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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

Digging Up Time, Part 2: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

5 Feb

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication released in 2013, 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 present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book on a recent 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 long periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book, of which I’ve recently finished reading for the first time, 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 1997 publication Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва), a volume which I’m currently reading.  It is a book 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.  The 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) is due for 2017, which 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 and I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends of their experiences of archaeology – as a career, as a dream, as a labour of love.

(Part 1 can be read here).


Introductory monologue – handed to a friend for a thought or two

Amy S.  Mid twenties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I would love to say archaeology spiked my interest from a young age in some fantastical way but the truth is I really enjoyed that classic Saturday morning show of the 90’s – ‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’…  I was never that concerned with the more realistic version of what archaeology was, such as portrayed in shows like Time Team, yet when given the opportunity to volunteer on an excavation, aged 15, it was luckily that the reality did actually fascinate me.  From then on in I was hooked and I knew from that first experience that I wanted to work more with human remains and figure out that jigsaw puzzle of materials that I had helped lift from the ground.

After completing my Masters degree in human osteology, I did some work in post-excavation analyses, worked in a museum and went on an extended period of travelling.  Upon my return home I looked for work as a field archaeologist and have only been working as such for the past 4 months or so…  As a fresh-faced, bright-eyed newbie I have to say I love my job, but realise I am not nearly weathered enough to provide a well-rounded comment on the subject of life in commercial archaeology.

Therefore, asking around the site cabin on a rainy day I have managed to get the histories and opinions of my more experienced and (for the most part) much less upbeat colleagues.  A vlog might be a better way of truly capturing some of the characters in this hut but it is not possible to do this just yet.  The question and answers are interrupted sporadically with Star Wars quotes, bickering and bantering about the traits of units some have worked for previously, and discussing whether or not to play undead dice…


Deciding on a career, the trowel leads the way

Phillip O.  Late twenties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I chose archaeology because it starts with an ‘A’ and was on the first page of a careers website I was searching.  I’ve now been in archaeology for nearly two years, so pretty fresh into it…  You don’t need to do well at university to be an archaeologist, it matters more that you can actually talk to people and not be completely insufferable, and that you can actually dig.

Engineering and construction companies pretend to care but really don’t.  Their profit is the bottom line and if the archaeology cuts too far into it they aren’t cool with it; you get the odd guy on the ground who cares about and is interested in the things that we are doing, but it’s definitely outside the norm.

Probably the best thing for someone in my situation is getting to move around and live in a few different places around the country, and meeting some really amazing people with a few proper weirdos sprinkled in for colour.


Snapshot of the frustrations of the digger

John D.  Mid thirties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I’ve been in field archaeology for almost 10 years, which is longer than average, though I attempted to leave and re-train as a teacher.  That didn’t work out so I came back to archaeology after a three-year break.  As for most people, it started off as a big adventure, travelling around the country feeling rather intrepid working in all-weather conditions.  The awful mud, rain and snow created a sense of achievement and comradery.  However, by my late twenties, I was growing tired of not being able to live in my own home (because of working away so much), the short contracts and the lack of loyalty (of companies towards their staff), and the low wages (largely caused by competitive tendering).

I felt that if one of these three factors could be changed then I could put up with the other two.  Unfortunately, this didn’t seem possible and at the same time the recession started in earnest and the work dried up entirely.  I spent three years trying to be a teacher, which of course has its own raft of problems, but returned to archaeology simply because I needed a job I could do.

Since I returned, I have worked on some incredible archaeology and a lot of incredibly boring archaeology.  Ditches, drains, the usual sites that lead nowhere but are necessary.  The people I work with make it enjoyable, but the work makes me too tired to be able to pursue other interests and develop skills to eventually leave archaeology for good.  It’s a trap really as the work stops me learning a new job, but doesn’t pay me enough to be able to save up to take time off to learn something new.


On the tensions in the sector and the paths found to survive

Stepan S.  25 years old.  PhD researcher.

 –  Becoming an archaeologist was never something I thought about.  As a kid I wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, to study economics and to work in business…  in fact almost everything out there apart from archaeology.  But I must say that I have never regretted choosing this field.

