported in a box in a van across the city to the hospital where it was placed in a scanner at the end of the working day. “We managed to scan from the feet to the waist,” says Lazer. “The victim held the classic pugilist pose of many of those who died in Pompeii from exposure to extreme heat. That meant the whole cast wouldn’t fit inside. But we found out she was female, aged between 30 and 40, with bad teeth but good bones. She was clutching a purse of money when she died.”

Lazer isn’t done with the bones of Pompeii just yet though. CT scans and x-ray technology could potentially unlock more secrets from the casts and this is where she wants to take her research next. But it’s a big and expensive project. Together with colleague Dr Kathryn Welch in the ancient history department, she’s applied for funding from the Australian Research Council to continue studying the remaining casts. The casts are plaster and very dense, but at the same time, they’re also extremely fragile and can’t be lifted or moved. “The technology to do this kind of imaging hasn’t yet been invented,” says Lazer.

She and Welch want to get medical imaging companies interested in developing a non-invasive technique which will enable this in the future. “The casts are iconic,” says Lazer. “Nowhere else in the world do you get the preserved images of people as they died and nowhere else do you get whole skeletons to work with in this way.

“I’d like to give these people back their lives. I’d like to find out what’s really in there and compare it with what I’ve already found out from the disarticulated bits of skeletons I’ve studied up to now. You see, people have written reams about the casts, they’ve had stories written about them, and about their relationships with each other – and most of it is based on the most spurious evidence.”

Welch’s specialty is epigraphy, so she wants to look at the tombs and their inscriptions to try and disentangle truth from fiction and create a bigger picture of what life would have been like before the AD 79 eruption that cut short the lives of the people of Pompeii.
“The really interesting thing is, when I began working on the bones, no-one wanted to touch that stuff,” says Lazer, “and I was determined to show how much information you could get from a compromised sample, and I found out things that no-one else had. I don’t see it all ending with me. I’ve just scratched the surface. There’s so much more!”

Lazer would ideally like to see an overarching study done on both Pompeii and Herculaneum, to study the differences in terms of population and health. She acknowledges this may not be possible within her own career, but hopefully her enthusiasm will inspire others to carry on her work.

Summer in Mawson’s Huts

Team in Antarctica

With the team in Antarctica, 2002

Dr Lazer clearly possesses a knack for fulfilling childhood dreams. Her other dream was Antarctica, which she first visited in a small sailing boat in 1984. Her destination was Mawson’s Huts on Cape Denison, the most exposed and windiest ice cap on the planet, situated on the most easterly point of the Australian Antarctic Territory.

This visit in turn led to Lazer spending four summer seasons living in tents and using innovative excavation techniques for reaching the artefacts. “I had a fantastic chainsaw operator who very carefully removed ice with a chainsaw. He was able to identify artefacts floating in the clear ice, which we could then remove with finer tools and this enabled us to investigate material left at the site by Sir Douglas Mawson’s team.”

Mawson’s first Antarctic expedition (1911–1914) was hugely significant for Australia in terms of exploration and scientific discovery, and the site is now on the Australian National Heritage list and the Commonwealth Heritage list. Lazer’s team was tasked with investigating the detritus scattered about this unique site, most of which has remained in situ for nearly a hundred years, with a view to documenting and conserving it. All manner of the men’s lives are visible at the abandoned huts – boots, clothing, a tiny box containing matches, tin cans, wood, as well as cached seals and penguins.

“By studying these artefacts, we can really get a glimpse into what it was like for them in such a harsh environment. The role of archaeology here is to study the evidence they left behind and see if what isn’t written about matches the scientific evidence they did write about. And the value of the archaeological evidence is that it not only provides us with information that the Australasian Antarctic Expedition never thought about providing in any form, but it also allows us to test the scientific evidence that they published.” Lazer and her colleagues went on to produce the first glaciological study carried out inside a shed!