An endlessly curious mind – Milton Nuñez on becoming the Professor of Archaeology in Oulu

Cuban-born Milton Nuñez is the emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of Oulu. In this interview, he talks about becoming an archaeologist, and the diverse international career he has had. The selected photographs introduce portions of his research along the years.

How did you become an archaeologist (in Finland) and how has your career been?

The famous pioneer of American Archaeology, Jesse Jennings, entitled his memoirs Accidental archaeologist. I, and probably many other archaeologists, would fit into that description. But I couldn’t really say that I stumbled into Archaeology. True, I never dreamt of being an archaeologist. Archaeology and the past were there as exciting subjects, but never as a viable profession. It all gradually crystallized here in Finland and in Canada during the 1970s and early 1980s.

My parents had hoped that I would study engineering in the US, but I wanted to study something more exciting that involved discovery, like astrophysics. I would have [studied astrophysics] if the Cuban revolution had not complicated things. I did go to the US at the age of 16, but as a refugee, and my parents were not allowed to send me money for education from Cuba. Luckily, I was able to get a so-called Co-op scholarship to study engineering. Working as an engineer in Detroit was rather dull and the city was pretty restless – not a nice place to be in the mid-1960s. In 1968 I flew to Paris hoping to study there, but it was just after the student revolt and I found Paris even worse than Detroit.

Milton Nuñez on the Nile River in 2017.

Soon after I came to Helsinki, where I had some friends I had met in Detroit. I found Finland soothingly peaceful and enrolled at the University of Helsinki in mid-September, taking courses that did not require knowing Finnish (English and Spanish Literature, differential equations, statistics). In the summer of 1969, I travelled to England, where I became fascinated with fossils at the Natural History Museum and with England’s Roman past. That led to my walking all of Hadrian’s Wall, from Newcastle to Carlisle (c.118 km) and visiting its satellite Roman sites. Later I hitchhiked further north to Lindisfarne, the site of the first major Viking raid in 793. Then, in late August I went through France and northern Spain visiting impressive archaeological monuments like the Pont du Gard aqueduct and the ancient city of Ampurias.

On my return to Helsinki in September, Joakim Donner, the professor of Geology and Paleontology, welcomed me to study [under him]. Later, he spoke with the newly nominated Prof. Carl Fredrik Meinander and I began to attend archaeology lectures in January 1970. Geology and Paleontology remained as my major and Archaeology as a minor for the following 10 years, even if my involvement with archaeologists continuously increased. I participated in the University field school excavations at Outokumpu-Säätös and Hauho-Ilmoila in 1970, but later I also worked as a geologist in archaeological sites in Finland and abroad.

Karjalan Maa article about the University of Helsinki archaeological field school at the Typical Comb ware site of Säätös, Outokumpu, led by Prof. C. F. Meinander in May 1970.

In 1971, Donner arranged for me go to France and dig with Prof. François Bordes at the Mousterian cave site of Pech de l’Azé to learn sedimentological techniques which I then applied in my dissertation about Dordogne paleoclimates based on the sediments of the Upper Paleolithic Abri Pataud shelter.

After getting my Bachelor’s degree in the spring of 1972, the next summer I did a survey for Outokumpu Oy in Lapland. Despite the good money, I felt that it was not for me. In 1973 I was again in France where I briefly worked at the sites of Les Tares (Middle Paleolithic) and Salt Vieux (Upper Paleolithic). I also participated in the excavations of Vantaa-Mätäoja and Hammarland-Katby in Åland, for the latter as the site director (gravningsledare) – my first! In 1974 I was the field director at the Vantaa-Kilteri dig, where I realized that I possessed valuable knowledge to sell to the archaeologists: phosphate analysis. From then on [I worked as a kind of mercenary] for the archaeologists, doing various chemical and geological analyses at the Geology Department. I was an amanuensis at the Paleontology Museum, substituting Björn Kurtén till the end of 1976.