What has left the biggest impression was, and is, the passion.  I have not met a single person working in archaeology who does not have the highest level of enthusiasm.  I suppose one has to, considering the less than adequate pay.  As a colleague once said “we are the most qualified and the least paid profession”.  Although a generalisation, I tend to agree with the sentiment.

The enthusiasm of the field archaeologist though is poorly reflected in the desire to improve conditions and pay by such bodies as the CIfA (the British Chartered Institute of Archaeologists).  Sadly even unions seem to be more of a career ladder for the more politically minded archaeologists than a real body which reflects the need of the workers.  This inadequacy has led me to believe that academia is the only viable path for a career.  Combined with my passion for early medieval archaeology, it led me to pursue a PhD.

However even here financial difficulties let us down.  With grants being few and far between, I opted for the option of studying abroad in France.  Although I am delighted with my current situation, I do hope that there will be a change in the pay, benefits, and opportunities for archaeologists of the United Kingdom.

Looking back at fieldwork opportunities as an undergraduate I remembered a difficulty in finding excavations which I could attend for free.  This has led me to start a little side project called digarchaeology.  Still in its infancy, it will act as an advertisement board for digs around the world so all those interested may find a place to excavate.  After all, this is how passion for archaeology is forged.


Knowing the right people and joining the circuit

Fire breather.  Field archaeologist.

–  I got into archaeology through a university clearing option after missing BBB-ABC.  However I was disappointed in my university course for not putting more emphasis on field work.  I only got into field archaeology through a well-known regional training dig which I did out of university.  It was through the contacts there that I got onto a field job in the first place.  Getting into the field seems to be more through “who you know” than “what you know”, or by how much academic instruction you receive.

I have been lucky in not getting much sexism, but when it happens it can be an awkward situation for all to be in…  I have been ‘in’ for 4 years, but with significant breaks, due to either contract differences or lack of a stable base due to having to move on the circuit.


The attention never looked for, never sought

Amber D.  29 years old.  Post-excavation supervisor.

–  I was a naive girl in my early 20’s when I entered the world of archaeology, I had no idea I had actually entered the world of harassment that was heading my way…  Honestly, in each archaeological job I have had or for each archaeological company I have worked with, I have had more than one harassment experience to go along with it.

Whether it was anonymous text messages talking about my underwear, having my bum grabbed by fellow field team members or even by the managers, disgusting sexual (or downright disturbing) comments made by either field team members, clients visiting the site, the ubiquitous construction workers or my managers, to full-on being kissed and felt up without prompting.

Most of these times I had been too scared or shocked to say or do anything, and the couple of times I did speak up to supervisors or line managers it came to nothing and nothing in turn was done.  Looking back I wish I had spoken up more, it was a different time to now where there were fewer women working in field archaeology.  Often I’d be the only woman on site or in the field team…  I hope now it is not like this but I am not holding my breath in all honesty.


Life in the field and looking for pastures new

Felicity P.  Late twenties.  Field archaeologist.

–  My experience in commercial archaeology has been fairly mixed, I have worked for a few different companies.  The job can be amazing but it can also be awful depending on the site, the management, and the people you’re working with.

Most of the time it’s the people you’re working with that make the job enjoyable, like most jobs I guess.  On the other hand there are limited opportunities for advancement and specialisation.  I also feel that we as field archaeologists can’t always discuss problems with management in most cases and this is a big hindrance within the sector, towards either proper pay conditions or towards true career progression.

For these reasons I have been looking to leave commercial archaeology and retrain elsewhere.  Overall I do think some aspects of the job have improved – organisations such as the CIFA and BAJR have been working on improving pay and working conditions, but there are still problems like sexism.  Other contractors on infrastructure projects or building sites are generally better treated than archaeologists and are much better paid too.


 For a final time the author rejoins

  We’ve sifting through the spoil heap as the site winds down to a close.  We’ve been lucky and managed to hear from a small selection of the archaeologists who, day in and day out, uncover the past and document it for all.  They have aired their dreams and hopes, grumbles and disappointments, yet theirs is a job fired by passion itself.  I remain awed by the range of characters within the sector and a tad worried by a tumultuous present and its impact on the future.  Perhaps now we know what it means to live through, and to be a part of, historic times even if our stories remain unable to change the larger narrative continually unfolding.

