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Guest Interview: Turbulence Ahead? Introducing Archaeologist and Agitator Spencer Carter

28 Jun

Spencer Carter.

Spencer Carter is a freelance commercial and community field archaeologist, prehistoric stone tool specialist, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and member of the Hatfield College Senior Common Room at Durham University, as well as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (FSA Scot).  He is presently Archaeological Project Officer for Breedon Group’s Black Cat North (there’s a large metal black cat on the A1 roundabout, for whatever reasons) aggregates quarry, Bedfordshire, along with involvement in other community and commercial projects.

He studied archaeology at Durham in the 1980s and, after an extensive business career, currently researches the early prehistory of north-east Yorkshire and Teesside.  He was recently chair of the Teesside Archaeological Society, sits on the committee of Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire and the council of RESCUE: The British Archaeological Trust, as an advocate for our archaeology, heritage-at-risk and the profession.  He’s an affiliate member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA), passed the CSCS health and safety test, and knows the colour of various cables and fire extinguishers.  “Quarries”, he notes, “offer endless, visceral, mind-bending experiences within the bund-bound anonymity of a developer-led engagement”, adding “all name-dropped characters in this interview are likely fictional or caricatures rendered by misrepresentation”.

Spencer maintains a professional website at TimeVista Archaeology and an informal Mesolithic archaeology blog at Microburin. His Twitter ID is @microburin.

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These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Spencer! Welcome to These Bones of Mine and thank you for joining me today.  We both have a shared enthusiasm for the heritage and archaeology of the North of England, alongside our prehistoric passions, but for those of us who do not know you, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to find yourself in archaeology?

Spencer Carter (SC):  Hi David, it’s a pleasure to be interrogated!  I think the journey of self-discovery, more so in later life, is perpetual and the convoluted steps to where I am today are likely unconventional.  Let’s see. Born in pre-decimal 1966, I grew up on Teesside, the southern borders overlooking Roseberry Topping (our local Matterhorn), the Cleveland Hills and North York Moors.  As kids, we spent a great deal of time outdoors—a farm near Northallerton, in Wensleydale, on the fabulous coast around Whitby and in our local corn fields, woods, streams and bogs.

Sadly many of those childhood wild places are now housing estates or festooned with dog-poo bags, mounds of beer cans and vodka bottles, although my ‘thinking tree’ survives (barely, as an ash) still displaying the now-distorted carved initials of our tribe.

“I will be an archaeologist!” Teen rebel, Nunthorpe School 1981. © Evening Gazette.

Somewhere in that jumble of experiences a connection with the landscape was forged.  A fascination for why things are as they are benefitted from frequent primary school weekend walks and map-reading.  I’ll admit to having an ordnance survey map fetish of sorts (as well as Munsell soil colour charts) and refuse to entertain GPS in the car.  I spent my early years collecting fossils from the beaches, beaches before plastics, accompanied by an Observer Book of such, until I’d pretty much identified and catalogued everything one could find.

We were also a family who visited our many ancient monuments, the cathedrals, castles and abbeys for which northern England is renowned.  Hopefully some folk will remember the rather austere blue-covered Ministry of Works guides?  What started a rumbling, I suspect, is twofold: Sunday afternoon trips to Hadrian’s Wall; being unleashed on my own into the moorlands on my bicycle, phoning home from an iconic Gilbert Scott telephone kiosk as far away as I could reach, in order to cause alarm.  I think the greatest round trip, about the age of twelve, was sixty miles and then a significant period of recovery.  The finding of a flint microlith, a composite projectile armature, on a lonesome ramble, figuring out what it was, triggered something extraordinary that persists today.  THE MESOLITHIC was reborn!  A local retired dentist-and-genealogist added fuel to the fire by gifting a duplicate set of the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.  You see where the carnage began, a misspent youth?

Early Mesolithic microlith, a projectile point of Deepcar style from Eston Hills, Teesside, ninth millennium BC. Image credit: S. Carter.

People who know me, and to the frustration of my parents, teachers, attempted-managers and similar victims, will understand that “The Spence Will Never Be Told What He Cannot Do”.  It’s like the “DO NOT press the big red button” principle!  Imagine then, when asked pre-teen by a teacher “what are you going to be when…?” (I still haven’t adulted at fifty), and upon announcing in a loud, clear and determined voice ‘I am going to be an archaeologist’, to then be admonished “don’t be so daft; there’s no future in that; do something sensible like engineering (or even bricklaying, or as a female, secretarial work)”, what The Spence did, in gritty rebellion?  I began digging at the age of twelvish, surveying at eleven.  We don’t talk about the chemistry set.

Temptation!

Having completed the weirdest mix of clashing A-Levels that I could muster, I studied archaeology at Durham University under the incredible stewardship of Prof. Rosemary Cramp (by whom I am still occasionally scolded, but less today about “being too thin”) when the department was on Saddler Street.  The room I used to do post-ex work in – plans and sections – is now, appropriately, the roof terrace of a pub.

Our class graduated, pre-email and computer, in good form and yet, after a final digging adventure in Iron Curtain Poland with Anthony Harding, I ran away to London on a 125, sat on a suitcase in the vestibule, having made mum cry and having negotiated a handshake from dad (and £20 for my train fare home upon “inevitable failure”, which I still possess).  That mum had transformed my bedroom into some kind of plant sanctuary merely accelerated the need to run.  What I recently learnt is that somebody forgot to ask me to consider staying on for a Masters. Perhaps that’s just as well, David?

Durham University dig in Poland, 1987.