In 1977 [I finished with a double major], presenting an Archaeology thesis on soil analyses and a Geology thesis on the anomalies (found by Ari Siiriäinen) in shoreline chronology using geology and mathematics. When I received my degree in Geology and Paleontology in the spring of 1978, I still saw myself as a geologist that worked with archaeologists. I still did in 1979, when I began a sort of postdoc on spatial techniques at the Computer Sciences department at the University of Calgary, Canada. Calgary was great, it had both fossils and archaeology. While there, I also attended courses [on topics such as] Mesoamerican Archaeology, Andean Archaeology and Bioanthropology at the Archaeology department. Later the Archaeology department asked (and paid) me to teach at the Bioanthropology Laboratory. When my postdoc at the Computer department was coming to an end, [the Archaeology department asked me] to apply for a 3-year archaeology PhD grant, which I did and got (1981-1983). Thus, sometime in the early 1980s I gradually became and began to see (and accept) myself as an archaeologist.

Some pathological features observed in the mummified individuals from the Al-Asasif necropolis: (a) A DISH condition. (b) A fragment of calcified pleura, which suggest pulmonary TB. (c-d) Cranium of a child aged 7-8 years with severe porotic lesions. The radiograph (d) reveals the thickened bone with the “hair-on-end” or brush-like structure typical of beta-thalasemia, a form of anemia common in the Mediterranean. (e) Cranium with lesions compatible with osteosarcoma or a metastasis from a cancerous tumor elsewhere. (f) Hand of a mature man with a deformation compatible with Dupuytren’s contracture (Palmar fibromatosis).

That said, however, it is possible that my marriage to archaeology had been sealed long before I came in direct contact with the discipline. My willingness to take up Archaeology may go back to a single, very intense event in my childhood. When I was 9 in Cuba, I heard a story about a man losing his pocket watch while resting below a shady roadside tree on a hot day. There was a happy ending, he was able to locate the tree and get his watch. But that gave me the idea that people using the centuries-old road by our farm may have also stopped to rest beneath large trees and lose things there. The next Saturday I chose a huge ancient shady jagüey tree (Ficus citrifolia) and excavated between its roots with a screwdriver. I was soon rewarded with a gold doubloon from 1789. It was a very powerful experience. I had found old coins before, but to find a gold doubloon after reasoning and using logic was something else. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. That may have had some bearing to my ending up as an archaeologist – who knows?

What have been your main research interests?

I have always been interested in unanswered questions. That’s what originally drew me to astrophysics, then to paleontology and, eventually, archaeology. Anything with a question mark has always interested me – the thrill of finding answers (the doubloon???). However, I also have the problem (or advantage) that after 5-10 years I tend to get bored with my topic. Hence, my research interests have shifted with time, from fossils (human and animal) to the Paleolithic and paleoenvironments in the 1970s, to computer applications, to Bioanthropology, to Finnish pioneer settling and Åland prehistory in the 1980s; to jätinkirkot in the 1990s, to mummies, [and finally to] paleopathology and paleodiets in the [last two decades]. Now looking back, I guess that the study of human remains in different aspects of Bioanthropology has been there all along. A case in point, I’ve always had a morbid fascination with bones. As a child, whenever I found a dead animal (lizards, birds, cats) in the farm, I would take it to an anthill, and then reconstruct the skeleton once the ants had cleaned it to the bones.

Forat de Conqueta was a cave in the Catalonian Pyrenees that was used for funerary purposes between 2500 and 1200 BC, which falls within the local Bronze Age.

Tell us a bit about the excavations you have been a part of. What have been the most memorable moments?

Do you really want to know it all? I have been involved with many burial sites of several types and periods and places and/or with the bones/mummies found in them. I’ll try to briefly list those that come to mind in chronological order:

1970: An Iron Age cremation field at Ilmoila.
1974: A Pre-Roman inhumation burial at Kilteri.
1975: Excavation of unburnt human skull fragments on Retulansaari.
1976: Examination of some human bones from the Hattula churchyard.
1978: Measurement of human femora from the Porvoo church.
1980: A 19th-century male pioneer buried in the Canadian prairie.
1984: In situ analyses of skeletons buried beneath the Renko church.
1986–1994: Several late Iron Age mounds on different cemeteries in Åland.
1986–2000: Skeletal remains from church/churchyard burials from medieval/early modern Åland (Finström, Hammarland, Kökar, Saltvik, Sund).
1987: Skeletal remains of 18th-century massgraves from Föglö and Tranvik on Åland.
1990–2010: Examination of disarticulated human bones with cutmarks from the Jettböle PW site, Åland.
1995: Early Metal Age Lapp cairns from Keminmaa
1995: An 1860s mass grave from Ruukki
1996–2018: Analyses of skeletons and mummies from church/churchyard burials of early modern/ modern North Ostrobothnia (Hailuoto, Haukipudas, Keminmaa, Kempele, Manamansalo, Oulu
2002–2004: Comparative study on the occurrence of the suprainiac fossae in crania from Spanish Neandertals and much later individuals from Finland (Levänluhta, Oulu, Savukoski).
2004: A Napoleonic-war massgrave near Barcelona.
2005: A medieval Muslim cemetery in the city of Granada (Spain).
2006: A Bronza Age funerary cave (cremations) of La Conquetta in the Catalonian Pyrenees (Spain).
2006–2007: Analysis of 9 treponematose Amerindian skulls from a Puerto Rico funerary cave (still ongoing).
2007–2010: Analyses of human remains (c.300 skeletons and c.100 mummies) found in the tomb of Governor Monthemhat and 3 nearby tombs of the Al-Asasif necropolis in Luxor (Egypt), dating from c.1200 BC to Roman times.
2010: Examination of 1.2-M-BP Homo cranial fragments from Valle del Orce, Granada Province (Spain).

Perimortem manipulation and cut marks in various human bones from the Swedish Pitted ware site of Jettböle, in Jomala, Åland. The cuts generally occur where a group of strong tendons and muscles occur, like around joints or the jaws. The morphology of the cuts indicates that they are perimortem; in other words, made around the time of death, when the bone was still fresh.
Perimortem manipulation, fractures. Jettböle human bone fractures and related features denoting that their handling took place when the bones were still fresh: (a) Spiral fractures, which are typical of the way fresh bone breaks. (b) Peel fractures, also typical and occur when the break is not complete and the two breaking bits must be twisted and pulled, as when we break a green branch off. (c) Femur fragments showing a systematic breaking treatment. (d) The head of the bone at the left in c was apparently too robust and resisted breaking, as shown by the impact evidence of various attempts on its other side

I suppose that the most impressive/memorable of these research ventures was the study of the well-preserved but plundered Egyptian mummies. As for “funny stories”, I don’t know if these incidents qualify, but they are the closest I can think of:

In summer 1978, when teaching at the field school (opetuskaivaus) at Salo-Ketohaka, I was contacted by Kaarina Rissanen, who knew of my interest in human remains. A few dozen skeletons and a mummy had been uncovered beneath the Porvoo church and she felt that they should be studied. When I could finally get there on Saturday, it was too late. I went to Porvoo with two friends who were Pathology students, but the construction firm had already piled all the bones in a corner beneath the church. The only thing left to do was to pull out and measure 50 femora. We did, but there was also the mummy – a well-preserved and, to some extent, still beautiful, 30-35-year-old young woman. I was trying to photograph her, complaining about keeping the camera steady for the needed 30-second exposure. Then I heard “vi tar henne ut!” (we are taking her out) and saw through the camera lens two hands grabbing and lifting the mummy. I must have uttered an inhaled “AAAH!” in surprise and disbelief. At the same time the mummy was lifted, a cloud of brown mummy dust rose around us. The fine dust went deep into my inhaling mouth and throat, completely drying them, and I began to cough. I had to drink lots of water to get rid of the dryness. Later, the cough became chronic and my wife was worried that I had acquired some deadly bacteria, but it gradually faded after 4-5 weeks. At any rate, whenever I show the photo of the Porvoo mummy in class I always say: “This lady and I have had a very intimate relationship.”

Possible treponemal lesions in an indigenous cranium from Puerto Rico: (a) Cranium showing the lesions. (b) A close photograph of an affected area of the cranium in a. (c) A close photograph of lesions on the cranium of a clinical case of syphilis from 19th century Sweden.

