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Dr. Despina Margomenou: A Greek Archaeologist

Her Campus was lucky enough to interview the amazing and inspiring Dr. Despina Margomenou, an archaeologist and lecturer in the Modern Greek department at the University of Michigan. Born and raised in Greece, Dr. Margomenou has conducted archaeological digs all over the world.

Her Campus: What first got you interested in archaeology?

Dr. Despina Margomenou: When I was very little, my family visited many archaeological sites. As a child I also had the opportunity to frequently visit the island of Lemnos and enjoy the sites there. I decided to be an archaeologist at fourteen because it brought together everything I liked. It was the only thing I could think of that combined both the sciences and humanities, and I loved both.


HC: What is the most interesting dig you ever did and why?

Dr. DM: Oh, that is like having to choose among your children. It is very difficult. I have done a lot of excavations in Greece and at the Balkans, for instance, in Serbia. The most exotic dig for me was when I was a graduate student and excavated at the Andes Mountains in Bolivia. That was very different for someone who is from the Mediterranean to experience. I was on Lake Titicaca, the Island of the Sun. It was an amazing, fascinating project that brought together archaeology and astronomy.


HC: What were you studying there?

Dr. DM: I excavated a religious center for the Inca called Sacred Rock, which according to their myths was where the sun was born. We also discovered there was previous Tiwanaku presence, a local Bolivian culture that the Incas conquered. That was what we were looking for, the history of this religious center.


HC: What is the most interesting thing you ever found on a dig and why?

Dr. DM: We sometimes think that the most interesting thing we will find will be something very valuable. But there are other ways to define value. For my dissertation I studied how people stored their food. My research included a technique that was new at the time: phytoliths. These are the silica skeletons of plants that remain in the sediments. It was a very new technique at the time, and it was very exciting because few people had seen phytoliths before. We ended up finding and identifying wheat and barley and other grasses and began discovering how prehistoric people had covered the floors of their houses with mats made of different plants. We now had answers to questions we could not answer before. We now knew what a prehistoric house was furnished with, what the roof was made of.

The second most valuable or touching thing I have found is when I excavated people. I have excavated a lot of burials, and it is very special when I excavate children especially. Some of them stand out because you can see the parents’ love for their child through millennia. Some of these little babies or toddlers are buried with toys or little artifacts that used to be a toy. It is special because you can see the love of the parents. It is very touching and intimate, and it touches you in a very personal way because these are actual people.


HC: What do you love most about digs?

Dr. DM: The excitement of the dig. There is something absolutely exciting in starting your day and not knowing what is coming next. The dig is usually very rigorous. You use a lot of science and being outside in the sun, it is a very regimented, hard, intensive lab experience. But there is something special about digging collectively with other people, like students, other collaborators, and scientists. The best part is the human interaction, the moments of fun in the course of the day. There is always something unexpected that happens, even if it is being attacked by bees.


HC: In what major, noticeable ways is Greece different than the U.S.?

Dr. DM: I do not like stereotypes, but no matter how hectic it is, life in Greece tends to be more family and community oriented. You always find a little time for friends and family. The time spent with them is considered a priority and not an afterthought.


HC: What is your favorite Greek island and why?

Dr. DM: Lemnos. Few people know about it. It is not a favorite tourist destination, and I am so glad. It is an island in the northeast Aegean, close to Turkey on the Asia Minor coast. It is a beautiful, serene place and with gorgeous sunsets. It is where I spent most of my childhood summers, and I have some of the most wonderful friends and relatives there.  

HC: What do you miss most about Greece?

Dr. DM: I miss the social aspect of Greece, not that you do not have friends in the U.S, but the social life in Greece is different and more family and friend oriented. I miss that unique relationship with people because the context is so different here. I also especially miss my hometown, Thessaloniki, and the beautiful sunsets one can experience in Lemnos!


HC: Any advice you would give to someone interested in archaeology or your field?

Dr. DM: You have to like it a lot because it is a very taxing and demanding field. It requires a good grasp of both the sciences and the humanities. You have to be prepared to relinquish most of your summers to research and digging at excavations. You need a lot of fieldwork to have a career in archaeology, and you must like museums!


Photos courtesy of Dr. Despina Margomeou.

I'm a senior at the University of Michigan majoring in English with a sub-concentration of creative writing and minoring in entrepreneurship. I love to read, write, create, and try new things. I enjoy life's little moments and love spending the day working in a cafe with a nice cup of coffee.