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Conference Review: Day of the Dead Conference at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, 17th-19th October 2014

31 Jul

As highlighted in an earlier blog post (alright, this post is quite late!) on this site Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), in Northern Ireland, recently played organizer and host to the Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology conference on the 17th to the 19th October 2014.  Yours truly went along on a propeller plane departing from Newcastle across the Irish Sea to Belfast to what turned out to be one of the best conferences that I have thus far had the pleasure of attending.  It was a conference that aptly and ably mixed funerary archaeology with human osteoarchaeology into a delicious few days that demonstrated the strength and wealth of ongoing research.  Of particular interest was the current human osteoarchaeological research on-going in Ireland itself, but we’ll come back to that shortly.  This brief post will cover a few of the research highlights of the event itself, and I hope it is a conference that will be repeated in the not-too-distant future.

QUB

The 19th century Lanyon building, at the centre of the Queen’s University Belfast campus in the south of the city, a fine host building for the conference. Home to some more than 17,000 students and 3500 staff, the university and it’s School of Archaeology, Geography and Palaeoecology boasts the facilities of a radiocarbon laboratory with AMS facilities. Photograph credit: QUB.

Spearheaded by Catriona McKenzie and her able assistants (the fantastic Deirdre Drain, Jeanna Loyer, and Roisin O’Reilly) from the Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology department (GAP) at Queen’s University Belfast, the Day of the Dead 3-day conference attracted delegates from around Ireland, Europe, and the wider world to present poster and podium papers on a smorgasbord of bioarchaeological topics.

Archaeothanatology Workshop

The conference kicked off with a workshop on the archaeothanatology methodology on the first day, which was spearheaded by Stéphane Rottier, Christopher Knüsel and Jeanna Loyer.  Archaeothanatology, or the similar anthropologie de terrain, is a method of recording the in-situ position of the body in the grave as proposed by the French archaeologist and anthropologist Henri Duday.  Unfortunately I did not get to attend the workshop itself as I arrived in the city mid-way through the first day, whilst the workshop itself was in mid-session.  However, I heard from friends that did manage to attend it that much was learnt regarding the importance of understanding the context of the body in-situ.  Of particular importance are the differences between coffin and non-coffin burials, where the position and rotational axis of certain skeletal elements, such as the humerus, radius and ulna, can indicate funerary and post-burial taphonomic body positions.

I managed to have a quick word with Chris Knüsel, who helps to advocate the use of the methodology, and he gave me a quick break down of what the methodology hopes to achieve. Archaeothanatology, Chris stated, ‘links bioarchaeology with funerary archaeology in a way that has never previously been considered.  It has the potential to distinguish natural phenomena from human agency and to reveal behavioural details of much more variable patterning of human remains than anticipated from burial types.  The methodology does require sound field recording of the archaeological and bioarchaeological contexts however for the full implementation and usefulness of the methodology to become apparent.

For further information and a good introduction to archaeothanatology, whose majority of publications have been written in French, I highly recommend Bradley’s 2010 open access article ‘Les Tomes Belle: The Use of ‘Anthropologie de Terrain in Prehistoric Archaeology‘, published in the University of York’s student journal The Post Hole.  I also recommend Katy Emery Meyer’s Bones Don’t Lie blog article on the inference of perishable grave goods in a prehistoric Bronze Age and Iron Age cemeteries in Ban Lum Khao and Ban Non Wat, Thailand, respectively, on Harris & Tayles 2012 research using archaeothanatology.  For a recent look at how archaothanatology, when used in conjunction with taphonomy, scanning electron microscopy, histological analysis, and Micro-CT scanning, is unraveling social practices in prehistory I highly recommend reading Smith’s et al. 2016 (paywalled) article on the British evidence for mummification and retention of the dead around a Chalcolithic and Bronze Age monument at Cranborne Chase, Dorset.

It should also be stated here that anthropologie de terrain underpins archaeothanatology, however there is some confusion on my part as to whether the methodologies are analogous due to translation intricacies or whether archaeothanatology is the natural progression of anthropologie de terrain.

Conference Sessions & Related Papers

The papers were presented over 8 sessions over the weekend of the 18th and 19th October, and dealt with a number of different themes relating to human osteoarchaeology in general.  I won’t go into detail regarding the papers presented but I will pick out a presentation or two to indicate the range of the topics.  I have to say I was quite impressed at the standard of the research presented and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the conference as a whole.

day of the dead

The really rather lovely logo for the Day of the Dead  conference. Image credit: QUB.

It was also a real credit to the organizers of the conference that such a wide number of European and international countries were represented.  Of course one of the best things for any conference attendee who has to pay their own fees is the realization that a conference that is affordable is also filled with some of the best researchers in the field.  But anyway, enough of my praise and let me introduce a talk or two…

Osteoarchaeology in Ireland

After a welcome talk by Catriona McKenzie and Eileen Murphy the first session got underway and focused on the topic at hand within Ireland.  The chronological period covered here largely focused on the medieval and post-medieval history of Ireland, but Catriona McKenzie did present recent research  on the health and disease status in adults from a population analysis of the Gaelic Irish cemetery site of Ballyhanna, County Donnegal.  The cemetery was in use from the 7th century AD to the 17th century AD and has so far revealed the skeletal remains of over 1300 adult and non-adult individuals, making it one of the largest native medieval collections in Ireland.

On the other end of the spectrum Jonny Geber introduced the bioarchaeology of childhood during the Great Irish famine (AD 1845-1852), with a particular focus on the ‘experienced realities and institutional care of children in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse‘.  This was a hard-hitting talk focusing on the origins, impacts and repercussions of the Great Famine through the non-adults of the workhouse and the remains uncovered within a number of mass graves at the site.  Importantly the talk presented ‘a “dialogue of evidence”, the story of the often invisible disenfranchised and socioeconomically marginalized populace of Ireland during a period of severe suffering’ (Gerber 2014, presentation abstract).  This is the human experience as recognized through osteological and documentary evidence, and stands as a testament to one of the most profound events in Irish history.

Grave Concerns

The next session focused on the graves of the dead and introduced a wider range of topics from prehistoric Europe, with a strong focus on Hungarian archaeology.  One of my favourite presentations in this session was the evidence for physical aggression and a possible putative leprosy case from a Copper Age mass grave at Abony, Hungary, dated to 3800-3600 BC belonging to the Proto boleráz phase, as presented by Kitti Köhler.  I was quite impressed by the inclusion of a 3D model which really highlighted the importance of visual understanding of archaeological contexts and palaeopathological features.  Also discussed in this session was a presentation by my good friend Jennifer Crangle on English medieval post-burial funerary practices, which should be no surprise to blog readers here due to my posts on the charnel chapel at the Rothwell Holy Trinity church which helped form a key part of Jennifer’s research and talk.

People & Places

This shorter session contained a talk given by Thomas Khador focused on Carrowkeel, a truly remarkable Neoltihic passage tomb complex located in County Sligo, where his team analysed 39 individuals found at the site.  Interestingly the remains of the individuals were excavated from the Carrowkeel complex in 1911 but subsequently disappeared for nearly a century before being rediscovered again.  Osteological and stable isotopic analysis indicated that the individuals may have had selective access to the passage tombs (certainly in death but possibly in life as well), which raises questions for the social mobility and social networks during the Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods for Ireland and Atlantic Europe.  There was also a keynote talk by Barra O’Donnabhain titled Anglo-Saxons and Celts: Race, Science and the Irish which was thoroughly thought-provoking, discussing as it did the legitimization of history, identity and selective narration.  This was tied in with the discipline of bioarchaeology and the resilience of some of the older narratives within it.

The Archaeology of Death

Another broad ranging session, from ancient Egyptian body manipulation to Far Eastern Neolithic shell middens in island archaeology.  Also introduced were two talks on the archaeothanatology methodology, with a talk by Emma Green on the application of the principles to identify funerary processes, in this case the use of coffins in burials.  Her research, presented in conjunction with Elizabeth Craig-Atkins at the University of Sheffield, focused on the middle to late Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Sedgeford, in Norfolk, England.  She emphasized the important of accurately recording the archaeology in the field as it is uncovered, using not just context sheets and drawings, but also film and digital photography to ensure each details can be accurately recreated within the analysis and investigation of the research.

Life Before Death

Osteoarchaeologists, dealing with the bones of individuals who may have died hundreds, sometimes thousands of years before analyze them, can sometimes forget that what we view is the culmination of a life lived and all that entails.  This session introduced the study of the individual and the population, with presentations on Roman York by Lauren McIntyre which provided evidence on the demographic composition of the city.  (For those interested in Lauren’s work, and the life of a human osteologist in general, can also read a previous interview with her on my site here).  Ylva Bäckström presented the osteological analysis of a 16th century cemetery from the Sala Silver Mine in central Sweden, highlighting the social composition and differing treatment given in funerary contexts.  The analysis indicated a prevalence of fractures among the burials in earthen graves compared to the burials of individuals within coffins, suggesting one special social category as discussed in written documents; those known as war prisoners.

Population Health

I was particularly intrigued by a few talks in this session, specifically the talk led by Abigail Ash and Ron Pinhasi entitled Difference in Uniformity: Health and Stress in Early Farming Communities, which focused on the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik culture (LBK) and their geographic spread.  Their investigation into the geographic spread of the LBK and use of five representative skeletal populations (for a total of 516 individuals) highlighted palaeopathological changes (non-specific indicators of stress) indicative of differing behaviour between population stress levels within one cultural group.  You can read the open access 2016 article on the results here.  I should state here that my MSc research investigated mobility and social stratification (particularly evidence for the practice of patrilocality) within the LBK of central Europe, so I took a great deal of interest in this talk.

Open Session

This session introduced a number of really interesting talks ranging from analyzing markers of occupational stress by Roisin O’ Reilly, one of the conference organizers, to a multivariate approach to sex determination in ancient and modern pelvis by Samuel Rennie and James Ohman (pleasantly titled ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, which made me chuckle).  The multivariate approach bamboozled me a little at first as the module I did in statistics for my MSc was hard-won, but Samuel quickly demonstrated the importance of the research presented, both for palaeoanthropological and archaeological contexts but also for forensic contexts in the ability to determine the sex of an individual with a 95.65% without a priori knowledge of sex in some instances.  This is definitely one to watch and I am excited as to where this research is heading.

Ethics, Legislation & Reburial

The conference ended with a session on the ethics, legislation and reburial aspects of osteoarchaeology, with talks from Caroline Bennett on the changes of excavation human remains, from once living breathing individuals to archival objects and documents of a past long gone.  This was a thoughtful talk and I really enjoyed being able to think morally and ethically the value of human remains, especially in consideration of the previous talks of the conference as a whole.  In essence this was considered breathing space in order to understand what we do and why we do, the impacts of the job and the value of it.

Catching Up & Saying Goodbye

Whilst I was in Belfast I also made sure that I met up with a fellow (and prolific) blogger Robert M. Chapple, an Irish archaeologist (now retired and happily working in IT) of some repute.  It was with great pleasure that I got to chat to him about Ireland’s archaeology, history and the general state of academia over a delightful meal with the man himself.  (And I must say I owe a debt of gratitude for the free meal, and I aim to pay it forward to the younger generation of archaeologists at my next conference, if I can!).  If you have haven’t already I heartily recommend that you take a look at Robert’s own site, pull up a seat and have a good read – it really is an awesome place to become acquainted with the richness of Ireland’s archaeology and history, complete with personal touches and exciting first hand experiences.  Robert also keeps a downloadable database record of Irish Radiocarbon and Dendrochronological Dates (IRDD), click the link to the website to delve into more than 8000 radiocarbon determinations and more than 300 dendrochronological dates.

As well as catching up with old friends at the conference I also got to meet a host of new friends, including Laura van der Sluis, a doctoral candidate at GAP at QUB who is currently researching 6000 years of subsistence of human populations at Limfjord, Denmark, from the Mesolithic period to the Viking period utilizing stable isotope analysis.  Laura’s research will also analyse the evidence for palaeomobility and changes in palaeodiet in an effort to determine if the availability of marine resources helped to drive cultural changes as recorded in the coastal archaeological record.  I had the joy of talking about the above methods and the laboratory facilities at QUB with Laura whilst taking in the ambient cool October night around the campus and surrounding streets.  Of interest to readers of this site is Laura’s latest co-written research article presenting the results of a palaeodietary analysis of a multi-period (AD 9th to AD 18th centuries) churchyard in Stavanger, Norway, using carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulphur isotopic analysis which indicated a change in diet due to changing religious beliefs and related dietary restrictions.

