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Marta Szaszkiewicz – I have documented over 300 Pomeranian shrines

Marta Szaszkiewicz – I have documented over 300 Pomeranian shrines

Faculty of History

Marta Szaszkiewicz – born on 3 August 1993. She comes from Kętrzyn but wants to link her future with Gdańsk. Currently a first-year MA student of Ethnology at the Faculty of History of the University of Gdańsk. In 2015 she completed her BA studies with the highest grade and a thesis entitled Wayside Shrines in Pomerania: An Ethnographic Description.

She now works at the National Museum in Gdańsk as assistant to the coordinator of the “Ostańce Próśb” project. Marta conducts ethnographic research in Pomerania, is responsible for the promotion and image of the project and the recording of documentary videos in the region of Pomerania. The project’s aim is the ethnographic documentation of selected religious buildings from Poland, Norway and Iceland and spreading knowledge about them. So far the organisers have managed to document over 2,500 shrines and crosses in Pomerania, 29 stave churches in Norway and 12 farm churches in Iceland. She has also published an article in a volume devoted to Pomeranian shrines. The publication, which collects articles by researchers from academic centres in Poznań, Gdańsk, Toruń and Lublin, has been edited by Prof. Katarzyna Marciniak from the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.

From the beginning of her studies, Marta has been involved in student organisations. Between 2012-2014 she was a member of the UG’s Independent Students’ Association (NSZ). She became a coordinator of the “25th Anniversary of May Strikes at the University of Gdańsk” project and a regional coordinator of the “Nic o nas bez nas” project. In 2013 she served the function of Secretary of the NZS UG’s Audit Committee.

Since 2013 she has been active in the UG’s Ethnology Scientific Circle and was its head for the academic year 2014/2015. During her term the circle prepared a number of projects, including “Paths of Modern Anthropology” and two seasons of the Anthropological Competition aimed at pupils of upper secondary schools from the Pomeranian and Warmian-Masurian Voivodeships. The Scientific Circle also began cooperation with the Association of Friends of Vilnius and the Vilnius Region which resulted in a project partially funded by the City of Gdańsk and entitled “Poles from the Vilnius Region – Past and Present Homeland”. As part of the projects, the organisers put on an exhibition of photos “From Vilnius to Gdańsk” and a scientific conference which drew together speakers from Warsaw, Vilnius, Gdańsk, Poznań and Wrocław.

Marta is also involved in the initiative prepared by the Faculty of History and the Association of Friends of Vilnius and the Vilnius Region and is currently working on another project entitled “Interplay of Cultures: Poland and Lithuania”.

She is also involved in obtaining grants from grant competitions for various undertakings, a skill she combines with organising projects. As she herself says, such an activity takes up a great deal of time but brings an enormous satisfaction and self-fulfilment.

In her free time Marta Szaszkiewicz plays basketball, runs and reads books. She loves good cinema and spends her free weekends playing board games with her friends. She has also practised table tennis. Thanks to her good memory, she has taken part in numerous poetry recital competitions. She is interested in new media, advertising and film. 



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Ethnology is not a greatly popular field of study. Why did you choose it?

At first I had always wanted to be a lawyer and my entire family thought I was going to study Law. But after I’d passed my final exams, I came to the conclusion that that wasn’t what I wanted to do in my life after all. I had been accepted into other courses of study as well, Public Policy and Polish Philology (with a specialisation in editing and publishing) in Toruń and Ethnology at the University of Gdańsk. I concluded that ethnology might be an incredible adventure, because it is not a very popular field of study in Poland, and it finally inspired me to go off on a long journey I had been dreaming of so much. When I started my studies here at the University of Gdańsk, I realised that it is in fact an incredible field of study which opens up great perspectives. And I also discovered that you can do research here and now. Meaning you don’t have to go to exotic countries to research something different, you can do incredible things, incredible projects and research here in Poland. It may be true that this is not a popular field of study but it is flexible enough to be combined with other fields such as marketing, psychology or pedagogy, for example, and this is my plan.

Ethnology and marketing?