Yet there is something more here, as I turn over the crumbs of soil in my hands, searching for the invisible links to a tangible history.  The material remains can only say so much, the individual voices within an archaeological context normally remain silent, skirted briefly as shadows chased along the trench lines.  As do the voices of the archaeologists themselves, their views so often buried as the final layer of the spoil that is laid as a final deposit over the excavated remains.  Yet to do so is to ignore the function of archaeology itself; it is not to crown long dead kings or to marvel at the invisible boundaries of long forgotten empires, it is instead to hold the story of humanity in your hand, whether the bones that are uncovered are from an individual long-thought lost or whether that hand is an archaeologist in the process of uncovering our shared history…  We each have stories to tell, we each have our own time to dig.

Digging Up Time, Part 1: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

30 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication released in 2013, 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 present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book on a recent 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 long periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book, of which I’ve recently finished reading for the first time, 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 1997 publication Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва), a volume which I’m currently reading.  It is a book 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.  The 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) is due for 2017, which 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 and I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends of their experiences of archaeology – as a career, as a dream, as a labour of love.

(Part 2 can be read here).


The author’s monologue

–  We’re exploring the past to divine the future, turning over the topsoil to see what lies below.  The borders are closing, the opportunities to traverse and learn are being cut across the globe, and I find myself at a crossroads in my own life.  Do I continue to pursue meaningful employment in the field that I so desire to join or do I keep my passion to one side, preserved with all the joy intact but with little difference made to my bank balance?

I find myself in a non-archaeology community that cares little for my achievements or my dreams that have been achieved.  Instead I archive them within my own personal vault of fulfillment and seek the next challenge, doggedly pursuing what I see as a higher form of personal learning – uncovering the voices of the past, to gather and collect the tendrils of evidence, to disseminate the dead among the living.  In my defense I am giving life back to the lost.

Life has assumed the standard pattern yet I yearn to break free, to feel the mud underfoot, the rising sun casting a glint off the blade of the metal tool in a field of crops.  There is no shame for me to admit that I find myself in neither commercial archaeology or academia, I am between camps and of no camp.  I am free to wander as my desires so take me and as my time so dictates.  My work, not associated with my archaeological passion in any meaningful way, gives me the money for food, fuel and rent, and in return I give it the sweat, hard work and integrity as I can muster.  My dreams are my own though, lying so tenderly outside the realm of reality.

So today, my dear readers, we shall instead dip into the minds of others…


The boundaries of history as an illusion of the future

The Galleon.  Mid thirties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I started in archaeology a bit by chance.  I always wanted to be an archaeologist but I thought it was a secluded works, reserved for the best of the best.  When I met my ex-boyfriend he knew a guy that was supervising and I finally entered into this new magical world.  My surprise was that, once I started to meet people I realised that, unfortunately, they were not the best of the best but quite the contrary.  There’s good people, there’s bad people, and environment is everything if you have a shitty site.  I come from another country, I have more than 10 years of experience but I’ve been treated nearly everywhere as if I was a newbie.  If you don’t know the background of someone you should ask, that should be the rule.

Also, as everywhere, good workers are slighted and bad workers are promoted.  Even if this happens everywhere, this is quite hurtful when you see bad decisions being made which can affect our knowledge of the past.  The past is a limited resource.  But it is difficult and exhausting to fight against the ‘establishment’ because builders don’t give a shit about it, engineers don’t give a shit about it, and people in general don’t give a shit about it.  Yet everyone watches Time Team or laps up the burial of Richard III…

Well, people, the reality is different: it’s hard, it’s difficult, it’s not well paid…  But let me do my work!  In an era when nationalism seem to be rising let me tell you where you really come from.


On the sensation of discovering the new and the old – A personal turning point in a friend’s life

Charles L.  31 years old.  Former field archaeologist.

–  It’s a fairly long-winded story, but it goes back to an early realization as a kid that the world was not just self-evidently fascinating, but also a seemingly endless mine of stories, processes and worlds.  Delving into the past opened up incredible avenues for obsession.  Everything imaginable had a reason for being, and an intricate history woven through the chaos of time.