So all in all I am very glad that I made the short hop across from England to Northern Ireland to attend this rather beautiful conference in Belfast, as I was struck by the very real wealth of Ireland’s history of bioarchaeological investigation and research.  I hope that certain sites and skeletal populations become wider known within British archaeology as a whole as I felt I was discovering it anew.

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‘Archaeological Boundaries: Discussions, Experiments and Unprovoked Attacks’ by Stuart Rathbone, Out Now

28 Jan

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve hosted a few guest posts and an interview with Stuart Rathbone, a friend and an archaeologist who has worked across the UK, Ireland, and the United States of America, and that his posts are always thought-provoking and informative.  I’m very happy to announce on this site that Stuart has now released a new book of essays digitally published by The Oculus Obscura Press (which is under the auspices of the awesome blogger and researcher Robert M Chapple) entitled Archaeological Boundaries: Discussions, Experiments and Unprovoked Attacks.

The publication is available from the LeanPub website, which offers the book for readers based on a sliding scale payment system which can range from zero to whatever sum the reader would like to give to Stuart for his hard work (the suggested price for this volume is US $18.99, but please feel free to pay as appropriate).

stubook

Investigating a treasure trove of archaeological issues. The cover to the volume of articles by Stuart Rathbone, which cover a number of issues and investigations in modern archaeological practice and research.  The issues are split into three main topics that the book focuses on, and include i) professional archaeology, ii) experimental archaeology, iii) and proper archaeology.

I’m really excited by this publication as Stuart is a thoughtful and innovative thinker and, as demonstrated in this volume, he skillfully integrates the archaeological evidence within contexts and approaches that aren’t always particularly widely studied within the research or academic arms of archaeology.  Thankfully we have the man himself to ask him a few questions regarding the book…

These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hi Stuart, thank you so much for joining me!  So can you tell us a little about your new book?

Stuart:  Hi David, thanks for having me back on your blog.  I love that I can legitimately say things to you like “I haven’t seen you since that time with the jazz band on Haight Ashbury” as if we were part of some decadent international jet set!  Funnily enough I do briefly mention the time we met up in the introduction to the new book, but I think I forget to mention that the mundane reason why we were hanging out in San Francisco was because of an archaeology conference!

My book is a collection of essays, some of which have appeared before in various places, and some of which are brand new pieces.  I think a little over half of the material is entirely new, whilst the older stuff has been given a good polish, adding in proper reference sections if they were previously absent, re-inserting parts that might originally have been omitted because of space constraints, or adding in new information that has become available since a piece was first published, bringing everything right up to date.

There’s a video where I describe the different subjects covered in the book so I won’t repeat all of that here, suffice to say the book is a mixture of different areas I have worked in; different aspects of prehistoric settlement, the organisation of the archaeological profession and the social consequences this may have for practitioners, and my attempts to explore new and unusual theoretical approaches. The scope probably goes a bit beyond what you’d normally expect to find in an academic collection.  I suppose there’s an emphasis on more personal pieces and more experimental pieces, although there are a few more traditional inclusions, just to balance things out a bit.

Working with Robert Chapple was great because he’s so open to new ideas.  I don’t think we could have put this collection out with a normal publisher, but Robert just said go for it, write what you want and we’ll see what we can do with it.  In fairness to him he did have to spend quite a lot of time keeping me on target, as I am prone to wandering off a bit if left to my own devices. We both really like the finished product, I guess it’s the sort of book we would enjoy reading ourselves.  So now we have the problem of trying to convince other people to read it.  The leanpub platform is great because it’s very simple to use and with the price slider it’s possible for people to get a free copy, pay the suggested price, or pay anything in between.

Something you said to me recently really struck a chord, that people are now simply overwhelmed by the amount of information that is freely available to them, and it’s hard to get their attention.

So right now we are trying to figure out how to convince people that they should download the book and devote their free time to reading it.  That was a responsibility that Robert and I were very aware of when we put the book together.  Just because we were enjoying ourselves the book still had to meet a professional standard, even if some of the content was a bit unorthodox.  I think we’ve done that although obviously it will be up to the people that read it to judge how successful we actually were.  We certainly did try though.  There’s quite a variety of topics so hopefully a lot of different readers could find something of interest to them, or that might at least keep them amused for a little while.

Learn More

  • Archaeological Boundaries. Discussions, Experiments and Unprovoked Attacks can be downloaded from Leanpub.com by following this link.

Further Information

  • Stuart has previously been interviewed for this blog (see View from the Trenches), where you can read about his archaeological life, from his experiences and views as a digger working in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger boom years, to excavating in northern Scotland and his adventures in writing about archaeological topics from a number of different perspectives.  Alternatively you can check out a previous guest post here, where Stuart marries the archaeological record with anarchist theory suggesting that a better understanding of the record can be achieved by taking elements from ideologies or theories little used in mainstream commercial and academic archaeology.
  • Check out Robert M Chapple’s blogging site for a treasure trove of insights into the archaeological record of Ireland.  Of particular interest is his database and catalogue of Irish radiocarbon determinations and dendrochronological dates from archaeological sites from throughout the island, which can be visualised and investigated here.  Please contact Robert for the latest up-to-date version as it really is a splendid piece of research and data mining.

Bibliography

Rathbone, S. 2016. Archaeological Boundaries: Discussions, Experiments and Unprovoked Attacks. Belfast: The Oculus Obscura Press. (Open Access).

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?

Mennear&Chapple02

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

Upcoming Conference: Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology 17th-19 October 2014

3 Aug

Somehow this conference nearly slipped me by.  Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, are hosting an upcoming international workshop and conference entitled Day of the Dead: Recent Research in Human Osteoarchaeology on the 17th to the 19th of October 2014.  Registration is now open, but please note that this closes the 30th of September.  The workshop, to held on Friday the 17th of October, includes a taught and practical session and will focus on the growing use of the archaeothanatology methodology in osteoarchaeology and forensic anthropology (further information here).

Essentially archaeothanatology is the studying of human remains in situ, which combines the use of the knowledge of human anatomy, the recording of the burial context and an understanding of taphonomic processes to recognise what processes the body has undergone from burial to excavation.  The workshop will be led by Dr Stéphane Rottier and Professor Chris Knüsel from the University of Bordeaux.  Booking early for the opportunity is a must however as there are only 40 places for the workshop.

The conference has 8 sessions spread over 2 days covering a wide variety of topics in human osteoarchaeology.  The sessions titles are:

Osteoarchaeology in Ireland: Kick-starting the conference on the Saturday is this session focusing on the study of human osteoarchaeology in Ireland.  This session will focus on health and disease in the medieval population, the archaeology of childhood in the medieval period, and workhouse conditions post-medieval Ireland.

