Elena Garcea

Africanist Archaeologist

Committee for Research and Exploration Grant

Photo: Elena Garcea examines two joining potsherds.

Photograph by Roberto Ceccacci

Photo: Elena Garcea on the Nile river

Photograph by Roberto Ceccacci

Hometown: Lecco, Italy

Current City: Rome, Italy

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I wanted to be either a doctor or an archaeologist, but I hated to see wounds and blood so I became an archaeologist.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I took my first archaeology class when I was an AFS foreign exchange student in high school in Baltimore, Maryland, for a year. When I returned to Italy and finished my Italian high school, I moved to Rome to go to college and study archaeology. I have always been most interested in prehistory, or paleoethnology, the study of ancient people's lifestyles.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to archaeology?

First of all I like my job because it allows me to work with both my hands and my brain. I enjoy working in the field in Africa, and I am attracted to understanding the beginning of things. My major interests focus on the spread of early Homo sapiens, our human species, when they moved out of Africa between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago and first reached southwestern Asia and then Europe. I'm also fascinated by the dynamics that occurred when the latest hunter-gatherers started to produce their food and domesticated animals and plants, adopting animal herding in Africa some time after 10,000 years ago.

An assemblage of worked stones or potsherds has many stories to tell us: It can reveal how the people who made those stone tools and those pots adjusted to the environment where they lived, how they survived and developed, and how they related with other groups who lived in the surroundings.

Prehistory is the science that deals with common people, their behavior, and their lifestyles. It teaches us to think about a geography and a history different from those designed in the last 2,000 to 3,000 years by wars and armistices, conquerors and vanquished, rulers and subordinates.

What's a normal day like for you?

When I'm in the field, I work almost nonstop, as time is always limited. When I'm not in the field, I teach paleoethnology and spend the rest of my time elaborating and interpreting the data I collected in the field.

Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?

I do not have a hero, but I do have masters. The first one is my elementary teacher; I owe her a lot.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?

I love working with local people and learning from them about their culture and their traditions. It is also stimulating to be a team leader of international teams, with colleagues and students from different countries in Europe, America, and Africa.

The most challenging experience is to be a woman in male-dominated societies, including that of my own country of origin.

What are your other passions?

Traveling and learning about other lifestyles without prejudices and with an open-minded attitude

What do you do in your free time?

I'm learning to be a shiatsu practitioner, even though it would require more time than what I can actually dedicate to it.

If you could have people do one thing to help save cultural heritage, what would it be?

I would invest much more on public education, as education is progress. I also wish people would understand that cultural heritage is not only the patrimony of the human past that helps us understand who we were and where we come from, but it also is an inexhaustible economic resource. Cultural heritage could provide unlimited revenues, if it was properly protected and valorized. Oil and other mineral resources will eventually be totally exploited one day, whereas cultural heritage is a permanent wealth.


In Their Words

I enjoy working in the field in Africa, and I am attracted to understanding the beginning of things.

—Elena Garcea



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