Interview with Professor Sandra López Varela, editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia for Archaeological Sciences

I had the opportunity to interview Professor Sandra López Varela, the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia for Archaeological Science, on Skype. I have never met Sandra before, but I have read a lot of her work on the Maya ceramics when I was working on the Terminal Classic ceramics from Belize for my doctoral project. I must admit I didn’t know what to expect: Was she going to be very formal? Was I allowed to joke a bit in the interview? When we finally met on Skype, she greeted me with the warmest smile and thanked me for inviting her for the interview, and I knew I was just worrying too much before. However, before I could fire away my questions, she gave me a warning, ‘Sometimes, I am too honest. I am very straight-forwarded.’ Here are the very honest answers to the hard work, tears, friendship, and stories behind the Encyclopedia for Archaeological Sciences (EAS). 

C: Carmen, S: Sandra

C: Before we start talking about the Encyclopaedia, I am sure a lot of our readers know you in person because you were the president of the SAS, or know of your work just like myself because I used to work on Maya ceramics, but can you tell us a little bit about yourself, specifically how did you get into archaeological science?

S: I have never wanted to be an archaeologist. I wanted to be a pianist. I was actually quite good at playing the piano to a point where I thought of applying to the conservatory in Vienna when I was 10 or 11. But, my father was not very supportive of the idea. I grew up surrounded by science and maths. My father was a civil engineer, my brother is an architect, my eldest sister was an accountant, and my next sister is an industrial textile engineer. My father was actually paving the way for me to be an architect, so I went into studying architecture for my BA. However, I quitted not long into the programme as I realised that my heart was not in it. I also had a lot of pressure from the university, especially from my professors, who would constantly compare me with my father as he was very well-known in the field. After that, I didn’t know what to do with my study, or with my life in general, until I had this horrible car accident and a friend of mine from high school came visit. She is now the director of the School of Archaeology and Anthropology in Mexico City. She said to me, ‘Sandra, when you were in high school, you liked science, you liked maths, you liked literature, you liked everything. You should study archaeology because they study everything.’ Archaeology, what is that? But before I had the time to think things through, she had already taken all my papers and enrolled me in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology. This is how I became an archaeologist, and it has become my passion since. 

Sandra still plays the piano (Photo credit: Sandra López Varela)

C: So, you started specialising in archaeological science very early on in your studies?

S: Not really, actually it was not until I went to the University of London to do my master. I studied Western Asian studies at UCL.

C: What? Western Asian? I thought your research has been largely based in Mesoamerica.

S: Haha. I was interested in the origin of the states. Because of my background in architecture, what I wanted to do was to combine all the architectural layers to look at urban growth and how complex societies developed, but there was no GIS at that time, and I don’t think archaeology back then was as interdisciplinary as it is now. It was my postdoctoral fellowship in Germany, sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation that introduced me to archaeological science and interdisciplinary studies in archaeology.

C: Do you think archaeological science is more interdisciplinary nowadays?

S: No, not at all. The division between science and humanities and social sciences is still there, and I think it is getting worse. We are archaeologists. I don’t think we are not asking the right questions to learn about humans in the past. Knowing the elemental composition of an artifact is a tiny answer of a larger question. If we only report the elemental composition, we might excel at chemistry, but we have failed to provide explanations about past societies. At least in Mexico, archaeology students are jazzed by the use of science and technology. I read numerous project proposals stating the use of Raman spectrometry or X-Ray diffraction to learn about the composition of archaeological materials, as simple as that. I am afraid that if this is the main goal, the chemistry department is more suited to help you answer that question. Archaeologists working in science should always have in mind that we use science to learn about past societies. Please, don’t take me wrong. Archaeologists are too capable of contributing to chemistry of physics. 

C: Is this what inspired you to take the initiative to compile this massive volume of Encyclopaedia?

S: Yes! During my tenure as the president of the SAS (2009-2011). I felt I had to do more than just running the association. I wanted to advance the position of archaeological science in the broad field of archaeology. When I attended the Society of American Archaeology meeting in 2011, Rosalie Robertson from Wiley Blackwell asked me if I was interested in putting together an Encyclopaedia for Archaeological Sciences. At that time, I thought it was going to be just one of those projects that you agreed to look into the possibility of collaborating when you meet interesting people at meetings but would never put into action. Wiley Blackwell was invested in this project and Rosalie made sure it was going to happen. 

C: So how did you decide the scope of the Encyclopedia?

S: When I accepted the challenge, I told Rosalie, ‘I don’t want this Encyclopedia to be just another volume lying in the shelves of a library. I need this Encyclopedia to be used beyond archaeology. It needs to convey a different message. Yes, it is about science, but I want to emphasise we are archaeologists doing science, not scientists doing archaeology.’ The only way for archaeologists to do science is to bring in those working in the social sciences and the humanities. Why, you may ask? Sadly, by separating science from the social sciences, we have dehumanised science.

