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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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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…

Interview with Natalie Marr & David Ashley Pearson: Introducing the Short Film ‘Visitor’

21 Jun

Natalie Marr is an artist who works across video, sound and performance, and draws inspiration from science fiction, landscapes and different experiences of time.  She is currently completing a Masters in Filmmaking and Media Arts at the University of Glasgow.  After the release of ‘Visitor’ Natalie will be taking up a research position at the University of Glasgow in a multidisciplinary project to study the impact of the Galloway Forest Park, Scotland.  For current and previous multi-media projects please check out her website here, ‘Visitor’ will be released in Autumn.

David Ashley Pearson is a multimedia artist who focuses primarily on sound design.  He is particularly interested in exploring improvisation, acoustics and the physicality of sound.  His approach to sound is ever-changing but is underpinned by a curiosity for its substance and a passion for musical exploration.  His blog entitled Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, games and music, can be found here.


These Bones of Mine:  Hello Natalie, thank you for joining These Bones of Mine! In something of a first for this blog our main topic of discussion will be a short experimental film of which you are currently in the process of producing.  Visitor, your upcoming film focuses on people who stargaze and the entwined personal stories of the night sky.  It promises to be something special; however speaking as an archaeologist interested in the lives of others, I’m keen as to what led you onto the path of film making?

Natalie Marr:  Thank you for inviting me! I feel like film has always been there in my life as something that I just love, it is a form that transfixes me, surprises me, soothes me, challenges me.  One of my greatest pleasures is to go to the cinema alone and just sit in the dark with a great film!

I have a background in the arts and I would still struggle to call myself a filmmaker – it doesn’t even matter really – but I suppose what I’m getting at, is that film is just one form that I am drawn to working with, and the qualities of film that I particularly love are the immediacy of it, the way it moves me on a physical, emotional and sometimes spiritual level, and also the way it plays with my experience of time.  These are qualities that I also try to explore in sound and performance.  I am also interested in the experience of seeing a film, sitting in the dark, the way you give yourself to a film for a period of time.  But that’s obviously a very purist way of looking at it!

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A detail from ‘Visitor’. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

Visitor is very different to any films I have made before…  It has been a very social process. In the past I have tended to shoot abandoned buildings, landscapes, environments that I freely walk around and capture and onto which I project my own story. There is landscape (or skyscape!) in ‘Visitor’ too, but because of this social process of interviews, spending time with people under the stars, as well as the autobiographical aspect, my approach to filming environments has changed too: it is not something I just project onto, it is another element that I am interacting with and learning from.

TBOM:  The interaction of the social process, within the creative production of a piece of art, is an idea that grabs me.  It is much the same in archaeology where archaeologists are never quite just the bystander to the material remains of the past – they act as both the interpreter of the architectural features and artefacts uncovered, but also as a gatekeeper to unlocking the potential knowledge of the remains and disseminating it to a wider audience. We even, acting in an environmental context, landscape the past through the examination of archaeobotanical remains and populate it with species through zooarchaeological analysis.  

In this context the personal voices of the past are largely silenced by time, but I’m left wondering how have you found the effort of capturing the social process?  Have you felt a greater duty to represent those who you film, as oppose to the silent landscapes and skyscapes of your earlier short films and photographs, or is this a false distinction?

Natalie:  Yes! The process has really sharpened my sensitivity to observing and recording and the challenge of how to represent other people’s stories, other people’s lives.  What I’m trying to do is build the experience of that challenge into the film and make myself – as a narrator or guide – vulnerable, responsive and unfinished.  It is very subjectively led, and most documentary/non-fiction films are to some extent – they are personal theses – but what I like about the essay film format, is the emphasis on the personal and the impressionistic and that’s what I’m running with in this film.  ‘Visitor’ deals a lot with projection: how we project ourselves onto the night sky, how we make Space personal.  Constellations as one example: they enable us to navigate our way around the sky, and we give them names that have their own historic and cultural colourings.

But the film is also about being responsive and like you say, it is a mistake to think of the land as silent, though in terms of ‘duty’ or a relationship of care, there is a more obvious concern for me when thinking about representing people, and maybe that’s because the effects of my actions are much more immediate.  It is so so important to get out of that mindset though, and spending time under a dark sky helps!

When I look at the stars, I feel I am tuning in to them.  I’m interested in the experience of darkness and how the body changes in a dark environment.  I get a stronger sense of this out on location in a place like the Galloway Forest Park, in Scotland, maybe because I’m standing outside for hours and time seems to slow down, and maybe it is also because I slowly start to tune in to the sound of the forest and of the different creatures that live there.  A funny side note on that – the last time I stayed in Galloway, one of the best night-time sounds I heard was a cow somewhere off in a neighbouring field, softly mooing as it slept, lovely!

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A silent salute in space. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am a big fan of science fiction and in particular its commitment to ‘becoming other’.  There is a quote I carry around with me all the time, which is from Fredric Jameson in his 2005 book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions; he’s talking about the challenge in science fiction of representing the other when it is beyond our comprehension or experience, how do you do it?!  And his answer is that the ‘other’ demands a new kind of perception, which demands in turn a new organ of perception, and ultimately a new kind of body (sorry – I am paraphrasing!).  So the problem sort of creates its own solution if you are happy to let it work its magic on you.  With ‘Visitor’ it is a kind of feeling around in the dark at times and not knowing exactly what I’m working with, but it is hugely rewarding to be open to that.

TBOM:  Having seen the two trailers for Visitor a number of times now I am struck by the two timescales represented – the human lifetime and memory contrasted to the great age of the universe and its celestial bodies.  There are also similarities to Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light, particularly in the revealing scenes of drawing back the covers for the apparatus that are used to peer into the inky darkness.  

However, whereas Guzmán contrasted the interviews of the astronomy and archaeological researchers with the family members searching for the remains of Pinochet’s victims hidden in the Atacama desert, your film is of a more personal nature.  Indeed there is the sense of personal solace present in it, the calm movements noted in the preparation of the equipment to observe the stars.  Where have you drawn your influence for this project from?  How has it developed as you have moved along the length of producing Visitor? 

Natalie:  Yes, its been a while since I saw ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ but it’s definitely there.  I was so moved by it, there was a special kind of quiet power about it, it’s deeply political but also deeply personal.  You are right, there are definitely shared motifs between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’, personal projections, the unknown, darkness, light.  I see lots of correlations between looking up and looking down, and of course, looking into space is effectively always looking into the past.  I see these women, who are spending every waking moment searching for the remains of their loved ones, as located neither in the present, nor the past.  ‘Nostalgia for the light’…a longing for light cast from the past perhaps, but how long will they have to wait for it to reach them?  They are trapped in a time-scale that will likely outlive them and it’s intensely sad.

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A detail of one of the telescopes at the Galloway Astronomy Centre. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

The phrase ‘to be in the dark’ is about not knowing and not having answers or facts and this is definitely something shared between ‘Nostalgia…’ and ‘Visitor’.  In ‘Visitor’ there is a reading of darkness in terms of being unanchored, in free fall.  This is how I felt when I lost our mutual friend Holly, like I lost my grip on reality for a while, and it felt very destructive.  In ‘Nostalgia…’ an interviewee comments that to be without memory is to be nowhere, and I think of a tiny body surrounded by total darkness, spinning like the astronaut Ryan in the film ‘Gravity‘, unmoored and alone.  This also makes me think of the Disappearance at Sea short film by artist Tacita Dean about Donald Crowhurst who died at sea, unable to locate himself geographically, because his chronometer was not giving him a correct reading on the local time.  Tacita Dean uses the image of a lighthouse in her film, another motif for searching.

But spending time under dark skies over the last 6 months is changing my relationship with darkness; my body and mind sense in a different way.  It’s like the lights go out and something else switches on, it is a bit like being in a car picking up a radio station that starts off as noise but as you travel into its field of transmission, it becomes clear.  Vision is obviously an important aspect of stargazing, but also the feeling of being outdoors at night, the very different qualities of sound that emerge, and a sense that your ‘time’ vibrates with so many other ‘times’.

When I looked through the telescope at Jupiter recently, I saw this incredibly distant planet and four of its moons, but pressing my face against the eye piece, the darkness of Jupiter’s ‘world’ encloses me and it feels like it’s right there and I can touch it, it is very intimate.  I was speaking to one of the Galloway Biosphere Dark Sky Rangers recently about stargazing as a very intimate activity that involves a lot of trust.  She mentioned that if she were to meet her workshop participants the next day in the sunlight, she may not be able to tell them by face!  So the experience of darkness and of stargazing is quite complex and also transformative for me, and I believe transformative for others too.

TBOM:  Yes, after losing our friend Holly I also felt an incredible sense of darkness and disarray.  Light eventually returned, particularly when I think of the time that we had spent together and also through getting to know one of her favourite musicians, Sufjan Stevens

It seems to me then that memory and distance are recurring motifs within ‘Visitor’, from both your own viewpoint and from the people who you have interviewed for the film.  As an anchor to these themes, and as a comfort to the sheer size and depth of the universe, the bonds of family and friends also seem to play a pivotal part within the film.  Is this a fair assessment?

Natalie:  Yes, definitely.  I keep coming back to distance and proximity.  A lot of the people I have interviewed share their night sky experiences with loved ones or close friends.  It might be a phone call in the early hours of the morning between two people at different ends of the country looking at the same planet, or a certain constellation that makes you think of the person you first encountered it with.  Distance gets collapsed in those moments of remembering.  And I guess that’s what you mean when you have said to me that you feel close to Holly when listening to music she loved and in particular the musicians she introduced you to or that you listened to together.  Memory is a strange thing, as are dreams and sometimes they cross over.

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A walk in the wild as preparations for a night of stargazing take shape. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

I am definitely partial to the mystical qualities of the universe, as well as the hard science (!).  Astrophysics is fascinating to me and never stops surprising me; though it is extremely rigorous in its science, I think that it is also an area that allows space for speculation and wonder which, for me, is hugely creative and helpful for thinking about slippery things like memory and experience.  The language of astrophysics alone is incredibly rich and strange, and speaking it or listening to it transports me somewhere beyond my usual experience and I guess I’m trying to follow that and see where it leads!

TBOM:  Speaking of other languages I know we have spoken about music before this, with reference to our shared love of Fever Ray, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Vladislav Delay for example, and I feel I can almost hear their influences within the trailer for ‘Visitor’.  How did you approach the sound and music composition for this film though, and where did your influences for this come from?  

I know that you regularly collaborate with your partner David Ashley Pearson on your productions, such as on the 2013 short film Waiting for an Answer (Waiting for a Sign), and that he has helped produce the soundscape for ‘Visitor’, so this may also be a question for him as well.

Natalie:  It really does help that we’ve known each other for such a long time and also worked on projects together or been witness to each other’s projects.  I’m not great at describing sound, it is very slippery to me.  David has a more nuanced understanding of it and the physics behind it. We didn’t discuss much in the way of influences…  I think we both know what we like!  In terms of soundtracks that have really blown us away recently though…  Definitely Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin (2013) and we also loved the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto for The Revenant (2015).

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The preparation of a Bahtinov mask. A Bahtinov mask is a device utilizing focal grids and variations in angle diffraction to help achieve optimum focus when using small astronomical telescopes, or when conducting astrophotography, to view bright stars accurately. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

There are obviously a set of themes or motifs in ‘Visitor’ which you can sink your teeth into sonically and some of the main aesthetic approaches for this have been thinking about tuning in/tuning out, sounds that take us away from ourselves and yet have an uncanny familiarity and the idea of signalling or sending out a message, a beacon.  We both share an interest in experimental music, but I would say I’m more partial to looking for a beat that I can cling on to, whereas David is a bit more fearless when it comes to sound!  I think it makes sense here to let David talk more about his approach to the sound design…

David Ashley Pearson:  Hi there, thanks for showing such an interest in our film, it means a lot.  My relationship with music (and sound in general) has been incredibly intimate and personal my whole life, I find it embarrassing to listen to the music I love with others as it’s like revealing a part of myself, it makes me feel somewhat naked and exposed!  Even music that it is incredibly social such as Punk, Dance or Pop I find difficult to listen to with others.  I like to delve into sound and find a personal connection, typically when I find that connection I can become obsessed and mesmerised by the sound and feel I own it in some way.

