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Only a few months ago the team visited Egypt together.

Moving to virtual collaboration with Marike van Aerde and her team: ‘There is real team spirit in our WhatsApp group’

Marike van Aerde was at the brink of traveling to India for fieldwork when that country closed its borders, three weeks ago. Only a few days later, Leiden University followed suit in temporarily banning all fieldwork trips. With her research team scattered across different continents, she does her best to keep in touch with everyone, while trying to manage two running research grant applications, and teaching a now entirely virtual Honours College course, as well. ‘I sometimes feel like a NASA mission control centre.’

Staying connected

First things first: is everyone safe? ‘Yes,’ Marike says over Skype. ‘I keep in touch with my team members through WhatsApp, skype and e-mail.’ While it hardly matters in terms of staying connected in a time of social distancing, many of Marike’s team collaborators were abroad when the coronavirus crisis struck. ‘Prospective PhD candidate Sam Botan is currently in the United Arab Emirates where he is working on an archaeological dig. He is in the process of finishing and then coming back to the Netherlands.’ For this he has had help from the Emirates authorities and he stays in close contact with Marike. 

Prospective PhD candidate Sam Botan working on a dig in the United Arab Emirates.

Foreign team members

‘Our colleague Abdul Ghani Khan is currently still in Pakistan.’ This expert on rock art would have come to Leiden in April had there been no coronavirus outbreak, to plan and work on the team’s upcoming fieldwork in the Pakistani Himalayas. Now everything has to be arranged via e-mail and messages instead. On the other hand, PhD candidate Rishika Dhumal, originally from India, is stuck in the Netherlands. ‘She is far from her family in India. In addition to that, much of the governmental communication on the coronavirus is often only available in Dutch. I keep her up to speed on the developments and also help her with practicalities, like finding a GP. Luckily, Rishika is handling the situation very well, and it’s good to be in touch regularly. But especially for international staff and students, this can be a very frightening time, being far from home and possibly socially isolated, while not speaking the language.’

Fortunately, Marike’s team has a vibrant app-group. ‘Everyone is helping out. There is a lot of support and a strong feeling of community. A lot of humour, too, which helps!’

The team in better days. Only a few months ago they visited Egypt together.


For the students involved in the ‘Routes of Exchange, Roots of Connectivity’ project there have been a lot of upheaval, too. ‘Our Master’s student Alex was hoping to do fieldwork in Sri Lanka for his thesis, but he may have to make enormous shifts if that cannot go ahead.’ While being forced to make shifts like this, archaeologists do seem to be uniquely equipped to deal with changing circumstances. ‘We are used to excavate for months, after which we then prepare a publication for months, as well. Or we spend a semester teaching, in between. I notice that people in this line of work tend to be quite flexible.’

Two grant applications

‘It is of the utmost importance that we continue to be busy and visible right now,’ Marike explains. ‘We’ve got two running research grant applications, an ERC and a Prins Claus Fonds grant, both delayed. We are now trying to keep our output level up.’ For this, the group makes a move to the virtual world. ‘We are working on several new publications, including a new reference collection catalogue of ceramics from ancient Palmyra and Petra, which is also part of an internship for Master’s student Alex. I find the flexibility of this group incredible. From an agenda filled with fieldwork and conference visits, we seamlessly moved to new ways of collaboration and research. We will also be using our own website, Archaeologists Connected, to post updates about our work.’ 

Ancient glass and ceramics from Palmyra. Photo: Benjamin de Groot

Sincere interest

Marike is happy with the way the Faculty deals with the situation. ‘The communication is clear and people are sincerely interested in how it goes. I do my best to connect with my own team in this way, and I appreciate seeing a similar attitude at the Faculty level. I take care for my team, but if the need arises, it is good to know the Faculty is there for me as well.’

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