What then followed has been twenty-odd incredible years spanning an aspirational role (sic) as a box-packer of the first UNIX software (we don’t talk about Linus Torvalds, damn his open source) in a Soho basement to, ultimately, managing international teams of customer service and support personnel, trying to keep sales people out of prison (99% successful), across twenty-three time zones, and the privilege of experiencing the extraordinary evolution of computing, email, the Internet, web-services (the world’s first online pizza order—then inevitably delivered to the wrong address in Santa Cruz, CA), and social media.  That said, traveling 80% of the year until dizzy, being chased around Moscow by armed security (and I’m sure filmed in the hotel room, certainly followed around), shot at in Sao Paulo Brazil (wrong turning in a taxi), and ultimately eliminated for being too expensive and over forty, are experiences only enjoyed after a number of years of reflection, and some counselling.  More importantly, THE MESOLITHIC (and archaeology) never died in the corporate soul.  So I think the question, David, is probably “how you came to re-find yourself in archaeology”?

I took voluntary redundancy six years ago (ageism is pernicious in hi-tech), spent three months asleep or staring at walls, determined to write-up and publish some flint finds, and knew nobody in archaeology although I hadn’t ever stopped reading.  Where to begin, when so many seemed to be leaving the profession?  How much had changed?  What survived the big crash? How would one build acceptance and trust, a network of friends?  Should I take a job at Sainsbury’s (or retrain as a bricklayer), now too old to heed the teacher’s advice?  I also wonder if one is ever not an archaeologist even when pursuing other career paths.

“Who wants to be an archaeologist?” Kids finding bling during the Lost Village of Lodge BIG DIG, Nidderdale 2016. Image credit: Jim Brightman, Solstice Heritage.

TBOM:  I think many can emphasize with the thought of being an archaeologist whilst pursing other career paths, even as there is an upturn in the archaeological sector currently with the boon of infrastructure projects in the country.  Your recollections of family journeys to historic and natural environments of interest certainly remind me of my own family’s trips – perhaps we can blame them for leading us down the archaeological track!

I’m keen to hear how you built up your contacts within the sector though after having such an illustrious and globe-trotting career in the tech sector because, as many can testify, it really is who you know and not just what you know, especially within our sector which can be quite small!

SC:  I’ve got to say, David, that 2011-12 was a strange and disconcerting place to be, having turned my back on an ostensibly successful career, albeit one that was having an adverse effect on my health—having an ECG was a levelling, alarming event.  I could also hear my late dad’s remonstrations in my head, to persist with a sensible job, but as I’ve mentioned, I’ve never been one to be told.  I was determined to re-evaluate life’s values, declutter and simplify, try to take some risks in the sense of “life is too short”.  Sorry for the cliché.  My usually sanguine GP put it directly: “you’re not going to be around much longer if you carry on like this”.  Luckily, I still had enough savings sufficient to relax for a little while, not including the £20 that dad gave me back in 1987 at Eaglescliffe railway station on an overcast afternoon as mam wiped away her tears.

An archaeologist’s mam, during Wimbledon week.

I think trouble started when I committed to work on three or four thousand Mesolithic lithics—flints—that I’d recovered from excavations on the North York Moors, a rescue dig in a rapidly eroding area, with features, and charcoal, in hearths.  I rented an office unit in North London and laid out all the flints, also reconciled with a 1:1 scale site plan drawn on a huge sheet of B&Q plastic.  That’s twenty rather ridiculous square meters, now folded up in the under-stairs cupboard.  Other than the office folk looking at me in a satisfyingly troubled way, at first, through the open door, I ended up offering guided tours of a hunter-gather camp, replete with hearths, and flints in a millennia of ziplocks.  Incidentally, the office was burgled twice, the door kicked off its hinges, but not a single flint was touched.

Nor can you take the Mesolithic out of the Spence; you can only have him sectioned.  I’ve now added thirteen radiocarbon dates for the Late Mesolithic and Neolithic transition in north-east Yorkshire where there are essentially none so far except for Star Carr, one from Nidderdale in the Yorkshire Dales, one from a fish trap at Seaton Carew, and one from peat around a stray serrated flint blade in a bog.  I funded most out of redundancy money, topped up by the lovely folks at the North York Moors National Park—Graham Lee, now just retired.  I’m not very good with waiting, and the gestation period for radiocarbon results is not particularly pretty in my household.  That’s probably why I live alone these days?  I did a brilliant radiocarbon course at Oxford last year and, after a lab tour, I can now understand why.  The machine also issued an alarm and promptly broke down, Bayesianally.

All spread out in the lithics lab.

However, I still need to publish the 14C results once I’ve re-assessed all the flints and feature associations, with great caution since some of the calibrated dates are effectively right at the transition to the Neolithic, essentially overlapping with early Neolithic ones from Street House, Loftus, on the coast between Saltburn and Whitby.  I’ve been digging there with Steve Sherlock and friends, of Anglo-Saxon Princess bling in a bed fame, for the last few years—clay in clay on clay, under clay, generally.  As of last year, we’ve added Teesside’s oldest “hoos”, dated to around 3700-3900 cal BC, to the mortuary structure and long cairn excavated in the 1980s.  It’s as if the hunter-gatherers were hanging on, stubbornly roasting their eco-nuts, in an enclave on the uplands while the grain bashers ground their cereals on the coast, and threw a few pots around, Grimston style.  Some things have not changed on Teesside.  Anyhow, I digress: it’s the quarry syndrome.

The stage is set for a Day of Archaeology blogpost in 2012.

I knew nobody, David.  I’d never really had time to engage with any organisations, societies or events in the heritage and archaeological world.  That had to change.  I’ve also always been a believer in the fundamental importance of people-networks, surrounding oneself with the inspirational.  I’ve learned in the last six years, if nothing else, that archaeology remains a world of “who you know”—yes you’re right there, as well as what, as I aspire to CIfA accreditation in mi’steel toecaps and hi-vis hard hat (the sensible one with steam-vent holes on the side, four squids in a B&Q sale).