My dad, also a huge fan of history, always endeavored to take me to historical and archaeological sites around the country, and whenever we were abroad, he’d always have several similar visits planned.  The feeling of utter scintillation when I walked down roads that had seen sometimes hundreds of generations of wear, or standing in the remains of a hillfort created by cultures both alien and continuous to my own…  It never left me.  The feeling that, anywhere you go, you walk through the echoes of millions of other stories; it turned the world into a magical, vibrant place.  I wondered whose story my essence would be floating through thousands of years from now.  The door to my imagination was permanently kicked open, to let the world in.

Skip forward twenty or so years and life had occurred at me.  I’d left uni with an okay grade and an unhealthy attitude to work.  I fell into a retail job, then, after that, a fairly uninspiring administrative job.  That child in me sat sulking in a corner of my mind, looking out of my eyes at spreadsheets and emails and pint glasses and insomniac nights and sadly fell to sleep.

I nearly closed the door of imagination.  February of 2009, my dad, frustrated, asked me what are you doing with your life?  What do you want to do?  I replied that I did not know, but that wasn’t quite true.  I knew I wanted to learn and learn and learn.  I wanted to write and write and draw and see and live again.  But all of that seemed so…  Unrealistic.  Childish almost.  I vaguely said I’d thought of going back to university, which didn’t exactly elicit a positive response, but he was open to the idea if I had a goal.  Initially I thought about a History MA, but decided against it.  No; I wanted to see it and feel it.  I wanted the hands on interaction with the past.  Turns out, I wanted to be an archaeologist.

So, I got onto a Masters and, with a jolt, my life returned to me.  Happiness, fascination, wonderment, hope, drive, purpose; it all returned to me in a way I hadn’t felt since childhood.  It was difficult but brilliant.  I was surrounded by wildly intelligent, funny, ambitious people with whom I made quick friendships.  The literature, whilst sometimes dry, opened my eyes to whole past worlds and interpretations I had never considered, and I was getting to write about it all.  Naturally, my first few papers were total garbage, but I got there slowly, and after a while I was interacting with the work in a way I had a grasp on.  I felt I had something to give to the field.

And so went one of the most exciting years of my life.  After the depressing lack of consequence from my first degree, my Masters was like a turbo-boost for the soul.  At the end of the year, I volunteered on a couple of field-schools and after a stressful time of applying to all of the archaeology units in the entire known universe, I landed my first archaeological job through a personal recommendation.  After all those applications, it came down to a good word from a new friend dropped to the right people.  It was a godsend at the time, and remained largely representative of my winning method for getting archaeological work.  It comes down to a very short and simple piece of advice: know people.

So, as I’m sure anyone who has worked in commercial archaeology is now thinking: perhaps this guy entered the field with an overly rosy view of things.  You’re absolutely 110% correct.  If perhaps I’d listened to a few more archaeological misery gutses, I might have had a slightly smoother ride.  Alas, I didn’t and therefore I didn’t.

My first job was actually a total joy, however.  It was only after a year or so that mission fatigue set in.  I started off on a wonderfully academic site with an extremely ingratiating and friendly unit.  I made a new city home and in the space of a few short months, accrued years of happiness.  I had great friends, a great home and a great title, one I really enjoyed: archaeologist.  Technically I was an assistant archaeologist, but I didn’t tell people that.

Some time, several jobs, mountains of financial uncertainty and seemingly centuries trapped outside in the bitter rain later, the shine had somewhat worn off.  Travelling around the country is all well and good for a while, but when it becomes constant, it’s not so well and good.  I have seen enough B & B’s to last a lifetime.  I could draw a good, accurate map of England’s mobile dead spots.  I have mattocked through ice on supervisory demand, destroying archaeology, and I have hoed away mud in torrential rain. Worse than all that, however, were the endless months alone in the middle of nowhere, watching a work gang open up pipe trenches.  Sends you a bit funny, months alone in the middle of nowhere.  Not good for relationships.  Or, y’know…  Sanity.

My bank account was permanently empty on account of extremely low pay and extremely unreliable work.  More than once I found out that work for the following week had been cancelled so, due to being on a zero hours contract, I simply wasn’t going to get paid for that week.

