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I. Žigeu, the author of one of the best dissertations in Lithuania: “KU has become my second home”

The surname of dr. Indrė Žigeu, a researcher at the Institute of Baltic Region History and Archaeology (BRIAI) of Klaipėda University (KU) and a Deputy Director at Neringa Museum has recently been announced in the dissertation competition, organised by the Lithuanian Young Scientists Union. Indrė’s dissertation “Glassware and the Culture of its Use in Klaipėda within the Context of the Baltic Sea Region (16th-19th Centuries)”, defended at KU, was among the top 11 nationwide. According to dr. I. Žigeu, this recognition required at least 10 years of consistent work!

Did you dream of becoming an archaeologist when you were small?

To be honest, for a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to become. There are children who are determined on their professional direction since the fifth form, but I didn’t know it until the eleventh form. I mean, I wanted to try everything: to be a teacher, a doctor, an interior designer. In the 11th form, it was time to start thinking about the future; the maturity exams had been gradually approaching. It was at that time that Citizenship Education lessons began, where I enjoyed exploring the Constitution, the state governance system, political theories, and I realised that, perhaps, I wanted to turn to political sciences. I was attracted to political sciences, and history, no doubt, has a lot in common.

What comes to archaeology, it wasn’t my childhood passion. Although, now when I think about it, when I was in a primary school, we used to go to the nearby pine forest with my classmates to look for gold, and when my grandparents demolished their house, it daunted to me to “dig” under the floor of the house. I found a full bag of pottery fragments then, I also found some coins, what really “hooked” me. It was very intriguing at that time but later, of course, I forgot about it.

In the later years at school, after a preliminary exploration of the direction of my desired profession, I began to analyse the study programmes offered by the universities of Lithuania to choose where I would like to continue my studies. I came to an Open Door Days event at KU and, firstly, I paid a visit to the Department of Political Sciences, and, finally, I decided to get acquainted with the history studies. By that time I have already read and knew about the possibility to study archaeology, to get acquainted with the field of underwater archaeology, which generally distinguished the studies at the History Department of KU from the study programmes offered by other universities. I was tempted by the fact, but I have to admit that, at first, studies in Klaipėda were not among my priorities. Nevertheless, it was the finger of fate that I entered KU and enrolled in the History study programme. Later, I chose the specialisation of archaeology, this is how all this started…

Are you from Klaipėda?

I was born in Klaipėda, but I graduated a secondary school and grew up in Mažeikiai. So, I can say that I came back to my home (author’s note. – is laughing).

[Photo from a personal archive]

Didn’t you have a desire to look for “broader horizons”? For example, to go abroad for studies

There were different desires in play… At the beginning, there were even tears. As I have already mentioned, studies in Klaipėda were not among my priorities when choosing a university, and when I heard of this news, it was difficult to admit that I would have to part with my friends who were heading to the capital. But it was temporarily, until I got acquainted with my new coursemates and lecturers. Moreover, the city is by the sea! We used to go there with friends after lectures or exam sessions. The search for “broader horizons” had stabilised, and very soon everything fell into places; I understood that that was the place I belonged to. As far as the studies at foreign universities are concerned, I didn’t think too much of that at that time. Already at the undergraduate studies I have been on Erasmus exchange: I went to study to Germany. Later, I did my internship in Lübeck, and although Germany had been very attractive to me since my childhood, I soon realised that I wanted to stay in Klaipėda; I always knew and still know that if I want, I can get anywhere. So far I haven’t regretted my choice, I mean, to stay in Lithuania and work for the benefit of the country.

Have you ever wanted to quit your studies?

I have never had a wish to quit my studies, I enjoyed them; we were soon involved in practical activities that gave us an opportunity even to earn. Immediately after graduation, I enrolled in Master’s degree studies at KU; I studied in the History of the Baltic States study programme. While studying for a Master’s degree, I also worked there, in the administration of the History Department. The then History Department and the Institute of Baltic Region History and Archaeology have become my second home.