In 1984 Markus Hiekkanen told me about the skeletons he had uncovered beneath the Renko church. I was rather busy in Åland then, but I gave him instructions on how to make a device to measure the long bones, and then came for one day to do age and sex determinations. Time was limited and there were dozens of skeletons, so I had to work around the clock – from around noon, when I arrived, through the night until about 5 AM. After dinner, I was alone in the crypt and had two strong spotlights for light. They provided an excellent working light, but at the same time made rather ghastly shadows of the skeletons on the crypt walls. The atmosphere was quite eerie, even for me who was used to working with human remains. I concentrated on my work, but also kept reminding myself and my bony companions that we were on consecrated ground. To ease the tension, I also talked friendly to each of the individuals, explaining her/him what I was doing to them. This kept me going and got me through, but… needless to say, I was very happy and relieved when I did the last skeleton and got out into the breaking daylight.

In the summer of 1987, the French Embassy was planning to erect a memorial to the French soldiers that died in Åland during the Bomarsund war (1854), and there was an intensive search for their graves. None were found, probably because they had mostly died of cholera and had been buried in quicklime. Instead, we found a Russian mass grave from the 1700s. Before we had established the nationality/period, however, we excavated frantically around the clock. Meals were even brought to the site. When the newspaper reporters came and began to take pictures, my crew (Swedish students) warned me. I was eating a sandwich with my left hand and examining a skull with my right hand. Luckily, I rapidly gulped the sandwich down, and the picture in the front page was that of me studying the skull.

In 2011 the Oulu researchers working with the church mummies were given permission to do a CT scan of Nikolaus Rungius’ body. The mummy was taken in a van from the Keminmaa church to the Oulu University Hospital, where the scanner was. We waited on purpose until late in the afternoon, when there would be no patients around. Nobody saw us when we went in. However, an older lady surprised us as we were wheeling Rungius out, just before the exit and the van.  I was walking last and saw her staring, puzzled, at Rungius’ body. My nasty Cuban nature surged and I could not help saying solemnly and shaking my head: “Long queue” (“Pitkät jonot”). I was able to see her mouth open and her eyebrows rise as I stepped out the door.

Finnish mummies. Left) Nikolaus Rungius’ mummified remains being scanned at the Oulu University Hospital. Right) CAT scan of Nikolaus Rungius’ thorax that clearly reveals his DISH condition (Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis).

What archaeological site has made an impact on your, in Finland or abroad? Why?

There are several such places. In Finland, for example, there are the rock art sites of Hossa and Astuvansalmi and some Sami Sieidi (seita). It is not so much the sites themselves but the awe feeling they inspire – something similar to when entering St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. I also felt so when visiting Lascaux in 1971.

Then, I have always been very impressed by Roman engineering and architecture: aqueducts, the Colosseum, Hadrian’s wall, a huge dam and basilica-sized cisterns in the midst of the Syrian desert. The same applies to many of Egypt’s monumental temples or tombs like Monthemhat’s tomb. It is the second largest tomb in all of Luxor with two open courtyards and 57 burial chambers in three levels, all carved into the bedrock.

A view of the Al-Asasif necropolis in the Valley of the Nobles of Luxor. The arrow points to the outer limit of the football-field-sized Monthemhat’s tomb (TT-34).
Monthemhat’s tomb (TT-34) is  the second largest tomb in all of Luxor. At the top are the monumental gate and ramp leading to the stairway to the entrance hall. At the top right there is a relief of Governor Monthemhat himself, wearing the leopard skin of the Amun priests. Below the relief is a hieroglyph with his name.

What do you think are the most important qualities of a good archaeologist?

Archaeologists would benefit from being curious, resilient, resourceful, bias-free, bold, and willing to challenge established ideas. Also extremely important is patience, which I lack, and luck, which has helped me compensate my impatience.


Kalmistopiiri is a digital publication ISSN 2489-9305 for archaeology news and articles in Finnish. The site focuses on the archaeology and history of death, as well as osteology, but other archaeological and historical topics are covered regularly. The language of the site is Finnish, but this interview has been published also in English, the original language of the interview.