Elsa Simms is a historical archaeologist and native of St. John’s, NL. Elsa holds a BA in classics from Memorial and a graduate diploma in archaeology from University College Cork in Ireland. She received research funding from the faculty’s Scholarship in the Arts program to study Islamic and Byzantine artefacts in Viking Age (AD 793-1066) burial contexts in Stockholm, Sweden in May. This will include several days of research behind the scenes at the National Museum of Sweden and exploring the ancient burial grounds at the Viking Age town called Birka. Elsa will also be travelling with Dr. Lisa Rankin and Maria Lear this summer to Rigolet and Nain to excavate Inuit and Moravian archaeological sites.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?
I love my hometown more than anything, and I saw an opportunity to fill a research gap at our university. I think that Scandinavian and Viking Age studies in Newfoundland and Labrador are very important, especially in our current political climate. Being at home with my partner, family, and friends has been a critical part of my success in this program.
What drew you to explore history originally?
I am a big supporter of interdisciplinary studies, and along with my background in archaeology, I am knowledgeable in French, Swedish, Latin, Old Norse, and Ancient Greek. The ability to use ancient languages, along with the archaeology of what I study allows me an interdisciplinary, and primarily historical, view of the past. My love of ancient languages and palaeography drew me to a type of history grounded in archaeology.
Can you tell us a bit about your current projects?
I am studying Byzantine and Islamic artefacts in Scandinavian burial contexts during the Viking Age. I will be reading Islamic and Byzantine literary evidence about Scandinavians and Rus’ along with the use of the artefacts from a gender perspective. Gender theory will allow me to examine Scandinavian and Rus’ identity without racializing or conflating these groups of people any further than they already have been.
A supervisor can be key to the success of any grad student. What does your supervisor bring to their role as your advisor and mentor?
I have two brilliant supervisors! Dr. Marica Cassis (now at the University of Calgary) and Dr. Shannon Lewis-Simpson. Dr. Cassis provides me with the Byzantine and Islamic side of my supervision and Dr. Lewis-Simpson provides me with the Scandinavian side of my studies. Both are very encouraging, and I would not want to do this degree without either of them! I met both Dr. Cassis and Dr. Lewis-Simpson in my undergrad. I look up to both of them so much, and I hope I can be the strong accomplished women they are some day! They are always ready to help me with my sometimes wild research questions and are patient with my scatterbrained nature. In the winter semester, Dr. Lewis-Simpson independently took on a group of ragtag Viking Age nerds to teach us Old Norse just because I needed a bit more formal training in reading Old Norse sources. That’s dedication to your students!
Along with Dr. Cassis and Dr. Lewis-Simpson, I’ve received some informal guidance from other members of the history department like Dr. Sebastian Rossingol among many others. Dr. Rossingol started a palaeography group that meets every second Friday to read medieval Latin texts - he has given me opportunities to give his undergraduate classes tours at The Rooms, and has provided me with guidance for my studies in medieval Slavic history.
How does studying in the humanities and social sciences affect your worldview?
It impacts me massively! In my work, I try to incorporate the ethics that we apply to modern people to people in the past. This includes pursuing gender and queer theories in my studies. People in the past had much different definitions of gender than we do today, so instead of mis- gendering past people based on biology, we should allow them the same decency non-binary people are asking for today. I also like to use historiography to explore the impact of fascist regimes and their appropriation of history and archaeology in their attempts to weaponize the past. This is particularly important for the study of the Viking Age, as many white nationalist groups (past and present) use Viking Age imagery to promote their intolerant agendas.
In general, I think we need to be paying closer attention to these images of hate and listening to authorities in medievalism to see where the past is so relevant to the present and future.
Are you involved in any organizations on-campus or off? If so, can you explain and detail such involvement (and how it might relate to your studies)? I play rugby with Dogs Rugby Football Club, and in the past did so on a provincial level with the women’s senior Rock team, Roller Derby with the Neversweets of the 709 Roller Derby league, and I played collegiate rugby with University College Cork in Ireland. My involvement in rugby and roller derby gives me an incredible support network of incredibly talented women and coaches along with discipline in my studies. I am so thankful for all the times they lift me up, and I do not think I would be in this position now without them. I love my teammates and coaches with all my heart, and they are just as much my mentors and colleagues as my classmates and supervisors.
Along with my involvement with Rugby and Roller Derby, I am a part-time educator at The Rooms. I teach school children about Newfoundland and Labrador history and archaeology. This is my dream job, and I am so incredibly lucky to work at The Rooms. My coworkers are supportive of my academic pursuits and encourage me to pursue those interests in the workplace.
What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?
My favourite thing about being a graduate student at Memorial is how supportive my cohort and department are. Recently, myself and my classmates presented at this year’s Aldrich conference, and almost every member of the department were present. The history department does an incredible job of making you feel welcome and fostering a sense of community. Our graduate coordinator, Dr. Neil Kennedy, is responsible for a lot of this positive environment and has made the program really inclusive and supportive. This community fostering allows myself and my fellow classmates an inclusive place to learn and create friendships. I am so grateful for the new friends I made this year, and I know we’ll all remain close after our program. I am constantly in awe of the accomplishments of my classmates in their innovative historical research projects, and any of us would have made an incredible grad student of the month!
What do you hope to do after completing your graduate degree?
I hope to start applying for PhD programs. I also have a new love for museum studies and would be equally as happy working here in Newfoundland and Labrador in museums. Community archaeology and history are really important to me and working in heritage would be a great outlet for those interests. If not, I may look for work in commercial archaeology in Europe. I’m also working on getting a couple of articles I worked on last year published, and hopefully that’ll happen before or after I graduate!