The soul has always been in North Yorkshire and the north of England, despite subsisting in the Smoke for twenty-odd years.  So, off I trotted to York for a social media course hosted by CBA Yorkshire.  It wasn’t a big turnout, maybe a dozen folks.  I felt rather shy (which means I talk too much, ironically).  But I met Paul Brayford, then chair, Kev Cale, a community archaeologist for whom I’ve now delivered lithics training—for feisty school kids and the local society ahead of leaping around in ploughed fields.  I also met the lovely Pat Hadley who was, at the time, engaged in Mesolithic stuff at the University of York.  And I learned about WordPress blogging.  The microburin Mesolithic blog was born soon after.  It was Pat who mentioned on Facebook, one weekend, the first Wild Things Palaeolithic and Mesolithic conference at Durham.  “Why don’t you come along?” he nudged.  “Crikey” I indigested, “an academic conference”.

I swung to and fro, procrastinated with professional finesse, booked myself into mam’s airBNB sofa hospitality, and got myself a train ticket.  I actually ended up staying in my old university college room, Hatfield on the Bailey, and wondered how a human being could occupy such a tiny space, and a George VI period bed, for so long, as I consumed a newspaper-wrapped fish and many delicious scrappy chips in a stottie, alongside a dollop of mushy green squidge: perfect.

Wild Things was sublime.  The roll-call of new friends—including your good self—and acquaintances, kind introductions, compelling conversations, was mesmerizing, and immensely confidence building.  I could talk Mesolithic.  I can, and I will.  It was a pinch-yourself experience to actually have a poster at the second follow-on conference, where I met Harry the Fish (now Dr Robson) from York, amongst many miscreants.  Indeed, the Star Carr gang with whom I’m still largely in touch (I dug there for two seasons, mostly in rain, with Tim Schadla-Hall in the 1980s, a friendship recently reconnected; he marked my dissertation), are such a fab bunch of people.

Seamer Carr excavations which included test pitting at Star Carr, 1985-6. It rained every day except this one.

Actually, it’s the connectivity—as well as shed-loads of fieldwork and training refreshers, CPD if you will—that carried me to the point of having the confidence to re-position my LinkedIn profile away from corporate soundbites.  It’s now years since I last typed “reach out to” or “stretch goal”, since I toyed with a Boston Square or Nine Grid employee-eliminating value matrix.  I’d rather have a natter these days and pop a date in my diary, less “calendarizing” another human being.  I’m proud of quarter-of-a-century of business, and obviously you can’t delete that from a CV.  However, changing the job title to “Archaeologist”, hitting <save>, was a nervy moment—but a commitment to making a massive career switch a reality, engineering a new, or at least re-invigorated life.  That’s a lifestyle without money or luxury of course, one almost entirely coated in mud, infiltrated by gravel, but at least my heart thumps with a passion again.  And I’m not short of a ziplock or sharpie; yet I can whine justifiably.

It’s also about trust, David, frankly—building trust versus being perceived as a loopy crank.  Trust then has a direct, proportional relationship with self-confidence.  I’ve never been afraid to speak up, about advocacy—human, LGBTQ, social, archaeological—but with the concomitant fear of saying something stupid.  It’s a difficult path, but I’d rather take some risk in being a fool than a timid, subservient follower of others, or fashion, like bell-bottoms.  The sense of “no such thing as a dumb question” (and if you don’t know, ask) has generally worked, most of the time anyway.  Dark humour helps.  While I’m not altogether comfortable with being middle-aged now, there is some advantage in the silvering hair (Prof. Cramp’s “my, what an interesting hairstyle”) and an excuse for a goatee.  I guess I’ve also had my hedonistic years in 1990s Soho.

It’s been quite a revelation to be able to shake the hand of somebody I would have doffed my cap to as an awfully juvenile undergraduate.  The generosity and friendliness of the folks in archaeology, academic and commercial, by and large, has been the most delightful experience.  Nonetheless, the pay sucks.

Commercial archaeology: section drawing at -5°C with steel toecaps frozen to the gravel.

While this interview is feeling like a meandering autobiography, sorry, there are a few other key activities which have been important.  Serendipitously, as is often the case, I ended up volunteering as editor of CBA Yorkshire’s annual journal, now refreshed and eye-catching, and sitting on their committee, as I still do.  Editing and the diplomacy of sometimes having to turn down an article—not often though—is hard work.  Just when you thought you had a basic grasp of English grammar, hyphenation, conditional subjunctives, words contrive to prove you wrong.  Editing is also supremely rewarding, and printing things is almost a fetish (yes, another), if nerve-racking.  Whenever I open a page, the first page I open, the typo leaps out, laughs at you before slapping you in the face.  However, I think I’ve always been addicted to the smell of old books, journals, bindings—as well as the hot-off-the-press satinesque sensation of fresh ink and glue.  I’m also probably the only child who had chewed off the corner of his WH Smith logarithm booklet—the corner with the cosine I needed in the maths exam—fool.  Knowing Yorkshire, knowing Yorkshire folk and knowing enough about Yorkshire archaeology to be quite dangerous, my tenure has been an incredible opportunity to forge many friendships in that community, as well as with the other regional groups and “corporate” CBA.

On Teesside I re-joined the archaeological society too, and turned up to monthly lectures, ribbing one of the more vocal members for exploiting me as child labour in the 1980s—when “worms froze to my trowel” in a kind of allegorical Laurie Lee rosie without cider-esque way.  It wasn’t long before I was co-opted onto the committee, and ultimately arm-twisted into becoming chair—damn it.  Volunteering is like a Dyson—involuntarily sucked in and churned around forever without a dust bag.  However, we reversed the declining membership, refreshed the committee, and established an Internet presence—a website social media and mail-chimping.  “Thank god” somebody posted “TAS has entered the twenty-first century!” What was also been satisfying is the sense that despite over two elapsed decades, I was still known to many, as if there hadn’t been a hiatus.  In fact, Blaise Vyner, former Cleveland County archaeologist, mused that everybody thought I’d graduated and been sucked (sic) into the bowels, or consumed by the infinite bureaucracy, of what was then English Heritage.

