Extraordinary people: Dr Tanja Romankiewicz

Reading time: 6 minutes
Edinburgh Innovations (EI) connects academic expertise with real-world challenges to drive innovation and impact through collaboration. Their Extraordinary People campaign celebrates the University’s innovators – ordinary people who have done extraordinary things with their academic careers and made their ideas work for a better world.

This month, the EI team spoke to Dr Tanja Romankiewicz, Chancellor’s Fellow in Archaeology, Research Affiliate at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, and Co-Lead at College level on the Cultural Heritage research themes in the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences.

When Tanja Romankiewicz was 15 she wrote to the director of Cologne’s Römisches-Germanisches Museum to ask if she could do an archaeological training placement during her school holidays. She had been reading books on archaeology and ancient architecture and was impatient to get some practical experience. A reply came, but the message was not one she wanted to hear. The director called for patience, telling Tanja she would need to study archaeology at university and then complete practical training when she was ready, not the other way around and certainly not immediately, as Tanja would have liked. It was a recurring theme in her young life, feeling ready for the next thing and being told she’d have to wait, but given all Tanja has achieved in the early years of her academic career, it’s safe to say that she has politely ignored such unsolicited advice.

Today, Dr Tanja Romankiewicz is Chancellor’s Fellow in Archaeology, Research Affiliate at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, Co-Lead at College level on the Cultural Heritage research themes in CAHSS, and within her subject area she is Co-Organiser of the Heritage Research Group and Director of Research. She describes herself as “an archaeologist interested in buildings, and an architect interested in people of the past”, which makes plain her enthusiasm for interdisciplinary cross-pollination. Rather than following a strictly archaeological trajectory to arrive at her current position, Tanja has allowed her roaming curiosity to lead the way, trampling disciplinary boundaries in the process and opening up ways of looking at the past more holistically, as well as new opportunities for collaboration.

Curiosity, and a need to know as much as possible, is something Tanja can remember feeling deeply even as a small child. When grown-ups would read to her at bedtime she would know, having memorized each fairy tale, if they were skipping sections to hurry things along. She couldn’t wait to be able to read for herself and seize control of the means to knowledge. When it was suggested to Tanja’s parents that they defer her starting school for another year because she was small for her age she put her diminutive foot down, determined to get the business of learning and finding things out for herself underway.

While Tanja cultivated a range of interests, such as painting and making music, history and archaeology remained a particular source of fascination for her, as well as one of comfort.

“I have always loved the past. It is a closed experiment. There is something safe and soothing about the happened past, and that is why I wanted to study it.”

Tanja enrolled at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne, close to where she grew up. She first read architecture and architectural conservation, but her archaeological interest remained. In her undergraduate dissertation she designed an exhibition concept for a Roman town in Spain, and she wrote her Masters thesis on Roman concrete, which she contextualised with contemporary stone architecture outside the empire. That early work brought Scotland into Tanja’s field of vision, alerting her to the existence of brochs, Scottish stone towers from the Iron Age that could equal Roman architecture in engineering sophistication and design concept. The dearth of research into their architectural contexts ignited Tanja’s curiosity, and it became clear that a PhD would be necessary – there was so much more to find out.

With University of Edinburgh Professor Ian Ralston co-supervising and Professor Dorothée Sack at the Technical University of Berlin as lead, Tanja embarked on a PhD in architectural analysis focusing on brochs. The research made her realise that her background in architecture only enhanced her archaeological investigations, as it allowed her to bring design considerations into the picture. “I investigate archaeological remains as creative processes, not as built products,” she says. “They’re processes that tell me something about the people, their ideas and intentions.”

Tanja’s advantage first came to the fore when she started to investigate the brochs. The dominant narrative about these structures argued that neighbouring communities had competed against each other to build the highest towers, but Tanja’s interpretation painted a different picture of cooperation and community. Some of these groups had enough load-bearing stone at their disposal to easily overshadow their neighbours’ towers if they had wanted to, but instead they built structures of similar sizes and proportions. Strengthening her theory that these structures were not intended to assert superiority but to express belonging to a larger community, Tanja discovered structural repairs to brochs in different localities that were identical. These communities were discussing their problems with each other and sharing knowledge to help their neighbours find solutions, she realised. To argue for community spirit in this space was radical, but Tanja’s background in architecture allowed her to look at the brochs from a new angle.

As archaeologists we must be careful to avoid projecting ourselves on to the past,” she says. “I’m someone who looks to connect people, so of course this comes through in the work. But I can back up my new narrative with new data.”

Community and connection have become strong themes in Tanja’s career. After completing her PhD she worked for a time as a building archaeologist with conservation architects and archaeologists Simpson & Brown with Addyman Archaeology. The company conducted a lot of community outreach projects, and Tanja was able to experience the value and reward of bringing her passion and expertise to people outside of the profession. But she missed the academic adventure of digging deeper to find things out. She applied for a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh and in 2015 she embarked on the Building (Ancient) Lives project. This collaboration between her as an academic archaeologist and architect with artists, local authority archaeologists and community groups, sought to take inspiration from prehistoric built structures as a way of addressing the current problems of sustainable building. In the Earthen Empire project, where Tanja was a Research Assistant, she investigated and communicated the sophistication of turf building and engineering from a Roman perspective, with colleagues Ben Russell and Chris Beckett. “Through my work I have realised that the past is not preserved in aspic,” Tanja says. “We can use it to connect back to ancient lives and see how people lived, but also to build modern lives now, and make what happened then relevant for today.”

Tanja’s research continues to connect the ancient and the present, and to bring the academic, commercial and conservation communities together. It was through the Building (Ancient) Lives project that she first collaborated with fellow archaeologist and traditional turf builder Daniel Postma of Archaeo Build, trialling ancient construction methods in the field. Tanja is now leading a project in collaboration with Postma, eco farm Comrie Croft and Historic Environment Scotland as partners, training local communities in building turf-walled structures not as replicas of the past, but as translations of ancient concepts into modern sustainable architecture. Tanja’s research had shown that turf building had been embedded in prehistoric agricultural cycles, from cutting to building, composting and regrowing, and that same process can offer a circular, low-carbon alternative to a number of modern construction practices.

“If our project can help achieve net-zero architecture by even one step, then it’s one in the right direction. How about turf walls instead of metal fences? Turf buildings as storage with living, breathing walls? As recreational, compostable huts? They are buildings that tread lightly on the soil, and that can easily return to it, without increasing our carbon emissions.” While the project is still very much live, Tanja and her team are preparing the ground for further large-scale work, building on pilot research funded by the British Academy into the impact of turf building on ancient environments.

Part of the thrill for Tanja is watching the infectious enthusiasm that these projects spark in others. This applies to her students, who she connects across disciplines in her archaeology of architecture courses, exploring space, place and time. It is true of new academic research, too. In her current role of Director of Research, she is able to use her experience in interdisciplinary research and impact to encourage others, and Early Career Researchers in particular. And as co-lead on the Cultural Heritage research theme for CAHSS and the Heritage Research Group, she is in a position to connect her fellow academics with other disciplines, industry partners or community groups.

Tanja has taken an unorthodox route to get to where she is now, led by a persistent need to find things out and by refusing to constrain herself to the boundaries of one field of study. Her curiosity and interdisciplinary approach mean she has been able to open new doors, not only between fields of study or between the University and the wider community, but between the past, the present and our future.

Each month, EI will be sharing a new story. Inspired by Tanja’s story? You can find out more about Extraordinary People on the EI website.

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Photography: Maverick Photo Agency; Harald Saan