Perhaps, while studying at KU, you have met personalities who largely determined your inclination to archaeology and motivated you to pursue more?

There was a great deal of such personalities. When I was still at school and I came to that Open Door Days event, I remember that we were welcomed by the charismatic professor Vygantas Vareikis, who, in a very simple yet picturesque way, told us about the activities of a historian. Later, he also played a significant role throughout the entire period of studies. Much was determined by the archaeological excavations in the churchyard of the former St. John’s Church in Turgaus Street, supervised by the archaeologist Gintautas Zabiela; later, he became the academic advisor of my Master’s thesis and PhD dissertation.

Yet, the choice of the archaeology specialisation was largely determined by an unexpected acquaintance with the archaeologist Ieva Masiulienė. As a student, I worked on archaeological excavations in Tiltų Street, under the supervision of that archaeologist. When I started working there, I had no idea about turning into archaeology, and yet, I had already chosen the historian’s path. During these excavations, we shared a great deal about archaeology in general not only with Ieva, but also with other fellow peers. During those investigations I found a fragment of “Roemer” wine glass; that was a rare in Klaipėda yet stunningly beautiful type of wine glass. Now I am joking that this, possibly, has determined my future career. I. Masiulienė had suggested to me to think of the archaeologist’s path and investigation of glass artefacts, which had been little explored in Lithuania by that time. Finally, I realised that that path suited me more. Archaeology fascinates me because of work with primary sources – with the very artefacts; you never know what lies beneath the city’s floor until you check it; in archaeology you can make a lot of discoveries in one day.

You have written one of the best dissertations in Lithuania. How much time did it take?

Oh, a lot… If you have never written a dissertation and have never been a PhD student, you probably won’t understand… It’s hard to measure for yourself how much time you spend on it. As soon as I enrolled in PhD studies, I was thinking about my dissertation day and night. Since my field of research had not been widely investigated, I had to think a lot where to start and after all how to disclose it, whether I will have enough materials and find other sources. Even when I took a year of academic leave, I was thinking about my dissertation every day. Of course, I spent most of my time doing the work in the last year. It took me six years to mature my dissertation, and taking into consideration my work from the very first steps, I needed at least 10 years to investigate glass artefacts. It was a consistent work on the topic. So, I started writing about glass artefacts from my second course paper, I researched it in my dissertation, and I am still continuing my research work.

Don’t you regret the time spent?

Sometimes I do regret (author’s note – is laughing). I have to admit that sometimes I used to think “do I need it?”. But some kind of inner engine was pushing me forward. I wanted to do the work not only for the sake of getting the work done, but most importantly, I wanted to do it because it was very interesting for me.

When I started writing my course paper, I was writing about glass of one group of glasses – bottles. At that time archaeological explorations took place in Žvejų Street, where archaeologists working on the site discovered a pit of household purpose with the wine bottles of the 18th -19th centuries. And I set out to explore them, to classify, to date. That was the very beginning. Although, the research object itself is related to entertainment, I took it very seriously. Because of this choice of research sources, I would receive some witty comments, sort of “you won’t make science of bottles” (author’s note – is laughing), but that did not bother me; on the contrary, I wanted to prove otherwise.

[Fragment of a wine glass used by the old townspeople of Klaipėda (an archaeological find from the funds of the History Museum of Lithuania Minor]

After completing the investigation phase of Old Klaipėda bottles from Žvejų Street, I thought I would investigate all glassware in Klaipėda; however, I realised that there was still so much to be learnt about those glass bottles, I wanted to look at them systematically, in the context of services and merchandise; so, the investigation of this interesting source was continued in my Bachelor’s and even Master’s theses. In fact, that was my big warm-up before my PhD dissertation; when investigating glass bottles, I understood how to investigate glass in general; I understood the methodology, that’s why the remaining glassware – drink tableware, large and small glasses, mugs, cups, medical utensils, glazing, glass jewellery, even toys – made things a little easier. All that glassware allow us to get to know the contacts of the old townspeople of Klaipėda with those of other countries, their manners, table culture, medicine, architecture, etc. This part of history is really very interesting – because of that I don’t regret the time spent.