Before moving to London in 2007 I was always looking out for new and interesting sounds, I’ve always listened out for something that struck me as unique and creative but it wasn’t until I got to London and got to listen to and attend some Free Improvisation concerts that I felt my ears truly open up.  I’ve always loved and strove for ambiguity and multiple meanings in my work and I find that in its purest form in Free Improvised music.

When I first moved to London I went to Mark Wastell’s – now sadly closed – Sound 323 record shop in Highgate; exposing myself to a whole new sound culture, it was a phenomenal experience just leafing through all the CDs and absorbing it all.  That first time I went there I bought Lawrence English’s For Varying Degrees of Winter (2007) which is an incredibly meticulous and icy ambient album, I love it but it was probably one of the music conventional CDs there!  At the time Mark had some music playing in the shop that was like nothing I’d heard before; it was an incredibly unusual, textural, hard to place sound… and very slow!  I didn’t know how to interact with it and what it meant, it was alien to me and I loved it because of that; it was Free Improvisation!

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A Scots Pine garden, Glasgow, Scotland. Still film image courtesy of Natalie Marr.

With Free Improvisation (and in particular the ‘New London Silence’ scene that I gravitated towards) all sounds come out of silence and the player’s environment.  Traditional ideas of instrumentation, musical notation and scales are chucked out the window in favour of a purer listening to sound as sound, the sound’s interaction with the space and the sound’s interaction with other sounds.  This idea of sound coming out of silence is incredibly important to me for this film and it’s also important that sounds come out of the imagery and montage that the film paints.  I have made sound concepts/sketches for the two trailers but I hesitate to truly start on the final soundtrack until more sections of the film are in place – as I want to interact with the imagery.  I also want to keep in mind the cinematic space and how my music interacts with the voices of those we’ve interviewed for the film.  I can’t wait to see and hear how it comes together!  The soundtrack will feature voices, textures, field recordings, synthesizers and other bits and bobs… whatever works in driving forward the story Natalie wants to tell!

TBOM:  The two trailers released so far certainly indicate the sound coming out of the silence, and I’m looking forward to seeing how your exposure to Free Improvisation influences the soundtrack David.  Natalie, the initial release date for ‘Visitor’ is September to coincide with the end of your Masters course and you are currently crowdfunding for the remaining production.  What are your hopes for ‘Visitor’ and do you have any plans after? 

Natalie:  Yes, very soon! The film is being produced as part of my degree and will be completed in September.  Once ‘Visitor’ is completed, we’ll be submitting it to festivals, so fingers crossed it gets some interest and circulation and it will be interesting to discuss it with a bit of distance.  In the meantime though, we are working on raising funds to finish the shooting and for some post-production work.  Any support is welcome and we are really pleased to offer some night sky-related perks including a stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre and an astrophotography workshop with Viridian Skies, also based in Dumfries & Galloway.

 

Beyond the film, there is so much still to be explored.  Recently I’ve been very lucky to be accepted for an incredible research project based at the University of Glasgow, with a focus on mapping the values of the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, so that’s the next three and a half years of my life.  I’ve become really attached to the area (and to its skies!) so it is a dream to be encouraged to delve in deeper.

TBOM:  It certainly sounds like you have plenty to contend with and I wish you the best of luck with the release of ‘Visitor’.  I shall look forward to experiencing it when it comes out.  I’m sure readers of this blog will also be interested to hear how your research into the Galloway Forest Dark Sky park takes shape so please do keep in touch.  Thank you and David once again for joining These Bones of Mine.

Natalie:   Thank you also for your support of the film and for taking the time to discuss it in more detail, it really does help to unpick it a bit and reflect on it while it’s still being made.  It is also fantastic to be in such good company on These Bones of Mine!

Further Information

  • Visit Natalie Marr’s website for further information on her current and previous projects.  You can listen to David Ashley Pearson’s sound projects here, and visit his blog Love Without Anger, where he reviews film, music and games.
  • You can help fund and donate to the making of  the short film ‘Visitor’ on the IndiGoGo webpage by visiting here.  Dependent on the amount of money given the individual backer can receive a number of perks related the production of the film.  These include, but are not limited to, special riso print postcards, an invitation to the opening night of the film, as well as a night’s stay at the Galloway Astronomy Centre for two.

Historical Lens: The Past and the Present

19 Jun

As regular readers may recall I have a deep love for both historical and modern literature, with a particular soft spot for travel writing or for literary memoirs.  Good travel writing, I find, delves not just into the adventures or mishaps of the writer and the contemporary individuals that they bump into but also of the cultural, geography and history of the places that they visit, as and where necessary.  That there is a sense of the present, but also links to the past and the lure of the future.  As many readers may also know that there have been a lack of posts over the past half a year or so due to a number of factors.  I do apologize, but I have at least managed to read a good many books that may also interest some readers here!

In particular I have recently rekindled a love of Russian literature through the acquisition of the recently published English translation of Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, by the humorist writer Teffi (the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, 1872-1952).  The memoir recounts her 1919 flight from her home in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to Moscow and then onto to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey), in the Ottoman Empire, following the twin revolutions of 1917 with the Bolshevik rise in power and the subsequent Russian Civil War (1917-1922), which tore apart the Russian Empire and ended the rule of the Tsar.  The outcome of the civil war resulted in the birth of the Soviet Union (1922-1991).  It is out of the scope of Memories but Teffi moved to Paris, France, and joined the émigré Russian cultural circle there, a city where she remained for the rest of her life never to return to Russia to write or perform.

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Humourist ‘Teffi’, the pseudonym of the Russian writer Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya. Image credit: Wikipedia.

It is an illuminating read and one that richly rewards the reader with Teffi’s sense of humanity and humour in each line of text.  I had not heard of Teffi before I happened to come across and read a review of the book in a newspaper, but this is perhaps not unusual as she has been rarely published into the English language following her death in 1952 and the once-famous poet and feuilletonist, who at one point was read by both Tsar and Lenin, had largely disappeared from sight under the blanket of history.

Memories strongly reminded me of another book of reportage that I had recently completed, Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us by the journalist Janine Di Giovanni, which documents her experiences of reporting the unrest on the ground following the Arab Spring protests that rocked the country in early 2011, and a host of others in the Middle East and North Africa from late 2010 to mid 2012, and her experiences of the early stages of the Syrian Civil War (March 2011 – present).  Both Teffi and Giovanni each respectively document the individuals involved in the fighting, the civilian and soldier alike regardless of the faction that they are fighting for or fleeing from.

Acknowledging the Past, Documenting the Present

This blog has always had a relatively humanist core running through the posts that I have published here, and this continues to be the case.  Archaeology though, as a discipline, is never a static subject of study.  This is the case in fact of the archaeological material itself, both through the associated site formation processes at play and through the prism in which researchers view said archaeological sites and their material accumulation.

We are informed of the past through the lenses of our personal bias, cultural bias, and material survivor bias.  The good researcher can recognize these bias, and their filtration into the analysis and research produced, and integrate or parse them aside as necessary, or at least acknowledge them as such.  The great researches uses their bias to illuminate the effect that they can have on the understanding of the nature of the material under study.  This isn’t just limited to researchers though – the artist, the writer, the director, these and others from many different creative fields influence and and document the times and cultures that we both experience and know of.

Memory As Written

Therefore I am always intrigued by travel and memoir writing, by the documentation and views of the traveler writing in depth on the culture and history of a time they knew, how history is contextualized.  One of my most treasured works that I have come across is the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom’s Roads To Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History Germany, which documents his experiences working and travelling throughout the country and its capital city within the greater history ans culture of Germany.  Perhaps I am biased as, having visited Berlin in college and having spent an extended time on a European Union funded archaeology placement in Magdeburg, I have a love for the country and its peoples.  (Alas however as my tongue is no good with languages!).

This could be a matter of mere exposure to something different, something beyond the everyday interaction of your own expected experiences.  There is learning to be had in expanding your literature horizons, however.  I’ve yet to truly delve deep into German literature, but I think I know where I’d like to visit next on my mental map of cultural investigations.

Hopping Aboard A Russian Ark

So, having just ordered a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I am taking a break from the world of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle of books (after recently and ravenously finishing the fourth volume) and instead jumping from the Scandinavian literary scene to the Russian world once again.

On a related side note, I’ve also somewhat belatedly realized during the writing of this post that the banner photograph that I chose for the blog back in 2011 is by the photographer Alexey Titarenko.  It is a detail taken from a single photograph from one of his City of Shadow series (1992 to 1994) which documented life in St. Petersburg at the fall of the USSR, and transition into the Russian Federation, and capture the chaotic political changes and economic upheaval that this brought with it.

This is all really tying in quite nicely with the interest that I have developed in Russia and the country’s history through its literary giants.  Finally, and to complete the cultural immersion of the photographic, literature and film mediums, I am off to watch Sokurov’s majestic Russian Ark, a 2002 film that promises to present a fantastical portal into the imperial history of Russia taken in one stupendous long shot.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Chandler, R. 2014. Stepping Across the Ice: Teffi (1872-1952). Article published September 25, 2014, in The New Yorker. (Includes excerpts of Memories).

Di Giovanni, J. 2016. Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us. London: Bloomsbury.

Nooteboom, C. 2012. Roads to Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Germany. Translated from the Dutch by L. Watkinson. London: Maclehose Press.

Russian Ark. 2002. [Film] Directed by Alexander Sokurov. Germany/Russia: The Hermitage Bridge Studio (St. Petersburg) & Egoli Tossell Film AG (Berlin).

Teffi. 2016. Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. Translated from the Russian by R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. M. Jackson & I. Steinberg. London: Pushkin Press.

Titarenko, A. 1992-1994. City of Shadows. [Photography]. Nailya Alexander Gallery.

Day of Archaeology 2015: Long Read – A Chat On Blogging With Robert M. Chapple

26 Jul

This is a late entry for the 2015 Day of Archaeology Festival, which was held on the 24th of July.  You can read some cracking entries here, and also read all about the purpose of the event as well!  For the Day of Archaeology 2014 I put together a post detailing views from a range of my friends who are involved with archaeology at all sorts of different levels (students, researchers, commercial, voluntary, academic, etc.) and this post can be read here.  This year I decided to do something a little bit different and a little bit more in-depth to helpfully discuss and highlight different views points on both a) archaeology as a commercial sector to work or volunteer in, and b) the experience of blogging about archaeology.  So I’ve roped in Robert M. Chapple, an archaeological friend based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a web-based discussion.  Happy readings, and I hope you too have had a good Day of Archaeology 2015!


These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Robert, thank you for joining me here today to talk about all the great things that archaeology is and can be!  We are here to talk about the day of Archaeology, a day every year set aside for archaeologists to talk about what they normally get up to on an average day to celebrate the diverse topic archaeology is.  Firstly would you like to introduce yourself for the readers of These Bones of Mine?

Robert M. Chapple (RMC):  Hi there! Where to start?  I was born in England, grew up in the west of Ireland, I hold BA and MA degrees in archaeology from the National University of Ireland, Galway.  I moved to Belfast in Northern Ireland for one year … in 1997 … and I’m still here.  I worked in commercial field archaeology for about 20 years – most of it in Northern Ireland and the border counties.  I left the profession in 2011 and have since retrained in IT, but I remain active and connected to that world through blogging and my ongoing research interests.  What is your background and how did you get into archaeology?

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A digital conversation. David Mennear (L), of These Bones of Mine and Robert M Chapple (R) swapping thoughts over the web. For the record I’d like to say that I have now shaved and I had bed hair when I took this photograph. Image credit: Robert M Chapple.