I lasted a year as chair of TAS but, having succumbed to the ‘advocacy’ bug—inevitably with a political bent—it was clear that ventures beyond an annual lecture series were not entirely everybody’s cup of tea, although I valued and enjoyed developing the speaker portfolios.  The mileage every month from London was also the equivalent of driving to Hawai’i and back.  I’m still a TAS member of course, and pleased to be involved in some of their upcoming fieldwork this year, as a flinty specialist, soon to be announced.

New friends: “You’ll be Spence, then?” Street House, Loftus 2014.

If there’s time and space later, I’d mention the crucial role of social media, and of blogging, and syndicated blog referencing, as an icebreaker strategy.  It’s always a joyous thing, with all humility, to feel a tap on the shoulder: “are you Spence, Microburin?” whether at an event, a conference, a training course or on a dig; occasionally in my local Sainsbury’s superstore although that might have more to do with past misdemeanours in the days before integrity.  Of course, there’s also the tribal ritual that is the annual Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) event, and the associated flu pandemic, the wonderful Day of Archaeology blogfest, and I have booked this year’s CIfA conference in Newcastle.  Now that I recall it, back in 2012, it was at a then IfA’s Diggers’ Forum day at MoLA-on-Thames that it dawned on me how little some things had changed in archaeology—the profession as it were—pay, conditions, benefits, ludicrous minima, intra- and post-recessional carnage and, well, to read that there’s a shortage of experienced archaeologists in the commercial sector.

Out and about: Prehistoric Society trip to the Bronze Age site of Must Farm in 2016 with the fantastic Mark Knight, bobble hat, centre. Image courtesy of the Must Farm excavation team.

Nor have impenetrable theoretical papers dropped out of the periodical arena, despite paywall protection.  Oh, and I’d add the chilling horror of how relatively little practical fieldwork training there appears to be for many undergraduates. My Durham course required a substantial proportion of fieldwork during almost every vacation, as a mandatory part of the final honours degree.  There are still, it seems, many irreconcilable, post-processual and contradictory home truths. So I wrote an article. It was published. And now I am on the inside of commercial archaeology, with more poorly-remunerated work lined up, for better or worse, for sand and for gravel, and impregnable boulder clay.

TBOM:  I have to say you sound pretty well integrated now – and you’ve also given me a renewed vigour for my own (pre)historic region. I think that, with your experience of coming back to the world of archaeology and re-connecting with both the professional network and research interests, therein lies a truly useful road map for individuals wanting to kick start an archaeological career.  We both know it takes dedication, groundwork and time to get to know people, to join associations or societies, and to attend events and workshops.  The ability to master new skills is also a bonus, particularly one in archaeology where it seems each archaeologist has their own specialism (or two) and focus area.

How have you found being on the numerous boards and advocating for the archaeology and heritage sector though?  Has there been any particular differences on national boards compared to more regional or research specific associations or societies, for instance?

SC:  I’m not sure I’ve been on a sufficient number of councils and committees to form a representative view, but I can acknowledge the diversity of interests, demographics, degrees of health and challenges.  There was a particularly insightful conference hosted by CBA in York in 2013 where a large number of county societies and local history groups gathered to share their experiences, successes, and their difficulties.

Council for British Archaeology Groups conference, York 2013. © Council for British Archaeology.

There’s a useful distinction to be made, in general, between the more traditional ‘heavy-weight’ organisations like period-based or county-based groups, organisations geared to advocacy like Save Old Oswestry and, closer to my home area, Hands On Middlesbrough, and organisations built around fieldwork, almost inevitably supported by the Heritage Lottery.  There’s diversity too on the national scene. I’ve been a member of CBA, both national and regional, since a teenager.  While some of the regional groups, again very diverse in nature, sometimes struggle to differentiate their roles, and of course to adequately resource their ambitions, I’ve always seen CBA as an impeccably diplomatic organisation navigating between (or above) national politics and policy, and the convolutions of the volatile sectors across academic, commercial and public domains.  While I respect the diplomacy, I sometimes wonder that it is perhaps a little too discreet, careful to balance differing positions if you will.

For that reason, and spurned on like many of my peers by the last couple of general elections, I joined RESCUE for different reasons, as an ‘activist’ counter balance.  It was a little daunting to then be invited to join their council committee but satisfying in the sense that I believe campaigning and having a voice requires something a little more provocative—challenging intransigence and the status quo.  Advocacy can be a-political in a party political sense, but for me it is inevitably politicized at both a local and national level.  Austerity is a choice, a set of policies, attitude and dogma, and so its impact in our world of archaeology, heritage and place-making, and the decisions around investment or attrition, are absolutely political.  I also prefer to be a voice on the inside of an organization, like CIfA for example, than whining from the outside: “having skin in the game” from my distant business-speak past.

Teesside Archaeological Society lecture, here with Gary Bankhead talking about his medieval finds from the River Wear in Durham. Image: S. Carter.

The mixed fortunes of the more traditional societies have seen some difficult decisions being made around financial wellbeing and their existing membership – and their ambitions to address a still very much white, middle class and aging demographic.  Some are more savvy around trying to address, evolve, and frankly market, their offers while others perhaps struggle to maintain their value (and for whom) in an Internet-dominated digital world.  Nor does one size fit all in the sense of risking the alienation of a proportion of the in situ membership. The ability to maintain a dedicated headquarters without a sufficient income stream has affected a number of societies, such as the Yorkshire Archaeological (and now also Historical) Society, as has the ever increasing cost of print and postage, and hosting events.  Recalling the CBA conference I mentioned, almost every organisation recognises the desirability of increasing the diversity and sustainability of their subscription base—age, background and ethnicity, from cradle to grave if I can phrase it like that. From personal experience, not everybody is keen on advocacy work either – having a voice – versus a genteel lecture-based agenda and occasional forays into the field “in suitable footwear”.

