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Amber Leenders, posing with an animals bone she excavated and cleaned at a dig in Caere, Italy

CANDID: Meet Amber Leenders

October 11, 2016 — 

She’s cool. That’s likely to be someone’s first impression of Amber Leenders. She possesses a confidence of character normally reserved for someone a few years older than an undergraduate student, probably because she has a black belt and performs slam poetry. But she also exudes an enchanting carefree attitude despite being swamped with schoolwork and the burdens that come with co-curating a major scholarly exhibit of ancient manuscripts, which is about to open at the U of M.

UM Today sat down with Leenders to learn more about her. We came out of the conversation feeling cooler too.

Undergraduate researcher: Amber Leenders
Studying in: Department of Classics
Supervised by: Professor Michael Sampson


Amber Leenders

Amber Leenders

UM Today: So you’re going into fifth year, studying Classics, but you didn’t always study in this area. What happened?

Amber Leenders: I was majoring in English and I always liked working with kids, so I thought I’d enter Education. I thought English and Biology would be a good balance and was taking lots of courses in those areas. I didn’t really go into university thinking that Classics was going to be a possible career path, but I started taking more and more electives in the subject, and I realized that I couldn’t give it up.

What was it about Classics that got to you?

I’ve been reading classical mythology and literature since I was young. So that was the first thing that interested me. But I just like the variety you get within it. I can’t think of another subject where you get to study all aspects of a society in quite the same way. You get the challenge of the languages, history from a huge variety of eras, you get the scientific side with archeology, and you get to work with people from other departments if you want different insight. And this summer I did an archeological field school in Italy. That made me really fall in love with archaeology.

Was it through U of M?

No, it was directed by Queen’s University and I did it through St. Mary’s University in Halifax.

Where were you and what were you doing?

We were an hour north of Rome and we were excavating a Roman and Etruscan town called Caere.

Did you dig up anything cool?

Oh yeah!

Like what?

Thousands of fragments of pottery, obviously. And lots of everyday items like lamps, metal nails, and animal bones. But I don’t know what I’m allowed to talk about because it hasn’t all been published yet.

I think the coolest part was that the site this year included a lot of underground spaces. We got to climb through and excavate ancient wells and cisterns to investigate the water management system that was used in this town. So that was very cool.


Amber Leenders in an ancient well in Caere

Amber Leenders in an ancient well in Caere

What was it like for you holding a piece of pottery from thousands of years ago? What goes through your mind?

I got emotional the first time even though it was only a very small piece of pottery. It was really challenging at first because the site is backfilled every year: They have to cover it up so it’s better preserved in the off-season. When we were first uncovering it, getting down to the layer they dug last year, there were pieces in the fill that they missed in the previous seasons, so we had to keep throwing out the pieces we found. It was like, ‘this is so cool,’ but there’s no context for the artifact, so you can’t keep it. But eventually we started excavating the new layers, and got to the stuff we were able to keep, and that was super exciting. It’s amazing to think about who last used the artifact and what they were like. I like finding things like weaving tools, for example, because they were probably used by someone of the same gender and age as me.

And now you’re here, doing undergraduate research with professor Sampson. How did you end up here, co-curating a papyri exhibit?

I have done a little bit of assistant work with my Latin professor before, but this is my first big project. I did apply for the undergraduate research award this summer but I didn’t get it. So I was little disappointed, but Dr. Sampson then approached me and asked if I wanted to help with this exhibit for the summer. It was totally out of the blue but exactly what I have been wanting to work on. So it has been an amazing opportunity. I’m very grateful for it.

What: Ink and Sand: an Exhibit on Greek Papyri Purchased by Francis Kelsey and Bernard Grenfell for the University of Michigan in March-April 1920
When: Oct. 12, 2016, to Jan. 13, 2017
Where: Archives and Special Collections, 3rd Floor Elizabeth Dafoe Library, M-F 8:30-4:30
Admission: Free and open to the public

What have you been doing on it?

I am assisting with a bit of everything that needs to be done for the exhibit, doing reading and research, writing, doing some of the graphic design, and helping select artifacts that we’re going to display.

What’s the coolest thing you’re taking away from this project?

With this project, just learning about the papyri themselves is a highlight. They let you learn about the people you wouldn’t know about from other ancient sources. If you’re reading Cicero, for example, it’s all about the same upper-class group. But with papyri you get to learn about the lives of midwives, or you read letters from deployed soldiers to their mothers back home. Stuff like that. You get access to a side of the ancient world that you might not see otherwise. That’s my favourite aspect of what I’m doing right now. I’m excited to share it with others through the exhibit.


Enjoying an ancient storage jar in an Italian museum

Enjoying an ancient storage jar in an Italian museum

Who’s your favourite Greek god?

Oh! Athena.


I like the military and wisdom aspects of her.

Least favourite god?

Dang! Probably Zeus because he starts a lot of problems. I shouldn’t pick a least favourite though because that is asking for trouble, if mythology has taught me anything.

What did you want to be as kid?

I wanted to be a ballerina for a while. I also wanted to be a paleontologist or archeologist at one point. I liked the idea of digging stuff up – I watched too many BBC documentaries as a kid.

Any hobbies?

Yeah! I am involved in the local slam poetry scene – I’m a performer, and I’m one of the directors of the youth slam organization in the city, called Voices, Ink. Our goal is to give young people a stage to be creative on.

I used to be a dancer for a long time too – ballet. But a few years ago I started doing karate instead and I have fallen in love with that. I just got my black belt last year.

High five!



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