24/04/2016 7:54 AM AEST | Updated 03/08/2016 12:48 AM AEST

Meet Chernobyl's Only Archaeologist. And He Happens To Be An Aussie


Sydney man Robert Maxwell describes Chernobyl as his Pompeii.

Maxwell, who only began studying historical archaeology in his mid-20s, is completing his doctorate in 20th century urban abandonment and stumbled across the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, only to realise he was the only archaeologist to study it.

"I just did a little a bit of research on Chernobyl and discovered there was no research on Chernobyl. No one had ever done it. I just couldn't believe it so I jumped at the chance," Maxwell told The Huffington Post Australia.

For the past six years, Maxwell has been studying the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone along with the city of Detroit and a demolished housing complex in Elephant & Castle in London, aiming to prove "that ideology and materiality conflict with each other and cause these episodes of abandonment".

"[The PhD] aims to prove what we did and what we said we did are unrelated. We will all admit that we don't necessarily do what we say we do, so that brings every history that's ever been recorded into question. It really says that what you're getting is a biased possible half-truth and so the only way to cut through that is to study the physical remains."

Maxwell has taken two field trips to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, in 2010 and 2012, and while flying home from his first trip the archeologist found himself on QF32, the flight that suffered an uncontained engine failure and landed in Singapore. Once the plane emergency landed, Maxwell said he refused to depart without his carry-on, which he was told to leave on the flight. It contained all of his research and pictures from the trip.

The archaeologist is protective of his work, and the zone, which he hopes will one day be heritage listed. Right now, it is not.

The Chernobyl disaster on April 26, 1986 was one of the worst nuclear power plant accidents in history, where an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, killed more than 30 people instantly, but the casualties continued for many years.

As the 30 year anniversary approaches, Maxwell hopes people realise, "the relics of the recent past are as important as the relics of the ancient past, perhaps even more so because they are from a period we call from within living memory".

His favourite part of Chernobyl is No 16. Kurchitova Street -- a huge apartment building which he calls "cell upon cell upon cell of private behaviour that you don't get recorded in history books".

"You get a really keen insight into the life of the people and the panic of April 1996, because of the material that was taken and the material that's left behind," Maxwell told HuffPost Australia.

What drew the 37-year-old to archeology was a love of history, and a fascination with objects more than words. But what really got Maxwell hooked was the idea that "what people say and what people do are completely unrelated".

"Humans are very bad at abandoning things. We don't like abandoning things, or abandoning places so anywhere that you will find described as an abandoned place, I will guarantee that it's got a current use, that's it's a site for resource reclamation," Maxwell tolf HuffPost Australia.

"It's this mythical entity that doesn't exist -- we will always reuse a site. It's just about understanding its changing context."

Here are some pictures taken by Chernobyl's only archaeologist.

The Ferris Wheel, Chernobyl.

Upper Hall of Elementary School Number 2, Pripyat.

21st century street art, Pripyat Culture Palace.

Gas masks, Pripyat Elementary School.

Sample vials, Pripyat Hospital..

Regrowth, Chernobyl.

Cinema Prometheus, Pripyat.