‘The Sense of Doing Something New Appeals to Me’
Professor Heinrich Haerke, a renowned archaeology expert, has been cooperating with HSE University researchers for a long time. This year he has joined HSE as a Professor at the recently formed Centre for Classical and Oriental Archaeology. He has talked to HSE News Service about his research interests, field projects, and teaching archaeology.
On Joining HSE University Moscow
I have over the years taught students at universities in the UK and Germany. I have also given occasional lectures at Russian universities, and I was really interested to find out more about the Russian higher education system and its differences to the western systems which I know quite well. I have also wanted to deepen my involvement in Eurasian archaeology which goes back to my student times on a Soviet-German expedition, resumed in the 1990s with my own expedition in the North Caucasus, and is continuing currently with fieldwork in Kazakhstan.
At HSE, I now have the opportunity to contribute to a new Centre of Classical and Oriental Archaeology, working with colleagues I have already known informally for many years. It is this sense of doing something new, learning new things and facing new challenges, which appeals to me. Also, my wife is Russian and works here in Moscow – do you know a stronger appeal than that?
We need to distinguish here between what interests me because it is happening at the sharp end of the subject, and what drives me in my own research at the moment. Speaking generally as an archaeologist, the most exciting thing happening right now is the new results from Ancient DNA (aDNA) research being published regularly on an almost weekly basis, sometimes providing new insights about population history, sometimes returning us to older, but recently unfashionable ideas about migrations in the past. But that is more related to questions I worked on earlier while based in England.
What is interesting me in my current research is the Early Middle Ages on the Northern Silk Road, particularly trade from Scandinavia to Central Asia, and urbanization on the interface of civilization and steppe nomads in the Aral Sea region
This field of research is still relatively new to me – I have worked in it for only ten years (which is short by standards of specialization within archaeology).
On Taking Part in Archaeological Expeditions
I have an ongoing fieldwork project at Dzhankent, an early medieval town east of the Aral Sea (or what’s left of it), and I am doing this project together with Russian and Kazakh colleagues (the latter based at Korkyt Ata State University of Kyzylorda). An HSE colleague, Associate Professor Irina Arzhantseva, is our site director out there, but we have not yet had HSE students working with us – both of us only signed our HSE contracts in the summer of this year (2019), shortly before the start of the excavation season in Kazakhstan.
This year’s expedition lasted 7 weeks, and was very busy again. Apart from continuing our trenches in the citadel and the lower town, we introduced a fieldwork method which is new to the region: systematic mechanical coring (drilling) across the interior of the site, giving us a rapid insight into its history – we are now waiting for the radiocarbon (C14) dates of the occupation deposits and natural layers showing in the cores.
This year’s most exciting find was made by the restaurator, Elena Pshenichnova, while working on the pottery after the end of the season: one 10th century vessel was found to contain three eggs – with Arabic lettering on them!
They are now in St Petersburg in a specialist conservation laboratory, and we are really looking forward to finding out what was written on these eggs one thousand years ago in a small trading town on the lower Syr-darya.
On Teaching at HSE University
This year I am teaching, together with Dr. Arzhantseva, a course on the History of Archaeological Methods, Theories and Legal Framework for students of Master's programme in Classical and Oriental Archaeology. Next year I will also teach an overview course on the Iron Age to Early Middle Ages in Western and Central Europe. This year’s subject is close to my heart, and I generally love teaching – it gives me a buzz. But the workload is a practical challenge: I had forgotten what it means to prepare entirely new presentations from one week to the next, week in, week out.
A second challenge is finding the right pitch for my lectures – after all, I am new to the Russian university system, and I do not understand fully yet what our students have already heard in other classes, and what they should already know. And bureaucracy poses a real challenge, even though I am used to German state, and English university, bureaucracy both of which are formidable. I am glad that we have a highly competent administrator in our Centre who is a tremendous help with these chores.
On Living Abroad
For me, that is normal: every country is ‘another country’. I went to school and to university in Germany, but then studied, worked and lived in the United Kingdom for more than 30 years, with practicals and lecturing spells in France, the Soviet Union, USA and other places. I have already spent extended periods in Russia for research (e.g. most of one year in 1997/98 in the North Caucasus), and I have had good friends in this country for many years.
Archaeologists essentially study culture – and that is what I am doing all the time, too, whether I am in Germany, Britain, Russia or elsewhere: I am studying culture, past and present
But yes, there is a new quality about holding a Moscow university job – it is creating a new kind of perspective and commitment, and it is thereby changing my attitudes, for example in the way I see my neighbourhood (Izmajlovskij), interact with the locals, look for things to do in Moscow to feed my interests and hobbies. One thing I do miss here is the stars: I am an amateur astronomer, but in the glare of Moscow lights, the best you can hope for is an occasional glance at the moon.
Getting to Know Russia and Russian Language
Actually, in addition to my other languages, I do speak some Russian – enough for shopping, for conversations with friends and colleagues, and for the occasional slovo (toast) at parties and conference banquets. I intend, of course, to improve my command of Russian, but for the moment I teach my classes in English. It does not seem to be a problem for our students: I am really impressed by their English language skills.
Concerning other plans, I want to travel more widely in Russia, and Lake Baikal and Kamchatka are high on my list of priorities (or dreams). In Moscow, I am hoping for more walks in the beautiful Izmajlovskij Park, another visit to the excellent planetarium, perhaps some interesting exhibitions, but I am not really an ‘arty’ person. One thing I will not try in Moscow, though, is motorcycling (which is one of my other hobbies) – I am not that tired of life yet. But I appreciate that this is a foreigner’s perspective on Moscow traffic and drivers.