On the other hand, Web-based technologies have revolutionized the ability for groups to reach, at least in principle, larger audiences.  Yet the presence of somebody on the committee with the technical ability and, importantly, the time to exploit the online, and largely free, tools is a very practical challenge.  This is also an area where consistency and follow-through is important in order to build, maintain and grow an audience.

So the strength and weakness of a committee or board of trustees often relies on the passion and energy of a spirited individual, or a few members, on that committee.  Even for organisations, charitable or otherwise, with a constitution, there is often a gulf between the need to rotate the management team periodically, usually every three or four years, and the willingness of the membership to get involved with both its strategic direction as well as its day-to-day operation.  While it is rewarding, it is, in many senses, also a very time-consuming commitment.  It is tremendously easy to get drawn in and less easy to extract oneself or find a line of succession!

TBOM:  I think anyone who has ever sat on a committee, or a trustee board, knows that the vibrancy to achieve the aims and continued function of the organisation can be tough, but it is very much necessary in order for them to remain dynamic.

I’ve read your recently published article ‘Middlesbrough has no Archaeology? The Unique Archaeology of Teesside‘, at Hands On Middlesbrough, on the real wealth of archaeological sites within the local region.  As I reread it now I am again stunned at the sites on my doorstep from all periods, a few I have had the pleasure to excavate at or to analyse the human skeletal remains, but more I have only passed in the car, sometimes unknowingly.

Also mentioned in the piece is the scrapping of the AS and A Levels in archaeology, anthropology, and classical civilizations by the AQA exam board in the United Kingdom without any form of consultation.  I’ve been meaning to write about this for my site, but I am stunned once again reading it, especially when the fruits of such programmes as Operation Nightingale (where ex-service individuals who have been traumatically injured are given the opportunity to learn new skills via archaeological practice) are reaping rewards with the approach.

Spencer, you have mentioned the importance of advocacy for the heritage and archaeological environment, both between the practitioners and their representatives, and the public and elected officials, but how can this be implemented on the ground, so to speak?  I guess I’m also asking how you are approaching this, with the development of your knowledge and now extensive experience and contacts within the region.

SC:  Advocacy or agitation, David?  In the present times of political austerity, I feel increasingly an agitator, and that archaeology is, and must be, inherently political—as I’ve mentioned already.  It has a cost and a proven return on investment and wellbeing, so it’s economic too.  There’s a good article on the BBC website about the challenges posed by HS2 and megaprojects.  I wonder if ‘advocacy’ has taken on a more passive meaning, over-used in a similar way to ‘heritage’ risking the de-coupling of on-the-ground cultural value from what the past actually contributes to communities and stakeholders.  I think a number of us felt uncomfortable with the recent British Academy report (not least with the make-up of the panel of experts) Reflections on Archaeology. It risks perpetuating hard-line boundaries between ‘public’, ‘professional’ and ‘academic’ and, for me, fails to reflect on the larger stakeholder diversity and interaction, although it recognises the need for greater cooperation. Even defining ‘public archaeology’, as distinct from ‘community archaeology’ is a contentious can of worms reflected in many a Doctoral thesis!

On that note, and having been able to attend the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists conference a few months ago in Newcastle, I particularly enjoyed the research of Gemma Tully and Tom Moore at Durham University on stakeholder-building around ‘cultural landscapes’, in both France and Britain: REFIT: Resituating Europe’s First Towns, a case study in enhancing knowledge transfer and developing sustainable management of cultural landscapes.  What started off as Iron Age oppida-centric became a much richer insight into public engagement, some transparent, some not.  Of particular interest, gleaned through extensive community surveys and interviews, are the different perceptions (and comprehension) about the stability and resilience of landscapes through time.  To quote from the excellent presentation, the project took “an ecosystems services approach to assess how stakeholders understand and manage cultural landscapes, integrating stakeholders’ perceptions into future management strategies.”

So having dug a trench for myself here, David—and not wanting to backfill it on myself—I think it might be better illustrate the power (and complexity) of networking around a set of inter-related causes and interests, archaeological, historical, environmental and utterly social.  And efforts bring us to Teesside again, the well-trodden woods and moorlands of a misspent youth.  Recent years have seen a rapid increase in vandalism, arson, illegal off-roaders which are causing irreparable damage to both the natural and archaeological environment of the Eston Hills – an outlier of the North York Moors sitting above the urban and industrial sprawl of Teesside.  By example, there have been over 16 devastating fires (and burned out vehicles) in April this year alone—that’s 60% of such events for the entirety of 2016!

With help from the Heritage Lottery Fund North East and Teesside Archaeological Society, I’ve been working with my friend and Durham archaeology student Adam Mead, and many others, on building a community project, for which Adam is director, to assess, sample and rescue the archaeology, but also to pull together the many stakeholders across the community to focus on sustainable solutions—with political momentum. ICE AND FIRE is making excellent progress, ahead of summer fieldwork, on rallying many voices, including the Friends of Eston Hills, around a single ‘landscape’ community cause.  Our aim is to try and turn around perceptions and behaviour, across generations and backgrounds, to make the destruction by a minority socially unacceptable.  From an archaeological perspective we have a unique landscape, and a wetland that holds great potential, dating back at least to the early Mesolithic in the ninth millennium BC! We know because flint artefacts are being brought to the surface by off-road vehicles, erosion and fires.  Indeed, if the wetland proves to date back to the end of the last Ice Age, the potential is both rare and very exciting.

What’s more, Media engagement has helped underpin a recent public meeting hosted by Redcar’s MP (now re-elected), Anna Turley who has been horrified by the carnage—and the very real risk to human life.  A great turnout, and vociferous opinions, were addressed to a panel which included emergency services, council representatives and community organisations.  The story is very much ongoing!  We also hope that this will form a kind of template set of options and case studies in building a stakeholder campaign against the seemingly intractable challenges.

There are a number of ways to get involved, both in the field as it were, but also in finds processing.  We have interest across the community, including school kids and a visually-impaired volunteer, and from the continent.  Diversity and inclusion are core to the project’s goals, and we hope it endures well beyond this year thanks to interest and support from Durham and Teesside Universities.  It would be great to see you around for a bit of flint washing and good humour! Teesside is on the map!!

TBOM:  As you know I hope to join the Ice and Fire project within the next few months, depending on my health, and I am very much looking forward to it.  From the regularly updated social media accounts to the community engagement and involvement, I’ve been impressed by what Adam, yourself and countless others have so far managed to achieve with the project.  It has been far too long since I have had the chance or opportunity to look at prehistoric flints and landscape features, and the opportunity to do so in my own backyard is a one that invigorates me.  To me this is one of the core strengths of archaeology as a whole – the ability to understand the (pre)history of a landscape and its people, from changes in population in the larger scheme of time to the minute aspects of change over a few years.

We’ve managed to cover a lot of ground during this interview, including the chance to highlight the rich cultural heritage of our beloved Teesside, but before we conclude our talk I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the future of archaeology as a sector.  What can up and coming archaeologists, students and volunteers do to help preserve, conserve and educate others?

SC:  Thanks, David, for the opportunity to share a personal side of a lifelong archaeological passion—the one you and I ruminate about for Teesside, and way beyond. Teesside is on the map these days!  I know that not everybody will share the same views, vistas into the past, largely white (male) and economically-priveleged historical narratives about our “shared” space.  However, the chance to be provoked—to think, assess and imagine ahead—is always cathartic. I hope this interview nudges some agendas forward, makes folk think.  We all need to transform our neighbourhoods to reflect what and who we are, together, every day.  Archaeology is contemporary, in this sense.  We constantly change and interact—as humanity does.  We need to be more confident, locally, to develop our heritage and socially-cohesive agendas here – what we value and what makes us part of the “same but disimilar community team”.

More recent media pieces perhaps assume varying degrees of doom and crisis in our sector.  We bleed into many others, unwittingly subservient to “lowest-cost basement” drainage ditches of archaeological sector undercutting—cogniscent of the folks who can’t sustain a viable lifestyle on this; such is our present political world.  That is what the media want and do, too.  I remain confident that our profession will play a key role in at least four ways:

  • Developing synergies—true investment and collaboration (howsoever funded)—between Communities (localism), local interest (representation) and campaign groups (gatekeepers for our environment against government folly) empowered to challenge bad planning decisions, and funded to explore and understand their (our) own place through time;
  • As part of understanding, with confidence, we recognise a joined-up approach to an ecological space that encompasses both climatic, natural environmental and human influences, sustainably—and not least lessons we can so definitely learn from the past (Brexit in mind);
  • Integrate present social realities that need to make inclusion, a respect for our continuous flux of incomers and outgoers (our dynamic communities), relevant, inviting and engaging;
  • Build our neighbourhoods around diverse cultural legacies—our own, like Teesside—but also of those from the most spectacular of global heritages too that back-challenge and ask for inclusion (challenging Brexit head-on).

TBOM:  I think there is a lot to chew over there and I wish you the best of luck with your engagement and research Spencer!  More importantly I look forward to joining you on the Ice and Fire project in the near future, ready to help make a difference to our local archaeological and contemporary environment for everyone.  Thank you once again for joining me today at These Bones of Mine.

Further Information

  • To learn more about the latest Mesolithic archaeology research and news, check out Spencer’s excellent Microburin blog.

  • Head over to TimeVista Archaeology to learn more about the commercial and academic research that has been carried out by Spencer.  TimeVista Archaeology is a freelance practice for commercial, non-profit and community-based engagement events who specialize in a whole host of archaeological-related fun.  This can include learning about and taking part in activities such as field archaeology events, providing expert help on social media outreach and the education of the fun and importance of lithic analysis!

  • Head over to the awesome Ice and Fire project homepage to learn about the heritage of over 10,000 years in the Tees estuary in north-east England.  This Heritage Lottery funded project unites a range of specialists to provide a community-led endeavor to ‘explore, record and celebrate over ten thousand years of human life, death, ingenuity and persistence’.

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Guest Interview: Introducing the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS) with Marit Van Cant, & Co-Founders Davina Craps & Hélène Déom

27 Feb

Marit Van Cant is a PhD-fellow for the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), and in a joint PhD between the Free University of Brussels (VUB, Belgium) and the University of Sheffield (UK).  She completed her Master’s Degree in Archaeology at the VUB in 2012.  Since 2010 she has been specialising in human osteology by participating in several key courses at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and Leiden University (The Netherlands), and also in the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield as a part of the European Union Erasmus exchange programme in 2011.  Approaching the final stage of her PhD thesis, Marit has been appointed as Student Representative of the Society for Medieval Archaeology in 2016-2017, for which she has organised its annual Student Colloquium in Brussels, the first time that the event took place outside the UK.

Dr. Davina Craps, finished her doctoral degree at Durham University in 2015 and specialises in palaeopathology (the study of disease in the past), with a research focus on rheumatology.  She completed her undergraduate studies at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and went on to get Master’s degrees specializing in osteology, anatomy, funerary archaeology, eastern Mediterranean archaeology and palaeopathology from the Catholic University Leuven (Belgium), the University of Sheffield (UK), and Durham University (UK).  She is currently applying for postdoctoral funding, and runs her own freelance osteology company called Osteoarc, which specialises in the analysis and assessment of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts for commercial units and museums.