C: What about the topics to be included in the Encyclopedia? How did you decide?

S: I started thinking what do we do in the field and the lab and what kind of instrumentation are we using. Most importantly to me was asking why do we do it and the outcomes of what we do. One of the first things I did was to put together a team of scholars – who shared my thoughts and goals – as associate editors for the Encyclopedia. First, I talked to Gilberto Artioli and agreed to include contributions on the most common techniques we used in archaeology and concentrate on their description and to learn how these methods work. We even included techniques that may be of use in the future, still not fully adopted in archaeology. Christian Wells and I listed the fundamental techniques used for excavation and survey. Josep Pares – he is not an archaeologist by the way – and he came up with the most cutting-edge techniques of time recording, which he was able to take it to a different level because he is a geologist. Having him aboard was key to connect with “scientists” in other fields of studies. Bringing in Christopher Dore who has specialized in spatial analysis and visualization techniques completed the picture of what we do in archaeology. A key paper in the maths and statistics section is how to write a hypothesis, as this is the connection to approach people in the past. I gave Luis Barba, who is trained in chemical engineering, the toughest task to ask find contributors that would demonstrate how to reason with science and achieve explanations. Lori Wright and Kristin Hoffmeister had a similar challenge. Both helped me bring in biological anthropology and to start looking at people behind bones. I said to Gill Campbell, please bring in all your expertise and to reconstruct the environment people lived in. Remember I wanted the EAS to convey a different message, not only that we have a responsibility towards the future, also that archaeology has long stopped being a discipline exclusively concentrating on the study of the past. I asked Ioanna Kakoulli to help me build a section on conservation and to ask questions about how to preserve heritage. I couldn’t be luckier when Graham Fairclough and Julian Thomas accepted my invitation to collaborate as associate editors. Their sections rounded up the main goal of the EAS, as both merged science and anthropology together. 

C: I must say, I am very impressed the number of contributors involved. Do you happen to know all of the contributors of the Encyclopaedia? Or, was it like a snowball that kept rolling, one contributor led you to another and then to another? Or, you just contacted the established scholars in the field?

S: It is really interesting that I have never met some of the associate editors in person and still haven’t. But, we built an unparalleled collaborating relationship mostly by e-mail. I am very proud that we had almost 700 scholars from 47 countries contributing to the EAS. Of course, we needed to bring in well-known established scholars, even if I knew that most of them wouldn’t contribute precisely because of their busy research schedules. Science wasn’t born with a nationality -at least this is what I believe in. Not everybody has the opportunity to be part of major universities and research institutions in the US, UK and Europe. I relentlessly searched in published journals and books, for those scholars, for those young archaeologists starting their career everywhere. This wasn’t a snowball technique. One of the most moving messages I received was from a contributor in Africa, who felt so happy we had paid attention to his work. I invited people working in the applied sector to contribute and to highlight the incredible job they are doing. They are doing the same thing we do in universities but with the amount of pressure developers put on them. In fact, our colleagues in the applied sector are the ones transcending our field of studies for the benefit of society, a goal we are not entirely achieving in the academia. I want to build bridges, not borders, with this Encyclopedia.

C: Furthering on the contributors of the Encyclopedia, I am actually even more impressed with their diversity – different regions where their research is based, gender, stages in career. Is that something you did on purpose? 

S: Yes! I wanted to give opportunities to postdocs, PhDs, and graduate students, as I was once a graduate student myself. Kristin Hoffmeister, was finishing her PhD directed by Lori Wright. She had her first opportunity to be part of an editorial project that I hope this has helped her build a career. I struggled a lot to build my professional career. I didn’t get a job in academia until I was 33 or 34. What changed the course of my life and my career was my receiving a Humboldt Fellowship. The Humboldt Foundation selected me not because I came from a particular university, but because they valued my research, the effort I put into my work, who I was. The Fellowship supports young scholars committed to science for the benefit of society. I am in touch with a Mexican student, whom I have never met in person, who contacted me for career advice out of the blue. At that time, he was about to finish his PhD in the US and coming back to Mexico where jobs were not exactly something you could find around the corner, so he was feeling a bit lost and worried. I said to him, ‘If you work hard, you will eventually build a career because it will be rewarded at the end.’ Our work does not finish in the classroom. These young scholars need to be heard and to be given that first opportunity to publish – this is why I am giving them this channel. These young scholars are the future of archaeological sciences. Let’s give them a chance!

C: You must get a lot of emails every day during that period. How many, exactly? Did you have a slight panic attack every time you checked your email in the morning? I have this really bad habit myself. I reach for my phone first thing in the morning while still in bed and check my email.