Yes, it is possible and will most likely be the title of my MA thesis, I am just starting my research into it. Anthropologists or ethnologists are needed everywhere. They are said to be employed even in such large companies as Intel or Microsoft, so there is a future for the anthropologist or ethnologist.

That’s interesting. You have completed your BA studies and are in the first year of your MA studies. I understand that now this is a fully conscious choice. You know what to expect. Do you want to stay on at the university after you finish your studies?

I am very seriously thinking on taking up doctoral studies. We’ll see how it all goes because ethnology has really inspired me and the MA study was a conscious choice. Especially that I started research with the National Museum in Gdańsk into wayside shrines in Pomerania. This subject has inspired me to go deeper not just into the religiosity of Pomerania.

I’ll ask directly: What does an ethnologist do?

Ethnology researches cultures, mankind, with a focus on mankind, it studies religiosity. There are many domains where anthropology can be found. There’s the anthropology of the body, anthropology of the senses, anthropology of business. An ethnologist conducts research into what is here and now, also in the context of historical aspects.

I know that you already have one academic publication under your belt. Tell us something about it.

It’s a publication entitled “Mała architektura sakralna Kaszub. Perspektywa antropologiczna” (Minor Religious Architecture in Kashubia: An Anthropological Perspective), edited by Prof. Katarzyna Marciniak from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. I have managed to write an article based on my BA thesis “Kapliczki pomorskie. Opis etnograficzny” (Pomeranian Shrines: An Ethnographic Description). In this article I focused on the motivation behind erecting such shrines in the areas of Powiśle, Kociewie and Pobrzeże Słowińskie. During the course of my research I have managed to document over 300 shrines ─ ample material for a small publication.

What is the motivation then? What was the motivation for erecting such shrines?

There are a few types of such motivation. Thanksgiving or religious and votive motivation, which was characterised by a certain distance from the local church. Because the local people were about two, three or four kilometres from the church, they needed their own place for praying, celebrating paralithurgical masses, the May or June Mass. It was also in front of the shrine that the blessing of food or the Stations of the Cross took place. People also need their own place for thoughts and reflection. That’s why we can often come across shrines built on private land. They have also been erected to commemorate important historical events, such as, for example, Karol Wojtyła being elected Pope or his beatification. Most often, though, such religious buildings are erected for religious reasons.

Aren’t they used as direction signs as well?

Yes, here we can also refer to a threshold which Eliane wrote about … Shrines were often erected at the entry to or exit from a village to separate the familiar ground from something unknown. We often find such shrines in a forest or at crossroads and then they serve as road signs of sorts. We also find shrines at places where an accident took place or where there’s some sort of a dangerous bend to the road where accidents might have occurred. There are also protective shrines, for example with the figure of St. Roch, patron saint of epidemics or plague. There are indeed a great deal of shrines here in Pomerania and during our research we have documented two and a half thousand examples of this minor religious architecture.

That’s impressive. I also know that you’re active in the Ethnology Scientific Circle.

That’s right. In 2014 and 2015 I was head of the circle and together with the other members we managed to complete a few great projects, including an Anthropological Competition aimed at pupils of upper secondary schools from the Pomeranian and the Warmian-Masurian Voivodeships. We also continued the “Paths of Modern Anthropology” project to which we invited lecturers from various Polish academic centres. It was the time spent in the Ethnology Circle then which spurred me into action. We also established cooperation with the Pomeranian Branch of the Association of Friends of Vilnius and the Vilnius Region and in May 2015 in cooperation with the Association we organised a conference entitled “Poles from the Vilnius Region – Past and Present Homeland”.

That’s interesting. And what does a future ethnologist do in her free time?

In my free time I read books and practise sport. I also love board games, and my friends and I spend our free weekends playing different ones. I’d love to travel and I think my dream will come true one day. I have two such places ─ Australia and the United States. It’s a big step but I hope that one day I will be able to fulfil my dreams of far-away and inspiring journeys.

May your dream come true. Thank you for the interview.

Thank you very much.

Gdańsk, 19 April 2016

Interview: Dr Tadeusz Zaleski
Photography: Piotr Pędziszewski