“Being an archaeologist was my childhood dream.”
It was a teacher’s presentation on an Antarctic expedition that lit the fire under an 8-year-old Estelle Lazer to become an archaeologist.
But more on that later.
An Honorary Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s Classics and Ancient History Department, Estelle is well known among NSW students and teachers for The Pompeii Cast Project, HTA lectures and textbooks.
The discipline of archaeology fuels Estelle’s imagination and curiosity about a distant past that you can’t find in books.
“What archaeology does is that it gives us information about what people don’t write about or what they don’t want you to know. What people write is what they want you to know and what we find is sometimes very different. It brings a different slant on the past,” she says.
It’s a journey that has meshed well with her interests.
“Being an archaeologist was my childhood dream. I loved art and science and archaeology seemed to marry the two really well. I was always interested in biology and human culture and how they developed. It’s a fascination that has never left.”
In 1986 she made her first trip to Pompeii which she says was “always my dream site.”
“For some reason there had not been a modern, systematic study of the human skeletons. Sydney University had a study at the time and I was asked if I would like to study the bones and how could I say no? That then became the basis of my PhD,” she explains.
Estelle has been going back for three and a half decades and has never lost her enthusiasm for the site.
“You have this amazing snapshot of a community that is taken out by a mass disaster and every aspect of life is preserved. The completeness and complexity of the site fascinates me,” she says.
“There is always something new to discover. New excavations, new houses have been exposed, new materials and new research. It is an endlessly fascinating and wonderful site and I have never been bored with it,” Estelle says.
It is Estelle’s forensic brain and detective skills – and she says a bit of OCD – that have made her one of the world’s leading authorities on the bone remains at Pompeii and she was recently featured in a National Geographic documentary: Pompeii: Secrets of the Dead.
“Over the years, Pompeii has been tampered with by archaeologists and people who have wanted to create the past that they want to see so there is a lot of detective work to tease out what is original and what has been manufactured on the site,” she says. “It’s the human behaviour after the eruption that is equally interesting to what has been preserved.”
Estelle estimates that she has taken several thousand NSW teachers and students through the site with her work at Academy Travel and it’s their enthusiasm which is one factor in her passion for the work.
“When you take people to Pompeii who have never been before, and they become excited by it, you become excited all over again through new eyes and that wonder is fabulous,” she says.
“Because we are so geographically isolated from Europe, Australians do not take Western historic sites for granted. It is really nice to go with people who haven’t seen anything like it before. It is magic.”
Of course many are there on formal HSC study tours and Estelle often gives lectures and professional learning through the lens of the syllabus.
“I understand really important issues that have to be addressed like the ethics around the display of human remains, presentation, conservation and reception of the site and how to interpret it,” she explains.
But Estelle is not only known for her work in Pompeii. Her career has taken her all over the world, to sites in the UK, Italy, Bahrain, Cyrus, and central Western NSW. And less well known, Antarctica.
“I first went down to Antarctica in 1984 and I worked on the site associated with Douglas Mawson’s expedition.”
It’s a revelation that proves childhood dreams really do come full circle.