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Friends: The life of a cultural anthropologist

Veronika Ederer Photo Pictured is the fortified wall and entry to the Celtic village museum on the Dünsberg, a hill in the state of Hess in Germany. Veronika Ederer visited the museum for her studies on cultural anthropology in 2006.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Part 5 — Digging in the past

By Veronica Ederer

Special to the Daily Record

It was an easy decision for me to study cultural anthropology after school, because I’ve been interested in Native American culture since I was 13 years old. But I also had other interests which competed with that decision. Early on, I developed an interest in human prehistory. (The time when first humans developed tools.) I tried to chip stone tools and worked with leather. I also read books about the ice age, about Neanderthals and the methods of archaeology. As a child, I also went through the “mandatory phase” of being interested in dinosaurs. My father and I were enthused looking for fossils during every vacation and during every hike; it was a family interest. So studying paleontology or archaeology were also choices.

I got informed that, for studying paleontology, I needed to study biology and especially chemistry. Since I had been quite bad in chemistry in school, I said goodbye to the dinosaurs and fossils. I still look for fossils wherever I hike, even when I visit New Mexico. I also give classes for gifted children about that subject, but I never entered the professional phase.

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Studying cultural anthropology in Munich (Germany) as my main subject meant that I had to choose two additional minor subjects. I chose European prehistory and Americanistics, and I wanted to start all three study subjects immediately. Later on, in my second semester, I found out that I had to pass an English test for Americanistics — since I also had not been “brilliant” in English in school, I changed my plans to study biological anthropology.

In Germany anthropology is not divided up; the four subjects biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistics are all part of the studies. Almost all four subjects are organized in different faculties, having different study regulations. Cultural anthropology and archaeology were in the same faculty, so it was no problem choosing them. Biological anthropology was in the faculty of biology, and there was no study regulation for humanities and science. In the end, they (study advisors) decided that I should take part in the same classes as students who wanted to become biology teachers, and I was fine with that.

So, I started with cultural anthropology and European prehistory. My first prehistory class was about the finds in Hallstatt, a place in Austria where fur, leather, wood and bones from the early Iron Age were found in a salt mine, which had preserved everything. The first excavations also discovered almost 1,000 graves with valuable burial gifts. After this place, the whole period was called “Hallstatt-time” in Europe. Since the teacher giving this class started with the paleolithic period only every three years and then went through all the periods until early history, I never had the chance to take classes about the Stone Age because I left the university before he started his class again. I also took a class on how to sketch archaeological objects, about early historic times and the Celts. All together, I was a bit frustrated because the classes I took mainly consisted of accurate descriptions of pots, swords and fibulae and not about the people who made them.

In my third semester, I started with biological anthropology, and, very early on, I found out that there was one teacher giving extremely interesting classes. She gave lectures about paleopathology (the study of ancient diseases and injuries by examining skeletal remains), archaeometry (studying remains with scientific methods — using chemical, biological and earth sciences), ancient climate change and ancient anthropology. Her lectures were very early in the morning, but I took part in every one. Sometimes it was not that easy to look, shortly after your morning coffee, at skulls and bones of people that had been killed by disease or fighting. But it was still interesting. The lecturer was brilliant, smart and connected many subjects, and I liked her teaching very much. She had a little dog, which accompanied her into our classroom every morning. It took a walk around the room to say hello to us and waited in her office during her lessons. I also took her weekend classes about burial customs, the anthropology of aging, racism and behavioral research. In the end, I voluntarily studied more classes in biological anthropology than in prehistory.

We also had a few classes based on chemistry and biology — and, no surprise, I failed and had to repeat them. We had lectures in genetics where the professor went through a semester (in Germany a semester is six months) worth of teachings within two weeks. After two months, I had to quit.

I got extremely interested in the overlaps between cultural and biological anthropology, which were discussed quite freely in biology, but, because of the German history, this overlapping is still very unpopular in cultural anthropology.

Because I studied cultural anthropology, European prehistory and biological anthropology at the same time, some friends and families got very confused. It took me several semesters to explain that, in cultural anthropology, I don’t dig (as in archeology) and I deal with living cultures.

Human biology is very important when it comes to the early times of mankind, and prehistory has its place in explaining living cultures. So I was very happy with my choices. After six semesters, I had completed all classes in every subject. However, I thought three years were not enough for studying, so I added another semester where I took classes just for fun.

Finally, my exam in European prehistory turned out to belong to the wrong class. My teacher asked me questions about a class I never took — I got an A. My exam in biological anthropology I took while the dog of my teacher was lying on my feet — I got an A. For my dissertation, I did not need my minor subjects; but, for the next years, I kept on reading books about prehistory and biological anthropology. I visited Hallstatt in Austria and every Celtic village I could find. I went to different anthropological museums and still gave classes for gifted children about the subjects. I hope my students were as fascinated with the subjects as I was and that those kids will develop a similar broad interest in prehistory and culture.

Veronika Ederer received her Ph.D. from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in cultural anthropology. Originally from Germany, she has worked for several years in Switzerland in museums such as the North American Native Museum in Zürich and with the gifted program “Universikum” in Zürich. She has visited New Mexico and Roswell for her research and is looking forward to returning as soon as the pandemic is over.

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