How was the research process conducted?

First, I had to get acquainted with the source of research, with the entire collection of archaeological glass in Klaipėda, which is preserved in the History Museum of Lithuania Minor. All the investigations carried out by professional archaeologists are documented, and reports are produced, in which the finds are recorded. So, the reports, in my case around several hundred, had to be looked through, and I had to select only those objects which reported on at least one fragment of glass that was found. In their reports, archaeologists are looking for the context of the finds. A find has little importance without a context; it is difficult to date such a find and to interpret the context of the use of that article. After creating my primary database, I had to investigate the very finds themselves, to measure them, to describe and identify the most valuable features, and to put them into separate “shelves” based on their purpose and shapes. Data processing is most painstaking and time-consuming; you have to know what questions you will seek to answer yet in the phase of collecting and processing data.

Since my research period included the 16th -19th centuries, I was also looking for historical sources; I had to look for information in different types of literature. Work with primary and secondary historical sources allowed for expanding the contexts related to the use of glassware. It was necessary to get acquainted with the materials related to the artefacts collected in the neighbouring countries, in the Baltic Sea region, to analyse the material explored by the researchers of other countries, and so on. The aim of an archaeologist is not only to describe a certain artefact or to state a fact that, see, we also have the same article of the 16th centry that was found, let’s say, in Poland or Norway. The duty of an archaeologist is, through the findings or structures discovered during archaeological excavations, to provide knowledge of the living conditions of the past life, of an individual or a group of individuals who lived in the past, i.e. of who we were before and how far we have progressed or vice versa, where our certain habits, patterns of thinking have come from, why our mentality is like that, and the like.

What was the biggest discovery when dong the research?

There were quite a few discoveries, but I was very surprised by the relics of the war with the Swedes found in the museum funds – glass hand grenades. When I began to delve deeper into that, I realised that that was a rarity in the region; by the way, we have a few such finds in Biržai and in the neighbouring Poland.

Another discovery is related to the health issues of townspeople. It turned out that in the 17th century, there was an alchemist-pharmacist’s laboratory in Klaipėda. The glassware found proves the fact: medicine bottles, alembics – distillation apparatus, retorts and so on. By that time we had no idea about that. The museum funds also included glass bottles with the remaining contents, which, when explored in the lab, revealed the ingredients of the contents, and it was particularly surprising that the ointments contained asbestos, which today is absolutely incompatible with human health.

[Medicine bottles in Old Klaipėda (archaeological finds from the funds of the History Museum of Lithuania Minor]

What was the most difficult to investigate?

Each fragment of glassware had to be justified in a certain way. Their interpretation was not easy. I had to look through many sources, to read a great deal of foreign literature not only in English or German but also in Polish, Latvian, Estonian, Danish, Russian or even Dutch, i.e. in the languages I don’t speak.

How does this recognition serve you further?

First of all, recognition motivates and allows understanding that I am moving in the right direction. My next step is to find sponsors and prepare a monograph based on my dissertation. While working on my dissertation, an idea came to further analyse other topics that are less related to glass culture research, yet they are also interesting and valuable, and they have not yet been explored in Lithuania.

But you are not going to leave archaeology, are you?

It is difficult to say what will be in the future. So far, I don’t feel a shortage of ideas, that’s why I am not going to leave archaeology. Although, excavations are interesting and inevitable for an archaeologist, I think I will be more of a writing archaeologist.

What would you say to school students who think that archaeology is a boring science?

For some people it can be really boring and even physically demanding, while others find it a very dynamic job. Based on my experience, there are many discoveries in archaeology that can be made both on the excavation site and in the office, investigating the already excavated material. Archaeologists travel a lot, they can excavate in different parts of Lithuania. When they see archaeological excavations in the city, on a settlement or fields, school students could stop at the sites more often in order to see what’s going on, to talk to archaeologists, to ask them to accompany them for a while. I think that archaeologists wouldn’t mind that.