Hélène Déom undertook a Master’s degree in Archaeology at the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium) then another Master’s degree in Human Osteology and Funerary Practices at the University of Sheffield (UK).  During her studies, she specialised in prehistoric burials from Belgium and England.  After graduation in 2014, she started to work for archaeologists from the Public Service of Wallonia (SPW), examining skeletons excavated from medieval parish cemeteries.  She’s been working freelance since 2015 under the name of TIBIA, which specialises  in the analysis of human skeletal remains from archaeological contexts.


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Marit, thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  I know you, of course, from my time at the University of Sheffield a few years ago but since then you have been working on your PhD, alternating between the University of Sheffield, in England, and Free University of Brussels, in Belgium.  How is your research going?  And how did you become involved in helping to set up Belgian Osteoarchaeology and Physical Anthropology Society (BOAPAS)?

Marit Van Cant (MCV):  Hi David!  Indeed a while ago – besides the several times we met at conferences, remember the Society of American Archaeology 2015 annual meeting in San Francisco where I had the privilege to listen to your nice talk on the public importance of communicating bioarchaeology of care research (and not to mention the famous Vesuvio Cafe we frequented afterwards!).  Time flies indeed since we both studied together at the University of Sheffield!

I am currently in the writing up stage of my PhD research, which is about the skeletal analysis of rural and small urban sites, mainly in Flanders, and one rural site from the United Kingdom.  Besides the general health status, I’ll look at entheseal changes on both inter- and intra-population level, and the impact of occupational activities and the environment on these populations, in conjunction with archaeological and historical sources.  But, enough said of this project – I would like to defend my PhD by the end of this year! – and this interview is all about BOAPAS, right?

So, this is how it all started: In October 2015, I was asked to give a presentation at the Dead Men Talking Symposium in Koksijde, Belgium, on the state of the art of osteological research in Flanders. 

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The meeting taking place on the 27th February 2016 at the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

It was clear that, not only in Flanders, but also in Wallonia, (I will not dwell on details of the complex political situation in Belgium, but briefly: Flanders is the Dutch speaking part, and they speak mainly French in Wallonia), many young (and less young) researchers in bone studies are forced to study abroad, such as in the United Kingdom, in France, or in The Netherlands.  Although we do have many skeletal remains in Belgium, previously excavated or even to be uncovered in the (near) future, there is currently no clear overview of which skeletal collection is yet to be studied, or of the depository this bone material is stored at.

So, me and three other participants at the conference, Hélène Déom, Davina Craps and Marieke Gernay, decided to gather not only all osteologists (human bone specialists and archaeozoologists) in Belgium, but also employees working in heritage agencies, museums and archaeologists (both contractors, including commercial and academic researcher and lecturers) in order to provide a platform for everyone working with osteological material from archaeological contexts.

We started with an announcement and a mailing list at this conference, and collected the contact details of c. 30 people on that day.  We created a mail address, which was still called Belgian Osteological Research group as we hadn’t decided on the name of our society yet!  Our next step was to announce our first meeting.  This was organised on February 27th 2016 in the small auditorium of the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, with many thanks to Caroline Polet for providing us this location.

TBOM:  I certainly do remember the Versuvio Cafe, and I think if you had told 16-year-old me that he would be drinking where Kerouac and Ginsberg had drunk in San Francisco, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.  (Not to mention visiting the City Lights bookstore and watching an excellent band in a dive bar!).  I wish you good luck with your PhD defense, but I’d like to know more about the topics that were discussed in regards to setting up the society.

I’m impressed that your group managed to pull together and contact a full representation of the individuals who are involved with skeletal remains from archaeological contexts in Belgium, but how did you decide what topics to mention and how did you move forward?

MVC:  That bookstore was indeed amazing!  And the beatnik spirit still surviving in that bar . . .  Good memories will never fade away!

We welcomed 11 members at our first meeting, both from Flanders and Wallonia, and decided to communicate in English to facilitate international accessibility.  On the other hand, French and Dutch translations on our website will be available too.

Further topics we discussed included the aims of our society:

  • To provide information about professionals in the field within Belgium.
  • To improve communication in osteological matters, especially between people from the different regions of the country.
  • To produce a database of skeletal collections and the relevant institutions that hold the various skeletal collections.
  • The legalisation of our society, and whether to become a non-profit society or not, and which steps should be undertaken to achieve that goal.
  • Decide on the name and logo of the group itself.

To choose the latter one, an online poll was created, and finally, BOAPAS, or the Belgian Osteoarchaeology & Physical Anthropology Society, came out as the most favoured name for our new society.

Once the name and vision statement were created, we worked on managing and maintaining our visibility.  Online visibility comprehends a website with a forum as well as social media profiles such as on Facebook and Twitter.  But, there is always room for improvement of course, so we are still working on the design and content of the site itself and how we reach out to individuals and other like-minded societies and organisations.

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The delightful BOAPAS cards advertising the society, and the joy of using sliding calipers to measure skeletal elements and anatomical landmarks. Image credit: Marit Van Cant.

The site gives an overview of our aims and vision statement (why we are doing it) and ways to contact the group (via email address, possibly via social networks).  At a later stage, we would like to include a forum and the database can be linked to it.  All details that will be added to the website can be discussed, tested, improved or removed as appropriate.  We also created a list of people who are currently available for short or long term assignments, or available in the future, with their photograph and biographical details demonstrating their background and skill sets.

TBOM:  I have to say I do adore those business cards, they manage to effectively communicate the message of the aim of the society and the methods used in physical anthropology and osteoarchaeology in a lovely way!  So, do you foresee any major areas where you may run into problems in setting up the society?

Aligned to this question, do you, by starting up BOAPAS, hope to bring into existence a firmer framework for osteological studies, within academic research and commercial work, in the Belgian archaeology and anthropology sector?

Hélène Déom (HD):  Thank you, those business cards are the result of effective teamwork to create them.  We are really proud of them.  There are, of course, major problems, as usual, when a society is being set up and they include time, money and legislation.  I’d say that is a long shot, but I’m dreaming of creating such a strong framework for osteology in Belgian archaeology…  What about you, ladies?

