Vana Orfanou

Dr. Vana Orfanou

“Archaeology is like trying to reconstruct what happened at a party that you were not invited to…”

Vana Orfanou

ERC Post-Doctoral Researcher, University College Dublin

Why did you choose archaeology as a subject?

A career in archaeology was never my childhood dream. Shocking, I know! I did not dislike archaeology, and I surely enjoyed visiting museum after museum and ruin after ruin during our family holidays. Yet still it never occurred to me that this could (or, in fact, would) be the subject of my full-time occupation just a few years later. Having said that, I was always fascinated by the humanities and the exploration of human behaviour. I finally enrolled for a BA in history and archaeology as I was intrigued by the interdisciplinary nature of this double major. During my studies, I appreciated the potentials of interdisciplinary approaches in archaeology ever more and I decided to continue with archaeological science and archaeomaterials. 

On-site pXRF soil analysis of a Viking burial at Fregerslev, Denmark (you can read the results here) (photo by Merethe Schifter Bagge, Museum Skanderborg)

What are you currently working on – anything exciting?

I am looking at the cutting edge(s) of Late Bronze Age metallurgical technology to better understand established cultural practices and social norms. I am soon completing the investigation of alloy recipes and metalworking techniques of weapons and tools from the Late Bronze Age Carpathian Basin with materials primarily from Croatian and Serbian collections as part the ERC project “The Fall of 1200 BC” at University College Dublin. I examine metal blades with a focus on the raw materials and manufacturing techniques in conjunction with the phenomenon of hoarding which spread widely during late prehistory in south-eastern Europe. 

Collecting a tiny sample from a Bronze Age sword at the Archaeological Museum of Ioannina for The Fall of 1200 BC project (photo by Christos Kleitsas)

Can you tell us more about your career path and your hopes for the future, your aspirations?

My career in archaeology begun with my love for the humanities and my interest in interdisciplinarity and continued with my fascination in formulating and answering research questions about past societies. This curiosity led me into an MSc and PhD in archaeomaterials and into postdoctoral research on past metallurgies for the last seven years. From 2023, I will embark on my next adventure taking up a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship at LMU in Munich. However, what seems rather a linear path, it has been more of a journey with numerous check points each with its fair share of funding and job applications and decisions. I chose early on to focus on a class of material – instead of a period or region – so that I could work with various cultures and, so far, I have studied assemblages from southeastern and northern Europe, the Near East and western Asia from prehistory to medieval times. My hope for the future is to keep creating opportunities for advancing interdisciplinary research in archaeology and promoting our understanding of past peoples and their social interactions. 

Analyses of early Islamic metal wares from the Louvre collections at the AGLAE facilities of the C2RMF with Dr. David Bourgarit and Dr. Annabelle Collinet behind the camera (you can read the results of this study here)

What keeps you motivated when things get tough?

Things can get tough at every level in archaeology, within and outside academia. At the early career and postdoctoral stage, job uncertainty and few available positions coupled with extreme competition and a seemingly endless wave of rejections keep you on your toes. When things get tough, I start by pausing for a moment to refocus on my original motivations for pursuing research. I ask myself if this challenge is enough to make me abandon my long-term aspirations. For as long as the answer is negative, I redirect my energy in finding ways to overcome the situation – one step at a time. Turning to friends and family to share any thoughts of self-doubt and disappointment, and to get a fresh outlook is vital. In more practical terms, I make a point to address constructive feedback with a positive mindset. Be it an application rejection or a paper revision, I trust that (the vast majority of) feedback is meant to help my work improve and I focus on that. Having said all that, yoga really helps too. 

Tell us about an inspirational scientist you admire or someone who played an important role in your career

Archaeology is a community and I am grateful to have met exceptional scholars whose collective wisdom has been a source of constant inspiration throughout my journey. My lecturers, PIs and, surely, my PhD supervisor Prof. Thilo Rehren who addressed generously ongoing debates in archaeology and questioned the status quo have helped to challenge my own preconceptions. I am constantly inspired by all women who advance the archaeological research and teaching agenda as role models for inclusivity, determination, and excellence. Last but not least, I am provoked by students and early career researchers whose drive and fresh outlook embodies the future of archaeology. Archaeology is us and it needs all scholars – young and older, student to senior – to continue to develop and contribute new knowledge to society. 

Talking about how archaeology can make for a more inclusive society you can watch the talk here (photo by TEDxAarhus)

Does your research involve fieldwork? If so, could you tell us about an unforgettable experience you had in the field, or one that changed your research?

I spend a considerable amount of time visiting museums and finding my way around collections often excavated 100 years ago. Getting to know these assemblages behind closed doors is a process of continuous rediscovery and sometimes full of surprises. In one of those visits at the archaeological museum of Kalamata in Greece, I found myself surrounded by crates marked with my own handwriting from more than ten years back when as a student volunteer I had helped reorganise these samples excavated in the 1960s and 1970s. This little moment has stayed with me as a reminder of how one’s journey moves forward in time, while it can make a complete round in space. 

That time when we fitted 17 people on a Lada Niva during our excavations on the island of Antikythera was admittedly unforgettable too (but possibly not the best idea). 

Practicing my acrobatic skills on the shoulders of Kristen Mann for a bird’s-eye photo of our single-context trench on the islet of Daskalio during the 2018 Keros excavations by the University of Cambridge

How would you describe archaeology in one sentence and/or metaphor?

Archaeology is like trying to reconstruct what happened at a party that you were not invited to, but you were asked to clean up afterwards.   

In that sense, the Hangover movies are closer to the archaeological methodology than the Indiana Jones ones.  


Dr Vana Orfanou

ERC Post-Doctoral Researcher

The Fall of 1200 BC

The Fall explores conflict and migration at the time of the fabled Trojan War in SE Europe and the Aegean.

University College Dublin