Grave Concerns: This session will discuss funerary archaeology and the deposition of human remains with examples from around the world, including leprosy mass graves in Copper Age Hungry, the use of storage pits in Iron Age France, and medieval post-burial funerary practices in England courtesy of Jennifer Crangle (see Rothwell post below).

Death and Identity: This session will focus on the use of stable isotopes in archaeology and their ability in helping to understand geographic and dietary signatures in human and animal populations, amongst other uses.  This session covers both prehistoric and historic contexts.

Tales from the Grave: This session will detail case studies making explicit use of the archaeothanatology methodology.  The Neolithic shell mounds and island archaeology, body manipulation in Ancient Egypt in the Early Dynastic and Predynastic periods, and coffin burials from the Anglo-Saxon period in England will be topics discussed in this session.

Life before Death: Kick-starting the Sunday will be this session on reconstructing past social structures, populations and traumas.  Another wide-ranging session, with talks on the Roman York population courtesy of Dr Lauren McIntyre mixing with a talk on understanding cranial trauma in medieval Ireland.

In Sickness and in Health: Perhaps not surprisingly health, trauma and palaeopathology will be discussed in this session, which will have a particular focus on the population of medieval Ireland.

Open Session: The open part of the conference will focus on new techniques in human osteoarchaeology, including multivariate analysis of the hip, bone histology from a medieval collection, and an experimental examination of cranial trauma caused by archaic artillery.  One not to miss!

The Remains of the Day: The final session will focus on ethical issues, legislation and reburial of human remains in the context of working in the archaeological sector.

The conference cost varies depending on which day you would like to attend, with the conference days costing £20 each and the workshop priced at £25, with discount rates are available at £20 and £15 (a conference dinner is also available for a price).  Alternatively you can pay in one go for the whole event at £60 (includes dinner) and £50 for discounted tickets.  The wide range of research topics on display at this Day of the Dead conference make it one not to miss, so check it out.

Bob Chapple 2014 Irish Archaeology Essay Contest Announced

7 Dec

Robert M. Chapple has recently announced the arrival of a new archaeology essay competition for 2014.  Focusing on any aspect of Irish archaeology, students at any 3rd tier educational establishment (see below) are asked to submit an original research essay highlighting the value and wealth of Irish archaeology.

Robert’s inspiration for the competition, which runs from the 6th of December of this year until the 1st of November 2014, is the sad loss of his father Bob Chapple, who died unexpectedly 3 years ago.  In a passionate and inspiring blog post Robert details just how his father influenced and supported him throughout his life.  Particularly touching is the dedication Robert gave to his father, the first archaeologist in the family, in a published monograph shortly before his father’s death.

The competition’s aim, which is sponsored by Wordwell Books Ltd who are offering a €60 voucher to the winner, is to present the work of next generation of archaeology scholars to the wider world.  If you are a student, whether an under-graduate or post-graduate, this is your chance to produce a piece of original research work that will be made available to a diverse and interested audience, it is an opportunity to engage and communicate your work with the world.

Robert states:

“In memory of my father, I would like to introduce an Archaeological Essay Prize for undergraduate and postgraduate students. The competition will open to any registered student at any third level institution, conducting original research on any aspect of Irish archaeology as part of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree/diploma of any kind. The entry is to be in the form of an essay (max 5000 words) outlining the research being conducted and its importance, relevance etc., along with results (expected, actual, emerging etc.) to be published on this blog.”

I, for one, look forward to reading the winner’s entry when it is published on Robert’s site and I am keen to see which topic and area of research will win the prize.

Ireland has a rich and diverse archaeological record with a rich and well documented palaeoenvironmental record.  Ireland is justifiably famous for the amount of well preserved archaeological finds from it’s peat bogs in the centre of the country, including bog bodies (such as Clonyclavan Man and Old Croghan Man) and Bog Butter, but Ireland also boasts some truly outstanding prehistoric and historic archaeological sites.  This includes everything from Mesolithic camping sites (Mount Sandel) to the staggering Neolithic Newgrange complex, from a Viking toy boat to the utter devastation of the Great Famine in the 19th century and it’s archaeological implications.

Of course the essay could be on any topic to do with Irish archaeology, from a site analysis or artefact discussion to archaeological theory and practice, it really is up to the student as to what they want to discuss and that opens a great opportunity to pursue what you love.  I will keep an keen eye out for the winner and I shall look forward to further competitions after the 2014 award.  Robert has taken a step forward to involve not just the researchers and archaeologists but also members of the public in helping to discover the wealth of Irish history and archaeology.  In short it is a step to be applauded.

Further Information

  • The competition is open from now until the 1st of November 2014, with the winner being announced in January 2015.
  • Further information and provisional rules on the form, content and rules of submission can be found at Robert’s blog here.

Interview with Stuart Rathbone: A View from the Trenches

8 Nov

Stuart Rathbone is a field archaeologist with considerable experience in the UK, Ireland and the United States of America in excavation and project supervising a number of important prehistoric and historic archaeology sites.  In conjunction with field work, Stuart has also held academic positions and writes regularly on a broad range of topics in archaeology for varied audiences.  Stuart has recently left the role of an archaeological project officer, based in the Orkney islands in northern Scotland with ORCA, to persue an archaeology career in the United States.  Stuart’s Academia profile, with links to his papers, can be found here.

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These Bones Of Mine:  Hello Stuart, welcome to These Bones of Mine!  For those who do not know could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do please?

Stuart Rathbone:  Well I’m really what you might call a jobbing archaeologist. I graduated from Bournemouth University about 13 years ago and since the week I left I’ve been earning my living doing whatever jobs people were willing to pay me to do. I left England in 2001 to do a 6 month contract on one of the Irish motorway jobs and without ever intending to I guess I ended up emigrating. I worked my way up the career ladder within one of the bigger contracting firms ACS. By 2006 I was licensed to direct my own excavations and I spent a couple of years on the M3 Motorway project running some fairly tasty sites. Unfortunately in 2008 the Irish economy tanked and I found myself unexpectedly unemployed. I was fortunate to land on my feet and spent the next four years running a field school on Achill Island in County Mayo training archaeology and anthropology students from all over the world. That job was great fun, a real change from the commercial world. I also managed to pick up a little contract with University College Dublin helping to write up the overdue reports for the Céide Fields Neolithic Landscape Project. That all came to an end in 2011 and I moved home to England and spent some time out in East Anglia doing more contract work. At the start of this year I moved up to the Northern Isles where I’ve been doing more pre development stuff but also a little bit of time over the summer spent at the Neolithic Ness of Brodgar site. Basically that’s me, some commercial work, some research work, lurking around the university departments without ever becoming a faculty member and really just doing whatever anyone with a cheque book asks me to!

