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Fieldwork: The Langtang Survivors Fund, The Ruins of Palmyra, and the Role of the Archaeologist in the Present

31 May

As a subscriber of the University of York’s round-up of Mesolithic archaeological news, in the form of the Mesolithic Miscellany Monthly newsletter, it was with surprise and sadness that I came across a first hand account of the earthquake that hit Nepal in late April of this year.  University of York researchers Hayley Saul and Emma Waterton were a part of an archaeological field team conducting work in Nepal, based at the Himalayan village of Langtang, which is north of the Kathmandu valley, when the main 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country on Saturday 25th of April.

The field team had left their base at village of Langtang a mere two hours before the quake struck and managed to survive the initial event and the aftershocks with the help of their guides.  Unfortunately, after an arduous and nerve-wracking trek to an evacuation point, they heard the news that the village of Langtang had been destroyed by the avalanches and subsequent landslides as a result of the initial quake and the aftershocks. The small population had been almost entirely killed, with almost every building standing having been flattened from the force of the landslide (see BBC, Reuters & Nepali Times).

Langtang_village

Before the earthquake and landslide. The Langtang village in the Langtang National Park, located in northern Nepal close to the border with Tibet. The village was popular with travellers and winter sport enthusiasts. Image credit: Yosarian via Wikipedia.

Hayley and Emma are helping to raise funds via their Just Giving webpage for the Langtang Survivors Fund, which will go directly towards those who survived the quake and helped guide Hayley, Emma and others on the trek to safety, to help re-build their lives after losing family, friends, their homes and their way of life.  The Nepal earthquake, called Gorkha, that rocked the country and surrounding areas at the end of April of this year, have devastated the Himalayan country.  The main quake and its after shocks, which have continued into May, have killed many in the country (current estimates are at over 7,000 individuals, with many more injured) and has left both the population and its many villages, towns and cities in dire straits and in need of medical aid, food and shelter.

Langtang and Himalayan Culture

The small village of Langtang, in the Bagmati zone in northern Nepal, sits within a national park of some splendour, acting as a starting point for tourists to explore the Himalayan mountain range in the north of Nepal.  Home to around 540 people, the village was a popular destination for tourists visiting the country and hoping to get a glance of the Himalayan mountain range and the Nepalese way of life.  The village catered for the tourists by having almost 55 places to stay, with many of these hotels being  family ran business which catered for the guests.  The Himalayan mountain range is home to a delicate ecosystem and the range has managed to shape the cultures in the countries that share them profoundly, both in their religious worldview (the peaks being sacred to Buddhism and Hinduism) and in their adaptive lifestyle to a harsh environment.

Home to the highest peak on earth, Mount Everest, the Himalayans have also been an area of intense interest to explorers from around the world for decades.  An area of outstanding beauty, it is also an area of tense international pressure with both the countries bordering the Peoples Republic of China’s eastern border and the abuse of the mountain guides (normally the Sherpa people drawn from the upper Himalayan range) causing international ire.  For instance, Tibet, home of the exiled Dalai Lama, is host to many Buddhist monasteries which have seen a relatively severe clampdown on by Chinese authorities following the 1959 Tibetan uprising starting in the capital of Lhasa.  As such the value of cultural heritage is richly viewed as having an important part to play in the formation of identity for the countries that share the Himalayan mountain range.

Since the earthquake, landslides and the subsequent and enormous damage done to villages like Langtang and cities such as Kathmandu, there have been reports of artefact and heritage looting in Nepal.  The Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) organisation have highlighted the effect that the selling of artefacts after the earthquake helps to further strip the identity and national heritage of the country and urges individuals and organisations not to buy these artefacts.  Nepal has suffered greatly from the natural disaster, as it is a country that relies heavily on tourism and it has been hit hard by the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks.  It is hoped that the sale of its richly historical artefacts, although for reasons understandable, slowly trickles to an end in order to help rebuild the parts of the country affected.  As SAFE highlight, the cultural heritage of a country is a non-renewable resource.  Nepal relies on both its natural beauty and its rich history and culture for its economy.  To destroy that would be to wound it twice.

Palmyra: Blood on the Land

In other news the extremist group Islamic State (otherwise known as Da’ish, Da’eesh ISIS, ISIL) have recently taken the city of Palmyra in Syria from the hands of Syria’s ruler Bashar Al-Assad’s army, taking both the infamous Tadmor prison and the ancient city of Palmyra itself in the bargain.  The modern town of Palmyra lies on a strategically important location between the capital of Damascus and the eastern city of Deir al-Zeir (BBC), and represents an important symbolic gain in a country where Palmyra is held up as a UNESCO world heritage site of international importance.  Furthermore it is close to oil and gas fields which help supply the western cities still under control by Al-Assad.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has consistently reported on the conflict in Syria, both on the appallingly violence employed by each of the factions fighting in the country.

BenPalmyra

The massive Roman tetrapylon at the historic site of Palmyra, which acted as a monument generally built near crossroads. The ancient city of Palmyra has a particularly rich and diverse history, of which it’s Roman side was but just one. The ruins of the site are mostly architectural in nature, but do include exquisite examples of a distinct city culture, unique in the Middle East. Image credit: courtesy of Ben Wheatley.

Born out of the 2010-2011 Arabic Spring demonstrations across north Africa and the Middle East, the ongoing Syrian Civil War has led to a fragmentation of both Syria and Iraq, where numerous factions fight a bloody, tense long game of attrition.  Since the start of the civil war there is now currently a total of 7.6 million people who have been displaced within Syria, 220,000 killed since the start of the violence, and a further 3.9 million Syrians living as refugees in neighbouring countries (source).

The so-called Islamic State, a self-styled Islamic caliphate, has become one of the prime contenders for power in the region.  Controlling almost 50% of the land mass of Syria (but not some of major eastern cities) and large chunks of Iraq, the group has thrived on its propaganda to spread its message of intolerance and violence.  Chief among these are the both the show and summary executions carried out in the provinces it controls and, secondly, its wanton destruction of the heritage.  This destruction and the selling of looted artefacts, largely of pre-Islamic art and architecture (particularly any images of the body which the group claims is idolatry) and Shia mosques (the Shrine of Jonah/Mosque of Yunis in Nineveh, for example), is justified by their strict adherence to their view of Sunni Islam.

It is this destruction of heritage that has many worried in the world as the group currently controls Palmyra.  Already news has filtered in of the possible destruction of the 1st century lion (Al-Assad name, the incumbent leader of Syria, means Lion in arabic) and of a bloody retribution in the form of executions of police and army forces and civilians throughout the modern and ancient city.  This follows IS’s form from previous takeovers of cultural heritage sites, such as the unique archaeological sites of Nimrud and Hatra, where they have actively destroyed large parts of the above-ground sites.

There has also been recent news regarding the destruction of a vitally important Mosul Central Library in the Iraq, following the desecration of the main museum.  There is a stark difficulty in attaining reliable sources within IS controlled territory however, as the group fiercely control what and how they show their effect on both the population and territories under their control.  What is clear however is that Islamic State profit hugely by the selling of stolen antiquities on the black market, which helps fund their campaign of terror and slaughter.

It is worth pointing out here the difficulties in finding reliable sources within Syria on the cultural heritage destruction currently taking place throughout the country.  Nor is it just IS who are carrying out the looting and destruction on heritage sites and museums in Syria, but also parts of the Syrian army and other factions fighting in the country.  I advise readers who want to keep informed and up to date to check out Sam Hardy’s blog Conflict Heritage, where many of his posts explicitly detail what is known and what is unknown about the situation in both Palmyra and Syria at large. This post is a good start.

Yet it is not just heritage that faces the wrath of the numerous factions fighting in Syria and Iraq.  Medécins Sans Frontiéres (MSF, otherwise known as Doctors Without Borders), an impartial independent organisation that helps medical aid where it is most needed, have repeatedly warned of the violence that medical staff in the country face, both from the government and from the opposition forces.  This is partly targeted attacks against medical staff and civilians.  Operating in clandestine situations, the organisation and it’s staff have also faced sustained violence and intimidation, even whilst trying to give aid to individuals who need it.

Fieldwork Thoughts

The role of the archaeologist in the field, either during commercial (or CRM) work or during research fieldwork is primarily to collect data, often through a combination of surveying, excavation and/or collating samples for analysis.  The role of academic fieldwork where the pace can, at times, be more relaxed, also allows for a greater integration into the everyday life of the people who you may be based with or around.  Although there is a caveat to this in the fact that some fieldwork takes place in remote, inaccessible locations, a good many field work projects could only take place with the help, aid and friendship of various organisations and individuals.

As Hayley and Emma attest in their vivid recollection of quake, this was the case at Langtang.  It was with the help and dedication of their hosts in Nepal that they have had many succesful seasons of fieldwork at Langtang and that they, and their co-workers, had become deeply involved with life at Langtang.  This has involved getting to know the guides personally and meeting their extended family members, alongside taking an active interest within the daily life at Langtang.

Palmyra represents the possible (until there is firm evidence of destruction this website will not indulge in becoming a mouthpiece of propaganda) destruction of heritage that plays a vitally important part in the identity and self of sense in Syria.  As a BBC article highlights  that:

it must be remembered that there are rarely mutually exclusive choices here. The loss of Syria’s cultural heritage represents the loss of far more than some tourist attractions – it is the loss of connection between multiple generations” (source).

Further to this the repercussions of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq, and the lack of any in-depth will by international partners to aid and stabilize the countries, could have serious geopolitical consequences on the world stage amongst the international community.

As archaeologists we know that the past and the present are intimately linked by cultural bonds and values that help transcend history, and help inform identity and actions today.  As such, and as a discipline, we would be remiss to conduct our fieldwork without knowledge of the environment in which we work.  Finally, we must ask ourselves what is heritage without the people?

Further Information

  • The Just Giving page for the Langtang Survivors Fund, and the first hand account of the devastation, can be found here.  Donations are still welcome.  The funds raised by Hayley Saul and Emma Waterton are to be given to the Community Action Nepal charity, who are based in Kathmandu, in memory of the many friends that both Hayley and Emma made at the village of Langtang during their fieldwork seasons.  The UK-based Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC), who bring together 13 charities, has also launched an appeal.  You find out more and donate here.
  • Medicéns Sans Frontiéres help distribute and organise medical aid around the world, particularly in hard to reach areas.  They often operate in situations deemed too dangerous by many aid organisations.  The organisation is impartial, neutral and independent, and helps respond to both natural and man-made disasters.  They regularly operate in dangerous climates where other aid organisations will not work in and have been instrumental in helping to contain the recent Ebola outbreak in parts of western Africa.  You can help support their important work here.
  • The Mesolithic Miscellany site started out as a journal although this has somewhat petered out within recent years – back editions of the journal are available on their website however.  The Mesolithic Miscellany Monthly newsletter is very active though and advertises recently published articles, edited volumes or books on Mesolithic archaeology.  You can subscribe for free here.
  • The Saving Antiquities for Everyone organisation homepage can be found here.  The non-profit organisation helps highlight cultural destruction from around the globe and carry out both research and fieldwork.  The wide range of the campaigns that it carries out, in places such as Haiti and Kashgar alongside general advocacy, can be found here.
  • Conflict Antiquities, a blog ran by Dr Sam Hardy, regularly provides accurate information on the destruction carried out by IS and the various factions fighting in Syria and Iraq.  The site also thoroughly documents examples of conflict antiquities and cultural destruction from around the world.
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Guest Blog Guidelines: General Advice and Thoughts

3 Jan

This blog has always sought to highlight a wide range of subjects of interest within the remit of archaeology and osteology (and often outside of these boundaries).  Having had the luck to have continued to bring a variety of guest blog entries to the readers of this blog, I’d thought I’d share a few guidelines that I’ve often sent to potential guest bloggers for their information and digestion.  This is, in effect, an open invitation to those who are willing to participate.  I also thought I’d be open about the advice I offer in the vague and somewhat distorted hope that someone out there may well be inspired to host guest blogs of their own!

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The downside of offering guest blogs! Both Digital Sherpa and Spin Sucks have some good advice for blogs offering guest posts, as well as highlighting the spam bots of SEO (Search Engine Optimization, normally spam advertising a company or products). If you have evidence of the health benefits of a chocolate only diet, please contact me! Image credit: Spin Sucks.

A Slice of Advice

First of all, thank you for helping to contribute to the blog site – without you the blog would not be what it has become.  Please use the guest blog entry as a chance to highlight and advertise your archaeological project and research, as well as a chance to promote and educate readers on the value and importance of archaeology and osteoarchaeology, from wherever you are from or have experience of.  The blog is a mixture of informal and formal approaches to a variety of topics in the above subjects – aim to inform and engage the audience and not to alienate them.  Please see the below tips as general points, as you will approach the guest blog in your own way (which is great!).  Once again thank you for taking an interest in These Bones of Mine.  I personally always welcome updates on your ongoing projects, as do the wider readers of the blog.

Basic Bones

  • Please send the guest blog in a Word .doc format and attach any images as Jpeg file formats (this can include photographs, diagrams, and/or graphs).  If images used are not your own, please ensure that copy right or permission to use the image has been attained beforehand.  This will be edited in Word and sent back for your edits/comments.  Once both myself and yourself are happy with the entry it will be posted onto the blog with appropriate categories and tags.
  • Word limit is generally kept at around 1000 words to 2500 words for the guest post entries.  Remember though that sometimes less is more, but complex topics may need to be introduced and discussed in-depth.  Please also note that interview style posts are often longer than this as they cover more topics in a back and forth active conversation, albeit sometimes in briefer detail.  Dependent on the guest blog, or interview, I am open for posts of up to 4000 words.

Meat of the Matter: The Content

  •  The content is up to the individual person and depends on the project or topic of the guest post.  This blog primarily focuses on the topics of archaeology, human osteology, heritage and human evolution.  As such these are the subjects that guest posts are particularly welcome in.  However, I am also interested in the wider aspects of the above topics and related disciplines.  These include, but are not limited to, forensic anthropology, zooarchaeology, anthropology and ethnography, amongst others.  I am also particularly interested in public outreach and multidisciplinary projects.  For a full list of subjects that I am interested in please see the Guest Posts page.
  • As the guest blogger introduce the topic, state the overall general aims of either the project or the research, indicate the timescale and your personal involvement.  The last point is important as this can help engage the reader on a fundamental level: what are your experiences of archaeology, how could I get involved?
  • Write for an interested and informed audience, but be wary that an academic approach to writing on a blog can potentially bore or isolate the intended or general audience.  I will hyperlink to any specialist terms used in the post (such as to either Wikipedia for general terms and background knowledge, or to a dedicated archaeological site for specific information).  Remember the people who read These Bones of Mine are already interested in archaeology and osteology, so don’t worry about how specialized your topic is (though this can be a tricky wire to navigate).
  • Remember that as the guest blogger you yourself will be representing what you are writing about. If in doubt please contact either a project or academic supervisor if you are not sure that the information you are writing about is meant for public consumption (or is under commercial constraints, for example).  If you have conducted original research and are looking to publish your results, please remember that a blog post probably isn’t the ideal way to break a new methodology to the world, lest another researcher claim credit on your behalf.  Remember this is a fully public blog!  But please also see this as an opportunity to communicate on a big scale to an international audience (typically a ‘front page’ entry will get hits from people just looking at the site, and hopefully you may get an email or two if someone is interested in your research!).
  • At the conclusion of the post I will add a Further Information section, a set of links with a short introduction on where to go next to learn more about what the guest post content was on.  The post ends with a bibliography in the Harvard style that will be compiled by the guest blogger themselves, although I will edit this if necessary and add relevant hyperlinks.  Remember that Open Access articles are appreciated by the general audience as many who read the entries will not have access to specialist journal articles.

The Fantastic Format

  • As already mentioned above book and article references are welcomed (especially Open Access sources) and the referencing system used on this blog is the Harvard method, as is generally typical for archaeology as a discipline in the UK.  I will hyperlink the reference to an online source if there is an open access publication – otherwise I’ll link to the publisher’s website, google books, etc.  (Heck, even Amazon sometimes lets you read a few pages for free!).
  • There will be an introductory paragraph about the author of the guest post, citing their background in commercial, voluntary and/or academic archaeology and related experience.  Further to this general interests that the writer of the guest post has can also be included, if necessary.  I will likely write the introductory paragraph, so please do feel free to add any information on non-archaeological interests or links to personal and academic websites with the body of your guest blog entry.
  • I will do the final edit of any guest entry submitted for this site, but I will show you this before it goes on the blog to enable you to edit the guest blog entry again if necessary.  I will also highlight when the guest blog is published on the blog itself (but please be aware it will look different on the blog than on Word!).  Editing is available anytime and I am very happy to update old guest blogs to reflect new projects, publications or positions, etc.  (As much as I enjoy writing posts for this site I do find writing to be a slow process and editing myself a necessary, but painful, evil.  In contrast to this, however, I quite enjoy editing other guest blog entries and interviews).
  • Diagrams, pictures, and photographs are highly recommended as they help break up the blocks of text and are very useful to engage the audience; they are also great at communicating complex ideas simply.  Please be aware of copyright with any image and I will credit the image appropriately to either the author of the guest blog or to the recognised copyright holder.

Style: Keeping it Simple

  • Remember that there should be no pressure for writing the guest blog entry as there are no deadlines.  Please see this as an opportunity to highlight and promote the value of archaeology to an international audience, specifically breaking down the barriers between access and availability – of both the archaeological information and of access to that information.
  • As such, please feel free to stylise the post as to how you see fit to see how effective you think it may be.  Think about the audience you are wanting to reach and why –  it is the public, the academic, or the commercial spheres of the archaeology sector, or is it a mix of these audiences?

Who Can Contribute to These Bones of Mine via a Guest Blog?

Anyone!  I’ve had feedback from a few non-archaeological or non-osteological minded friends now about this blog and they say that sometimes it can be a bit too academic, a bit too dense and special interest in scope.  This has always been the risk in trying to combine both my personal and professional interests, alongside my experience of academia itself.  However, I do also try to vary both the tone and approach depending on the topic of the blog post.  I realize I am reaching out to an audience that can be tiny – osteoarchaeology is not of primary concern to many people, nor is it a vital subject that is widely taught (as much as it pains me to say that).  I’d argue though that it is diverse, that it is interesting and, finally, that it is relevant to the world at large for the very understanding of our species (hence this blog).

As such I am interested in hearing from potential guest bloggers from all walks of life, not just those from academia.  If you are a volunteer, a commercial archaeologist, an undergraduate or a early career academic, perhaps a member of the public with an interest in heritage and archaeology – if you have something to say then I will consider it.  I may not always accept, but I will be interested.  I am particularly interested in hearing from people who are on the margins of society (this includes those marginalized in the world of archaeology, be it in the commercial, academic and/or voluntary sectors).  I am particularly interested in hearing from early career archaeologists or osteoarchaeologists.  If you are struggling to get an archaeological PhD position, struggling to get onto a Masters course due to funding, struggling to get a position post-PhD and you have something to say about your research, your experience, your knowledge, then yes, I am interested in hearing from you.

Do not be afraid to contact me.  The archaeological record does not belong to one person, one nation or one ideology.  It belongs to humanity, as a gift from humanity.

Final notes….

A final point is to note that I cannot, nor will not, offer any monetary incentive for a guest blog.  Furthermore, a guest post entry will not be hosted here to advertise a commercial venture where profit is the only aim, nor will anonymous ghost authors be accepted (i.e. SEO spam).  This blog is pretty much free via the wonderful people of WordPress and I, for one, very much appreciate their hard work.  One final remark: in archaeology, especially in UK archaeology, your name is your currency and reputation.  Always be careful!

For previous guest blog entries and interviews please do take a minute and have a look at the growing collection here.  As always I owe a debt of gratitude to the people who have already contributed, many thanks!

P.S. I also do interview style blog entries where a conversation between myself and the interviewees is conducted via email.  If this interests you please feel free to contact me via a comment below or this blog’s email address on the About page.

P.P.S. It has been a while but I should (honestly!) have a few posts up soon.  Time seems to be passing quite regularly – a belated happy new year to the readers of this site!

Archaeology Day 2014: A View From Friends

11 Jul

Friday the 11th of July marks Archaeology Day 2014, a tremendous initiative designed to showcase the diversity of research and work that is found in the archaeological sector and industry across the world.  But rather than have this blog entry focus on me specifically, I wanted to present the view of a few of my friends that are involved in the archaeology community worldwide, whether they are a volunteer, a student or an academic, be they in it for the fun or employed in the commercial sector.  So without further ado here are a few of my friends and what they will be up to on the Day of Archaeology 2014!

So firstly we meet up with my friend Jennifer in Belgium, who has some skeletons that need examining:

“I am a graduate in Prehistoric archaeology, and in funerary archaeology and human osteology.  On archaeology day I will be conducting an osteological study on a skeletal collection.  Firstly there is a need to assess the completeness of the bones that were excavated in the Belgian town of Rebecq.  This excavation by the SPW (Public Service of Wallonia) is one of the fieldworks I took part as a volunteer in 2012.  The cemetery is early medieval, and the individuals seem to show a lot of pathological lesions.  The sex and age at death of the individuals is estimated based on metrical and morphological features expressed in the remains.  Understanding the health conditions and the demographic profile of the people buried in this cemetery will help understand how they lived in Rebecq in the Middle Ages.
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Jennifer Gonissen excavating an early medieval cemetery at Rebecq in Belgium. Photo credit D. Bosquet-SPW.

Besides that, I have also been helping at the lab for the Palaeoanthropology course led at the University of Brussels this academic semester.  I am also working on publishing my two master thesis.  Everything is done on a volunteering basis as there are very few paid opportunity for osteoarchaeologists in Belgium.  This does not mean that there is nothing to work on, as Belgium is rich in skeletal material excavated in numerous fieldworks across the country, a large part of which still has to be properly studied.”

– Jennifer Gonissen, an osteoarchaeologist based in Brussels.

Keeping with the skeletal theme we now turn towards Cheshire, England, where we find Alison helping archaeological students:

“While I often spend a lot of time at a desk for archaeology, this summer I am back in the field: from June to September at the Poulton Research Project field school in Cheshire. As there is a cemetery on site it is my role to oversee any excavation involving human remains. In addition to this, I also to teach students (from all subject backgrounds and levels of experience) how to identify, excavate, record, lift, and clean skeletal material.

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Students record a burial on site, before the skeleton is lifted. Photo credit Alison Atkin, with permission.

While it’s my job, I consider it a privilege to be involved in their introduction to osteoarchaeology – and thus far I’ve been nothing less than impressed with their enthusiasm for and insights into the subject.”

– Alison Atkin, a Doctoral Researcher at University of Sheffield, osteoarchaeologist at the Poulton Research Project and blogger at Deathsplanation.

After which we join David in Haddington, Scotland, as he balances his community and commercial archaeological work:

Currently the world of my archaeology revolves around 5 major suns, all equally bright and demanding.  The Skills passport is printed and being packed, with the final text added to the website,  BAJR is campaigning for more than minima, the preparations for fieldschools and training with Rampart Scotland are at warp factor 7 (days to go)  and of course Past Horizons articles never end.   Finally, and slipped into the mix is my commercial sun, three reports to be completed, two tenders to submit and a rather complex negotiation to tiptoe through.   Also helping to organise a medieval conference in Haddington in September and a new social enterprise archaeology group.   So all in all a fairly busy, but exciting time!”

– David Connolly, owner of BAJR, co-writer at Past Horizons and creator of the Archaeology Skills  Passport.

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David Connolly horsing about on an archaeology project – business as usual!

What is it like to work in the field as an archaeologist and what can it involve?  Kevin provides a breakdown of what he gets up to in the fields and offices of England:

“I am currently working with Wardell Armstrong Archaeology, as a casual field archaeologist out of their Carlisle office.  They have me doing a little bit of everything in terms of work, though mostly within the early stages of pre-planning on sites due for development, including surveys (mostly geophysics) and evaluations.

Unfortunately I have been told I am not allowed to divulge detailed information on current projects for obvious reasons, but I can talk about the projects I’ve been involved with recently that have been made public.  For example, I helped throughout most of the post-ex for the predominantly Roman site at Blackfriars, in Leicester; washing all the finds as they came back, helping to catalogue them, writing small-finds sheets etc., which was great because there were some very interesting finds.  Pretty much everything you would expect from a domestic, urban Roman site, complete with coins, copper brooches, various other types of jewellery, iron tools, hoards of pottery and colourful painted wall plaster.  There was even a couple of roof tiles baked with animal paw prints still in them, which were interesting, giving a very intimate snapshot of Roman life.

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Kevin building a snapshot of every day life by processing the archaeological artefacts.  Notice the regulatory Richard the III mug that can be found in every archaeologists office (click to enlarge!).

However, my primary role these days is with the geophysics team, travelling all over the country, Essex, Wiltshire, Staffordshire, Cumbria, Kent, Lancashire and on Archaeology Day I will theoretically be on the outskirts of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Nice and close to home.  As I said, I can’t go into details about the job other than it is in advance of a housing development.  Doing the geophysics itself is hard work.  I am not going to lie! We shall be walking, I’ve been told, through knee-high sugar-beet, which will make walking with the twin-probed magnetometers awkward at best.

I think I’ve done geophysics through every type of crop and across every type of terrain (and through every weather condition!).  Sometimes it’s quite enjoyable, other times, like I say, it’s bloody hard.  No doubt I will need to buy a new pair of wellies by the end of the second day.  That’s right, we wear wellies!!! Our company won’t supply non-metallic shoes, so we’re all wearing rubber wellies which are uncomfortable to walk in over long distances and very hot and sweaty in the summer heat! Fun fun!  I suppose the odd aspect to my doing geophysics is that I’m not a geophysicist, and I certainly have no formal training in geophysics.  I’m very much an archaeologist who has been pulled in to do the surveying work, learning on the job!”

– Kevin Horsley, a commercial field archaeologist with his hands and feet dipped into all the pots archaeology has to offer.

My undergraduate university friend Emily also enjoys the variety that life in archaeology has to offer:

“If I am not in the field digging evaluations or excavations with my team, I am in the office processing finds and preparing archaeological archives for museum accessioning.  This weekend I’ll be celebrating the Festival of Archaeology by heading down to the nearby Milton Keynes Central Library to talk to the public about archaeology and local finds! 

Emilycotswoldarch

Emily and company at Cotswold Archaeology processing and recording archaeological data, ready to archive and store material. Photo credit: Cotswold Archaeology.

I really enjoy both the fieldwork and post-excavation elements of my job, it is nice to have the variety and I feel one improves the other as it gives me a better understanding of the different aspects of commercial archaeology.”

– Emily Evans, field archaeologist for Cotswold Archaeology.

Is field work all there is to archaeology or can you get involved in other ways as well?  Robert provides a different view:

I was forced to leave the archaeological profession in 2011, mostly owing to the difficulties of providing for my family on ever diminishing wages, and the requirement to erode standards to the level that there was no longer a point in doing the job. Three years later I’m still in archaeology, but not in the way I ever expected. Today my ‘day of archaeology’ will involve leaving the house early and going to work in IT. Once I’m home in the evening and the kids are fed, washed, and put to bed do I generally get a chance to sneak off to my study and write.

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Robert Chapple hard at work writing about archaeology.  Read more about Robert, his desk and others (including mine) here!

These days the main drive of my archaeological writing is for my blog, the uninspiringly named ‘Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist’. I write about archaeological and heritage stuff that interests me, from days out with my family at ancient sites, to campaigning on a variety of heritage issues. However, the stuff that brings me the most pleasure right now are various accounts of lectures, conferences, and symposia – either written by myself or fellow conspirators – that I help to bring different aspects of archaeological research to a wide audience. It’s not what I ever imagined I’d be doing, but I’m still here and I’m still enjoying being able to contribute to the field.”

– Robert M. Chapple, whose work and blog can be found at Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist.

Ancient Egypt entices a lot of children and teenagers into studying archaeology but what is it really like?  Loretta presents us with a snapshot of where her research is at:

“I am due to start my PhD on ancient Egyptian and Sudanese ceramics this autumn at the university of Oxford; specifically looking at pilgrim flasks from the New Kingdom to the Roman period. This year, I have been working as an independent researcher and consultant, and a book I have consulted on, ‘Discover More: Ancient Egypt‘ has recently been published. This summer I am busy working on a project analysing infant jar burials, which I am developing into a paper.”

– Loretta Kilroe, an Egyptologist specializing in pottery who is based at the University of Oxford.

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Loretta working on documenting Egyptian pottery from a recent project with the British Museum in Sudan.

Heading over to Australia now, we have my good friend Lorna explaining a bit about her research and why it’s important:

“My PhD thesis, Towards a Bioarchaeology of Care: A contextualised approach for identifying and interpreting health-related care provision in prehistory, was finalised last year – I’ve included the whole of this cumbersome title because it’s a reasonable summary of my research focus.  Over the next twelve months I’ll be putting my efforts into improving and extending the bioarchaeology of care approach.  This will include refining the Index of Care – a freely available application, launched earlier this year, designed to support the four-stage bioarchaeology of care methodology (user feedback is enthusiastically solicited!); editing my thesis for publication (look out for Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care in 2015); and helping to organise a special session – ‘Building a Bioarchaeology of Care’ – to be held at the Society of American Archaeology 2015 meeting in San Francisco (and at which David Mennear, the creator of this blog, will be speaking). 

1   Man Bac Burial 9 in situ

The first case study to apply a ‘bioarchaeology of care’ methodology focused on Man Bac Burial 9, a young man from Neolithic Vietnam who lived with quadriplegia for around a decade (see more here).

As time permits, I’ll also be trialing the Index of Care on new cases of past health-related caregiving; I hope to explore the experience of individuals from historic as well as prehistoric contexts, which will give me the chance to look at how information from archaeology conforms to information on care practice from available texts.” 

– Lorna Tilley, a visitor in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at Australia National University.

From Australia we jump back to Belgium and Héloïse, who introduces us to her research interest in Benin pottery:

My name is Héloïse Meziani, I graduated from a Master’s degree in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, in 2012; and continued on with a Master’s degree at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, in The Arts of Africa, Oceania and The Americas. I decided to enroll in this second MA to wider my opportunities in the “world art and archaeology” field. However, after this successful year in England, I came back to Belgium to unpaid internships as only opportunities. Jobs in our field are few and funded PhD hard to obtain.

On Archaeology Day, I will be continuing my volunteer internship at the Royal Museum for Central Africa of Tervuren, Belgium. I am currently studying pottery sherds brought back in February 2014 from the archaeological habitat site of Kantoro, northern Benin, by the Crossroads of Empire project team. My work consists in the systematic study of 2 Surveys; one of 283 sherds, another of 859 sherds. After inventorying, reassembling and imputing all of those shards in a database (by shape and decor), I am in the process of photographing and studying the diagnostic material to understand its use and its variation through time. We can already see a dichotomy between two types of ceramics: thick and large ones decorated using folded strip roulette or by cord, probably made for storage, and a finer, more polished ceramic, decorated with thinner tools, possibly used for serving food.

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Examples of pottery sherds from the above mentioned project. Pottery sherd survey II, 40-50cm, and second pottery sherd survey II, 80-90cm. Photo credit Héloïse Meziani.

My interests are in African pottery and beads (my UEA’s master’s dissertation was on a collection of archaeological beads from northern Benin), but also in Mochica’s ceramics (Peru). In the future, I am hoping to find a job (research or museum work) in link with one of those fields of studies.

– Héloïse Meziani, an archaeologist.

And from Belgium we jump to Germany, where we find Anna carrying out all sorts of duties for her archaeological company:

Currently I’m working for an archaeological company in Cologne (Archbau Köln) being the handy man – so that means I’m mainly working in the office finishing projects that mainly involve counting sherds of pottery, organising excavations but also being on site. Besides all of this, I am also the main anthropologist of my company – so whenever we dig up some skeletons I’m responsible for their examination.  So basically, I’m always quite busy archaeology wise.”

– Anna Marschner, an osteoarchaeologist.
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Next we find Adam talking about the often unsuspecting and adventurous pathways that archaeology can take you on:
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I finished my M.A. at Sheffield in 2012 and moved to London in April 2013. I was a bit upset that I was not doing anything with my degree so I looked for work, which I found, at the Palestine Exploration Fund. Through a connection there I ended up going on a two and a half month excavation in Sudan of a medieval Nile River fort. It was an amazing site but the living was very rough but that is half the fun of it!
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Adam Fraser relaxes in Sudan after excavating in the heat, and considers relaxing in London before taking part in some Oman archaeological exploits.

While I was in Sudan one of the team members received an email from a friend back in the UK. The email was about potential work in Oman. Nobody on our team was able to accept the invitation so I did. After finishing in Sudan I was in London for a few weeks indulging in the various vices that one misses while on excavation. Before I could settle down I was on another flight to Muscat. Upon arrival I was informed of the enormous task before our small team. We had to excavate and document a very large tract of land which was being developed for a highway. Scattered through the designated landscape were many Bronze-Iron Age tombs. We ended up with a few skeletons to show for it and a good collection of beads and some other jewellery. I did not expect that things would turn out this was when I was looking for work a year ago.

– Adam Fraser, a field archaeologist and a librarian at the Palestine Exploration Fund.

From Adam to Alex, who explains what it can be like to direct an archaeology company:

“As archaeology director for Elmet Archaeological Services Ltd I have a many varied role and I can be seen with many different hats on. This 2014 Archaeology Day finds me editing a report from a site that we worked on last year, whilst trying to get to grips with the vagaries of ArcMap; the commonly used GIS program for mapping sites.

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Alex in full recruitment mode for a community archaeolgy project looking at the evidence for WWII prisoner of war camps at Hickleton Hall.

I shall also be getting ready for our yearly excavations at Hickleton Hall in Doncaster, beginning in two weeks!”

– Alex Sotheran, director at Elmet Archaeolgical Services Ltd.

 And finally we have Spencer who’s often busy staring at rocks, looking for clues to our past:

I’m an archaeological lithics specialist with a particular passion for the Mesolithic period in north-east England. Somebody has to be! This period, between the last glaciation and the onset of the Neolithic revolution, is a boiling pot of potential in our region – tantalising glimpses of transitions, human reactions to major climate events and natural disasters like tsunamis.

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Spencer Carter hard at work threading the ties of humanity via the lithic analysis of Mesolithic flints from the north of England.

On the Day of Archaeology I will be in the lithics lab in north-west London. The door is always open during the day because people drift in and out wondering what on earth I’m doing with tiny bits of stone in their thousands. I tell them the story because archaeology is about a narrative, about our shared past and lineage. Having been burgled twice, the door is double-bolted each evening (nothing was taken). I’m continuing the detailed cataloguing and photography and awaiting, chewing on fingernails, the final set of radiocarbon dates for an exciting excavated Mesolithic ‘persistent place’ on the North York Moors.

On top of that, I’m helping to organise a CSI Teesside forensics event for the Festival of Archaeology and, as editor for Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire, calling for papers for our annual FORUM YORKSHIRE journal.”

– Spencer Carter, who blogs at Microburin, is a member of the Lithoscapes team and the Teeside Archaeology Society chairman.

So there you have it!  A short selection of what some of my friends involved in the beautiful, but sometimes frustrating, world of archaeology are up to on the Day of Archaeology 2014.  

The question now is what are you going to be doing?  Let me know in the comments below! 

Gaming Archaeology: Digging Up E.T.

1 May

Imagine finding thousands upon thousands of copies of a game thought long-lost (well at least since the 80’s).  You may think they’d be worth a fortune, you may wonder who did could fund such a scheme, or you may simply wonder why it would be worth digging or searching for the games in the first place.

Courtesy of NPR and The New Statesman I’ve found out about a pretty interesting project to recover the mythically dumped 1983 E.T. movie tie-in game cartridges from a suspected landfill site in Alamogordo, New Mexico.  Although the rumour of the Atari company dumping truck fulls of this wildly unsuccessful tie-in game was long thought to have been an urban legend, the film director Zak Penn and associated archaeologists have managed to find, excavate and recover thousands of the said game from the landfill site in the southern US state, proving that Atari really did dump their sadly unloved game en mass.

Is this really archaeology though?*  In a way it is as it fits the basic concept of recovering the material remains of past populations and cultures.  The video game cartridge itself is now a relic in the modern gaming age, an age where games can be downloaded and played almost anywhere in the world, on a wide range and ever-increasing variety of platforms.

Cartridge and retro gaming still retains a strong and vibrant audience however, and the media attention that this uncovering has gained has gone some way to prove that there is still a deep interest in what was then the emerging gaming market.  It is highly likely that the above game also represents a touch point for a certain gaming generation audience, a period where money flooded into the development for the nascent gaming industry.  Indeed, amongst a selection of my own  friends you only have to mention the 1997 Nintendo 64 James Bond game Goldeneye and you are instantly met with misty looks of nostalgia and fond memories spilling from their mouths (and mine).

My immediate thought on hearing of the uncovering of thousands of copies of the game?  Where are they going to go!  There is a persistent rumour that the games may number in the millions, but this has yet to be seen.  It is likely that there will be a vibrant market for such early video gaming memorabilia, as keen gamers, for instance, have already set up shop at the site to play the copies that are coming straight out of the ground.

Yet the story of the E.T. games, resting in their thousands unloved and out of sight in a dumping ground in New Mexico for many years also reminded me of a challenge currently facing archaeology in the UK.  This is the issue of storage space.  Currently the storage space in museums and commercial units for the produce of archaeological investigations, namely the artefacts, environmental samples and archive documents produced or excavated during a projects lifetime, is already at bursting point in many institutions and organisations throughout the UK.  Thousands, if not millions, of artefacts and environmental samples are waiting to be either recorded, preserved, stored, curated or displayed.  The planning and excavation of archaeological sites is but one facet of archaeology as a whole, but every archaeological excavation (if it is necessary) must budget and plan for the storage and accession of the artefacts uncovered and of reports, plans and documents produced before, during and after the actual act of digging.

It is not an area of simple answers, nor could I suggest one here.  It is an area that I hope to explore in future blog posts as this is a rich area for study, and one intricately linked with the Open Access movement, digital media and the changing face of heritage in the UK.

* Yes!

Update 02/05/14

It seems as if I was too hasty to think that no archaeologists were involved with the project.  Comments on this post, from the ever helpful Doug (of Doug’s Archaeology) and from John of Where The Hell Am I fame, have highlighted the fact that archaeologists have been involved from the off in helping to manage the project, and locate and excavate the E.T. games.  You can read a pretty fantastic interview her with Andrew Reinhard, the lead archaeologist for the project, which discusses the contextualisation of the project.  Team member Bill Caraher also has a blog where he has written about the Atari project, and you can read a fascinating post here discussing the often limited mention of archaeologists in mainstream media.

I often try to let a blog post slowly materialise as I think about an angle and gather sources together to help form a wider view on a particular issue, but I wrote this particular entry pretty fast after reading a few mainstream media articles highlighting the project.  As an archaeological blogger (although arguably leaning towards osteoarchaeology more) I made the relatively fatal but benign error of not digging deeper and actually discovering myself that archaeologists were involved in this fascinating project.  So I thank the commenters on this post for keeping me right and for pointing me in the direction of the archaeologists themselves.

Guest post: ‘Thoughts from Amara West’ by Loretta Kilroe.

19 Nov

Loretta Kilroe holds a research masters and a bachelors degree in Egyptology from the University of Oxford.  Loretta’s specialism is the study of ancient Egyptian ceramics and post new kingdom ceramics specifically.  The main focus of her research is the aim to approach ceramics from a social context with an eye to using changes in form and context to make inferences about society.  Loretta is currently applying for PhD programs and can be found blogging at Cakes and Ceramics.

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Often I find, when I mention working in Sudan, people zip straight to thinking of war or corruption. In the UK, people tend to be surprised when I rave about the wonderful hospitality, the delicious food, the view of stars in the middle of the desert, and particularly the rich archaeological sites, bursting out of the country’s seams.

When I finished my undergrad at Oxford, I was lucky enough to be invited to join the British Museum team in Amara West early this year, as an assistant ceramicist. At Oxford, most people studying Egyptology are linguists, but I found that getting to grips with pottery typologies was like another language in itself, and much more interesting in my opinion!

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Loretta and a selection of the ceramics and pots excavated from the Amara West site in Sudan.  Photography by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

Amara West is located just across the river from Abri, the largest town in the Nubian area, and just upriver from Sai, a famous site which inspired the development of the Kerma pottery typology. It is a late New Kingdom ‘colonial’ town, established by the Egyptians as part of their administration over Nubia, although the extent to which it was populated by Egyptians is debated. The British Museum excavation has been running since 2009, after a survey season from the British School in Rome, which identified key areas of the site. However the British Museum was not the first to discover the sand-coated town. Fairman excavated extensively with the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1920s and uncovered parts of the town and cemeteries as well as the Ramesside temple. The cemetery records are scanty however, especially since a few graves were only excavated to keep the workers occupied while finds were packed up for museums apparently! The BM’s research aims have steered in rather the opposite direction from this early work, and seek to find out what daily life was like in a town like this, instead of monumental architecture. And the dig has thrown up some beautifully touching examples of it: a treasured bracelet dropped on the ground and lost, yellow painted walls, a sealing in a house incredibly matching a scarab amulet found in one of the graves.

The dig team live close to the site, on Ernetta island, 20 minutes boat ride downstream from the old town. The experience of living there, I found, significantly informed my understanding of the archaeology of the town. I know anthropologically-informed approaches have been growing in popularity in the archaeological community (with all its usual controversy), but coming from the land of sofas and fridges, it is 100% useful living with people who understand the climate and how to cope with it. Thus mastabas (mud-brick benches against walls) which are outside all the houses in Ernetta, and in the courtyard, covered in a bright throw, are pretty much the same as those in the ancient Amara West houses. To keep water cool, it is kept in huge, porous ceramic pots, pretty similar to those we find in the sand. And the island is surrounded on its outskirts by date palms, which upon stepping out from, instantly leave you to the mercy of the sandy wind. Recent evidence has suggested that Amara was once an island and when the Nile moved course, the inhabitants of the town had to start building barriers before their front doors to keep out the sand.

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The dig house, with the mastabas visible outside in the courtyard, resemble the buildings that were probably quite a common sight during the Amara West heyday.  Photography by Loretta Kilroe, property belongs to the British Museum.

One of the major questions dig members did keep talking about however, was how ancient inhabitants would have coped with the nimiti. If you work in Sudan, never mind the heat, the lack of electricity or the different food– little black flies known as nimiti will be the bane of your life. When the season gets hot, out they come in swarms, and crawl all over you all day in the sun. They bite, but luckily don’t carry any diseases this far north. It could get very irritating trying to draw a pot with nimiti crawling up into your armpit, and not being able to swipe them because the vessel was just in the right position! My personal theory is the cramped, smokey houses we think most people would have lived in, were perfect refuges against the flies who hate the dark and smoke.

Now I applied for my research masters planning to study grave good groups, particularly ceramics, from the late Old Kingdom, to assess levels of state control in a time they were traditionally assumed to be weakening. So it is quite by accident that I ended up specialising in a period over 2000 years later, the Third Intermediate Period. I never found the later periods of Egyptian history compelling until I started looking at the pottery actually. In Sudan in particular, towards the end of the New Kingdom Egyptian-style pottery tends to get pretty ugly-which is what I absolutely love for some reason!

The pottery in the town levels at Amara currently being excavated, dates through the Ramesside period. Pottery evidence in the villas built at some stage outside the town wall indicates these were built in the later Ramesside period, evidently at a time when there was thought no need for defenses. The problem arises when you approach the graves. Many of them date to the Ramesside and late Ramesside too, like the town; but some date to the Post New Kingdom (Third Intermediate Period in Egypt), a time when there are no occupation levels in the town. This is a conundrum which the research team, and my own research, try to address.

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A villa at the Amara West site in Sudan partially uncovered.  Photograph by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

For the two month excavation period, I was responsible for the cemetery ceramics excavated from Cemetery C. The team alternate excavating between the two cemeteries on the site; D is located on an escarpment and was the ideal location for elite burial. The remains of a pyramid tomb was actually found by Fairman in this cemetery, and although all the graves have so far been looted in both cemeteries, enough broken material remains to piece together some idea of the wealth of this little community. The items in the graves also reflect a fascinating hybridisation of identity within the town, with artefacts from both the Nubian and the Egyptian cultural tradition often found side by side. Egyptian scarabs and painted coffin fragments have turned up, as have miraculous remains of woven baskets and eggshell jewellery.

Post New-Kingdom/Third Intermediate Period pottery is understudied partially because this damage to contemporary occupation levels is quite common, so there are a lack of stratified deposits to learn from. However, in the case of Nubia, the decrease in variety as well as quality perceived has led to many interpretations of Nubian society as breaking up after the Egyptians left. The ceramics at this time are certainly very different from the blue-painted vessels and carefully formed jars of the 18th dynasty. Beer jars, one of the most common vessels in both cemetery and occupation levels, become so poorly made, they cannot even stand upright, and the bases are squashed by fingerprints. Red-rimmed bowls no longer have a neat little border, but the red quite literally dribbles everywhere. And by the time we get well into this pre-Napatan phase, pilgrim flask handles are stunted pieces of clay squashed onto the neck, useless for holding.

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The desk and work station at the excavation, full of ceramics and pots ready to be described and analysed.  Photograph by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

All these features are often dismissed as resulting from potters disinterest in aesthetics or the loss of technical knowledge as society broke down. However when I was in contact with examples of these vessels, I came to the conclusion that this view was distinctly limited. In Egyptology, ceramics are typically focused on in answering chronological questions, but my thesis sought to challenge these boundaries and discuss what social changes these ceramic shifts could indicate. The developments I suggested are too long to go into much detail here, but as a summary, I believe they reflect the changing purposes of these culturally Egyptian vessels when used by an increasingly hybridised society. Nubian pottery focuses much more on decoration than perfect wheel-thrown forms, and thus I believe the dribbly red rims become a deliberate aesthetic feature. A rare hybrid bowl lends support to this theory; hand-made and fired according to Nubian techniques, it was nonetheless shaped and coloured as a standard Egyptian bowl, indicating it was an imitation–and the red rim distinctly dribbles. At another site, Hillat el-Arab, later beer jars are replaced in graves by pilgrim flasks, suggesting that the reason beer jars could no longer stand up was because their use was obsolete.

I hope to be talking about this development with red-rimmed bowls at the Current Research in Egyptology conference this April at UCL, so come along if you’re interested in finding out some more detail about what can, when summarised, sound like a bit of a crackpot theory!

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The Nile river, the lifeblood of Egypt and Sudan.  Photograph taken by Loretta Kilroe.

Research at Amara West is due to continue for the foreseeable future –a Collaborative Doctoral Scheme has just been awarded for a scholar to research the use of colour in New Kingdom towns with Amara as a significant case study– and there are still villas and graves to uncover. Together with the early New Kingdom site of Tombos further south, the increasing influx of archaeological projects in Sudan is shedding new light on how we understand New Kingdom expansion and the development of the later Napatan state. Meanwhile, I hope to return to Sudan one day in the near future–it is without a doubt the high point of places I have excavated!

Further Information:

Bibliography:

Aston, D. 1996. Egyptian Pottery of the Late New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period. Tentative Footsteps in a Forbidding Terrain. Studien zur Archáologie und Geshichte Altágyptens 13. Heidelberg: Heidelberger Orientverlag.  (An excellent typology for the Egyptian Third Intermediate Period).

Bader, B. & Ownby, M. (eds.). 2009. Functional Aspects of Egyptian Ceramics in their Archaeological Context: Proceedings of a Conference held at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, July 24th – July 25th, 2009. Leuven: Peeters. (One of the ceramic studies focusing on a social approach).

Binder, M. Spencer, N. & Millet, M. 2010. ‘The New Kingdom Cemetery at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia14: 25-44.

Binder, M. Spencer, N. & Millet, M. 2011. ‘Cemetery D at Amara West: the Ramesside Period and its aftermath’. Sudan & Nubia16: 47-99. (Open Access).

Spencer, N. 2009. ‘Cemeteries and a Ramesside Suburb at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia13: 47–61. (All official British Museum team publications).

Spencer, N. 2010. ‘Nubian architecture in an Egyptian town? Building E12.11 at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia14: 15-24.

Spencer, N., Woodward, J. & Macklin, M. 2012. ‘Re-assessing the Abandonment of Amara West: The Impact of a Changing Nile?‘. Sudan and Nubia16: 37-43.

Spencer, N. 2013. ‘Insights into Life in Occupied Kush during the New Kingdom: New Research at Amara West‘. Antike Sudan. 23: 21–28.

A Stone To Throw: Upcoming Mesolithic Conferences

6 Nov

Two dates to add to the diary if you are a fan of the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods!  The University of Durham have announced the second Where The Wild Things Are 2.0: Further Advances in Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Research conference recently and MESO15: the Ninth International Conference on the Mesolithic in Europe have announced a date and location for their 2015 get-together.

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Wild Things

The University of Durham once again plays host to the ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ conference in early January 2014.  The conference takes place from Wednesday the 8th to Friday the 10th of January (with an optional extra of partaking in a meal on the night of the 9th) in the departments of archaeology and anthropology in the science campus.  The cost of attending the conference is £50 for regulars or £25 for concessions, unfortunately the early bird concessions date has already passed.  The conference will include talks by both post-graduate students and by established professors with topics from a world wide distribution discussed and ebated.  This includes, but is not limited to, talks on the palaeoenvironment of the Taung child, neanderthal survival strategies and funerary practices, human biogeography in Greece and Mesolithic flint scatters in northern England.  The full list and abstracts of the 27 speakers (not including keynote speakers) and poster presentations can be found here, but please note the call for papers has now closed.  I’ve booked my place and cannot wait to hear about the latest research.

MESO15

The Ninth International conference on the Mesolithic in Europe has been announced for 2015.  The conference has been slated to take place from the Monday 14th to Friday the 18th of September 2015 in the city of Belgrade in Serbia.  The deadline for presentation abstracts is the 1st of May 2014, and the sessions are split into the following research groups:

  • People in their environment
  • Colonization
  • Landscapes and territories
  • Settlements
  • Technology
  • Regional identities
  • Social relations and communication
  • Rites and symbols
  • Transitions
  • Current research

The registration fees for the conference are €160 for regular early bird registrations (up until April 2015) with the prices rising to €190 after this period, although there are student prices available and cheaper concessions for eastern European attendees.  The registration cost includes a fantastic trip to see the Danube Gorges and the chance to go the museum of Lepenski Vir, an outstanding site of the European Mesolithic period.  This is a wonderful opportunity to get to grips with the international research on the Mesolithic period and remains on my wish list.

AJA Report: ‘Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency’

5 Jan

There is an open access article in the latest American Journal of Archaeology by Blythe Bowman Proulx (2013: 111-125)  entitled ‘Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency’, that debates the nature of archaeological looting on a global scale.

The abstract of Proulx’s article is below:

“The looting of archaeological sites undermines the preservation of cultural heritage. The purpose of this study is to broaden and refine our understanding of the nature, geographic scope, and frequency of looting and archaeological site destruction and to place looting in global perspective. Situated within a “glocal” (global and local) context, this study focuses on a large sample of field archaeologists working throughout the world and their opinions about and personal encounters with looting. Some key findings are presented: first, that the overwhelming majority of surveyed field archaeologists have experienced looting firsthand on more than one occasion; second, that archaeological site looting is in fact a globally pervasive problem and is not limited to certain parts of the world to the exclusion of others. The paper ends with a consideration of the implications of such findings for the broader cultural heritage debate.”

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The after effects of looting, in this case the desecration of two mummies, at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising in January last year. Whilst highlighting the effects of looting, it is also good practice to show the response to it, in this case members of the public and professionals of the city forming ‘a human chain’ around the museum to protect the artefacts and heritage inside the museum (Source: National Geographic/AP).

Context is king, and without this we risk losing cultural heritage and understanding on a massive scale due to the looting of archaeological artefacts and sites worldwide.  This is a strong article helping to document first hand experience of looting at archaeological sites from around the world.  It is well worth a read and presents a recurrent archaeological problem in careful consideration of the world wide context.  Proulx’s (2013: 123) devastating conclusion is that:

“archaeological site looting is a globally pervasive, commonplace, iterative, and not decreasing appreciably is a critical finding.  Looting- and, consequently, the role it may play in the antiquities trade- can no longer be dismissed as simply exaggerated, nor can concerns about looting be cast off as mere products of scaremongering archaeologists with overblown imaginations and thinly veiled preservationist agendas.”

Bibliography:

Proulx, B. B. 2013. Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency. American Journal of Archaeology. 117: 111-125.

A Tale of Woe at Teotihuacán

29 Dec

On the 17th of December the New York Times published an investigative article detailing how far Wal-Mart de Mexico were willing to circumvent Mexican planning laws to construct a store near the legendary and ancient Teotihuacán complex in Central Mexico.  The details of the case include a number of substantial bribes to various officials, and last minute illegal changes to planned zoning areas around the Teotihuacán complex, which prohibits commercial construction.  The bribes themselves included illegal payments for traffic permits ($25,900), zoning rights and alterations ($52,000), political pay-offs ($114,000), and ‘donations’ to archaeology (up to $81,000).  It is an eye opening article into the overseas business expansion of so famous a business, and it is well worth a read.  The following three paragraphs introduce the background . . .

“SAN JUAN TEOTIHUACÁN, Mexico — Wal-Mart longed to build in Elda Pineda’s alfalfa field. It was an ideal location, just off this town’s bustling main entrance and barely a mile from its ancient pyramids, which draw tourists from around the world. With its usual precision, Wal-Mart calculated it would attract 250 customers an hour if only it could put a store in Mrs. Pineda’s field.

One major obstacle stood in Wal-Mart’s way.

After years of study, the town’s elected leaders had just approved a new zoning map. The leaders wanted to limit growth near the pyramids, and they considered the town’s main entrance too congested already. As a result, the 2003 zoning map prohibited commercial development on Mrs. Pineda’s field, seemingly dooming Wal-Mart’s hopes.”

The Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacán, with the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon visible.

The Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacán, with the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon visible.

I have had the pleasure of studying American prehistory and Pre-Colombian cultures at University, and I found Teotihuacán to be a particularly interesting city and archaeological site, and one I’d love to visit one day.

So it was with a deep interest that I read the investigative article.  In particular the following two paragraphs from the above article detail the emerging resistance against the store…

“But the tide turned as INAH’s archaeologists began to find evidence that Wal-Mart was building on ancient ruins after all. They found the remains of a wall dating to approximately 1300 and enough clay pottery to fill several sacks. Then they found an altar, a plaza and nine graves. Once again, construction was temporarily halted so their findings could be cataloged, photographed and analyzed. The discoveries instantly transformed the skirmish over Mrs. Pineda’s field into national news.

Student groups, unions and peasant leaders soon joined the protests. Opponents of other Wal-Marts in Mexico offered support. Influential politicians began to express concern. Prominent artists and intellectuals signed an open letter asking Mexico’s president to stop the project. Many were cultural traditionalists, united by a fear that Wal-Mart was inexorably drawing Mexico’s people away from the intimacy of neighborhood life, toward a bland, impersonal “gringo lifestyle” of frozen pizzas, video games and credit cards.”

The response from Wal-Mart can be found on the article site.

As archaeologists we often try to save and defend the ruins of the past, or at least mitigate the impacts of the construction industry by recording and analysing what remains ahead of building work.  This article, though, details not just a clash between the new and the old, but of different cultures and the role of international businesses in countries throughout the world.  The article, and the actions of both Wal-Mart de Mexico and officials in Mexico, depict actions that are happening across the world.  In an ideal world the adherence to local customs and laws must be a part of the planning process.

Further Sources:

  • The website Teotihuacán- City of the Gods, led by noted Teotihuacán scholar Saburo Sugiyama of Arizona State University, has an excellent introduction to the city alongside a detailed chronology of its lifespan and information on its major buildings and archaeological finds.  It also demonstrates the city’s history in Mesoamerica and its lasting influence on cultures that followed.
  • A few recent articles on the website Past Horizons highlight how new archaeological finds, including burials and artefacts, are often found at the city site complex.  This staggeringly beautiful crafted Jade mask was found during a project focusing on the Pyramid of the Sun from 2008-2011.  A further article at Past Horizon’s describes evidence for the the use of cosmetics on the dead as part of the funerary process, and hints at the large trade networks throughout Mesoamerica at this time.

Guest Post: ‘Grampus Heritage & The EU Leonardo Da Vinci Training Programme’ by Joanne Wilkinson.

8 Aug

Joanne Wilkinson gained an undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham, and has several years experience in commercial archaeology.  Since joining Grampus she has  been involved in a number of archaeological projects around Cumbria, northern England, as well as involvement in Grampus’s EU projects.  Her interests include Roman archaeology, swimming, and she is a board member of a festival committee.


Grampus Heritage and Training Ltd is a non-profit making organisation based in the North West of England. Since 1997 we have been involved in the management and promotion of European projects concerned with culture, heritage, archaeology and the environment. We are promoters of the EU Leonardo Da Vinci Training Programme and provide funded training opportunities through this programme to UK students, recent graduates and young workers to various European countries.

The placements are a chance for participants to experience how sites are run outside the UK. Although they are a training experience, the participants build in confidence as they use what ever they may know about field work as well as being trained in slightly different methods. The placements are not a transfer of UK methods to an EU country, but are a chance for participants to add other skills to their field work experience.

The placements are also a chance for participants to develop and build on their personal skills, as usually the groups live and work together, usually having only met at the airport on the day of departure from the UK. Although not obvious at first, this is also an important part of the placement, as a lot of field work in the UK may mean close quarter living conditions with people that you may not necessarily know.

Students Learning on the 2011 Magdeburg Placement.

Past participants have kept in touch with us and have let us know how they get on. Some Archaeological, Environmental and Traditional Craft participants have informed us that they have since gone back to work with our partners, have chosen to use the sites they have worked on as part of their studies as they continue their education and others have gone into employment after our placements, with one of participants confident that it was her experience on our placement that helped get her the shortlist for interview. In a competitive job market, they are something else to add to CV’s or help towards university quotas of field work for graduation.

The placements are a great chance for undergraduates and graduates to excavate abroad, especially if previously they have not been in a position to do so. We have a variety of periods across our placements from Neolithic to Medieval, allowing us to offer a diverse range of placement opportunities. The placements allow the group to either work together on research excavations or work on rescue excavations. Some allow the group to work with commercial units, others with university research teams, working both in the field and sometimes in the lab.

Undergraduate archaeological opportunities (EASE)

BulgariaRoman site– Roman Baths near the town of Hissarya, in which the Roman occupation is clearly visible. The group works on the baths, helping the archaeologists learn more about this interesting area.

Finland: Stone Age– Kierikki Stone Age Centre. Located near Oulu, the Centre has built up around the Stone Age settlement site and using the evidence found, there are reconstructed buildings, which sometimes our groups help out with during the placement. The Centre is also the location for a Stone Age fair, which our groups take part in every year.

GermanyMedieval Magdeburg- Medieval and other sites which the Unit and university are working on at the time of the placement. As the group work with a commercial unit as well as university, they experience the commercial side to archaeology as well as the research side.

Iceland: Middle Age Period/Field School – The group work on 2 sites during their placement, exposing them to the different methods used at the very different locations. By moving to 2 different sites, they get to see more of Iceland as well.

Portugal: Copper Age – The group work together with other volunteers, being trained on a Copper Age site that sits atop a hill in an area surrounded by significant local archaeological sites, including Palaeolithic open air engravings of the Côa River Valley UNESCO site.

SlovakiaBronze Age– The group continues working on a site that was found during development work and has revealed lots of Hatvan Culture pottery. 2012 saw the group opening and working on a site that was discovered in 2011 through survey which revealed large ditches, which may be the focus of future work.

EASE Slovakia Placement.

Graduate archaeological opportunities (GrEASE):

Bulgaria: Medieval Fortress– The group help the team continue working in the fortress, the past few years having resulted in the discovery of a church and associated grave yard. With the discovery of a castle, fourteen churches, residential areas, craft shops and street networks, Cherven is one of Bulgaria’s more important archaeological centres.

CyprusChristian Basilica – The group continues with work that has been ongoing for the last few years in the areas of the Basilica. The previous groups have helped to uncover intricate mosaic flooring with as many as 16 mosaics designs showing evidence of having origins from all over Cyprus.

IcelandMonastic – The groups have been focusing on a monastery and associated graves, helping the team through their project and assisting with the yearly aims and objectives. The skeletal remains, botanical remains and surgical instruments suggest strongly that the monastery served elderly and sick people.

Italy: Etruscan – The groups assist in the continued research excavations in to the Etruscan period of the area around Marsiliana. The groups have been working on a possible residential building in the hills as well as nearby necropoli.

Romania: Neolithic – New on offer from Grampus the group works with a university team on a Neolithic site. The most recent focus has been on burials of many individuals, whose remains indicate some unusual burial practices.

EASE Bulgaria Placement.

The outcome of our placements are for participants to practice any skills they do have, learn some new skills and methods they may otherwise not encounter in the UK and to see how sites are run outside the UK.  The EASE placements are training experiences, but the placements are not a transfer of UK practices, so the training is something different for participants to experience. We also want participants to put the placement on their CV to highlight the work they have done. We want people to come away from the placement with more enthusiasm towards their studies/career and to feel that they have contributed to research/rescue excavations.

These Bones of Mine Note:

I participated in the 2011 Magdeburg German placement via Grampus Heritage in the UK, and found it a wonderful experience.  It is highly recommended that undergraduates and graduates across the EU access and use programs such as the Leonardi Da Vinci scheme.  For myself, it has given lifelong memories and long lasting friendships.

Grampus Heritage German Excavation Write Up

15 Sep

As previously stated, I recently went to Germany for 6 weeks participating in archaeology with Grampus Heritage.  Here is the first post and here is a post with various photos from the dig.  I completed a short report on the placement, and its available here (2011 excavation), on the Grampus website.  I will re-post the report in full to give an impression of what its like to partake in adventure, and encourage all European undergraduates and post graduates to take part.

