Assistant Professor of Classics, Eric Poehler tells us about how iPads revolutionized his archaeological research in Pompeii and expounds upon the meaning of bones found underneath houses in ancient cities.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in St. Paul, MN and grew up mainly in the twin cities, between there and northern Minnesota in a small town in Minnesota called Bemidji (go Beavers!) I also went to college in Bemidji.
What led you to study archaeology and architectural history?
My original goal was actually international business. I studied French in high school and did a bit of traveling, which I loved, but I couldn’t envision how to translate my love for the language into a career, so I thought business would be the way to go. On my second day of college, I read a poem called Ozymandias by Shelley, which is about the Egyptian statue of Memnon and how it has fallen into ruin. From that moment on, I knew I needed to study history but that I didn’t want to be indoors all the time! I turned towards archaeology and from that point on, started taking every class I could toward that goal.
What drew you in particular to Greek and Roman archaeology?
The Romans were particularly fascinating to me. I think it was probably some of the popular media that had recreated the world for me as a younger person. Once I finally got into the field, I was lucky enough to go to Pompeii; since then, I’ve gone back every year. That particular site and the kind of archaeology conducted there is just incredibly compelling. I knew from the first day on-site that I didn’t want to do anything different.
How did you get involved with working in Pompeii?
I was lucky to have been chosen from a large application pool to join a field school. It was a very expensive program; I couldn’t have afforded it on my own (my grandfather helped foot the bill) and so I made the most of it. I made a good impression and was eventually offered the position of the archaeological surveyor to study and model the topography and architecture. So in 1999, I started down that path and that brought me through the next 8 years of the project there. I then joined the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project at Porta Stabia in 2006, which is the research project I still work for in its new iteration under the directorship of Steven Ellis (my boss under that project but my co-director on the Quadriporticus project which is run through UMass). UMass has generously supported the Pompeii Quadriporticus Project with a Healey endowment, a faculty research grant that allowed us to take five students from UMass into the field last year. They did a lot of really great work and had a great time.
Tell us a little about the role that iPads played in the project at Pompeii.
When the iPads were coming out, we realized that one of the things we wanted to do in the field was replace paper. When you rely on paper for field notes and record keeping, someone eventually has to type that information into a computer thereby increasing the chance for human error. Plus, a huge amount of time and energy is invested in data entry. We were interested in replacing paper as a way to move with more efficiency - and soon we discovered that there were methodological advantages to the iPad, in terms of actually changing the way we did our work. Instead of merely having a digital version of our paper notes, we were able to do some of the actual drawing on-site. The iPad drafting programs have the ability to zoom in very tightly, which is quite useful. We were able to replace our traditional recording techniques - for example, we could go right up to a wall with a measuring rod (for scale) and take a photo.
The iPad has been revolutionary in terms of efficiency but also in the way in which we use technology to interact with the archaeology and the materials. Now, we don’t have to pound nails into the buildings and walls; in fact, we almost don’t need the wall at all anymore; we could technically do the work of drawing after we get home. And we're envisioning many other exciting possibilities as the technology develops.
Do you have a favorite class that you teach?
I’ve taught a class called The Ancient City three times, and it really is a favorite of mine. I enjoy the class because it allows us to examine a topic that we think we know well (cities). We’re an urban world now, but less than 15,000 years ago, there was nothing that we would really recognize as a city, only the faintest shadows of what city life was going to be. And it wasn't a direct line of development, like an arrow from the past pointing straight at us - that’s not how the world has worked. Every event along the way has been an experiment; it has been a few people deciding to do things a certain way and finding out if it works. And the ones that are really successful, those vagaries of history that survive, become our norms. To mentally place ourselves in the past and stare at our future as not inevitable but uncertain is a great thing. That’s why I really love that class, because I get to do exactly that for a whole bunch of different cultures.