Davina Craps (DC):  Thank you for the nice compliment.  The business cards are one of the many examples of effective teamwork within BOAPAS.  We believe in involving our members as much as possible in the decisions and the running of the society.

We don’t really foresee any major problems, as there is a definite interest in BOAPAS both from the physical anthropologists who are active in Belgium and from the archaeological community itself.  One of the smaller issues that we have to deal with is the time it takes to set up a society.  All three of the founding members have other obligations aside from the society, thus it can be challenging to create enough free time to spend on the society’s needs.  Another issue that we are currently dealing with is how to create a more official platform for BOAPAS to operate from.  We are currently looking at legislation when it comes to societies and other options to allow BOAPAS to continue growing.

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A photograph of the founding members of BOAPAS, left to right: Marieke Gernay, Marit Van Cant, Davina Craps and Hélène Déom. Image credit: Hélène Déom.

We are indeed hoping to create a strong framework, where there currently isn’t really one in place.  The aim of BOAPAS is to facilitate stronger lines of communication between commercial archaeology, museums, and the physical anthropologists.

MVC:  Yes, thanks David for your comments on the cards.  I believe the major challenges we are facing right now is sorting out legal issues on non-profit organisations, and who we should contact for external advice regarding this.  Setting up a society requires after all a whole procedure we need to take into account.  This means in the near future, we have to elect board members such as a president, treasurer, and secretary, and to accomplish this, we hope we can find people with the right amount of time and dedication to work, especially on the further development of our website, FB-page, newsletters, communication on meetings, vacancies, conference calls, etc.

It is very supportive to notice the mainly positive feedback we have received so far, and it is also good to know that the Dutch Association of Physical Anthropologists (the NVFA) has offered to set up joint-events in the near future.  I believe it is important to maintain close relationships with our foreign partners, such as British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteology (BABAO) and the NVFA, as several members (like me) are a member of both societies.  Finally, our main goal is indeed to develop a strong and consistent framework in Belgium (this means both Flanders and Wallonia!) in osteology matters.  On a later stage, another motivation would be the development of offering osteology courses, for instance within the archaeological training at our universities, but that would be another challenge on the long run.

TBOM:  That sounds great about both the future collaboration between The Netherlands and Belgian organisations, and the possible development of offering osteology courses.  I always think that tailored osteology short courses can offer both the public and the practitioner alike opportunities to increase their knowledge base, and also remain up to date on the theories and methodologies that inform osteological research, especially so if some form of accreditation can take place.

So, I think I must ask that, having been a member of the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) and the Palaeopathology Association, both of which have been around for some time, I’m curious as to why has it taken a while for Belgium to have a osteologically focused society?

MVC:  These short courses would be a good start indeed to show the basic principles of osteological research, both in- and ex-situ to principally archaeology students and archaeologists dealing with skeletal remains.  Outreach to the general public is currently undertaken through workshops to mainly high school students, or even to children from minority families living in ‘deprived areas’ in Brussels.

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Marit Van cant examining human skeletal material. Marit is currently the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s student representative, check out the society’s website for more information. Image credit: SMA/Marit Van Cant.

Although Belgium has a longstanding and internationally acclaimed tradition in palaeontological studies with the discovery of hominid remains in several caves in Wallonia in the 19th century, it was not until the 1950’s when the study of human bones from an archaeological context advanced here, and this is mainly due to pioneer research from scholars working in the field of medicine.  In Flanders, osteological research within an archaeological context have only really developed since the late 1990’s.

A shortage in human osteology studies was also noticed by Leguebe (1983: 28-29) who argued that the expansion of (physical) anthropology in Belgium, compared to other countries, was impeded by a lack in ‘organized teaching ratified by a legal diploma’.  In 1919, plans were initiated to found an institution for anthropology studies in Brussels, but, these attempts were unfortunately unsuccessful.  Other factors that might influence a deficit in an organised osteology framework are scarce funding and resources, alongside the complex political structure in our country.  Belgium has one society, the Royal Belgian Society for Anthropology and Prehistory (RBSAP), founded in 1882, and which co-operates closely with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

DC, HD and MVC:  Although the RBSAP publishes a yearly bulletin with articles, and organises an annual general meeting, their website (which is only accessible in French) has not been updated since 2010.  Further, we believe that the RBSAP is slightly more focused on prehistoric research, which we obviously support since the many findings of fossil remains in Wallonia (e.g. in 2010, the RBSAP organised an excursion to the Spy cave).

In addition, with BOAPAS, we would like to pay attention to osteology studies covering all historic periods from both Wallonia and Flanders, and to offer a vivid platform and discussion forum via social media and our (partially trilingual, but mainly English) website, on current and future research of skeletal remains.  We certainly believe in co-operation and the free flow of information, thus we have reached out to the RBSAP to hold a meeting with the organising committee in order to discuss joint possibilities.  Perhaps this collaboration between the established values of RBSAP and the fresh, motivated perspective of BOAPAS can truly invigorate the scene of osteology in Belgium.

TBOM:  In that case then, I can see why there is a need to set up BOAPAS in order to improve upon the knowledge and research base for osteological studies within Belgium.  Please do keep in touch as both myself and my readers would love to know about upcoming events and courses.

MVC:  Thank you very much for the discussion!  Just to let you and your readers know we do have a collaboration between BOAPAS and the Gallo-Roman Museum in Ath, Belgium, is currently undertaken for an exhibition on funerary traditions, and it is scheduled to open in 2018.  And keep an eye on our website at www.boapas.be for upcoming news and events!  We are also still looking for volunteers to help out with the design and layout of the site, so please do get in touch if any of your readers are interested and able to help us build the website.

TBOM: Thank you very much for talking with me today, and I wish you all the best of luck with BOAPAS!

Further Information