Jan 25 2021

Dr Barbara Zipser, Department of History, has recently become a character in a new book about the cold case she worked on back in 2018. We recently caught up with Dr Zipser to ask what readers might expect from the book and what other research she is currently working on.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the Department of History?

I have a very old-fashioned background in Latin and Greek. I did my PhD at the University of Heidelberg, and came to London, or UCL to be precise, on a Wellcome Trust postdoctoral grant. I started to work at the RHUL department of History in May 2007, again on a Wellcome Trust grant, won a Wellcome Trust University Award, and I am currently a Senior Lecturer. I teach the history of medicine, science and technology in antiquity and the Middle Ages, which includes the history of innovation.

2. You have recently become a character in a new book about the cold case you worked on back in 2018, can you tell us what readers might expect from the book?

The book (Tief in der Erde by Christa von Bernuth) is in part a roman a clef, in part fiction. It describes a particularly repulsive murder case, of a 10 year old girl who was abducted and buried in a box in a forest, possibly while still alive. It then goes on to tell the story of the investigation, and this is when I play a part, as I did the linguistic profiling of the ransom notes. I subsequently also played a part in another aspect of the investigation. It was a completely new, and also rewarding experience to work with an artist and to see how she approaches the case.

Previously, I have worked with a British author, Mark Williams Thomas, who has a law enforcement background. I contributed an interview to his book, Hunting Killers. We had very similar methods and approaches, and it felt more like an academic collaboration.

3. Aside from the book, you are currently running a major collaborative research project with international partners, what does this research project involve?

I am the PI in a Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award (£380,000). We are developing a methodology for the identification of pharmaceutical ingredients that are mentioned in pre-modern sources. I am the only person with a humanities background; the others are Bob Allkin and Mark Nesbitt from Kew Gardens (botany), Andreas Lardos from Zurich (ethnopharmacology), Andrew Scott from our College Geology Department and Efraim Lev from Haifa (ethnopharmacology). Rebecca Lazarou (plant science) and Kristina Patmore (botany and statistics) are also working on the project. Our protocol is going to be transferable across linguistic and botanical settings. We are going to capture the likelihood with which a candidate species can be identified with a word in a medieval manuscript, which is more complex on either side than it might appear from this brief paragraph. I particularly enjoy the discourse in our team, and strongly believe that interdisciplinary team work, as it is often carried out in natural sciences, is the way forward for humanities research.

4. How long is the research project expected to take?

The project started in November 2019, and it is going to run for three years. 

5. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway?

I particularly enjoy the teaching. I generally get a very diverse and motivated crowd. It is particularly rewarding to see how they gain confidence working on interdisciplinary topics, or linguistics for that matter. 

 6. How do you normally like to spend your time outside of work?

This has changed because of the pandemic. I used to sing in a choir, which I can’t do at the moment. But I still tend to the vegetable patch in my garden, I like to crochet and I take my child to the park. I also have to home-school him. Apart from this, once all other work is completed, I help out with forensic investigations. I prefer to be in the background, but in the case described above it was necessary to join the public debate.