Photograph courtesy Alexander Geurds
Birthplace: Velp, Netherlands
Current City: Leiden, Netherlands
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I've been drawn to faraway places ever since I was able to spin my father's globe at home. Together with a fascination for ancient history and the outdoors, this perhaps predictably resulted in my current line of work. And yes, I too ate up Indiana Jones.
How did you get started in your field of work?
An early influence was my high school history teacher. During the first class of the year he held up the required textbook on the Interbellum in Europe, added that we should not forget about memorizing it, and promptly filled many subsequent classes reminiscing about his adventures as a historian in the tropical forest of Suriname. Besides being an entertaining lecturer, he also showed me the importance of active field research involved in writing about the past.
Years later, while doing archaeological surveys in southern Mexico for my undergraduate thesis, I visited my girlfriend in Nicaragua who was conducting her Ph.D. research there. Together with her, the opportunities for archaeology in Nicaragua became apparent. Several years later, working at Leiden University and the University of Colorado at Boulder, I was able to set up a pilot study in central Nicaragua and later, helped by a National Geographic Society Waitt Grant and a CRE Grant, expanded the project to its current form.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to archaeology?
The remains of people's past actions are inscribed in landscapes all around us, almost everywhere you go on this planet. The large majority is never looked at twice, sometimes because those living nearby have more pressing worries to attend to, sometimes simply because people feel there's no reason to worry.
In my work I come across monumental statues, sculpted perhaps 1,300 years ago, lying in a ditch in small settler communities in Nicaragua. In a largely forgotten past, they functioned as highly visible material culture in important ritual or memory practices. If I can help save some of this archaeology and see people become enchanted with it at the same time, then that is all the inspiration I need.
What's a normal day like for you?
In the field, the norm typically is deviating from that very norm. I currently conduct field research in one-month periods. That's very short to conduct archaeology, especially when it's in an inaccessible tropical setting halfway across the globe. Despite this brevity, no day is like any other. It may involve 14-hour trail hikes, staring at dirt upside-down in a narrow excavation unit, navigating the murky habitat of large reptiles in a rickety boat, or staring through land surveyor equipment with the sun blasting you with her rays. Often however, it's filled with animated conversations with local farmers that result in unscheduled visits and occasionally the discovery of undocumented archaeological sites. Nothing beats it.
Do you have a hero?
Heroes can be found in many, unsuspected places. At home, it's my wife and kids, who carry on with their busy lives while I'm away. In the field, I meet individuals who dedicate whatever time they have to exploration, education, and protection of the local archaeology. In Nicaragua, Carlos and Martha Villanueva are the perfect examples. There's no compensation, no career or medal waiting for them; they do their work because they have an acute awareness of the value of cultural and natural heritage. Most amazingly, they act on this with a smile on their faces pretty much all the time.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
Nothing in particular stands out. Being in the field is pretty much a constant peak of enjoyment, though it can certainly be challenging physically and mentally. The sense of not knowing what is waiting for you, the discovery waiting to happen, is an absolute thrill and one I consider myself privileged to be able to experience.
What are your other passions?
Many, but one is running my fingers over topographic maps and imagining who could have been on those unknown spots and what they might have left behind.
What do you do in your free time?
I generally marvel at the velocity at which my children grow up and try to spend as much time with my family as possible. Every now and then, I also try to think of ways to decelerate the expansion of my personal library, fairly unsuccessful so far.
If you could have people do one thing to help preserve archaeological sites, what would it be?
It's really not that complicated: Be passionate about the past and let your children see it. Go to museums or simply outside. Archaeology is everywhere!
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National Geographic Society/Waitt grantee Alexander Geurds has discovered some amazing statues in a remote area in Nicaragua. The site is in remarkably good shape, safe from dangers such as looting, but apparently not safe from the occasional curious cow.
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