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Somewhere in Wicklow in 2001. Every one who works in Ireland will remember their first Burnt Stone Mound.

I guess part of the reason you’ve asked me to do this interview is because other than digging holes I write quite a bit of archaeology. I have quite a few specific areas of interest that I plug away at. I enjoy looking at the way the profession works across different sectors and also how we communicate archaeology in different media and to different audiences. In terms of more traditional topics I’ve written a lot about prehistoric settlement, and a few bits and pieces about post Medieval vernacular buildings. Finally I do some more wayward and experimental stuff which provides an antidote to all the serious pieces I write. It would be unfortunately rare for me to actually get paid for any of this writing, so it’s definitely a sort of a hobby. The nice thing about this though is that because I’m not being paid or funded I’m not really beholden to anyone either. Not only am I very free to choose what I’ll work on, I’m also very free to express myself in the which ever way my mood takes me.

TBOM: I think anyone who has read your William Burroughs influenced ‘cut up’ archaeology article probably wouldn’t forget it in a hurry!  Having been a field archaeologist since 2001 and writing widely on the subject, how well do you think the world of archaeology is presented or made accessible to the public?  Do you think a dichotomy exists between the public’s perception of archaeology and its value compared to what the researchers and diggers actually do?

Stuart: Well there’s certainly problems. I think we don’t communicate with the public directly enough, or certainly not at a serious academic level. Everything is mediated through a series of interchangeable TV presenters, who may have backgrounds and expertise in totally different areas. Time Team was fabulous and irritating in equal amounts, and that’s not just from a professional point of view. A lot of the time they thought they were being clever but they weren’t fooling anybody. We certainly need more archaeology on TV, and there’s so many ways that it could be worked out. The old documentary formats are far from irrelevant, they just need people to figure out new ways of getting decent archaeological content into them. But somehow some shows really need to exploit the potential for following longer and more complicated excavations. I’m sure it could be done, but it needs to be a really fabulous set of sites, really competently run and with beautiful project design, and it needs to be cinematic. A damp field in rural Leicestershire just isn’t going to cut it.

The main problem with TV isn’t even the shows, it’s what the effect has been on popular publishing. Almost all the popular archaeology books are now written by, or ghost written for, the people from TV and linked in to the sales generated during the airing of a particular show. It’s all incredibly basic, watered down and insipid. Mostly it’s the same generic information endlessly recycled. If you are lucky enough to still have a bookshop, go and have a look at  the history shelves. You’ll find they are teaming with books on a huge range of historical subjects, and only a small percent are tied into TV shows. If you find the little corner of the shelf where the archaeology books gather it’s a very different, and very sad, story. So it seems there is still an audience for proper books about history, but we’ve just not got that for archaeology. Maybe it’s a fundamental problem with the subject matter, that it just doesn’t lend itself to interesting tales, but I’m sure it’s also because we just don’t have the skills that historians do in finding exciting ways to share our information.  That’s where all the ancient aliens and mother goddess stuff comes in. Because people are interested in the archaeological landscapes they see around them and they want to know about them, but they sure don’t want to be bored. And the way that stuff works is that firstly it’s exciting and secondly it makes the reader feel special, like they are being initiated into this realm of secret knowledge. For all the horrendous liberties taken with the archaeological content, those books are successful because they utilise a good dynamic. So we need to be braver, we need to start writing more interesting books, more amusing books. And I don’t believe for one minute that we have to water down our concepts. Seriously, thinking we’re so clever that ordinary folk wouldn’t understand us is ridiculously arrogant. We just need to have a bit of faith that an audience we have been failing to reach is out there waiting for us to come to them.

On a more positive note we do lots of things right, but mostly when we communicate directly. I don’t really like the term Community Archaeology, it seems so… medical. What was wrong with having societies? But anyway those groups provide fantastic interaction between the public and the archaeologists, and they are thriving. Unfortunately they are only involving a small number of people, there just isn’t the capacity to reach everyone that might be interested. And they tend to be a little bit elusive, they don’t reach out to new potential members so much. I think there will always be a natural group size for things like that, somewhere between 10 and 30 people, probably better near the lower end. It’s a club structure, operating at a very local scale, it just doesn’t work with big numbers. So all the archaeology days and all of those things are great, but they don’t solve the issue of the missing popular archaeology. Same sort of thing with the public lectures. You know when archaeologists go out and give their lectures at little groups and societies? Well that’s fantastic, and I love doing that sort of thing myself, but at 30 people a time it’s not like the message of archaeology is getting spread far and wide. That’s probably where the internet can step in. I love the way archaeologists have all these new ways of communicating with the public and, just as importantly, with each other. It’s totally changed things in an awful lot of ways, in particular because the academic structure really isn’t carried over to the digital realm where people use all these weird nicknames and avatars and identity is hidden, or even on Facebook where identities are normally genuine, people don’t advertise their job title so much. So you’ll see a question go up on a board from a member of the public or another archaeologist looking for information and advice, and they’ll get all these useful answers, really helpful stuff. But if you know who the people are who are giving the information away it can be these really important archaeologists, contractors with decades of experience, state sector archaeologists, University lecturers, or just random gobshites like myself. People are getting access to some really highly qualified people and they may not even realise it. That just makes me very happy every time I see it.

TBOM: It seems that reality has read your reply and answered in the form of making the TV presenter Dan Snow the new president for the Council of British Archaeology!  Stuart, you have written movingly of the issues facing that much-maligned face of archaeology, the field archaeologist, over at Robert M. Chappel’s blog.  Having been a field archaeology for some 13 years now what, in your view, has improved and what conditions remain to be improved for field archaeologists in the UK and Ireland?  More importantly, what can people who run archaeological units or are field archaeologists themselves do to the improve conditions?

Stuart: Yeah that thing on Bob’s Blog is probably the most successful thing I’ve ever written, it got a ridiculous number of views. I’d like to think that’s because it really hit the spot for a lot of people but of course, you can never be sure. I think the main point by the end of that piece is that the conditions in field archaeology could be having  a much worse affect on peoples over all well being than has ever been acknowledged. There’s certainly every possible combination of circumstance that would promote ill health, in particular poor mental health, but we just don’t know if it is a problem or not. There is no data. We have all these surveys of the profession but they are so limited in terms of what they’ve examined. We really need a sociological study of Field Archaeology, that’s kind of what the paper is about. That someone needs to really go out and conduct some very in depth interviews with a great big pile of archaeologists and see what the situation is. I suspect it would be bad, but I wouldn’t be that surprised if people are coping better than they might. Archaeologists are fairly rugged individuals and tend to have a bitter sense of humour that can see them through. I’d love to do it myself but it’s such a huge project and I have no funding. I’m up to my eyes in unfunded hobby projects so I just can’t take it on. What I am doing at the moment is asking for people who have read the article to contribute their own experiences either as a comment at the bottom of the blog page or if they want to stay anonymous just to email it to me, or send it to me on Facebook or whatever. That came about because quite a senior Northern Irish archaeologist wrote a lengthy and really emotional account of why she left the profession as a comment after the piece. I was just blown away so I’ve asked for more and any that come in will be included as an appendix in a physical version of the article that should be coming out next year. I’ll probably take the chance to make my own testimony, and that would  explain a lot about how I got interested in working on that topic in the first place.

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The top of Slievemore in County Mayo, during the summer of 2010. One of those moments when the great out doors really just takes the piss.

As for the problems facing field archaeologists in Britain and Ireland, well the situations are quite different, and that’s going back for ten or fifteen years at least, but in many ways it’s equally bad. It’s no secret that there is a major problem with careers in field archaeology, in terms of payment, job security and career progression. I don’t really have any answers I’m afraid. The current mechanisms of competitive tendering in a deregulated market just don’t allow for much progress to be made. The Institute for Field Archaeology and the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland are both in the same boat. Whilst they perform some important functions they just won’t get involved in the issues which most field staff want them to. Archaeologists look for them to replicate some of the functions of Unions, but they can’t or won’t do it. It doesn’t help of course that many of the people running the companies that treat archaeological staff so poorly are heavily involved in these professional bodies. The people directly responsible for the situation are members of these organisations and if there was a will to change it’s always been in their power to make it happen. It often seems like they are only involved in order to protect their own interests, but that’s probably an unfair and over simplistic view. The involvement of the company owners provides a fantastic resource and they have such a wealth of knowledge about things the rest of us only ever get small glimpses of, but at the same time it causes a lot of bitterness and distrust. Perhaps the company owners need to be separated off from the main body of the groups in some way, like having them form an advisory panel that places their skills at the disposal of the rest of the membership but doesn’t let them influence or even partake in voting.

I’m sure both organisations would see membership rocket if there was a genuinely feeling that they were going to sort out these problems. I know the Diggers Forum are trying to orchestrate a takeover of the IFA, building a new world inside the shell of the old and all that. And I wish them the best of luck, it’s the way the syndicalists in France managed it so it’s a tactic that does have history. Personally though I think the only way it will change is through direct action. David Connolly at BAJR has a mild version of this, he’s always saying that when archaeologists see poorly paid jobs they simply mustn’t apply for them. And he’s right, we can’t fight against each other like that, if no one takes the jobs at rock bottom prices they will have to offer more money. So not taking work at lower than BAJR rates is kind of a minimum requirement. But I think it needs to go a little bit further than that. I was disappointed that the Representation for Irish Archaeologists group got diverted into a sort of sub committee within the IAI, I feel they would have been more effective as a separate organisation. Unfortunately at the moment the sub committee convened  what had been a very lively and public discussion between lots of different people with lots of different views just ended. And the handful of people that got onto the sub committee went off and that was that really, the discussion group died and all of that energy and vitality evaporated.

I think history shows that with these struggles you need big popular movements, an empowered collective of the staff. Secretive closed meetings between a handful of people on behalf of the rest… well I wish them luck, I really do, but I do think it was a tactical error, and made no secret of that at the time. More interesting perhaps is what’s going on with the Unite Union in Ireland at the moment, as they are making a big push to get archaeologists on board. I guess there’s  a lot of scepticism about Unions, the profession isn’t really their working class semi skilled natural environment, but I’m waiting to see how that goes, in terms both of the level of engagement and to see if there’s much in the way of a specific plan put forward. Jean O’Dowd is involved in that, and she’s bang on so I have some hope, but whether that sinks or swims will really be down to Unite producing a convincing document detailing the specifics of what they can do for archaeologists if enough of us join. The sad thing is of course that the interests of the owners needn’t be different from those of the staff. If wages were higher contracts would be more expensive and the company owners could make more profit. It’s just something has to be done to take wage costs out of the equation when it comes to competitive tendering, and no one is ever willing to make that first move. The profession exists in an eternal Mexican standoff.

The other really big thing we have to tackle, once we have basic rates of pay sorted out is going to have to be pensions. We need to find a way of getting a pension scheme for archaeologists, something that can work for a career based on continually shifting between companies and regular bouts of unemployment. This is were the IAI and the IFA could really do something positive, find a pension provider that can design a product with our needs, find a way of companies being able to include a standard set of pension contributions along side wages. Because at the moment the reality for any archaeologist in my position is extremely grim. I don’t own a house and probably never will, I’ve never earned enough to buy one. On occasion I have savings, but every time I have a period of unemployment they get burnt up covering the bills and paying child maintenance. At the moment if I were to retire I would be essentially destitute and the state would look after me. But in 30 odd years time once the demographic crisis has kicked in? Forget about it! When I think about my retirement I just see a cardboard home under a bridge in London and meals from a soup kitchen. When my alcoholic compadres finally beat me to death for my spare change the local newspaper might run a small article about how I had once been an archaeologist and was known on the streets as ‘the professor’…

I know a lot of archaeologists in their mid to late thirties who have really been screwed over. They went to college to get degrees, fought like ninjas to get established, worked in some pretty awful conditions because they were so committed to the work. And basically they got nothing out of it at the end of the day. They don’t own houses, they don’t have good cars, they don’t have pension funds or savings. It’s like there’s some hidden law that says archaeologists can’t have nice things. But we deserve better than that, we really do. And the thing is… would you recommend your own kids followed you into archaeology? I know I certainly don’t.

TBOM:  Would you say specialising in archaeology could provide a way for field archaeologists to branch out?

Stuart: Yeah… why not. There’s certainly something a bit more like a normal career if you can get established as a pottery expert or an animal bones expert or that sort of thing. You have to be very careful though if you’re going to pay for training in some areas, like surveying for example, firms may be quite happy to use self taught bodgers rather than to pay for properly trained staff. And of course if they can just get any old person to do it you can be damn sure they won’t be paying very much money for a trained person. I think it’s a terrible shame people are expected to pay for their own training these days, but that’s across every industry. Companies are just no longer willing to commit to a person and fork out some cash to increase their skills. As they have made no financial investment in their staff they are always dispensable. Horrible really. But as it’s going to be a personal investment you really need to do your research before handing over your money to a University or whoever is going to train you. That stuff can get expensive really fast and you need to be completely sure that you will be getting high quality training that will actually be recognised and  that there are genuinely improved career prospects for you at the end of it. If you think about it in a particularly harsh way someone making these choices will have already wasted a lot of time and money doing an archaeology degree that hasn’t provided them what they wanted, so they mustn’t make the same mistake again. It’s really at this point when you have to make the choice about whether to stay in archaeology and improve your skills, or leave archaeology and get some entirely new ones instead.

5STUART

Wandering into the massive souterrain at Carn Euny in Cornwall. This was during the brief but glorious heat wave of 2013. It was nice to be cold and damp for a change!

But this sort of thing is sad in another way. It always seems that specialists tend to be treated better than field staff, especially if they are taken on to work in the company offices. It all gets very cosy inside. They get paid more, get treated with more respect by the management, they aren’t putting up with all the constant relocation, long commutes and shitty weather. I suspect there is often cake. And when you compare that to how field staff are treated it just doesn’t make sense. It’s field staff that are out there doing the hard work, having to deal with the developers face to face, doing the graft that generates the companies profits and where’s their cake? Honestly, when does the boss ever turn up at break time on site and drop off a nice cake? Cake withholding bastards the lot of them!

More seriously though, one of the old IFA guides made the point that on site specialists should be used to do certain tasks, precisely because they are specialists and have the training, but at the same time it should be acknowledged that the experienced site staff are specialists in the process of excavation, and they have expertise and skills that are just as highly developed in their respective field and those skills should be fully utilised. That always struck me as a very telling remark. Experienced site staff may have ridiculous amounts of experience, literally decades of the stuff. They can excavate any site you throw at them, project mange the heck out of it, know the legislations and regulations inside and out, identify and process finds, design and run sampling strategies, undertake all manner of surveying tasks, write reports, provide training, lecture, tour guide, pass peer reviews… and certainly in the UK there isn’t much in the way of financial recognition of the body of skills they are able to bring to bear. When they made the excavation License interview in Ireland much harder about 10 years back at least there was a clear understanding of the range of skills and depth of knowledge site directors needed. It isn’t a perfect system by any means but because it is a hard qualification to acquire and every site has to be run by a License eligible archaeologist located pretty permanently on the site it provided a great mechanism to raise wages.

All screwed now of course but that’s a different story. In the UK there’s really no requirement to hire anyone with any serious level of experience to run sites so a company has some choices. They can hire someone really capable that deserves and expects a decent wage, they can offer an experienced archaeologist a job at an insultingly low rate or they can take some kid just a few years out of college, pay them peanuts and give them sites to run they may or may not be able to handle. Using inexperienced staff to save money is a practice that goes wrong. It goes wrong a lot, and we all damn well know it does. I don’t mean to do younger staff down at all. There’s just so much to learn and it takes a long time to build up the skills. It doesn’t do a promising young archaeologist any good to be put in a situation they aren’t ready for and just expect them to handle it with minimal support. And it’s certainly no good for the archaeology.

The other issue here is that there have been lots of scientific advances in the last while. Now there are specialists doing stuff that is frankly ridiculous. The stuff that can be done with soil chemistry these days is insane. They can pull viable and useful DNA samples out of soil samples for crying out loud! But that’s confined to the university excavations. That stuff hasn’t really filtered down to the commercial world. Again we’re back to the competitive tendering system, it just doesn’t allow for these new techniques to be used. And the typical commercial dig is starting to look archaic, when it should be the state of the art. We really shouldn’t be doing commercial work as second rate excavations, but soon it will be clear to everyone that we’ll be doing them as third rate excavations. We need a fresh generation of specialists bringing these new methods out into the commercial environment. That’s only going to happen if there are requirements to do these new analysis imposed upon the commercial sector from outside of it, from the regulatory bodies. But whenever the archaeological community has looked to the various organisations for leadership, the state archaeologists, the Institutes, the associations, the government… there’s never been anyone there.

TBOM: A very interesting point made on the commercial excavations.  Noted also are the higher university fees for courses in the UK, perhaps hindering specialism’s in archaeology.  You have also started a ‘Campaign for Sensible Archaeology‘ group on Facebook, could explain why you felt that this was necessary?  I have noted with amusement a few of the articles you have posted about the often obtuse and confusing use of the English language.

Stuart: Well that’s been running quite a few years now, there’s  a decent little introduction to the group over on Past Horizons here.  I think the first thing to point out is that there really isn’t any such thing as ‘Sensible Archaeology’. It was just a joke, just me getting annoyed at some of the way archaeology is written and some of the projects that are undertaken. When I put it together I defined a ‘sensible archaeology’ as one in which the style of writing is only as complicated as is needed to explain and explore the points you want to discuss; as one where some of the arguments being made are supported by actual archaeological evidence; and one where the topic chosen for study is appropriate for analysis using archaeological methods. Now think about that for a minute. There really isn’t a single archaeological project that should be unable to meet those criteria. If someone is using excessively complicated language, beyond that which is merited by their research, why? What’s wrong with them? If an argument isn’t based on any archaeological evidence, it’s just historical fiction, which is really a different genre all together. If a topic isn’t suited for exploration through archaeological methods, which are powerful but horribly flawed and limited, use one of the more appropriate methods that are available.

So that’s it really, it’s just a simple little thing that at its heart is about promoting better project design. The thing is people read the name of the group, or see any of the little bits I’ve written about it, and some of them just flip out. It’s actually been really odd at times. I’ve been called a good few names, “the intellectual equivalent of a hairy arse” was an early favourite, and “not just annoying, politically annoying” was a more recent one that, to be honest, still confuses me. Why am I politically annoying? One prominent academic, who I won’t name here, came to the site to insult us during the early days, and instead I really tried to engage with him about his work and at first it was cool because I had been reading his work and really thinking about what he was trying to say, but the more I pushed him for straight answers the more evasive he got until he just started lying about things. That was just so peculiar it got kind of embarrassing really.

