Staff member. Author. Student. Amy Zoll wears many hats here at Penn.
The anthropology doctoral student has found a way to combine both her expertise in ancient cultures and computers by working as an IT support specialist in the Anthropology Department.
Not too long ago, Zoll’s plate was even more overflowing. Asked to write a companion text to a documentary on the grave of a female gladiator uncovered in London, Zoll found herself spending every waking hour outside of work researching and writing about the lives of these female fighters. Her book, “Gladiatrix: The True Story of History’s Unknown Woman Warrior,” drew a small crowd of gladiator-obsessed visitors—who came also to view the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s exhibit, “Weaponry and Armor from the film ‘Gladiator’”—one November afternoon.
Q. You have quite an affiliation with Penn. How did that begin?
A. I started here as a graduate student in 1989. I’ve worked numerous jobs around campus, including a stint in the Museum in the Publications Department and I was their local [IT] support provider for two years prior to this job. One thing I really enjoy about working with the anthropology folks is their interests, concerns, technological needs are the same as mine. Together we explore resources that are specific to the field.
Q. Such as?
A. There [is] certain purpose-built software for cultural anthropologists. For example, how to take notes about interviews with informants and track certain turns of phrases. Digital photography, satellite, geographic information systems are a unique set of things [that anthropologists need].
Technology is a huge asset because we work with so much information. Computers are so well-suited to organizing data and to retrieving it in certain ways. Gone are the days of note cards…the endless notebooks, the redundancy. The museum has started to digitize some of their paper archives to make them more accessible [and to reduce] the wear and tear on the actual resources.
Q. In addition to working in IT, you do a lot of research on the classical world. How did you get involved in writing “Gladiatrix”?
A. I really just fell into it. This is really so far outside my area of specialization. I know an editor for the Berkeley Boulevard arm of Penguin Putnam Press. They had negotiated the rights to do a companion text for an archaeology documentary about the discovery of a grave believed to be that of a woman gladiator. The documentary [“Gladiatrix”] aired on the Discovery Channel this past September.
I couldn’t imagine passing up the opportunity to do this. It was great to realize that there is a fair amount of evidence to indicate that there were women who took up the sword and performed in the arena. The actual discovery of this grave in London…opened the door for a discussion of this really little-known aspect of Roman history. In a society where the ideal woman was supposed to be demure and restrained, there were women out there—some of them willingly, some of them not so willingly—doing this very masculine type of performance.
I discuss some of the controversies and problems involved in the interpretation of this grave. But I [also] get to [discuss] what women’s lives were like in the Roman world and the phenomenon of the Roman obsession with spectacle.
Q. This book coincided nicely with the Museum’s exhibit—
A. That was great. I was working on this book completely unaware that the University Museum was planning this event. When I heard about it, it was just too good. I was very happy to have the opportunity to be involved in Gladiator Day.
Q. Did anyone buy your book?
A. We sold about 20 copies. Half of those people came up to me, asked me questions and had me sign their books. It’s not hard to understand why people get all excited about gladiators. Gladiators have always been interesting. We’ve had things that resonate with [it]. Boxing, football generates the same kind of excitement, just back in Roman days, they were lethal. We like to see a little bit of violence. …Back in Roman times they couldn’t go to a violent movie, they had to actually enact it.
I’m not going to object if people are more excited about the Roman world and want to know more about it. It’s a way to spark their curiosity. It’s not dry history books, it’s not who fought who at what battle and who won what. These are people who had vibrant and exciting lives.
Q. And how did your own love of the ancient world begin?
A. I loved archaeology because I didn’t have to compromise. There was something there for everyone. There was history, art, culture, travel. I have done archeology in England [and] France. I worked two summers at Pompeii…
The reason I want to do work in the Roman world is because there is so much information about it. I love the dynamic between the archeological and the historical. They have actual texts to inform the archaeology and the archaeology to inform the texts. …There’s such a wealth of data in the classical world that you don’t actually have to put shovel to ground to find a treasure trove of information.
Originally published on December 5, 2002