TBOM:  Ah so you have always had a foot in the commercial sector in Ireland then?  Well as the youngest in the family I always remember holidays, or day visits, to historic or prehistoric places of interest, whether they were buildings or landscapes.  My dad has a bit of a background in the museum sector so they always figured quite highly on our list of places to visit as a family, but he and my mam are also interested in the countryside more generally as well (history of how it was used, etc.).  I first got into archaeology on a school work placement where I ended up washing the bones of animal remains from a medieval excavation.  I loved history at school (specifically the history of medicine module that I studied) then focused on history at college.  It wasn’t until University where I studied a BA in History & Archaeology at Hull that I became fascinated by the mixing of the humanities and sciences and how much they could tell us about past populations.  I decided to pursue a MSc at the University of Sheffield where I studied human osteology as although I love prehistory, I love the fact that with human osteology you can study human remains and activity in a variety of contexts.

How did you find the commercial sector?

RMC:  Your description of your early exposure to archaeology brings back so many memories of my own … my parents were very keen on ‘improving’ activities and pastimes.  So it wasn’t unusual to find ourselves on a day out to some form of ruin or historical site.  As a young child, I clearly remember going on a rather mad-cap tour organised by the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, led by the later Prof Etienne Rynne.  He brought us across a damp field to show us an example of a particularly poorly understood site type, very few of which had been excavated at that point.  It was a ‘burnt mound’ or fulacht fia – at that time so few had been excavated it was still valid to talk about them as being an Iron Age phenomena.  Since then (largely as a result of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ development boom), they’ve become the most commonly investigated site type in Ireland.  While their use spans a wide time-frame, they’re now understood as being a largely Bronze Age type. Etienne spoke with wild enthusiasm and managed to inject much interest into what can be seen as a relatively uninspiring site type.  On the same trip, he dragged a busload of us across several damp fields to look for a ring barrow he had once excavated, but now appeared to have vanished.

He conducted a spirited lecture on the approximate spot where he thought the site had lain, pointing to spots on the bare earth and saying ‘the cremated bone would have been about … there …’ etc.  Looking back, I feel that if I could be convinced to look at a blank patch of ground and imagine how a burial was once laid out, the archaeology bug had already bitten pretty deep.  The other big influence on my early interest in archaeology was volume two of Children’s Britannica.  My ‘improving’ parents had decided around the time I was born, to subscribe to an encyclopedia.  By the time they’d signed up they’d also decided to move to the west of Ireland and Britannica refused to spend the extra on postage.  To this day, we only have the first two volumes.  But in the second one (Aran to Bee) there’s the entry for ‘Archaeology’ … and as a child, it absolutely fascinated me.  In particular, there’s a drawing of an archaeologist photographing a vertical section that gives a clear explanation about stratigraphy and relative dating.  Apparently, as a rather precocious kid, I used to dig this out and annoy relatives and visitors with my explanations as to how cool and important it was. … some things don’t change … but I do think that the signs were there from an early age that archaeology would become a significant part of my adult life.  I find that I’m rather more keen to discuss other things than some aspects of commercial archaeology.

I’ve been out of that world for over three years now, and I still have so much residual anger and bitterness that I find it difficult to be reasonable on the topic.  I will say that, unlike many people, my entry into that world was relatively slow after university.  I had done one university research excavation in 1989 and after that, I’d drifted into various field survey programmes and related stuff before going back to study for a Masters.  There were occasional excavations along the way, but nothing significant until I got a job on the tail end of the Lisheen Mine excavations in Co. Tipperary  in 1998.  Up until then I’d found the atmosphere on many sites to be relatively stifling, with all minor increments in experience and ability very closely guarded.  The reasoning was simple – if I teach you to do ‘x’ that’s a skill you’ll have the next time we both go for the same job and nobody wanted or needed the competition.

By the time I arrived at Lisheen, times had moved on and the field of commercial archaeology was starting to blossom.  Here there was a huge generosity to teach and impart knowledge – based on the simple need to have as many skilled people available as possible.  Having not been involved in regular excavations for so long, I was something of an anachronism, but I loved the experience and it ignited my passion for excavation – the joy of being the first person in however many years to look at an artefact and know what it was for and how it was made, or the moment of realisation that this set of post-holes represents a structure … these moments became sustaining supports throughout much of my later career.  I often think that, had the financial crisis not occurred, I’d probably still be in commercial archaeology – I loved the work, I adored finding stuff, and was I was really committed to getting stuff published.  It was where I saw myself for the rest of my days.  As Abraham Lincoln said ‘… and then the war came’ … the global financial meltdown from 2008 onward had a huge effect on the commercial sector.

The company I was with at the time just started shedding jobs back to only retaining the ‘core’ staff.  They went from employing over 30 or 40 people down to less than 10 almost overnight.  We took pay-cut after pay-cut, and I took a drop in position (with a further pay-cut) … all to keep the company afloat and keep ourselves in the job we adored.  We went to rolling layoffs, sometimes for two or three weeks at a go.  I frequently didn’t know on a Friday if I had work to go to on the following Monday.  All of these things I endured, if not particularly cheerfully, then for the love of having a job in the field I loved.  What snapped for me was the quality.  I was used to trying to do a quality job under tough conditions – usually uncaring developers and inclement weather.  But what I saw during the recession was company management, who called themselves ‘archaeologists’ deliberately encouraging us to do poor quality work.  They’d sold their souls to the few developers who were left and felt that the only way of remaining in business was to prostrate themselves further and kowtow to anyone with the money to pay them.  If that meant abandoning much of the standards that were considered basic and minimal, too bad!  By that point we were – at best – merely relatively well-educated dirt shovellers.  I saw less and less of what would be considered actual archaeological practice on sites. Something had to give … and that was me!  Like I say, I’m pretty bitter about how it all worked out in the end.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be, though … I’ve regained much of the stuff that I actually loved about archaeology – the getting out and seeing sites, reading the books, and writing stuff for magazines and my blog.  Not being dependent on archaeology as the day job has allowed me to say and do stuff that I couldn’t have imagined if I was still in the Northern Irish commercial sector.

One thing I wanted to circle round to with you is the influence of your parents.  You say that your Dad was involved in the museum sector, so he must have had some knowledge of the precarious nature of a career in archaeology.  Did he try to dissuade you in any way and go for something ‘safer’ and more conventional?

TBOM:  The archaeology unit which he often had contact with was, and still is, a unit attached to the local council, so the experience that he’d had didn’t really relate as such to the purely commercial world of the field archaeologist and the trials and tribulations that they endure.  He, and the family really, had always been aware of how precarious the heritage and archaeological sectors are in general, what with often being one of the first areas for government and council cuts generally since the recession, but everyone knew each other and my town (Hartlepool) was in a blossoming period of the extension of the heritage sector more generally.

We have the fantastic Maritime Experience museum complex, helped built partly with the funds for regeneration, and dedicated plaques around town indicating the importance of the area during the industrial and medieval periods.  As a child I often remember visiting the truly awe-inspiring Royal navy frigate HMS Trincomalee, one of Britain’s oldest warship afloat dating from 1812, safely ensconced in a dock as a part of the Maritime Experience, where you can climb aboard and relive the life of sailors from the 19th century.

My town in general already has strong links to the past even without being the current home for the HMS Trincomalee, often physically in the landscape but also in the folk tales of the people and area.  To take a few instances: we have a surviving medieval town wall up on the headland; Hartlepool was the first place in the First World War where a British soldier was killed on active duty on British soil during the bombardment of the east coast in 1914 by the German navy.  We have a strong volunteer run museum where original and replica guns from that period, and modern, are stationed within their historic bunker and fortified coastal firing position; the headland was the location where Hilda, now St Hilda, founded a mixed-sex monastic community and abbey in the 7th century AD (rare for that period, although no surviving building from this period remains, a 12th century church, St Hilda’s, still remains on or near the location of the original), before Hilda moved on to Whitby to help found and take charge of the abbey; the Summerhill outdoor park in the town features an extensive Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British archaeology site, which has been the focus of several excavations in the past 60 years.

These are just a few of the main prehistoric and historic calling points of Hartlepool – there are of course many more, especially in the industrial period in the late 19th century where the town served as one of Britain’s busiest ports, helping to export coal from the Durham minefields across Europe and the world.

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A photograph capturing a view across the bay of Hartlepool, detailing the rocky coast of the historic Hartlepool headland and a morn ship dredging the channel to clear the silt. Author’s own photograph.

As I’ve said my father (as well as my mother) had both had the chance to study at university (first of their families) and my father’s background included the study of geography, geology and archaeology, and my mam had studied languages and literature, so we were always interested in the deeper story of the areas we visited.  My dad still to this day asks us what we think of the museums we visit and see on various trips across the country and the world at large.   It was when I did the work experience that I came to realize my own interest in the physical past, of how past populations lived and behaved within their physical and cultural landscape.  My dad had never dissuaded either me or my two older brothers in their chosen careers – they (both my mother and father) have always been positive and helpful (even after glancing at the cost of a Masters and realising how much it’d cost me!).  My two older brothers, though they do not work in the heritage sector now, both worked at the local museum from a young age for a number of years.  Even with my disability (see here), I was never persuaded to study or to pursue another career.

As it has worked out I currently work in administration to earn my wage, but I retain strong links to both the academic, voluntary and commercial worlds of archaeology.  For instance I have recently been working on a chapter for an edited volume, for a session in an international conference where I gave a talk, and I am currently in the middle of an analysis of the human skeletal remains from the above Iron Age/Romano-British site.  I do this, of course, in my spare time and my current job allows me the expenses of pursing these interests where they are not paid themselves (every academic writer will know this!).  It is safe to say that a large part of my current connections and experience has come via blogging on this very site.  I was wary at first of entering the blogging world but, after the degree at the University of Hull, I knew I wanted to keep up my own personal interest in archaeology and try to improve my own knowledge of human osteology by writing and providing information to others who wanted to learn more about why archaeologists study the past and past populations.

There is, of course, another major influencing factor here that I haven’t mentioned – my own skeleton as a result of having McCune Albright Syndrome.  My parents, and my family and friends, have seen me undergo many major surgeries to either rectify traumatic fractures or as a preventative measure (internal fixation of the femora using intramedullary rods, and the titanium plating of the right tibia and humerus) to decrease future fracture occurrences and stabilize the bone.  Necessarily I’ve always had to catch up on school work and social life, but I’ve become fairly determined as an individual to pursue my own interests, almost in spite of myself – of course it also made me interested in the skeletal system itself!  I was intrigued and wanted to hear what the consultant was doing and why, I got to see the numerous x-rays where transverse fractures were the norm or to see the newly implanted metal work.  It was fascinating and I was fascinated!  But before I become sidetracked, you have mentioned about your parents encouraging educational and ‘instructive’ visits and upbringing – how did that come about?  The field trip sounds utterly enthralling!

RMC:  Ah, man! My youth (or at least my memory of it) was one field trip after another.  Sometimes we teamed up with the Galway Archaeological & Historical Society, but more often than not we just went off to find stuff on our own.  As a kid you didn’t realise that the person guiding the tour was a university lecturer or published author or some other august individual, and I remember being in such awe at the amount of knowledge that they just seemed to have at their instant recall.  Having since been in the position of giving various tours, I’m now all too aware of the amount of work and preparation that goes into it. Despite all this, my favourite trips were always the family-only ones … just us turning up at a ruined abbey somewhere off in the countryside.

There was no pressure of having to stay politely quiet while an eminent Prof wheeled out his personal theory on the place and then quickly back on the coach to see the next spot.  Instead, my dad would often insist on reading out the contents of the information board and then it was down to the serious business of exploring.  These expeditions may not have been academically rigorous, but they were filled with wonder and a frisson of excitement.  I’ve wonderful memories of listening to people like the late Etienne Rynne explain the sequence of construction of a monastery over several centuries, but they’re really rivaled by experiences with my family crowded round a headstone, puzzling out the inscription and the meanings of the symbolism.  The other thing I found about getting to see so many places when I was so young was not particularly associating the sites with any degree of importance … sure, they were interesting and great to visit, but I didn’t think of them as having a larger significance … they were just places where we stopped on a Sunday trip into the countryside, or on a holiday day out.  It was only when I got to university and found that they were illustrated and discussed in the text books and you were now expected to research quite a bit more about them (and remember it!) that I realised the broader importance of these places.  It was certainly valuable to be able to go back to personal memories of visiting such sites – in many ways it made the academic research much easier and more enjoyable.

Years later, in discussing this with my parents, we agreed that it wasn’t too surprising that I ended up in archaeology, having been exposed to so much of it as a child.  Now that I think of it, I’m surprised how my brother and two sisters didn’t end up in archaeology!  I suppose this is the thing … to my parents, theses were just day trips – somewhere nice to see on holiday, or just get the family out of the house for the afternoon, but to me these were deeply formative experiences that shaped my entire life … I’m lucky my siblings even talk to me!  I used always say that the best advice my Dad ever gave me was to find the job you enjoy and you’ll never feel that you’re working.  He’d left school and wanted to join the RAF, but it didn’t work out for him.  He ended up drifting through a number of jobs until he found that accountancy not only interested him, but he had a huge aptitude for it.

I now realise that my mother only wanted the best for me, but when I was a kid I only ever felt that I was being pushed into joining my Dad’s accountancy firm.  I think that she had a pretty good idea as to how difficult life might be as an archaeologist and felt that I should head for something safer and more secure.  When we finally talked it out that I didn’t fancy a life as an accountant, she instead suggested that I become a teacher … again, something considered safe and secure. When even that failed to convince me, I remember that she suggested that I entered the priesthood … a nice safe livelihood that would allow me to bring up a family in financially secure environment … it would even come with a house and car, and I could still pursue archaeology as a hobby.  I pointed out that I lacked sufficient levels of belief for this to be a viable proposition and the idea was quietly dropped.  All the while, my dad was very supportive … he’d worked on an archaeological excavation when he was a schoolboy and, had things been different, would loved to have gone on to study archaeology himself.

But here’s the thing … twenty-odd years later, I see things rather differently.  I’ve relatively few regrets about my time in field archaeology, other than the poor pay and conditions and the wreck it made of my knees and major joints.  If I’d not ended up with a non-archaeologist wife, I’d never have had sufficient financial security to afford a house and raise a family.  It’s one thing to ponder the advice you’d give to young people in general about whether or not they should consider archaeology as a career, but when it comes to what I may yet have to discuss with my sons (The Chapples Minor), I really struggle to find any good reasons to do it.  I went into archaeology knowing that it would require ‘sacrifices’.  I thought that they would be about long hours, hard work, and travelling miles to excavations and not being particularly appreciated for what you do when you get there, but I never realised the true implications of it all.  The lack of financial security, the lack of simple job security, the absence of any real career progression to speak of … all these things … and still enough of the excitement remains that I feel unable to condemn it completely.

As I said before, being out of the business of archaeology, has allowed me huge freedoms to concentrate on the bits that I still love doing. I’ve gotten back to visiting sites – and bringing my kids along – and I still write and research for my own hobby projects.  I suppose that brings us back – in part – to blogging.  For my part, I started in August 2011 when I was looking to find ways of raising my public profile.  The company I was with looked likely to go under and I wanted to have something – anything – to differentiate me from the rest of the gang out looking for work.  I considered various strategies, including getting some rather nice business cards made up and, for want of anything better to do, I reckoned I’d set up a blog.  My primary concerns were that I’d not find enough to write about and that no one would be interested in what I had to say.  You mention that you were ‘wary’ of embarking on your own blog.  What gave you cause for concern and how did you decide to move ahead with the idea anyway?

TBOM:  You know, I have yet to get business cards but they are on my list!  That is something I shall have to look in to… So yes, I started this site back in January or February 2011, on roughly the same grounds as yours – I had finished my undergraduate degree, I was hunting for a job and I knew that I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree to specialise in human osteology.  Yet I felt that I needed to do something else, that I wanted to continue to write about archaeology and bioarchaeology for the sheer fun of it partly.  I had quickly surveyed the online blogging bioarchaeology world and could not find much out there in break downs of the skeletal system, as it is studied in human osteology for bioarchaeology, so I had my unique selling point (the half-finished Skeletal Series posts).  Further to this is was also a personal occupation – I wanted to write, and I wanted to improve at it at the same time.

But yes, I also had reservations about the enterprise.  I was worried that I’d trash my name if I wrote freely online; I was worried that whatever I wrote could potentially impact on someone’s career or personal reputation;  I was worried that I’d write and frankly that it would not lead anywhere.  At this point I still envisioned a full and lasting career in bioarchaeology (it has not been deflated since, but I am in a position where I must work to fund my hobbies but the work impedes on my progress).  Blogging at the academic level, I thought, was only pursued by those who are focusing on the discipline themselves, researchers who devoted themselves full-time to their passions.  This was, of course, a naive assumption on my part.

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Where blogging archaeology can take you, part 1. Yerba Buena area in San Francisco, April 2015. I was here as a part of the Society for American Archaeologists annual 80th conference, taking part in a session on the theory and method of the bioarchaeology of care methodology. Author’s own photograph.

But I thought in the end, nothing ventured nothing gained, and why not?  In the end blogging has kept me distinctly in the loop as it were – it is how I remain informed on field schools, specific new technologies and methodologies.  It has also had a great impact on the ability to meet people with the same interest and not just online (thank you once again for the meal and the drinks in Belfast following the Day of the Dead conference in 2014 at Queen’s University!).  I have to say I am very glad I joined the blogging world – I would suggest to anyone to get involved but I’d make sure you have your own morals and ethics to posting, to be aware of the information that you are putting out and why.  Also, try to be consistent in some way or form.  Nothing says half-arsed like a barely wrote blog that still exists!

What are your feelings on blogging?

RMC:  First thing I’d say is not to underestimate the importance of shelling out a few quid on business cards – I don’t think they’ve ever gotten me work, but there have been some dark times when seeing the words “Robert M Chapple, Archaeologist” written down on a piece of paper has brought some much-needed reassurance!

With regard to my motivations in embarking on a blogging adventure, I see that you thought the whole thing through with more depth and clarity than I did.  I never really thought of the downsides, other than the entire archaeological world having irrefutable proof that I’m pretty shallow and without much capacity for original thought.  I do say that it was started as a semi-cynical attempt at self-promotion, but that is not completely true.  There remains the simple fact that I’ve always loved to write and I wanted to try my hand at something looser than the very formal ‘academic tone’ I’d become so used to.  As anyone can see from my early posts, this was a steep learning curve and it took me quite a while to find my place and speak with an authentic voice.

I suppose another difference from your approach is that I didn’t particularly feel that there was a niche that particularly needed me in it.  There were already a decent crop of skilled communicators out there writing for and about Irish archaeology.  If I’d been a deeper thinker, I reckon I’d have left the blogging scene in the capable hands it was already in … but where’s the fun in that?

I really want to talk about your comment ‘Nothing says half-arsed like a barely wrote blog that still exists!’  That was my only real fear in starting blogging … that I’d not find the stuff to write about, or the time to do it.  I’ve written before that an article on Cracked.com about ‘The 8 Worst Types of Blog on the Internet‘ was very influential on my thinking.  One of the offences they identify is ‘The “Let’s Start a Blog” Blog’ … a blog with only one post where the author got caught up in the idea of having a blog, but not in actually providing content.  I had no idea what I was going to write about, but I knew that I was going to have to make an effort – it might be badly written and boring, but there would be more than one post!

One way or another, I had envisioned my blogging as something I would be doing within the context of remaining as a professional field archaeologist.  I had intended that it would be a place where I could write about the things that interested me, but I wasn’t particularly convinced that anyone would read any of it.  The first ‘breakthrough’ piece I wrote that seemed to make people sit up and notice was in response to a another blog post that claimed the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ years had been detrimental to Irish archaeology.  I disagreed and wrote: was the Building Boom so Bad for Irish Archaeology? A reply to Fin Dwyer.  It was a pretty big hit for me … when most of my posts struggled to hit 100 readers in a week, this shot to over 1000 reads in just a couple of days.  Up until that, I couldn’t have begged or bribed people to engage with me in comments, but suddenly I was in the midst of a (to me, at least) significant little media storm, with multiple simultaneous conversations going on across the comments section of the post and in various corners of social media.  I’m not sure if I was writing it today, I’d be so fully committed to the arguments I present in that post, but I think its an interesting artefact of where my thinking lay at that time.

Although I’ve not discussed it publicly before, probably the biggest lesson I learned at that time was my vulnerability in speaking my mind and still being employed with an archaeological consultancy.  At that time, as a ‘senior’ staff member with the lot I worked with, I had administrator access to the company Facebook Page and could post as the company.  I’d emailed the office manager and if it could be put on the page … I even cautioned that it might be deemed ‘controversial’ and was told to go ahead and do it myself, it’ll be fine!  Although one of the company directors had seen the post elsewhere and loved it, the office manager decided that it was more controversial than she’d imagined.

I got a strongly worded email saying that the company could not allow itself to be associate in any way with the post and that it had been deleted.  I also found that I, and the rest of the senior staff, no longer had administrative privileges for the Facebook page.  It was, really, only a minor altercation, but it made me very aware of how precarious the right to freedom of speech is when attempting to balance a number of variables … especially when you run the risk of offending the sensibilities of some little martinet.  After that I, consciously or not, seem to have played it safe for a while as I appear to have concentrated on book reviews and similarly non-confrontational pieces, but the lure of jumping in with all guns blazing was too tempting to make me stay out of trouble for long …

As things have worked out I left archaeology as my day job.  I’m now rather happily employed in the world of IT.  It had many advantages, including decent pay, regular hours, adherence to legal requirements for health and safety, and I’m not made to regularly give thanks for the pleasure of being treated like dung for the privilege of having a job etc. … all stuff I sum up as ‘it’s indoors & there’s no heavy lifting!’.  For all that, back in December 2011 I was still in the position of being 40 and unemployed … I’d walked out of my supposedly ‘permanent’ job in the profession I adored and now had no idea where I’d go and what I’d do.  While I was receiving notifications that I wasn’t qualified for basic entry-level positions in various places, I kept writing for my blog.

At that stage, I just needed something to keep me sane and stop me from despairing at my lack of success and direction in life.  By the time I got the post where I am currently, I just continued writing … it seemed therapeutic and it has allowed me to transition from one realm of employment to another with much greater ease than (I imagine) it would have been if I’d just made a clean break of it.  As I’ve alluded to before, the fact that I’m independent of the archaeological world has allowed me to be much freer in what I write about, knowing that I’m not beholden to anyone in the field for work and, most especially, that I don’t have to face an angry employer, or their office minions, after I post something controversial.

I very much agree with you on what you say about blogging allowing you to feel connected to the wider archaeological world.  I remember, years ago, going to a conference on the burgeoning field of archaeological perspectives on gravestones and feeling overwhelmed that there were other people out there that shared my interests and were thinking along the same lines as myself.  Even trying to keep in touch with the published literature, you never got the same sense that there were other people out there working away in universities and in spare bedrooms to hone their ideas and publish their findings.  With social media, all that has now changed … you can be anywhere from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and (once you have an internet connection) you can tap into what the latest research, though, and discussion is in your preferred field.  Blogging is, to bloggers at least, a vital part in that great effort of communication and, yes, I really do feel connected to the wider archaeological world through it.

I’ve joked before (and with only slight bitterness) that I’ve become more influential and respected in the time since I left professional archaeology than I ever was in the twenty years previously.  Since emerging as a blogger, I’ve had numerous requests to produce papers for collected volumes, been offered noticeably more speaking engagements, I’ve been asked to act as session chair for a conference, later on this summer I’m participating in a summer school discussion panel.  I even get invited to discussion/interviews like this.  Frankly, it’s brilliant!  I feel like some forgotten painter that’s died and suddenly there’s significant interest in his work … thankfully, without the requisite of having passed away!

I think I’ve yammered on for long enough and it’s time to turn some questions over to you.  We’ve both spoken at a bit of length about how we got into blogging, but how do you find it as an ongoing experience?  How do you decide what to write and what to prioritize?  … and, by extension, what won’t you write about or what do you shy away from addressing?

More broadly, I wonder how you feel about your initial fears now … from an outsider’s perspective, you’ve very much emerged as an engaging and authoritative voice and public face to human osteology for bioarchaeology in social media.  I would certainly rate you among the top handful of bloggers in your area.  I’ll admit that I don’t read everything you post, but what I do see is really well written and informative – even if much of it is clearly aimed at a more specialist reader than myself.  It’s an unfair question, but I’ll ask it anyway, how do you see yourself and what do you feel the successes of your blogging experience have been?

TBOM:  I shall look into those business cards!

Ah quite a few questions there but ones that are pertinent to our general discussion today so I’ll answer them one by one.  As an ongoing experience blogging is endlessly fun, interesting, frustrating and time-consuming!  I often think of ideas for future blog posts and quickly jot down a skeletal entry, only for them to get bogged down in the detail when I come to think of writing them out more fully.  I’ve never particularly been a fast writer who can type out paragraph after paragraph without a break.  Editing takes the longest time and still mistakes get through!  I think, after a while, you become blind to your own mistakes, although this may also be an effect of the fact that I tend to write the majority of the posts around 1am or 2am after a shift at work!

As an ongoing experience I do love it, I hope it is evident that I do.  Recently I’ve found myself wanting to explore different issues on the blog, as well as the more ‘daily’ posts of short course updates, book or conference mentions and basic human osteology, or bioarchaeology, centered posts.  The further that time, and the life of the blog, goes on the more cautious I become in quickly writing posts.  I try to vary the output, including things often not talked about in other bioarchaeology blogs (the social and academic aspects and costs of bioarchaeology, and archaeology more generally, open access to journal articles, personal views of bone disease and fractures etc).

As the blog has gone on I feel that, in order not to mislead readers and subscribers, that hard subjects should not be avoided or fobbed off.  I’ve been working on a draft of a post on the bioarchaeology of suicide attacks (tentatively titled ‘the body as a weapon’, but each time I add to the disjointed post I can’t help but feel what other people may think of it – however it will be posted, I just need to find more time to sit and work on it, or on the modern case studies and the implications for this as-yet theoretical model.  Same too for the embryonic posts focusing on disability & sexuality and disability & film, two posts focusing on the intersection of their subjects that sit half-finished in the draft folder.  I feel a greater responsibility to the authors of the research that I cite, or of the short courses or conferences that I attend, in order not to mislead readers on their research.  This has often led to fruitful collaboration on editing posts, especially so when bioarchaeologists are excited about the impact and reach of social media.  I’ve been lucky in another area of the blog – the willingness to extend invites to guest blog entries and interviews (and now discussions!).  The interviews are something in particular that I want to develop and extend.

I should prioritize posts really! I have a write-up of the Belfast conference I attended last October and the San Francisco conference from April that need to be finished up and posted.  I always feel a greater debt to editing and giving feedback to guest bloggers first and foremost.  The ideas for posts generally come fairly randomly, if they are ton already sitting in the draft folder or ones that I aim to write within a series.  For instance, the Skeletal Series next two posts will focus on the aging and sexing techniques used in bioarchaeological analysis of skeletal remains.  There is something that I do shy away from writing about: famous skeletons, i.e. the Medieval English king Richard III or the new research on Phillip II from ancient Greece.

I feel that other blogs often cover these more expertly then I and that the remit of famous skeletons does not fit this blog, even as broad as this is (which reminds me I need to cover some human evolution research!).  Personally, I feel that the great and growing battery of bioarchaeological analyses is brought down on these individuals to the detriment of the anonymous skeletal remains of past individuals.  It reminds me of material wealth as the great social indicator of power, or at least our view of it (think of any headline from an archaeological site that made it into the public domain and it will largely focus on any extravagant burial).  Aside from that there isn’t much I would not discuss on the blog.  I am sometimes dismayed that employment within bioarchaeology isn’t discussed on other blogs, or the stress of the lifestyle and the sheer tenacity needed to succeed, or even just survive, in this field.  Which conveniently leads onto the next point…

Meyers-Emery and Killgrove (2015, open access) recently succinctly highlighted the dearth of consistently updated bioarchaeology blogs out there.  Mine was one of 6 that was discussed and quoted in the article, although one of those is now not regularly updated.  I feel a greater responsibility but understand the very privileged position that this blog has attained throughout the past 4 years.  I should say that I do no speak for any organisation, institution or discipline directly, or have any direct affiliation, through employment, with a company, that I speak only as myself.  I do wonder, though, whether this blog has cost jobs before or whether my physical disability has already helped in that area (the combination of the two may just be a dastardly mix!).  Still, and this is an area that I am keen to write about more, I am proud to write about my own bone disease on the blog, and of disability more generally, as in both as a feature of the bioarchaeological record and of those who work, study or just have a passion in archaeology more generally.  I hope I can be held up as a positive example that disability does not hold you back, no matter what.

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Where blogging archaeology can take you, part 2. Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, April 2015. This was a pretty busy area of the city, but also one that harked back a bit further to its maritime history. Author’s own photograph.

I guess I am uncomfortably comfortable in my blogging position of bioarchaeological authority.  I’ve put time and effort into maintaining this site for the benefit of the readers and subscribers, and of my own ongoing education.  There is something that I’m keen to highlight though, and I’d be interested if any other bioarchaeology bloggers heard the same, that some of my friends (which includes a broad range of specialists and non-specialists) have fed back that sometimes they don’t understand the posts.  Whether this is a failure of my own communication and/or the extent of the specialised lexis used within bioarchaeological research I am not quite sure.  But it reminds me that not everything is as open as you’d think.  How do I see myself?  That is a good question.

I am more intrigued how others see me, and that they may not realise but that I largely do the bioarchaeology blog on the side when I have the spare time and inclination to research and write.  But how do I see myself… I guess I see that I have succeeded in one childhood dream – that I am a writer of sorts (watch this space for a forthcoming book review and a chapter in an edited volume!).  I am slightly afraid that people will see this blog as the total sum of my being, which sounds pretentiously philosophical.  Curiously, for blogs dedicated to the study of the dead, whether through skeletonized or mummified remains, there is little discussion of the personal memento mori, of thy own death. Specifically of the blog online, and its life, after the death of the author(s).  This is a relatively new digital horizon, but the majority of archaeological blogs in both the UK and the US (where many of the English language archaeology blogs and bloggers are from, are single authored and, more often than not, not affiliated with any academic institution or company.  In essence, the blogger will die twice.  Once physically and once digitally, once the log is no longer updated and the SEO indexing of the site goes south.  There may be a field that is forever England, but the digital landscape, and the companies online, quickly change or are forgotten in time.

The personal success has been connecting and meeting people with the same bone disease as me.  Up until I started this blog I had never physically known, or communicated with, any individual who had the same syndrome and associated bone disease (McCune Albright Syndrome, though the bone disease specifically is Polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia).  It is all about the human connection, not the views or visitors (though I feel an obligation to be open about those – on a side note does the figure of the views grant a greater authority despite, or because of, the position held in real life?).  Apart from that, the ability to spend time and effort in a didactic exercise that has seemingly also helped others, is a value of which I hold as a success.

How about yourself Robert?  What do you hope to achieve and why?

RMC:  As I’ve said before, if I’d been a deep enough thinker, I’d probably never have taken on writing a blog. My initial aim was to ‘raise my profile’ in the hope of bettering my chances of getting archaeological work.  From that initial standpoint, I’ve failed miserably … I don’t work in archaeology as the day job anymore and I doubt I ever will again.  It’s not that I don’t love archaeology, it’s simply that other professions are much better paid, more secure, have better prospects, and don’t expect me to appear on the side of a hill in Tyrone at 07:30 for a day of rain and not much above the minimum wage.  So … why am I still doing it?  I think that, whatever bitterness I still feel about my former career, the lure of archaeology is immense and blogging gives me a prefect platform to remain involved.  With modern digital technology all you need is the will to communicate … after that, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a highly-respected member of staff at a prestigious university or – like the pair of us – doing this in your spare time after getting home from work.  It just comes down to that will to communicate and whether or not anyone is interested in reading what you have to say.  As an ongoing activity, I really do see my blogging as some weird form of therapy – it has really made my transition to a life in IT much easier and less traumatic than it might other have been.

If I’m honest, I don’t really have a long-term plan as to what I want to achieve with the blog.  I had read that most blogs – if they ever get off the ground at all – last, on average, only three years.  For a long time I was obsessed with surpassing that limit, as though it was some curse-laden prophesy … as the blog is now happily scooting along towards the four-year mark, that’s less of a problem.  I suppose I’ll keep writing as long as I’m able to balance it with work and family commitments and so long as it feels good to write and – most importantly – so long as there are people out there interested in reading what I’ve got to say.  I’m afraid I’m still obsessed with the numbers.  I suppose it’s all tied up in the need for acceptance that’s inherent in any public performance … I still remember my first few months blogging and getting even 20 visits/reads a day was an amazing feeling.  These days it’s a bit more than that, though it’s hardly the Huffington Post, but seeing a popular post surge in reads still brings a huge thrill. I’ve learned from my involvement with the ‘Cherrymount Crannog Crisis‘ group that, used wisely and judiciously, I do have some small amount of power to influence situations and events.

So, for as long as that lasts, I’m happy to ‘use my powers for good’ and try to bring about positive change in Irish and Northern Irish archaeology.  Obviously, this is very much tied into my lack of affiliation with any archaeological company, or institution … the lack of formal ‘respectability’ remains freeing and it allows me to tackle topics that might frighten off others/the sane.  Thankfully, those controversial pieces are pretty rare and I’m more interested in using the audience I’ve built up to help where I can, in particular the next generation of archaeologists.  Where I can, I try to offer my blog as a platform to help researchers gain information, support, or (most importantly) giving them a means of getting their research out to a wide audience of professional and public.  In the cutthroat world of modern academia, it’s no longer enough to write interesting and important papers for worthy journals, you have to get your message out there too.  I don’t seek to overthrow the formal peer-reviewed publication route, but I see that blogging has an important place in the grand scheme of things and I’m proud to be part of that world.

I will admit to a hearty laugh of recognition in reading your description of jotting down ideas for posts and the need for editing!  I used to keep a list of ‘things I’d like to write about’ … unfortunately, I didn’t add enough detail to some of the list items and when I looked at it recently I was unable to decipher what I meant by several entries.  If I ever find out what I meant by the line ‘post on the thing about the circle’, I’ll let you know!  Editing, of course, remains a terrible bugbear … I do my best to ensure that all the errors are excised, and that it reads like I do actually speak English, but looking back on some stuff, I’m simply shocked by the apparently obvious errors that I should have picked up on before I hit ‘publish’.  I do like your idea of the blogger dying twice … a physical and a digital death.  It’s very evocative of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The valiant never taste of death but once, bloggers do it twice’ … which I’m sure is the actual quote (translated from the original Latin!) but I disagree – I think that digital archives are much longer lasting and robust than we give them credit for.  It may be one thing if you’re a government minister who had an affair or expired in a particularly unedifying manner … that stuff will be around to haunt their great-grandchildren, but less flamboyant material, like blog posts, will probably stick around too.

For example, I made an abortive attempt to start an on-line archaeological journal nearly 20 years ago. When it finally all fell through and the rental of the server space expired, I though it was gone for good, deleted, and never to be seen again.  As it turned out, it wasn’t gone … just hard to get.  I think that as digital storage gets cheaper and more commonplace, the volume of saved data will simply explode.  Even more so, with developments in the analysis of ‘big data’, apparently mundane material will gain greater and greater value.  I don’t think that our blogs will necessarily survive in the way they’ve been presented.  They may become harder to find – accessible only to dedicated Data Archaeologists … but they will be there.  As far as immortality goes, it’s not a bad digital afterlife to look forward to!

Maybe it’s too far off to imagine the long-term future of our respective blogs, well I certainly hope it is!  Right now, the furthest I’m willing to look forward to is the Day of Archaeology … I’ll be doing my IT day job, and covertly cruising various blogs and social media and maybe even planning to get a bit of writing done in the evening.  How about you?  What are your plans for the day?

TBOM:  Oh I definitely agree with your comments on the fact that the blogs themselves will likely last a long time in the digital world, I just wonder about the effects that the death of the blogger would have on the site itself – how they would be curated, maintained or stored.  A digital data archaeologist sounds like a fascinating job!

On the Day of Archaeology (which I heartily invite readers of this blog to take part and join in at here) I’ll also be at work in my administration job and then, thankfully, I’ll have an early finish where I’ll go and join friends around a BBQ and have a few drinks to welcome in the weekend.  A part of me will be wishing that I was finishing the day on site, having helped to excavate a prehistoric site, or a medieval burial ground perhaps, and that I could be one of those dirty diggers who get to apply their academic knowledge with the physical hard work of excavation.  I, for one, am just glad that I an involved in archaeology in some way.  For instance, I’m currently waiting for feedback on a draft publication and I’ve got a few skeletons to continue inventorying and analysing for a report.  So as I sip on a beer, I shall also think of the work that lies ahead and the opportunities to become more involved with archaeology as whole!

Thank you for joining Robert, and good luck continuing writing at your excellent blog.  As I said in Belfast, I am always amazed at the quantity and quality of your writing, keep it up!

RMC:  Well, I think that about wraps it up for this conversation!  Thanks very much for having me and for coming up with the idea for this two-way discussion.  We’re having this conversation in the virtual world, but next time you’re back in Belfast we’ll have to meet up for pizza and pints gain!  All the best until our next encounter – virtual or ILR!

Further Information

Views on Archaeology and Social Media Sought

10 Jul

Fleur Schinning, a graduate student in Heritage Management at Leiden University, is conducting research on how social media and blogs contribute to the accessibility of archaeology in the Netherlands and seeks readers of blogs to help fill in a quick questionnaire.  The research is focused on investigating how often, and why, readers access the social media range (with a strong focus on blogs) access and read about archaeological projects and news in order to ascertain their use as methods for education outreach and improving the accessibility of archaeology.

The readers questionnaire focuses on the motives and takes only a few minutes to fill in and can be accessed here.  It is well worth it as participants are automatically offered the chance to win 6 copies of the Archaeology magazine for free.  The questionnaire close at the end of July 2015 in order for Fleur to analyse the data and allow her to conclude her research.

As long time readers of this blog may know that I’m a keen advocate of blogging as a method of educational outreach, and as an interactive use of reaching a wide and diverse audience.  Blogging archaeology has never been more popular, both as a topic of academic research and as an actual activity.

A few quick highlights of this for me include Doug’s Archaeology blogging carnival from 2013-2014 (and the subsequent published Blogging Archaeology edited volume), where over 70 archaeology bloggers gathered every month over a 5 month period to discuss the questions that Doug posed.  This brought together a lively bunch of people and posts from all over the world, allowing for a range of fully fleshed out thoughts on a wide variety of blogging archaeology topics (you can see all of my replies here!).  Further to this is the ever expanding and growing Day of Archaeology project, held each July (I’m slowly cooking up an entry for this year), which brings together archaeological bloggers and social media users to show the diversity of a day in an archaeologists life.  This is a lovely event which really indicates just how wide a subject archaeology is and can be, with entries piling in each year from every aspect of the discipline you can think of.  Be sure to check out their website on the 24th July this year, or better yet join in.

On a quick bioarchaeology point I’m always impressed by Kristina Killgrove’s work over at Powered by Osteons and now as a bioarchaeology writer at the Forbes website (check out this interactive map of her coverage at the company).  Her work on the blogging site is really linking the academic research with public communication and engagement by making her teaching and research methods open to public access and engagement (and making it fun!).  One of the latest posts promotes the publication of her human osteology laboratory workbook for interested members of the public and specialists alike.  It is the product of the classes in human osteology that she has taught, and continues to teach, in her role as an associate professor.

Blogging archaeology and bioarchaeology has, for me, opened up so many new doors and has introduced to me wonderful people and fantastic opportunities that I could only of dreamed of before I started blogging back in 2011.  If you value reading about archaeology across social media and blogging sites, such as this one, that help a researcher and indicate how you interact with archaeology online.

Replies to Fleur Shinnings questionnaires are greatly received and, on behalf of this blog, I wish her the best of luck in her research!

Guest Post: Telling Stories about the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project by Alexis Boutin

26 Jun

Alexis T. Boutin is associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of the cultural resources M.A. program at Sonoma State University.  In addition to co-directing the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project, she is starting a new community-based field project that studies the casualties and legacy of California’s Bear Flag Revolt of 1846.  Read more at her Academia.edu page or faculty webpage.  When not working or chasing after her children, Alexis spends her free time…actually, she doesn’t have any free time. 


Like most good stories, this one starts in an unassuming way: a lone researcher, flipping through yellowed index cards in the wooden drawer of a museum registrar’s card catalog, stumbles across one for human remains from “Saudi Arabia; Bahrein Island”.  Casually mentioning the find over lunch with her colleague, who happens to be a curator at the museum, he expresses interest in helping her dig deeper into the collections and archives to find out how these bones came to be in the museum.  Thus was born the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project in late 2008 (Porter and Boutin 2012).  The researchers in question are Alexis Boutin, now of Sonoma State University, and Benjamin Porter, of University of California Berkeley.  The museum is the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.  The bones, and associated artifacts, belong to the only substantial assemblage from ancient Dilmun in a North American museum. And they have many stories to tell.

Peter Cornwall’s search for Dilmun

We must begin with Peter Bruce Cornwall, the scion of a distinguished family with deep roots in northern California.  He found privilege in his education at Andover, Toronto, and Oxford, but was challenged by the deafness that afflicted him late in childhood.  As a doctoral student in Anthropology at Harvard, Cornwall’s objective – which his advisor would call a “mania” – was to locate the place named in ancient Near Eastern texts as Dilmun.

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1. Peter Cornwall’s 1932 yearbook photo from Phillips Academy Andover.

Dilmun served as a setting for Mesopotamian creation myths and fantastical events.  For instance, the hero Gilgamesh found Utnapishtum there, a former king who was granted immortality after a great flood in a story that mirrors that of the biblical Noah.  Dilmun also was well-known as a trading emporium in commercial networks extending to the Ur III societies of Mesopotamia, Magan in Oman, and Meluhha, the Harappan societies of the Indus River Valley.  But modern scholars had never agreed upon Dilmun’s actual location or extent.

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2. Map of the Arabian peninsula, with ancient locales identified. Image by Benjamin W. Porter.

After overcoming the doubt of his academic advisors at Harvard and eventually winning limited backing from the Hearst Museum, Cornwall sailed for Bahrain in Fall 1940.  His journey was made no easier by its route across the Pacific and Indian oceans in the midst of World War II.  Cornwall excavated human remains and artifacts from at least 24 tumuli, or burial mounds, on Bahrain, followed by survey and surface collection at 16 or more archaeological sites in eastern Saudi Arabia.

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3. Cornwall’s team excavating a tumulus in Bahrain. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

The cost of shipping the finds to his northern California home was covered by the Hearst Museum, in return for their eventual accession there.  Cornwall’s analyses allowed him to conclude that Dilmun was a political entity that ran along the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula from Kuwait to Qatar and was centered on Bahrain.  After publishing his PhD dissertation and several journal articles, Cornwall donated the assemblage to the Hearst Museum as promised in 1945, but provided minimal assistance with its accession.  He then began to withdraw from the academic world, moving to Rome and reportedly spending the rest of his days travelling and collecting art and antiquities, before dying in his late 50s of cirrhosis of the liver.  Although Cornwall’s contribution to Gulf archaeology has lived on in the works of many others (e.g., Bibby 1970, Crawford 1998, Højlund 2007, Potts 1990), the location of the materials that helped him make this discovery was not known outside of the Hearst Museum.

The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project

Some 4000 years after these people died and 65 years after their remains were brought to California, Porter and I identified this assemblage (referred to hereafter as the “Cornwall collection”) as a rich source of information about life and death in ancient Dilmun.  Although the materials donated by Cornwall had been inventoried during their accession to the Hearst, they had undergone no further systematic analysis since that time.  Working with students from Sonoma State and UC Berkeley, we have determined that the Cornwall collection includes over 3,700 objects made from materials including metal, bone, ivory, pearl, shell, and alabaster, although stone and ceramic objects dominate.  The datable objects derive mostly from the Early Dilmun period, ca. 2050-1800 BCE.  This was a period of unprecedented political and economic prosperity in Dilmun, as suggested by fortified settlements, temple complexes, administrative seals, and imported goods.

When people died in Early Dilmun, their bodies were laid to rest in distinct mortuary monuments that are still visible across the island today.  These mounded tumuli usually consist of a stone lined burial chamber covered by a cone of sediments and gravels.  In most tombs, one or sometimes two individuals were interred, often in a relaxed fetal position.  Surrounding them were ceramic vessels, jewelry, metal weapons, and very rarely alabaster vessels or ivory objects.  A sheep or goat might also be included, likely an offering for the deceased to carry into the afterlife.  Not all tumuli had the same level of elaborate commemoration.  Differences in the size of monuments and the amount and quality of objects indicate that the privileged and wealthy were granted the most elaborate burial conditions.

The human remains in the Cornwall collection represent a minimum of 34 people.  Twenty-four adults, as well as one adolescent, were sufficiently well-preserved to permit sex estimation.  Nineteen are males/probable males, while six are females/probable females.  Of the skeletons for whom an age category could be estimated, the vast majority are adults, with middle adults (35-50 years) being the best represented.  However, adolescents, children, infants and one fetus are also present in smaller numbers.

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4. The author at work in the Hearst Museum collections. Photo by Colleen Morgan.

Unfortunately, the notes that Cornwall deposited in the Museum’s accession files are very limited.  They contain very few associated field notes, such as photographs of the burials, the position of bodies, and even the geographic coordinates for specific tumuli around the island.  We are not sure if Cornwall produced this documentation in the first place, or perhaps he never gave it to the Hearst Museum.  We are hopeful that someone will come forward with missing information about Cornwall’s research from a family archive.  Nevertheless, important insights can be gained from the Cornwall collection when its contents are analyzed in the context of better-documented research in Bahrain and surrounding regions.

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5. Cylindrical wheel-thrown ceramic jar (9-4680) typical of Early Dilmun burial assemblages. Photo by Colleen Morgan. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

Bioarchaeological analysis of skeleton 12-10152 provides a powerful example of one ancient Dilmunite’s experiences in life and death.  Cornwall excavated the remains of this person—a male who was at least 60 years old when he died—from a tumulus in the Dar Kulayb mound cemetery near Bahrain’s western coast.  No durable objects were buried with him, although multiple bones (including the skull) from a sheep (Ovis aries) or goat (Capra hircus) suggest that he did receive a large portion of a recently butchered animal.  The three stories that follow illustrate how bioarchaeological data from one skeleton (here, 12-10152) can be assembled and interpreted in various ways, to tell multiple stories through multiple media.

The Osteological Version

Analysis of 12-10152’s skeleton reveals a long lifetime of physical activity based on degenerative joint disease (DJD) throughout his skeleton.  Degenerative joint disease occurs when chronic stress on joints progressively damages articular cartilage and, eventually, underlying bone surfaces.  Bone formation and destruction characterize DJD, including the breakdown of articular cartilage, formation of osteophytes at joint margins and entheses, degeneration and consequent porosity of the articular surface, sclerosis, and eburnation caused by direct bone-on-bone contact (Larsen 2015; Ortner 2003).  This male’s DJD is more severe in the right shoulder, facet joints of three cervical vertebrae, lower lumbar vertebral bodies, hips, and knees.  The degeneration of the right shoulder joint is particularly marked, with significant osteophyte growth on the articular margins of the right humeral head, and extensive eburnation here and on the glenoid fossa of the scapula.  Osteophyte formation on the distal femora, more extensive on the left side, indicates degeneration of both knee joints.  The articular surface of the left patella (the only one extant) exhibits macroporosity and destruction of the subchondral bone.

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6. Severe degenerative joint disease affecting 12-10152’s right humerus. 6a) eburnation of humeral head (superior view); 6ab) osteophyte growth on margins of humeral head (posterior view); 6c) eburnation of posterior face of glenoid fossa (right scapula, medial view). Photos by the author. (Click to enlarge).