Anyway the group is basically just some people having a bit of a laugh, kicking a few ideas around, sharing interesting or irritating archaeological news stories. A lot of members are in the same sort of position as me, that sort of independent academic position, or to use the more technical term, deluded. So we spend a lot of time sharing any freely accessible resources we find, because lots of us find it hard to operate when we’re locked out of the university library system. It’s been very useful for me really. A lot of ideas I’ve kicked around on there have subsequently been included in my work, and it’s certainly helped me engage a bit more with the theoretical side of archaeology, which as a field worker it’s kind of easy to just end up detached from. I think it’s a nice group, a bit of communal therapy or something, and normally good for the odd giggle.

I was discussing the point about complex language with Joanne Bourne, a freelance writer I made friends with this summer on the Ness of Brodgar excavation in Orkney. Well Jo said she used to think the same thing, that the function of writing is to communicate ideas neatly and efficiently. But then she decided that’s a bit like saying a coat is used to keep the rain off. That’s a pretty good way of seeing things, but I’m still not convinced for the need to smother things in dense impenetrable language. Obviously we don’t all walk around in exact replicas of the same colourless ‘rain deflective garment’ like in some 70’s parody of communism. So we’re also using our coats to express all these other things about ourselves, about the way we perceive ourselves, the way we wish to be perceived, our  cultural allegiances, all sorts of other stuff.  I guess Jo was saying writing is a bit like that. So there is the actual archaeological content that needs to be explained and anything beyond the functional needs of the research is expressing other things. In the case of too many archaeologists it seems to be a compulsion to really impress upon the reader how marvellously clever the author is. I just can’t be arsed with that. That was one of the points of my article on William Burroughs’ cut up technique that you mentioned before, that you can just line up these strings of long complex words and it will sound kind of deep and meaningful even though it’s nothing of the sort.

nessbroadgarstuartrathbone

Excavation of one of the Late Neolithic buildings at the Ness of Brodgar during the summer of 2013. Simply sensational digging.

TBOM: And finally, what, so far, has been your most treasured memory of an field excavation or moment in archaeology?

Stuart: Ah well thanks for asking about that. I know in some of the things I write I can come across as utterly negative and really that’s a bit unfair. The critical pieces seem to generate much more interest than the other stuff I do, the stuff on prehistoric settlements or transhumance or whatever. If anyone has ever seen me lecturing they’ll know how much I enjoy myself, sometimes that humour comes through in the written stuff but writing funny archaeology is a hard trick to pull off. Although there are all these really serious topics, and clearly I’m none too happy about where archaeologists are financially or in terms of job security and career progression, I’ve had a really great time being an archaeologist. Really my whole adult life has revolved around it, and it’s pretty much a 24/7 thing for me. So rather than just pick one moment, here’s a quick run through of some of the highs, by way of redressing the balance a little.

Getting an email from some guy in Ireland offering me my first paid job; doing that first contract in Ireland and discovering that something as ludicrous as the digging scene existed in  the real world not just in the pages of an old beat novel; getting my first promotion; excavating the Bronze Age village at Corrstown, Portrush; having my kid, Adam; seeing my first article being run in Current Archaeology; meeting Steve Linnane; giving my first lecture at IPMAG 4 in Derry; meeting the whole Clerks Bar crew in Drogheda;  passing my License Interview and getting to run my own excavations; finally seeing the Corrstown volume published after all the hard work Vicky Ginn and I put in to get that done; working on the M3 Motorway where we really pushed the limits of what can be done in a commercial setting, something I was incredibly proud to see Martin Carver acknowledge in his recent book on pre-development archaeology;  getting the job running the field school on Achill Island, excavating the Slievemore Roundhouses and having such a laugh with the students;   meeting my wife Christina; moving to Belderrig and getting to work on the Céide Fields material with Seamus Caulfield; the whole Facebook archaeology scene kicking off and out of the blue becoming involved with so many interesting and amusing archaeologists; meeting Bob Chapple and then finding he would run with pretty much anything I sent to him no matter how off kilter; having a paper run in my favourite super serious journal PPS; seeing the sites on Shetland and Orkney and getting to work on the Ness of Brodgar excavation.

And the adventures continue. This summer I was invited to write a book for a new publisher, and given a very open remit. So I’m working on that almost round the clock and I’m loving where that’s heading. It’s called Archaeological Detritus: Experiments, Discussions and Unprovoked Attacks and is definitely a bit different so who knows how it will be received. Just the other night I was driving back to where I’m staying on Shetland through this horrible storm and all of a sudden the rain stopped, the clouds parted and there were the Northern lights in all their glory. Simply magnificent. How many other jobs would provide such a roller coaster through all of these highs and lows?

TBOM:  Indeed, thank you very much Stuart for taking part!

Select Bibliography:

Ginn, V. & Rathbone, S. (eds.). 2012. Corrstown: A Coastal Community.  Excavations of a Bronze Age Village in Northern Ireland. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Rathbone, S. 2010. Sensible Archaeology. Past Horizons website. 23/10/10.

Rathbone, S. 2010. Booley Houses, Hafods and Sheilings: A Comparative Study of Transhumant Settlesments in and around the Northern Basin of the Irish Sea. In: Horning, A. & Brannon N. (eds.) 2010. Ireland and Britain in the Atlantic World: Irish Post-Medieval Archaeology Group Proceedings 2.  Dublin: Wordwell.

Rathbone, S. 2011. Dig, Draw and Digitise: Guard Houses of County Mayo. Past Horizons. 23/04/11.

Rathbone, S. 2011. The Slievemore RoundhousesArchaeology Ireland25 (1): 31-35.

Rathbone, S. 2012. Deer’s Meadow, Hut Group CUlster Journal of Archaeology69: 150-154.

Rathbone, S. 2013. A Considerations of Villages in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and Ireland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 79: 1-22.

Rathbone, S. 2013. Optical Stimulated Luminescence Dating of ‘Problem’  Sites on the M3 Motorway. In: Kelly, B., Roycroft, N. & Stanley, M. (eds.). 2013. Futures & Pasts: NRA Monograph 10. Dublin: Wordwell.

Rathbone, S. 2013. The Village People? An Early History of Neighbourly Disputes. Past Horizons. 01/08/13.