S: At the beginning, I was receiving at least 40 something emails. Every morning, I checked the email, and I replied them right way, every single of them. I am actually missing those emails now, even if I now have the time to enjoy that extra cup of coffee you need sometimes. 

C: In addition to the Encyclopedia-related emails, you still got emails from the students, colleagues, collaborators, and university?

S: Oh yeah…e-mails would built up in a few hours. I am so grateful to have a wonderful publishing team from Wiley. They were so supportive throughout the process and still are. You cannot imagine the amount of work behind the EAS Wiley was there to provide all the resources we need to make this happen. We are at a different stage now that the EAS has been fully published but we are still working on it.  

C: Exactly how long did it take you to compile this?

S: We started talking about the idea in 2011. I signed up a contract with Wiley by mid-2012. By 2013, our team of associate editors was complete. A long-term project requires commitment and for various reasons, not everybody could meet the challenges we faced while putting together the EAS. This is why I had to ask my old friend and colleague Christopher Dore to take over the spatial and visualization section and why had to take care of the maths and stats section. It took three years to find the right people to write. I didn’t realise what I was getting myself into when I accepted. I am used to editing or compiling books, except this time I had to collaborate with 700 people from 47 different countries and cultures. 

C: During this long journey of compiling and editing the Encyclopaedia, what were the challenges you encountered? 

S: At one point, I thought we were not going pull this project together. Rosalie Robertson retired. Right after, Wiley went through a restructuring process making us work with new staff members constantly. None of the associate editors envisioned being involved in such a long-term project, while we all had personal commitments and we re-adjust our focus and priorities. I joined UNAM in 2013 and the move wasn’t easy, as it happened at the same time I lost my father. The sense of responsibility he left with me, did not allow me to fall apart. I owed myself to 700 people and the associate editors. Most never knew what I was going through. 

I am sure a lot of contributors would agree with me that their contribution to the EAS has been one of the hardest pieces they have written, as it summarizes their experience in four or five pages, including references. We all worked very hard on the structure of each submission, even if all contributors had the same set of objectives they needed to address in their piece. One of the hardest things for me was to tell my colleagues that what they wrote was not exactly what we needed. How do you tell an English native speaker that they need to improve their writing, when English is not your native language? Some responses were unkind. In other cases, I had to push the contributors to bring their English up to Wiley standards. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the resources to provide translating services for them. They made the effort, as they understood the relevance of what we were all doing here. In the end, we found a way to make things work, and I am very grateful for all the time and effort they put in to make this work. 

I want to share with you the hardest challenge I faced. During a meeting in Mexico, I was sexually harassed by a contributor. I bring this up because I want to turn around my unfortunate experience into a strong message. We are vulnerable at all levels. Specially, I want students and young scholars to know, you should never, NEVER, allow anyone to take away your security and make you doubt your integrity. I reported the incident to the legal department at the university that attends sexual harassment, facing with it, a still unjust social and legal system to defend us women in similar cases. 

C: I am so sorry to hear about it. What kept you going through such hard time?

S: I survived this unfortunate experience thanks to Wiley’s awareness of what we women in science go through. My father was a role model for me. I saw him overcome so many professional and personal obstacles during his life that his resilience stayed with me. During this difficult time, I had to set up an example for my daughter and my female students. This incident has marked me forever. It too has made me stronger. 

Sandra with her students (Photo credit: Sandra López Varela)

C: How did you balance between being a professor, a mom, and having family, while compiling the Encyclopedia? 

S: I am still catching up with my sleep (laugh). But, if you are passionate about what you do, you will find the time. When my daughter came back from school, I would shut down my computer. But, when she went to bed, I read and edited-proof every single piece in the Encyclopedia. I could see how each submission was shaping the EAS and I was very excited to see the project coming together as we have planned. 

C: Is there a plan to translate the Encyclopedia into different languages?

S: Remember I didn’t want the EAS to be another book at a library? Well, the original idea was to accompany its publication with a textbook that could be translated into different languages. It was an interactive learning and research project for the classroom. As exciting as this idea might seem, it would require a much longer commitment and budget. 

C: What could we do more to promote archaeological science in the future?

SAS could do much more in the future to promote archaeological sciences, such as organise webinars, promote certifications, working hand in hand with university departments to ensure that archaeological scientists are getting the right kind of training and to give back to our communities. Demonstrate archaeological sciences are far much more than using equipment and how much their studies can contribute to our shared world future. 

C: One last question before I let you go, will you do it again if you have a chance, knowing all the challenges you will face in the way? 

S: Absolutely!

Sandra has also been recently interviewed by Springer, here’s the link to the interview: