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Speaking to the Dead: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

3 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication, which was released in 2013.  It is a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including the present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book in a blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for sustained periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1985 volume The Unwomanly Face of War (У войны не женское лицо), recently translated into English and republished, which uncovers the role of USSR females in the Second World War and the subsequent silence of their contributions, alongside 1997’s Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва),  a volume which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  That book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) was due to be published in 2017; the volume looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless, there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field.  It is one I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends describing their experiences of encountering human skeletal remains within archaeological contexts and how it inspires them – into careers, into dreams, into labours of love and worry.

A two-part previous edition of this series focusing on the life and thoughts of archaeologists can be read here and here.


The author’s monologue

– Buried and cremated, dismembered and decapitated, axial and axis, perimortem and postmortem.  The language we use to describe the dead can seem cold and clinical, a hidden distance in our lexical choices to keep the emotive at bay.  If we think of the skeletonized dead as people, with their own lives, thoughts and memories, instead of objects taking up space on the finds shelves or boxed silently away, it is perhaps then we remember that the past is not so different, not so foreign to the present.

Fragments of crania, rolled across my open palm for tactile inspection, used to remind me of the intangible border of death.  Reminded me that I too would die.  Bone, that wonderous structure of both flesh and stone, reminded me so vividly of what it is to live.  Having broken many of the elements within my own skeleton, I could feel kindred to those naturally fractured fragments before me, couldn’t I?

That decisive snap, the innervation of electric pain that contorts to dull throbs . . .  What I thought I knew, I desired to know in more depth.  My own experiences of skeletal breakages and repeated surgical interventions, my own handling of the blade cutting into flesh to show bone the sordid light of the dissection room.  The smell of my anatomical guide – the paper protected by clear plastic wallets, but the pages of which had nevertheless become permeated by the chemical smells of preservation.  These were the experiences that pushed me on.

From excavation to analysis, pulled from birth to death anew.  A whole new context of meaning imbued by the discipline of archaeology . . .  These were my dreams, the dull and long-drawn out thoughts that lay behind daily concerns and speculations.

What do others think, how do others interact with the skeletal material that represents an individual, a population, a species?


The illusion of mortality and the fickle nature of finality

Gabriela H.  Late twenties.  Post-doctoral researcher.

– I don’t know what drew me into studying skeletons – it was not the morbid aspect for sure.  I have never been to a funeral, and I don’t feel a pang for skull-themed aromatic candles spread around the house.  I might be ‘in search for a stable ground to step on’, as a psychologist once told me . . .  I don’t know if that is true, it might be, but it might as well have something to do with people.  I like people, and have always been interested in watching them, in understanding their passions, actions and thoughts.  But I should probably bear in mind that these are dead people.  Most of the time I try to ignore this though . . .  The image of a crime movie in which body parts are stacked in jars on shelves comes vividly to mind, and the comparison is rather worrying to be frank.

However, aren’t we (those studying the dead) caught in this eternal (no pun intended) puzzle?  Between having to acknowledge that these are dead people – that on the lab table and on the museum shelf it is death and mortality looking back at us, confronting our own fear of death.  Or seeing them as mere bones, objects that are there waiting for us to turn them into ‘high-impact’ articles?  Boundaries, and absences are unsettling: someone has forever disappeared, though some part of them has been left behind.

‘It is the living who expect insights from the dead’ a friend once told me, and he couldn’t have been more right (as you see I am trying to avoid saying ‘dead right’).  As a ‘dead bodies’ practitioner I think this line cuts to the core of the whole challenge of writing narratives about them – what are we hoping to achieve?  I think most of the times we are unsure, but it is rather hard to be sure about something like death, isn’t it?


On the joy of working with the hands and the truth concealed

Abigail L.  Mid-twenties.  PhD candidate.

– I often miss working with my hands.  The hours spent staring at a screen or trawling through journals are necessary for research, but they make me realise that the physicality of handling human remains, the engagement that comes with examining the material myself, is what really helps me to understand my subject best.  Carefully sorting through someone’s bones removes the abstraction of talking about statistics, trends and probabilities, and brings it back to the individual level, the only one that we can really identify with.  I gain satisfaction from the ordered and methodical work; the rest of my time is spent chaotically moving between tasks and failing to cross anything off my cluttered stacks of physical and digital to-do lists.  With the bones, I arrive early and skip lunch to give myself more time to work slowly and carefully.  I don’t feel the need for the extended walks around the park that my ‘office work’ prompts.  Almost everyone else smokes.

With long periods where I am kept in the office, the growing anticipation of these sparsely distributed tangible interactions with my subject sometimes leads to frustration.  Missing limbs (misplaced in the last decade; “I’m sure they were on display once”); a severe case of mould spreading through the axial skeleton; another “sorry it was lost in the war;” a set of misidentified and mis-catalogued remains that belong to some other site (which one, though?).

My recent osteological work has been characterised by dismay . . .  I’m concerned by the mishandling of human remains in museum and university contexts, but I can’t talk about it as I’m still relying on the goodwill of these institutions.

I can discuss general access issues and curatorial ethics in my thesis, but I can’t refer to my personal disappointment over being prevented from doing something I enjoy.  Is it even okay for me to enjoy this work?  To enjoy sorting, measuring, and recording human remains?  We are supposed to be enthusiastic about our research: engagement, outreach, impact, et cetera.  But people don’t always want to hear the specifics.  I was recently asked (by a palaeoethnobotanist) what I do to ward off all the bad Juju I must be attracting . . .  Alongside my enjoyment, if that is allowed, I also feel a deep anxiety about getting something wrong that I don’t feel in relation to other areas of my work.  It doesn’t seem to go away with experience.  Another topic with no real home for discussion.

My main anxiety at the moment, though, is in relation to my future employment prospects.  While the practical work is what sustains my interest, I also know I need to develop other research interests, other skills, other areas of expertise, in order to compete for jobs.  Most of these keep me inside.  I am increasingly realising that I will soon have little choice in the matter.


The search for identity in a modern context

Richard Smith.  Late forties.  Recovering field archaeologist.

– I’ve long been intrigued by the idea that for many people outside of the profession, the chief occupation of an archaeologist is digging up skeletons (at least for those who don’t think we’re looking for dinosaurs).  To be honest, that aspect probably played into my own set of disjointed reasons for wanting to become an archaeologist . . .  There is something very reassuring about seeing archaeologists carefully excavating away soil from around a skeleton – you know you’re seeing some ‘proper’ archaeology!

And yet, I had worked for more than 20 years as a commercial field archaeologist before I got the opportunity to excavate a ‘classic’ laid out flat skeleton.  It’s not that I’d not been doing much, but every site I seemed to work on was composed of pits, ditches, post-holes, and the like . . .  It’s not like I didn’t encounter human death in those years, but it was invariably in the form of cremated remains, frequently having undergone heavy comminution.  Say what you like, but it’s hard to perceive the humanity in the occasional flecks of white in a black and grey soil.

All that changed for me when I ended up working on a 19th century urban graveyard that was being cleared to allow the church to rebuild, expand, and cater for its dwindling flock into the 21st century.  For someone only used to human remains in the form of gritty powder, coming face to face with a skeleton was nothing short of shocking.  After two decades in the profession, I thought I was well beyond romantic notions of imagining myself into the lives and situations of my ‘subjects’.

But here I was, carefully scraping around a rib, an eye socket, or a femur, wondering about who this person might have been or how they lived their lives.  Admittedly, this was rather short-lived as some of the burials contained their original coffin plates that had their names and dates . . .  Some we eventually were able to track down to published obituaries only to find that they were all wonderful people who were sorely missed by all who knew them.  I wonder where they buried the bad blighters that everyone was glad to see the back of?


The author rejoins

– An historical aside:  ‘Do not divide the dead!’  A Soviet saying dating from the Second World War.  The blurring of lines between the immensity of the Jewish loss of life, and the death wrought across nationalities and ethnicities, versus the continuing vulgarities of Soviet antisemitism post-war which culminated, but did not end, with the Doctor’s plot of 1952-53.

Dividing the dead into known and unknown, into memory and out of time.  The question we never really ask is how much do we need to know, what can we afford not to know?  The almost intangible nature of truth, hidden within the Haversian canals and housed in osteons, each containing a multitude of experiences.

Experiences for which the individual, partitioned by plastic context bags placed among kin, friend or foe, known or unknown, remain silent; they are ready instead to be analysed by the skeletal specialist.  The step by step motions of measurements and non-metric notes taken; occurrences of presence and absences discussed; the archaeological context pondered over.  Relationships are suggested and situations hypothesized, the motivations are almost always guessed at.

An archaeological aside:  ‘The dead do not bury themselves.’  The individual, either as a single outlier or as part of a larger assemblage, become detached from their lived context and are given over to the researcher with the status of temporary ownership.  The dead have already died and their active participation in life is now over, but still they speak to the living as arbiters of the present.

We are not just analysing ourselves when we look into the empty eye sockets of the dead, we are commenting on the past and the vast variations found therein.  There is no distance greater than between the living and the dead, yet there is no closer divide.  That is the juxtaposition lying in wait, entombed within the cortical and trabecular bone, trapped within the enamel and dentine, ready to surprise the unwary.

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Exposing the Dead: Javier Marías in The Art of Fiction No. 190, The Paris Review

15 Dec

Earlier today I came across the Paris Review after stumbling online looking for something to read.  The Paris Review is a well-known literary magazine that is published quarterly and a publication that I have read online on occasion, most often for the insightful and in-depth author interviews.  After glancing through it earlier I spotted one such feature that I had not read before – an enlightening interview with the Spanish novelist and translator Javier Marías.  He is an author who I had come across by chance in a bookstore in Newcastle upon Tyne a few years ago and one that I have come to love after reading his novels A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, alongside his short story collection When I Was Mortal which I became intrigued by as it offered stylistic snapshots of his writing and intense introspective vignettes.

In a section of the interview Marías discusses his relatives and his personal family history in the tumultuous 20th century, his father’s imprisonment under Franco’s regime in Spain (1939-1975) and the times the family spent in other countries in effective exile during Franco’s rule.  In particular he recalls an instance of the personal face of death within the family…

Interviewer:

‘You sometimes use actual photographs in your novels.’

Javier Marías:

‘Yes, because when I read about an image I like to see it at the same time, be it a painting or a photograph.  But you must be very careful with putting actual things in a novel.  In the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow, there is a moment when the narrator recalls the story of his uncle, who was killed during the war, and how his mother had to look for him because he didn’t come home, and she eventually found a photograph of her brother dead.  That is a real story—it happened to my uncle.  He was killed in the war when he was seventeen.  I did reproduce one photograph, but I knew I could not put in the other one of him dead.  Just as it is told in the book, the photograph was inside this box, wrapped in red cloth.  It is quite a terrible photograph.  I did not dare make it part of a fiction.  You can’t expose the dead too much.’

(Quoted from Fay’s interview in 2009).

I was struck by the last sentence, of how the preservation of the image within the box carefully wrapped contrasted sharply with the limited exposure that it would receive stored in this way.  In this case the photographic image displayed not the living, breathing individual that the family remembered but the final portrait of his uncle’s body, frozen in time.  The context is unclear but the photograph does not need to be seen, at least by the audience, or to be presented in a fictional piece of writing as Marías attests.  The imagined brutality of his death is enough; the truth remaining as memory shared by the family.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Fay, S. 2009. Javier Marías: The Art of Fiction No. 190. The Paris Review. Winter Edition. 179. (Open Access).

Marías, J. 2012. A Heart So White. Translated from Spanish by M. J. Costa. London: Penguin Classics.

Marías, J. 2013. Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Translated from Spanish by M. J. Costa. New York: Vintage International.

Interview with Liz Eastlake: Dental Delights and Estonian Escapades

13 Dec

Liz Eastlake is an osteoarchaeologist from Yorkshire and a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology from the University of Sheffield.  With a strong background in fieldwork Liz also regularly engages in public outreach and education on the topics of archaeology practice and human osteology, both in museums and in colleges around Yorkshire.  Her research interests lie in dental bioarchaeology and understanding the implications for markers of occupation in the human skeleton.  In her free time Liz can often be found at the York branch of Dr Sketchy’s anti-art art school.


These Bones of Mine: Hello Liz and thank you very much for joining me here at These Bones of Mine. For those that do not have the pleasure of knowing you, please could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?

Liz:  Hi David, thanks for having me.  I am a graduate of the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology program from the University of Sheffield and I am currently working for York Archaeological Trust at their archaeology museum DIG.  I also do the occasional spot of digging and skeleton box organisation with the Trust on a volunteer basis.  Further to this I teach human osteology workshops with the Workers’ Educational Association as part of their Digability Project.  To top it all off I also work providing disability support at the local university a few days a week!  Needless to say I have very little free time and run mostly on caffeine.

TBOM: That certainly sounds like you are getting a full experience of living the archaeological life! What sparked the interest in studying human osteology and funerary archaeology, and what was the experience learning about skeletal anatomy like?

Liz:  I went on a rescue excavation in the grave yard of my village (Sheriff Hutton) church when I was 15 years old.  The church itself supposedly contains the remains of Richard III’s son, although I never really considered how blessed I was growing up in such a historic environment until much later, especially with recent events.  It was the discovery of the different elements of commingled human remains we were uncovering that fascinated me the most.

A number of skulls from the site still had small amounts of hair surviving due to the environment created by contact with copper shroud pins.  It really stuck with me that something so fragile could survive for so long beneath our feet.  Skeletal anatomy itself is a fascinating subject.  Most people are completely unaware of what goes on within their own bodies and so this aspect of archaeological study is pretty relevant and interesting to everyone.

TBOM: The rescue excavation must have been an informative introduction to the human skeleton in an archaeological context, especially considering the level of preservation present.  Your current job with York Archaeological Trust involves helping to present archaeology to the public, how have you found this and has it made you change the way you think about archaeology itself?

Liz:  Working with children in general is pretty hilarious, I love the way the mind works without any of the barriers that adults would normally put up.  In the context of archaeology a kid can really make you think about things in a different way with the answers they come up with, which is great as it is all so open to interpretation.  Often, I meet kids who are so excited to tell me all about what they have found in their own back garden or can’t wait to go home and dig up their parents flower beds after a visit (sorry parents!).  It’s so important to be inquisitive and that transfers to other aspects of life, including the process of growing up.

LIZDIG

‘I think it may be a bit late to help this person’. The chance to draw a in-situ skeleton is one of the many interactive exhibitions on offer at the DIG museum of archaeology in York. Image credit: Liz Eastlake.

What’s also great is that parents or grandparents come along thinking perhaps its a couple of hours to kill with the kids on a weekend or during the holidays, and they end up enjoying it more than the children do!  Few people realise they have an interest in something until you present the information and let it grow from there.  Archaeology is all about people – everyone has an interest in how we got to where we are today.  Most people I meet are at least amateur archaeologists in some way!

For me personally the job has given me a broader knowledge of archaeological periods, which is always beneficial when looking at specific burials.  Human osteology can be such a narrow field of study, for example when I look at teeth, which is such a tiny area, you even begin to ignore the rest of that same skeleton because there is so much to focus on when studying teeth alone.  Context is everything.  Before starting with the York Archaeological Trust I knew embarrassingly little about the archaeology of York itself.  It is easy to take things you have seen so often for granted, especially when you grow up with all this old stuff around you as you think nothing of it.  I definitely appreciate York more now than I ever have before and have the best time doing what I do.

TBOM: That is fascinating to hear about how interested children and adults become when presented with what archaeology actually is and how their experiences differ.  As previously mentioned you’ve also been working with the Workers’ Educational Association in South Yorkshire, helping to lead and present classes on human skeletal anatomy.  How have you found the audience’s reaction and participation in such activities?   

Liz:  The reactions are quite mixed.  Most participants are fascinated with how the body works.  Physical demonstrations of how bony articulations work and comparing them to the movements they can make in their own bodies helps bridge the gap between us and pile of bones.  It can be hard to think of a skeleton as a once living, fully fleshed person like ourselves.

A few participants have felt uneasy about the bones, despite the knowledge that the skeleton I bring is just an accurate plastic copy.  I think this mostly comes from the portrayal of bones and death in the media.  I saw a really interesting talk by Campbell Price at Manchester Museum a while ago that talked about how skeletons and mummies especially are portrayed alongside werewolves and vampires and it is not surprising that people, especially children (but not always), ask ‘is it real?’ when faced with a preserved Egyptian mummy in a museum.  A feeling of unease might also come from a fear of death itself and the uncertainty it brings.  This is a completely understandable feeling but I think it is important to try to break this fear down in an educational setting and challenge misconceptions about what happens to our bodies after we die.

TBOM: As well as helping to de-mystify the human skeleton for the public, you’ve also presented your MSc dissertation research on the study of the dentition of two 18th and 19th century populations from northern England at a recent Elmet Archaeology talk.  What was your research about and how did you come to focus on teeth specifically?

Liz:  I seem to have focused on teeth since I first became interested in human osteology.  I find them fascinating because they look pretty much the same in death as they do in life.  There is such a wealth of information you can gain about people’s lives in the past by studying dentition.  I have focused on what they can tell me about the general health of the population I’m studying and also whether they can give an indication of individual occupation.  At some point everyone has grasped something between their teeth, like house keys for example, when your hands are full.  Repeated use of the teeth as a third hand can leave tell-tale marks on the tooth surface, for example basketry weaving or even sewing; snapping a thread between the incisors.

My dissertation topic focused on identifying occupation from the teeth of two Victorian era cemetery populations, one of high status individuals from the St Bride’s assemblage in London and the other of low status people from Coronation Street assemblage in South Shields, northern England.  Social status for these two sites was known from written records, but the difference was also apparent from the teeth.  A number of individuals from the high status group had solid gold dentures and fillings, as well as other evidence for dental intervention and aid.  Those from the low status site had no clear evidence for dental work by a professional and would have likely extracted a troublesome tooth themselves or had a similarly untrained acquaintance do it for them.  These individuals also had some quite extreme dental wear patterns indicative of use of the teeth for grasping and pulling materials within their mouths. Unlike the high status site which had only one example of an older adult female with grooved patterns of wear in her anterior dentition, perhaps from snapping threads whilst sewing.

To most people it can be quite unsettling to envisage the pain a large abscess or gross caries would have caused a living person hundreds of years ago.  However, the information that can be gained through the study of teeth is so extensive and informative about past populations, that it is a fascinating area of osteological analysis, which I hope to pick up again by completing a PhD in the future.

TBOM:  That sounds like a fascinating comparative study on Victorian populations.  So as well educating the public on the value of archaeology and human osteology and as well as conducting original research, you have also recently been excavating an Iron Age site in Estonia.  How did that come about and what were your experiences there like?

Liz:  A friend of mine from my masters course at Sheffield, Anu Kivirüüt, invited me along to the excavation she was running with her department at the University of Tartu.  It was a fantastic couple of weeks of perfect hot weather and digging in the shade.  I particularly enjoyed the excavation methods employed in Estonia which are so different to the strict regulations in the U, although I discuss this more at Anu’s site here.