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Ease Magdeburg Leonardo Da Vinci Placement 2011

I had the pleasure of spending six weeks in the city of Magdeburg, Germany, on a Leonardo Da Vinci placement, organised by Grampus Heritage and hosted by the Landesamt für Denkmalspflege und Archäologie Sachsen Anhalt in the summer of 2011.  The archaeological work was based both at the archaeological department and two archaeological sites outside Magdeburg.  The first site was a rescue site ahead of road construction at the village of Domersleben, to the west of the city.  This was a previously unknown medieval cemetery, possibly dating from around the 10th century (the dating wasn’t complete or known), or thereabouts.  The second site was a University of Kiel research dig at a Linearbandkeramik (LBK) site located near the town of Hundisburg, again west of Magdeburg.

Our accommodation was located in the north of the city, in 3 flats in one building.  Before I went I invested in a small guide to basic German Language, and now looking back I wish I had spent a few days learning the basics rather than slowly learning them whilst I was there.  It’s definitely recommended as it helps with basic communication with the residents of the city, and whilst shopping alone.

Magdeburg on the Elbe River

The City

Don’t let first sight of the city deceive you! Magdeburg is a glittering diamond of a city, hewn from a historical smorgasbord of repression and destruction (The 30 Years War, Nazism, & Communism to name a few). Yes, it is plain to see the physical damage wrecked on the city from the Communist city planners, but look a bit closer and it becomes plain that Magdeburg has some rather wonderful and strange buildings.  It also has historical architecture to rival any other German city.  On first entering the city via the RE Bahn, we passed several dilapidated buildings and structures, and each with a nervous glance aside, we wondered what we had let ourselves in for.

But we needn’t have worried.  From the rightly famous Gothic Dom (the first gothic cathedral outside France), to Hundertwasser’s ‘Grune Zitadelle’ & the Jahrtausendturm (Millennium Tower), Magdeburg offers architectural treats in various forms from all sorts of eras.  The wide plazas, from the GDR era, offer lovely views down the long main streets.  The trams that go all throughout the city are easy to hop on and off, and are accessible for wheelchairs, bikes or prams etc.  Just don’t make the mistake of not buying a ticket or sharing the wrong ticket as the tram officers can fairly brusque & rude!  It is very much worth having a good walk around the city to understand the different residential areas & where the main attractions can be located after a few days.

The MIllennium Tower & Dom Cloister

The main drinking outlets of Magdeburg city centre are located in Hasselbach Platz, where the bars tend to be open fairly late and where most people congregate on Friday & Saturday’s.  There are some particularly lovely bars just off this area, and the group located a Turkish Shisha bar just near the main museum.  For a small price you can smoke a variety of flavours of shisha & drink some pretty good cocktails.  Definitely recommended!

After work, I enjoyed nothing more than heading to the nearest lake (in this case Neustadt See- more below), and having a swim in one of the little remote beaches dotted along the lake side.  There is no better way to relax after a hard (and hot) day in the office then to swim in the cool waters.  It also offers a chance to try out some basic German with the Magdeburg residents!  For the more adventurous there was also ‘CableIsland’ at Neustadt See, which offers water skiing on the lake.

There are plenty of shops nearby the flats where we stayed (Neustadt Platz, just North of the city centre and a quick ride on the tram), including a variety of food shops.  One of the first things we noticed was the relative cheaper price of food and everyday goods; beer in particular was also cheap!  Some of our favourite food shops were Kaufland & Pennymarkt, which quickly became a mecca for cheap goods and a wide variety of fresh foods.

The Grune Zitadell

In the city centre there were internet cafes (no disabled access though!), large shopping centres such as the Allee centre & the main post office.  There are plenty of little cafes around offering excellent ice creams and a large selection of foods.  An Italian café near the University soon became a favourite.  Also in the city centre was the Opera House, the main museum, and of course the famous Magdeburg cathedral (or Dom).  These are not to be missed!  Just outside the city centre is the rather impressive and somewhat hidden away Magdeburg Zoo with a wide range of animals on display.  Across the river Elbe to the south of the centre there are a variety of parks such as the Elbaeunpark which houses theMilleniumTower, and the Rotehorn park which has numerous cafes and is ideal for a stroll around. Magdeburg is noted for its greenery and has been noted as one of the top green cities in Germany today.

Elephants at Play

The Work & The Unit

As stated the work in Magdeburg, in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, involved two archaeological digs & finds work at the base.  The first dig, which was open throughout the whole of the six weeks, was a rescue archaeological site which was a medieval cemetery located in the village of Domersleben.  This previously unknown site was earmarked for road construction & expansion, and so ahead of the diggers the cemetery was excavated fully.  We received lifts to and from the site from the on site archaeologists.

Sam & Me excavate a skelly, and view across Domersleben excavation

Altogether at the site numerous burials were found, aligned East to West in the Christian tradition.  On two of the burials knives were found, and it is thought that they cemetery could date from around the 10th to 12th centuries AD.  This was the first time I had worked with human remains in the field, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!  Although I was only able to get out on site 4 times or so because of how damp the site was and because of my own mobility restrictions, I found it engaging, informative & interesting.  I learnt how to carefully uncover the grave cut, how to record and bag the skeleton, & how to be very careful not to miss out any of the bones in the grave fill.  The German team on this site were kind, instructive and helpful.  It was clear that they expected us to get on with the work, rather than nannying the students.

The other site that opened up in the 3rd week was a research led dig by the University of Kiel, of a LBK site near Hundisburg, around 30 to 40 minutes drive  from Magdeburg.  Although I did not take part in this dig because of accessibility issues, I am reassured it was a hard-working site!  The excavation technique at this site was different then the open air site of Domersleben.  Square meter pits were opened and dug to around 10-15cm with sites found being bagged and pinned in situ.  The hours of work were longer then Domersleben, and the students who worked at this site came back quite tired!

I worked mainly at the finds department, engaging in activities I have little done in British archaeological units.  This included drawing artefacts to archaeological specifications, piecing together medieval roof/floor tiles & helping to glue them, and various Bronze Age pottery pieces, back together when/if they fitted.  I also partook in some finds cleaning including processing of human & animal bone, and the usual suspects of ceramics and tiles.

Drawing the artefacts...

My praise of the German finds department team cannot be higher.  Sven, Rainer, Claudia, Secret, Christine, Angelica & Peter all provided a warm welcoming environment in which to learn new skills and acquire new friends.  The archaeological units in Britain could learn a thing or two from the mighty breakfasts enjoyed here!  At the start of the placement the other students rotated round as to who was volunteering with me, but as the second site opened up I went to the department alone.  I was very happy to work with the finds as they provided help when needed and in particular Rainer Kuhn provided a helpful hand in pointing out points of interest in the city.  He, and others, also provided lifts from the University Platz to the department, of his own accord, which was most helpful to me.

Numerous cleaned finds (spot the human bones!)

At first it seemed as if only Rainer and Claudia could speak English but as the weeks progressed and I tried to speak some basic German, communication became easier, and with the help of the translators of Rainer & Google translate conversations were able to take place.

Life Abroad & Trips Out

We had the weekends free and the days and weeks passed by in an easy hypnotic rhythm as we got used to working and living abroad.  We had day trips out to see archaeological sites around the Magdeburg and Sachsen-Anhalt area.  These were provided by Dr Thomas Webber alongside a few other key archaeologists, and included visits to the Palaeolithic Hundisburg site, a medieval deserted village, a Neolithic Megalithic tomb, a wooden castle, and a road development archaeological site.

Hundisburg Deserted Medieval Village

Neolithic Megalithic tomb near Hundisburg

One of my favourite trips and museums was seeing the Prehistory Museum in Halle.  This has got to be one of the most impressive prehistory museums in Germany, with its range from human evolution (Homo Erectus onwards) up until the Bronze and Iron Ages.  In particular some of the displays of the artefacts and block lifted archaeological specimens were amazing and inspirational.  Whilst in Halle we also got to look at a modern archaeological laboratory and were suitable impressed by the block lifted Neolithic well that Goetz showed us.  Halfway through we also all had a trip overnight to see the sights in Berlin.  This was a fantastic trip, with a delightful stay in a St Christopher hostel in Rosa Luxemburg Platz.

The Reichstag!

We managed to cram in most of the museums on Museum Island (Neues Museum, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Museum etc) alongside seeing the sights such as the Berliner Dom, Brandenburg Tor, the Reichstag, a chilling look around the memorial & museum to the murdered Jews of Europe; as well as a walk to the 1.5km stretch of the Berlin Wall that is now given over to artists.

Museum at the Museum Island, Berlin.

All in all Magdeburg provided the perfect base in which to work and relax, and I’m very thankful that Grampus provided the opportunity to live and work abroad.  I have very few regrets about choosing this placement as it was all set up fine, with enough money given for spending and activities, the training given was competent & the archaeological sites were varied and interesting.  Above all I praise dearly the German staff who provided such a warm environment in which to live, work and learn.

Report online here.