As was common for the elderly of Early Dilmun, this male experienced extensive antemortem tooth loss.  His mandible is edentulous, and all but five of his maxillary teeth had fallen out by the time of his death.  Moderate DJD of the right temporomandibular joint is evident.  The left side is unaffected.  Atrophy of the right half of the mandible is also apparent, perhaps caused by a preference for the non-arthritic left side when chewing.  In a forthcoming publication, we compare his skeleton with those of two other elderly males in the Cornwall collection to explore how masculinity was embodied in Early Dilmun (Porter and Boutin forthcoming).

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7. Extant cranial skeleton of 12-10152. Note antemortem loss of all teeth in mandible. Photo by the author. (Click to enlarge).

The Visual Version

The comparatively good preservation of 12-10152’s cranial and post-cranial skeleton provided an excellent opportunity to tell his story visually, through a forensic facial reconstruction.  This method had already been employed by the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project on a teenage boy from Early Dilmun with excellent results (Boutin et al. 2012), and we hoped that a facial reconstruction of this older man could provide unique insights about embodied experiences toward the end of life.

Creating a replica of the skull is the first step in facial reconstruction.  For 12-10152, whose remains are very delicate and brittle, stereolithography—scanning the skull with lasers to create a digital file—was the best option.  Dr. Sabrina Sholts (now of the Smithsonian Institution) obtained multiple scans of each portion of the fragmented skull with a NextEngine 3D laser scanner. After she processed the data on a laptop, the resulting digital files were sent to GoEngineer in Santa Clara, CA, where they were “printed” three-dimensionally in plastic.  I brought these plastic cranial bones to the studio of forensic artist Gloria Nusse (San Francisco State University), where she and I worked together to rearticulate them into a model on which the face could be reconstructed.

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8. Printed components of 12-10152’s skull, before and after re-articulation in Ms. Nusse’s studio. Photos by the author. (Click to enlarge).

When the plastic skull replica was ready, Nusse attached tissue depth markers at standard cranial landmarks.  Next, she used oil-based modeling clay to simulate the cranio-facial muscles, with “skin” of the same material eventually added to meet the height of the markers.  Once the basic form of the face had been completed, Nusse made small adjustments to the shapes of certain features, such as the eyelids and lips, and used a sponge to texturize the facial skin.  She carefully incorporated skeletal features distinct to 12-10152 into his visage: for example, the atrophied and edentulous nature of his mandible gave his lower face a sunken and asymmetrical appearance.  Nusse collaborated with Porter and me to create the hair and eye color, hair style, and dress for 12-10152’s reconstruction.  Our decisions were informed by texts and iconography from ancient Mesopotamia (which are lacking from early Dilmun), as well as a survey of publicly available photographs of modern Arabian Gulf citizens.  The resulting reconstruction has been displayed with that of the teenage boy in an exhibit entitled “From Death to Life in Ancient Bahrain,” which has traveled to several university museums in California.

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9. Facial reconstruction of 12-10152 by Gloria Nusse, on display at Sonoma State University. Photograph courtesy of Alexis Boutin. (Click to enlarge).

The Narrative Version

The final way that I tell 12-10152’s story is in fictive narrative format, which is informed by the Bioarchaeology of Care and Bioarchaeology of Personhood models.  Having described the Bioarchaeology of Personhood in print before (Boutin 2011, 2012), I provide just a few highlights here.  Essentially, I have taken Clark and Wilkie’s (2006) concept of an Archaeology of Personhood and adapted it to focus on the relationship between human skeletal remains and embodied experience.  These models feature a less ethno- and temperocentric emphasis on individuality than other (bio)archaeological approaches to identity.  One of the only constants is the passage of time, which is marked bodily by aging.  Although age should not be privileged over other axes of personhood (e.g., gender, class, ethnicity, etc.), it is age that undergirds their fluidity over the life course.  So the Bioarchaeology of Personhood attends to the stories that skeletons tell us about how their personhoods were embodied across the life course.

In addition to telling these stories in traditional academic language and scholarly venues, I also write fictive narratives about the skeletons I study.  This allows me to draw together socio-historic contextual data, clinical research on health and illness, and bioarchaeological analysis in a way that provides a more humanizing view of past personhoods.  But no matter how well-substantiated, these narratives are always the products of my imagination.  They could be told in different ways by different authors, depending on which lines of evidence s/he chooses to prioritize.  For this reason, the qualifying term “fictive” (after Wilkie 2003) is essential.  I have also found the Bioarchaeology of Care (Tilley 2015) to be an extremely useful heuristic tool in creating fictive narratives based on the Cornwall collection.  I particularly appreciate how its focus on the provision of health care and support foregrounds the notion of community: each and every life course plays out in concert with those of others to which it is inextricably linked – mothers, husbands, children, neighbors, dynasts, etc.  What follows is an excerpt of a fictive narrative about 12-10152’s life course, focusing on the care and support that he may have required during old age.

The heat and dust rose in waves from the road as the young men padded by, their arms full of recently harvested dates.  I envied them in more ways than one.  “Grandfather, your stew is ready.”  It’s been many years since I was able to shimmy up the date palms, let alone chew my favorite date nut treat.  But even the few teeth left in my head are enough to enjoy my granddaughter’s fish-and-vegetable stew (as long as she cooks it long enough and I remember to chew on the left side).  Finding my walking stick with my left hand and heaving myself up with a grunt, I make my way into the house.  A wince and a groan as I raise my right arm to take the bowl from my granddaughter.  Ah well – if you live long enough to see your great-grandchildren, some aches and pains are to be expected.

The End

The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project aims to maximize the interpretive possibilities of the human remains that we have the privilege to study.  Telling 12-10152’s story in various ways reminds us that identities are always multi-faceted and that there is no one “right answer” to how bioarchaeological evidence can be interpreted.  Another example of this approach can be seen in the multiple stories that we have told about a young woman with disabilities (12-10146) from the Cornwall collection.  These include an osteological analysis of her skeletal pathologies (Boutin and Porter 2014), a narrative telling of her embodied experiences in the recent Bioarchaeology of Care session at the 2015 SAAs (with a manuscript in preparation for International Journal of Paleopathology), and a full-body reconstruction by Ms. Nusse planned for 2015-2016.  Documentation and analysis of the Cornwall collection will conclude over the next couple of years, with the results to be published in a book entitled Embodying Dilmun: The Peter B. Cornwall Expedition to Eastern Arabia and Bahrain.  Will this be the final word on life and death in ancient Dilmun? As the saying goes, the best stories never end.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Boutin, A.T. 2012. Crafting a Bioarchaeology of Personhood: Osteobiographical Narratives from Alalakh. In A. Baadsgaard, A. T. Boutin and J. E. Buikstra (eds.), Breathing New Life Into the Evidence of Death: Contemporary Approaches to Bioarchaeology. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 109-133. (Open Access).

Boutin, A.T. 2011. Written in Stone, Written in Bone: The Osteobiography of a Bronze Age Craftsman from Alalakh. In A.L.W. Stodder and A. M. Palkovich (eds.), The Bioarchaeology of Individuals. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 193-214. (Open Access).

Boutin, A.T. & and Porter, B.W. 2014. Commemorating Disability in Early Dilmun: Ancient and Contemporary Tales from the Peter B. Cornwall Collection. In B.W. Porter and A.T. Boutin (eds.), Remembering the Dead in the Ancient Near East: Recent Contributions from Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 97-132.

Boutin, A.T., Nusse, G.L. Nusse, Sholts, S.B. & Porter, B.W. 2012. Face to Face With the Past: Reconstructing a Teenage Boy from Early Dilmun. Near Eastern Archaeology. 75(2): 68-79.

Bibby, G. 1970. Looking for Dilmun. London: Collins.

Clark, B. & Wilkie, L.A. 2006. The Prism of Self: Gender and Personhood. In S. M. Nelson (ed.), Handbook of Gender Archaeology. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 333-364.

Cornwall, P.B. 1943. The tumuli of Bahrain. Asia and the Americas. 42: 230–234.

Cornwall, P.B. 1944. Dilmun: The history of Bahrein Island before Cyrus. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, Harvard University.

Cornwall, P.B. 1946. On the location of Dilmun. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 102: 3–11.

Crawford, H.E.W. 1998. Dilmun and its Gulf Neighbours. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Højlund, F. 2007. The Burial Mounds of Bahrain: Social Complexity in Early Dilmun. Moesgaard: Jutland Archaeological Society Publications.

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Skeleton. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Littleton, J. & Frohlich, B. 1993. Fish-eaters and Farmers: Dental Pathology in the Arabian Gulf. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 92:427-447. (Open Access).

MacLean, R. & Insoll, T. 2011. An Archaeological Guide to Bahrain. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Ortner, Donald J. 2003. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. 2nd edition. San Diego: Academic Press.

Porter, B.W. & Boutin, A.T. 2012. The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project:  A first look at the Peter B. Cornwall Collection at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy. 23: 35-49.

Porter, B.W. & Boutin, A.T. Forthcoming. The Elders of Dilmun: A Bioarchaeological Analysis of Masculinity from the Peter B. Cornwall Collection. In L. Gregoricka and K. Williams (eds.), Life and Death in Ancient Arabia: Mortuary and Bioarchaeological Perspectives. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Potts, D.T. 1990. The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity, Vols. 1 & 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tilley, L. 2015. Accommodating Difference in the Prehistoric Past: Revisiting the Case of Romito 2 from a Bioarchaeology of Care Perspective. International Journal of Paleopathology. 8: 64-74. (Open Access).

Wilkie, L.A. 2003. The Archaeology of Mothering: An African-American Midwife’s Tale. New York: Routledge.

Introducing Show Us Your Research! An Open Access Anthropological Project

17 Jun

One of the aims of this blog, especially more so since it has grown in the past few years, is to highlight the opportunities available to both bioarchaeology researchers and the public alike.  As a previous post highlighted, never has there been a better time to be involved with bioarchaeological research and never has it been so open before to members of the public to engage with it (for instance, try your hand here or check out some resources here!).  The communication of the aims, and the importance of the discipline, in the aid of understanding past populations and their lifestyles is of vital interest if we are to remain a dynamic and responsive field.  As such it gives me great pleasure to announce that, starting from now, I’ll be helping to disseminate the results of the Show Us Your Research! (SUYR!) project spearheaded by researchers at the University of Coimbra and the University of Algarve in Portugal.

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The SUYR! logo. Image credit courtesy of GEEvH  at the Universidade de Coimbra.

The SUYR! project aims to promote the projects that archaeologists and anthropologists have been involved in by diminishing the gap between the researchers and the public by regular concise publications aimed at the public (Campanacho et al. 2015).  The project is aimed at researchers from the anthropological and archaeological fields from around the globe and accepts entries on methodologies, artefacts, theories, site studies and pathological studies, amongst other topics.  To me this is a really exciting opportunity for early career archaeologists and anthropologists and one that I am thrilled to disseminate the results of.  It is hoped that the project expands into interviews with researchers as well!

SUYR! 2015 Entry No. 4: Carina Marques and a Palaeopathological Approach to Neoplasms

The latest entry in the series focuses on malignant tumours (or neoplasms) in the palaeopathology record.  The entry, submitted by researcher Carina Marques who is based at the Research Centre for Anthropology and Heath (CIAS) at the University of Coimbra, focuses on the skeletal evidence for malignant tumours in archaeological populations by investigating prevalence and typology of their presence.  Cancer, as the World Health Organisation figures testify, is a major cause of human mortality internationally; however their neoplastic natural history, physical manifestation and evolution remains something of a ‘challenging endeavor’ (Marques 2015).

As such Marques has studied and analysed Portuguese reference collections of numerous skeletal remains dating from the 19th to 20th centuries to try to identity and catalog neoplasms in the aim to ask how precise the pathological diagnosis of malignant tumours are in fairly modern skeletal remains.  The research highlighted that the skeletal manifestations of tumours can vary and that they can present similarly to other pathological processes which can be hard to identify down to a single process.  However, the research also documented that malignant tumours often left their mark on bone, particularly metastases (after the cancer had spread from one area of the body to another).  The research has helped produce a body of data that characterizes neoplastic prevalence in these populations, providing an important historical context for the evolution of neoplasms.  Furthermore Marques (2015) has also helped clinicians identify and characterize the early lesions that can often be missed on radiological examination.

How to Submit Your Research

There are a number of formats in which submissions to SUYR! can be made – these include either a 500 word abstract of your research project, a picture or photograph with a note of no more than 200 words, or via a video lasting 3 to 5 minutes detailing the research undertaken and its importance (the specifics of the video format and style can be found here).  Remember that you are writing for interested members of the public who want to hear and read about the interesting research topics that archaeologists and anthropologists are pursuing and why.  These necessarily precludes that the use of isolating jargon is limited and that the writing is clear to understand.  More importantly, this fantastic opportunity levers the researcher with a communication channel to both the academic and public spheres alike.  SUYR! has three major themes of interest (bioanthropology, archaeology, and social and cultural anthropology) for the submissions and three researchers to contact for each interest.  The following image highlights who to contact to send your research to:

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Subjects of interest in the SUYR! project and the contact details to send the research to. Image credit courtesy of the Universdade de Coimbra.

How to Get on Board

If you are a blogger, a microblogger (ie a Twitter user), or merely want to share your interest in the fields of archaeology and anthropology to your family and friends, then you too can join in spreading word about SUYR!  Simply copy and paste the website and share with your circle of family and friends.  The articles are freely available from the main SUYR! site.  If you are a college or university student who is interested in highlighting the various projects discussed via the project then perhaps you could even print out the pages and put them up on the community noticeboard in your department.  If you are an active researcher within the above fields then why not consider sending in your own past or current research?  This is a great opportunity to highlight the knowledge, breadth and depth, of archaeological research and the value of bioarchaeological research to the public.

Further Information

  • The archives of the SUYR! project can be found here for 2014 and here for 2015 years.  Both of the years papers detail some really interesting projects going on in the anthropology fields, particularly in bioarchaeology.  For example, Dr Charlotte Henderson kicks off the 2014 papers with an exciting and enlightening piece on the ability, and problems, of osteologists to infer occupation from skeletal remains.  Later on in the year Victoria Beauchamp and Nicola Thorpe investigate the work of The Workers’ Education Association (WEA) in England and assess the impact of using heritage as a teaching aid.  Both papers can be downloaded for free here.  In 2015 Dave Errickson (a friend and a previous guest blogger on this site) has an entry on his work digitizing forensic evidence using 3D scans and laser scanning.  The site itself is available to translate into a number of languages by simply clicking the scroll down box on the right hand side.
  • The Grupo de Estudos em Evolucao Humana (Group of Studies in Human Evolution), at the University of Coimbra, have a website highlighting the ongoing initiatives, activities and projects by the members of the group.  This includes hosting conferences, workshops and open days on any number of evolutionary topics.  You can find out more information here.

Bibliography

Campanacho, V., Pereira, T. & Nunes, M.J. 2015. Show Us Your Research! An Anthropological and Archaeological Publication for the Greater Public. Palaeopathology Newsletter. 170: 26.

Marques, C. 2015. A Palaeopathological Approach to Neoplasms: Skeletal Evidence from the Portuguese Identified Osteological Collections.  Show Us Your Research! 2015, No. 4. (Open Access).

Guest Post: Review of the Bethlem Museum of the Mind in Beckenham, Kent, by Jessica Sajovie

4 Jun

Jessica Sajovie is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, but is currently a London-based writer responsible for Diverting Journeys, a blog dedicated to irreverent reviews of museums and other curious destinations around the world, particularly (due to a limited travel budget) those in London and Southeast England.  In addition, she volunteers with a local history project, researching the First World War and its impact on Merton.  Jessica holds an MA in Early Modern History from King’s College London, with a focus on 18th century Britain and the history of medicine.  Her other interests include collecting vintage cookbooks and Pez dispensers shaped like American Presidents, a never-ending quest to find blueberry cake doughnuts in London, and reading books on ill-fated maritime expeditions and lurid titles picked from the historical “True Crime” section at the library.  She also enjoys classic rock.


Though I’m keen on almost all museums (the possible exceptions being particularly dreary local affairs, or anything sport-related), medical museums are a particular favourite of mine.  Over the past few years, I’ve blogged about a number of them around Britain (the Gordon Museum of Pathology, the Royal London Hospital Museum, Dr. Jenner’s House , the Royal Berkshire Medical Museum, and many others, if you feel like digging around my blog), and elsewhere in the world (even in places as far-flung as Thailand) but being a homebody at heart, I was excited to discover that a new medical museum had opened right on the outskirts of London – the former Bethlem Hospital Museum, which was recently revamped and re-opened as the Museum of the Mind.

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The entrance of the Bethlem Hospital museum in London.

Bethlem Royal Hospital has been around in one form or another since AD 1247, making it the oldest mental hospital in Britain (although it started strictly as an almshouse, and only began to be used for mentally ill patients in the early 14th century).  It was initially located in Bishopsgate, just beyond the old City of London, but was moved to Moorfields in the late 17th century, which is around the time it began to acquire its tumultuous “bedlam” reputation (the name of the hospital had been shortened to “Bedlam” for centuries, but it was only in the 1600s that the word began to be used as a synonym for chaos), as the hospital encouraged paying visitors, and gawking at the “lunatics” became a popular day out for the wealthy.  In 1815, the hospital moved again, this time to Southwark (what is now the Imperial War Museum), and due to a damning report about conditions in the hospital, Bethlem gradually developed more humane treatments for its patients, and put an end to the sight-seeing. Finally, in 1930, Bethlem moved out to its current location, in Kent, where the museum is located today.

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A detail of one of the entrance statues by Caius Gabriel Cibber in the museum highlighting the representation of mental illness via the shackles.  This is a continuing theme at Bethlem Hospital as shackles and chains were often previously used to subdue patients.

Firstly, some practicalities.  The Museum of the Mind is not too far from Croydon, so most Londoners should be able to make their way out there using a combination of trains and buses (or the tram from Wimbledon…if you don’t hate it as much as I do; ugh, it’s so slow, and the unfortunately named “Therapia Lane” creeps me out).  I chose to travel by car, which in retrospect may have been a mistake as it took about an hour to get there from Southwest London, but at least there was ample parking in the visitor lot at the hospital, which is a short walk away from the museum (and I had the freedom to sing along (poorly) to all my favourite classic rock songs in the car, which I wouldn’t have been able to do in the tram without getting weird looks).  The museum is normally open Wednesday-Friday, and the first and last Saturday of the month, and admission is free.

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A patient’s creative representation of mental illness.

My first impression was that it was like a small-scale Dr. Guislain Museum (a fabulous museum in Belgium that is located in a working mental hospital and provides a comprehensive history of psychiatric medicine, in addition to art galleries featuring works by people suffering from various mental illnesses), as it incorporated both museum space and art galleries with works by some of its service users.  I started with the gallery space on the ground floor, which was compromised of two rooms: a display area and a workshop whose walls were also lined with pictures.  A two or three paragraph description was provided for each piece; I particularly liked an artist with a penchant for photographing crows.  The workshop seems to be frequently used for various classes, as there was one starting up when I was in there viewing the art (and purchasing a Dan Duggan print), and since I was asked if I wanted to join the class (which I awkwardly declined, as I didn’t have time and totally lack artistic talent anyway), I assume at least some of them are offered free of charge.

The stairwell leading up to the first floor is flanked by the famous statues Raving Madness and Melancholy Madness (by Caius Gabriel Cibber, father of the much-maligned Poet Laureate Colley Cibber, though I have to say Alexander Pope’s constant mockery of the younger Colley livened up the 18th Century Literature classes I took in my undergrad days) which stood atop the gates of the late 17th century hospital, and truly demonstrate Restoration-era conceptions of madness, as the faces of the figures are so contorted that they scarcely look human.

Statues flanking the entrance stairs.

Raving Madness and Melancholy Madness by the artist Caius Gabriel Cibber at the 1st floor stairs in the museum.

There’s also an old donation box where visitors back in the sight-seeing era of Bethlem’s history were encouraged to leave money (although the treatments at the hospital have radically changed, the box is still in use for its original purpose, and they gladly welcome any donations).

The first floor is divided into a museum and another art gallery, which hosts temporary exhibitions.  The one I saw, which ran through May, featured the paintings of Bryan Charnley, who had schizophrenia, and “use[d] visual metaphor and symbolism to vividly illustrate the physical experience [of schizophrenia]” (taken from Bethlem’s website).  Many of his paintings featured his girlfriend, who struggled with depression herself and attempted suicide multiple times, eventually resulting in her paralysis, and thus the overwhelming impression I had of his art was one of poignancy.

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A Bethlem Museum of the Mind poster set in the historic hospital grounds.

The actual museum is fairly small, and is split up into several sections.  Unlike the Dr. Guislain Museum, this was far from a comprehensive history – being more a brief overview of changing attitudes towards mental illness over the years, and the ever-evolving treatments at Bethlem, as well as providing some perspectives from some of its service users.  The museum does make an effort to draw in the visitor by including lots of eye-catching displays (like a wall full of apothecary bottles) and a few interactives (some videos, and a computer where you could learn more about various diagnoses), but it wasn’t as interactive as one might expect from a brand-new museum, and the displays weren’t quite enough to distract me from the lack of content.

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A detail of the various concoctions and medicines used in the course of treatment for the individuals who stayed at Bethlem Hospital.

That said, I found the small collection of restraint devices used in the past fascinating, albeit disturbing, and I was also captivated by the before-and-after photographs of Victorian patients at Bethlem (the historical signifier of insanity apparently being unkempt hair, if these pictures were anything to go by).  I believe the hospital had something like a 47% recovery rate in the Victorian era, though with the lack of effective medication, you have to wonder how many of those “recovered” people should have even been placed in Bethlem in the first place (given the Victorian zeal for labelling anyone who didn’t quite adopt society’s mores as “insane,” I would imagine it was a fair few).

This section also contained even more art from former patients, and although many pieces were quite gloomy in nature (perhaps understandably reflecting the mental states of the artists), I was charmed by the many cat paintings of Louis Wain, who was briefly a patient at the hospital (his diagnosis is widely disputed, and is listed as anything from schizophrenia to Asperger’s…all that is really known is that he suffered from mood swings and was occasionally violent, although you really wouldn’t know it from his cheerful pictures).  Fortunately, postcards of his pieces are available at the gift shop (because everybody loves cats these days, right?), so you can take a little piece of Wain’s art home with you.

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A small selection of Louis Wain’s cat pictures.

Although I could tell that a lot of effort had been put into making the museum visually appealing, I do think it just needed to have more content.  The historical objects were my absolute favourite part, and I think the museum could be vastly improved by including more history, and more artefacts, because even though many historical psychiatric treatments are hard to stomach nowadays, they are a vital part of our past, and I think it’s really important that people learn about them just to see the strides medicine has made within the last century or two.

Although they offer classes and lectures, and the art displays do change from time to time, for me, one visit here was enough, as it just wasn’t extensive enough for my tastes, and didn’t really add anything to my understanding of psychiatric medicine (even the history of Bethlem itself was lacking, with more detail provided in a timeline at the top of the stairs than in the museum itself).  I really think the focus here was on the art, so if that interests you, you may enjoy the Museum of the Mind (and some of the artists were very talented, so their art was well worth seeing), but if, like me, you’re looking for something that skillfully combines history with some art, then I’d urge you to go to Ghent (if you can) to see the Dr. Guislain Museum, as it goes into so much more detail.

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A selection of the vials and bottles that the hospital used to store and use in the medicine collection.

In conclusion my score for the Museum of the Mind is 2.5/5 (and if anyone knows of a better mental health museum in Britain, please do let me know in the comments!).

Please Note

All photographs in this guest entry are by Jessica Sajovie, if used elsewhere please contact Jessica on her personal blog for permission.

Further Information

  • The Bethlem Museum of the Mind details the story behind the museum and the role that the hospital played in its own history.  The site also highlights upcoming exhibitions and the collections that it holds (including the wonderful artwork produced by some of the patients and its archive).  The museum blog, with regular updates on both the exhibitions at the museum and issues that affect the museum, can be read here.