The excavation was on the Aakre Kivivare tarand-grave site, which are Iron Age in date.  This type of grave sites are communal burial places with rectangular above-ground stone wall enclosures, which are often labelled and described as  tarands-graves.  When these graves first appeared on the landscape in the Pre-Roman Iron Age (around 500 BC – AD 50), they contained only inhumation burials and one rectangular enclosure was assigned for one body.  However, over time, cremation became a more frequently recorded way of disposing of the dead and the subsequent cremated bones and most of the artefacts were scattered in the tarand-area, mostly inside but also outside of the walls (see more information here on this ongoing project).

The entire site was recorded using digital photography, in a technique called photogrammetry, and converted into a 3D model after each layer of soil and stones was removed.  This was a great time-saving method and the 3D model really helped visualize the site layers.  Unfortunately, very little bone, cremated or otherwise was recovered from the site.  However, there were numerous beautifully preserved brooches of different typologies, a selection of which can be viewed here.

As well as a fantastic excavation there was also opportunities to explore other nearby archaeological and cultural sites, taste the great food, swim in the lakes and enjoy a sauna (including being whipped with birch bark – it is good for you!)

TBOM:  Swimming in the lake sounds quite beautiful, but if I ever head to Estonia I think I’ll avoid the birch whipping!  The use of technology to quickly record the site at Aakre Kivivare certainly sounds innovative and extremely useful, please do let me know how the excavations and research turn out.  In conclusion, though, it is clear you have managed to gain a lot of experience in the various aspects that archaeological life has to offer.  Do you have any advice to the next crop of archaeologists and, finally, what are your plans for the future?

Liz:  I would say volunteer, volunteer, volunteer!  Getting involved with excavations as well as post-ex stuff before starting at University, during your course and over summer holidays shows you are keen and can make you lots of useful connections for the future.  Then when you are qualified, especially in a specialised area of the profession, try to never work for free again (chuckle)!

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One happy skeleton. Drawing bones in-situ at YAT’s DIG museum helps children (and adults) understand the importance of context in archaeology. Image Credit: Liz Eastlake.

I would love to do a PhD in some aspect of dental anthropology at some point in the future, as well as getting more experience in the commercial side of archaeology.  I think it is important to see things from start to finish where possible, as context is everything and it can be easy to detach a single skeleton from its surroundings and consider it individually.  However, this does not benefit our view of the past.  Working in the field will also mean a chance to experience all aspects of archaeology and not just bones.

But before I get PhD crazed I am going travelling around the world, admiring old things and rock climbing (but mostly trying not to be an obnoxious cliche for the benefit of people who follow me on social media!).

TBOM: Thanks for the advice Liz and I hope you enjoy your travels!  

Further Information

  • Head to York Archaeological Trust’s portal to learn more about their museums and archaeological here.  If you are an interested member of the public, an archaeological student or simply want to learn about archaeological artefacts YAT always welcome volunteers.
  • Learn more about Elmet Archaeology’s upcoming lectures and annual Dearne Valley Archaeology Day here.  Elmet participate in both commercial and community archaeological projects and are always active in education outreach.  Check out some of their courses for 2015 here.
  • The Workers’ Education Association’s are always actively promoting education outreach in a variety of locations and involving a wide range of subjects.  As a part of the ongoing Show Us Your Research! project by the universities of Coimbra and Algrave, Portugal,  Beauchamp and Thorpe (2014) have produced an assessment of WEA’s ongoing inclusive archaeology education project.  Read the PDF summing up their research on the benefits and outcomes so far of the inclusive archaeology project for free here.
  • Head over to the Aakre Kivivare blog site to learn more about the fascinating finds from this Estonian Iron Age site (site can be translated).  Liz has also produced a post on her experiences from the 2014 summer excavations which can be read here.