It wasn’t all terrible.  I still had some amazing times with amazing people.  I still saw fantastic things and some of the sites I worked on, even late into my archaeological career, are treasured memories for me.  The people are almost universally brilliant company, with whom I often laughed until physical pain.  Some of my all-time favorite conversations were out on rain-soaked fens, in wind that was trying to blow us over.

But my life changed.  I got serious in a relationship and being poor, stressed and itinerant were no longer compatible with personal happiness.  I had reached the end of my archaeological journey, and with an extremely heavy heart, I laid my career to rest.  Admittedly, I strung that process out – I didn’t know what I was, post-archaeology.  That terrified and depressed me deeply, and the year or so after leaving was a tailspinning, roller-coastering, gut-punch, vertiginous freefall of a time, but I made it through.

I don’t for a single second regret my time in archaeology, and some days I still miss it.  I’m forever glad I took the plunge, leapt for that childhood dream; it’s given me courage to do the same in different areas and aspects of life.  In a big way, it laid the foundation for my adult life.

Would I go back into commercial archaeology now, given the opportunity?

Not a damn chance…

Would I change anything, for better or worse, about my time as an archaeologist?

I would change nothing at all…


The light at the end of the trench or the beginning of a career never dared dreamed of

Natalie F.  29.  PhD Researcher.

–  Academic archaeology is a route that I happened to fall into due to a sequence of quite unlikely events, a great deal of luck and sometimes astounding timing.  As someone who has always had an inclination to play happily in the mud, and who loves the thought of bringing objects and people from our ancient past out of their tomb in the ground and into the light of modern day, I would never have thought I’d end up where I am; a postgraduate student who you sometimes have to prise out of the lab…

Originally, I was encouraged by someone to apply for an MA at my alma mater, which I did with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to make the cut.  My 2:2 meant that academia was theoretically cut off from me, the minimum being a 2:1 in seemingly most institutions; in theory, the ivory tower of academia was locked…

But I wrote my statement, stressing how much I’d loved my time there and archaeology in general, and sent off the application.  I expected nothing, nothing at all, but what I got instead was a phone call from the postgraduate admissions director for Archaeology saying that he was more than happy to push my application through the board.  So off I went, with an appropriate amount of imposter syndrome.

From there, two chance run ins, one when I was hunting down an elusive lecturer and instead found someone who would later be a very dear friend, and one at a launch party after far too much wine with a man who would again become someone I would care for and admire a great deal, led me here.  The first person pointed me in the direction of a funded PhD advert and the second gave it to me, I suspect partially as a way to get me to stop following him around and asking to play with the 3D printer.

So that’s where I found myself, suddenly a full-time researcher with no real idea what to do.  I knew that, sooner or later, I would be uncovered as a fraud; surely all these lecturers who had suddenly become my colleagues would know that I had no idea what I was doing, that I was just a lucky idiot?  But no, they didn’t.  Because the vast majority felt, and still feel, the same way.  The stresses and strains of academic research, anything from your isotope data hasn’t been done yet so you’re 5 months behind to the fact that people keep taking the tea spoons in the staff room, have different sources but are felt by everyone.  The genius who worked for NASA still gets stage fright, the cool, collected expert in her field sometimes cries by the shrubbery outside the building.

Academic research can often be stressful and isolating.  Particularly archaeology, I think, as everything revolves around the long dead; who they were, what they did, ate and believed.  We spend so much time looking backwards that it can be difficult, when the microscope won’t co-operate and everything’s going wrong, to notice the people around you in the present…  No matter how alone you feel, grabbing a nap in the staff room at 8 at night when all the world seems quiet, you’re really not.  Everyone understands, and occasionally leaves a cup of tea for you when you wake up.  There’s always someone who “gets it”.

I would never have guessed that such a real, strong sense of camaraderie existed in academia, albeit alongside some minor competitiveness; I believed, as I said earlier, that the door to the ivory tower had long since closed for me.  It came as a surprise, then, to find out that all I had to do was knock and the door would slowly start to open…


The author rejoins

–  These are just a few of the voices I have managed to curate views for.  We’re still searching for individual stories, so a second entry will be posted in due course…