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

27 Feb

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further topics we discussed included the aims of our society:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Information

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Brief Updates: A Possible Publishing Rule of Thumb, Socio-Sexual Lives in Bioarchaeology & Memories of Fractures

8 Aug

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the power of the written word, and of the associations with both personal jottings and more wider ranging long form pieces such as academic text books or investigative journalism.  Partly this has been guided by the growing number of books on my bedside, but also by a personal milestone in the publication of a bioarchaeology chapter by yours truly.  I’ll try not to mention this too much but it has been, and it will be, the realisation of a dream of mine to become a published author and particularly so in a topic that is close to my professional and personal interests.  But more on that below.

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Two of the texts discussed in this entry below are Ann Oakley’s part memoir and part sociology study in Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body and Pamela Geller’s research into socio-sexual lives in the archaeological record, which investigates past human sexuality.

Publishing: The Invisible Researchers

The term Publish or perish is a popular and well-known academic phrase that highlights the fact that research that isn’t published appropriately, or in a relatively timely manner, can easily become lost to the archives and the relevancy of the researcher to their discipline to disappear.  Any academic employed at an educational institute and conducting research will likely regularly produce articles, chapters, and books as appropriate, and actively take part in conferences giving papers or leading workshops to disseminate and communicate knowledge.  This is a normal part of the workload (heavy though that can be) of a research position.

Whether that phrase is helpful or stressful depends on the context – rushed research can lead to false or doctored evidence and the increased pressure to publish, along with the normal duties of lecturing, likely being a course or module tutor, and the administration accompanying such positions, can indeed lead to a hefty work load.  My interest in this though is the invisible researchers who are not employed within academia but are located on the fringes, those such as myself who work full-time in other sectors and publish and research in our own free time.  This blog is a prime example of that, but also of the mixing of the boundaries between the personal and the academic which would not normally be found within journals or published volumes.  Rather this is space to inform, educate, and communicate the interests and experiences of the individual.  The published work, of which I have only a few examples currently with more emphasis currently on specialist reports, requires a change of tone and, often, of approach.

Publishing Date Rule of Thumb?

I’ve also recognised a relatively reliable rule of thumb for academic book publishing.  For instance, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of my own chapter within an edited volume titled New Developments in the Bioarchaeology of Care: Further Case Studies and Theory, to be published as a part of Springer’s Bioarchaeology and Social Theory series.  The edited volume builds upon Lorna Tilley’s 2015 Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care publication in identifying and interpreting cases of care provision in prehistory through osteological and contextual analysis, and by furthering the theoretical framework.  It is exciting to a part of such a volume as a result of the SAA session in 2015 and I’m keen to hold a copy of the finished work and to read the other authors contributions.  I’m also intrigued by the reception that the volume will hopefully receive and the criticism too, with the opportunity to learn from others in the field of bioarchaeology.

But the rule of thumb!  Springer obviously mentions their forthcoming volumes on their site as do other commercial online retailers, however I’ve noticed they tend not to add a specific date for publication whereas some retailers, such as Amazon, do under the title release date (1).  This is useful to know as the publishing date tends to change depending on when the individual chapter and volume editing and proof-reading tasks have been completed, and as to when the publishing production units can start to print.  In my case I’ve noticed the dates shift around a few times due to various factors but I’ve always known when roughly publication and release date should be, sometimes ahead of emails from the volume editors.  Of course this won’t really be a rule of thumb until the volume is published and collaborates my theory, but you can expect another blog post then!  If you have noticed the same trend please let me know below.

Socio-Sexual Lives In Bioarchaeology

Through serendipity I happened to come across Pamela Geller’s 2016 book The Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives: Queering Common Sense About Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, published in the same Bioarchaeology and Social Theory series by the above and due for release shortly.  I am very tempted to order a copy of this volume as it seems to challenge the binary orthodoxy of sexuality and identity so prevalent within bioarchaeological analysis of past individuals and populations.  That is an interrogation of the assumption of stability with regards to the values of hetero-normative relations within today’s Western world that is so often projected onto past populations and cultures.

The wide range of cultural case studies and the deep chronological scope of the volume also promises to make it be an invigorating and exciting read.  As with the Bioarchaeology of Care publication, this volume probes the archaeological record into areas of research that have rarely been investigated in-depth, thus potentially opening up the record to a far greater scrutiny of the lived experience of sexual identity and gender.  As such, it is very much on my bioarchaeological books to read next list (you know, after I’ve read this other pile of books by my bedside table!).  It isn’t very often that I purchase bioarchaeology volumes as they can be quite expensive if they are not available in paperback or second-hand (2), but I’ll think I’ll make a change for this volume.  If I do I’ll be sure to write-up an entry for the blog.

Memories of Fractures

And so to bring this post to a timely conclusion I return to my opening paragraph.  One of my favourite books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading within the past few years remains the sociologist Ann Oakley’s (2007) Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body, an essay on the impact of the author’s traumatically fractured humerus that covers much ground within a relatively slim volume.  I largely adore this book because it is so relatable and so readable, the descriptions of the personal and professional impact of her fracture is something that I can very much sympathize and empathize with.  However the strength is also the breadth of the book, through the historical, medical and sociological musings on the frailty, health and image of the human body and entwined identity.  This volume then represents a fine mix of the personal and the academic, never afraid to speak freely on the issues and challenges that face society in accepting the differences in human form and the obstacles.

The Great Questions of Bioarchaeological Research

To me then bioarchaeology and its associated disciplines offers the chance to investigate on a fundamental level one of the central facets of our existence; what does it mean to be human? How is this represented and approached in the archaeological record?  How were individuals treated within their respective populations, and what were the lived experiences of these populations and individuals like?  The ability to answer some of these questions, in part at least, endlessly fascinates me.  Some of the publications named above aim to answer these questions and may do just that.

Notes

(1).  I have just rechecked this and sadly my thumb of thumb can seemingly be thrown out of the window.  It appears that Amazon does seem to have a better rough date for volumes in preparation, but that by the final month or so within publishing and release date Springer also update their website.

(2).  Joining local or university libraries, where possible, can be great to order books in or to borrow books that are otherwise un-affordable or rare to find.  I generally only purchase bioarchaeology manuals that can be used in osteological analysis or are otherwise handy reference books, but otherwise some books can make great presents!

Bibliography

Geller, P. L. 2016. The Bioarchaeology of Socio-Sexual Lives: Queering Common Sense About Sex, Gender and Sexuality. New York: Springer.

Oakley, A. 2007. Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body. Bristol: Policy Press.

Tilley, L. 2015. Theory and Practice in the Bioarchaeology of Care. New York: Springer.

The Face of Academic Copyright & Sci-Hub: A Quick Look with Reference to the Open Access Button, Academia.edu and ResearchGate Sites

21 Mar

Over at Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week (SVPotW) there have been a number of posts recently discussing scholarly copyright with reference to recent media and general academic attention paid to the pirate site Sci-Hub, where any number of academic articles (47 million and counting) can be searched for, and read, for free.  The site is of great boon to people such as myself, who currently hold no ‘proper’ researcher status and lack academic affiliation (alongside the access to journals that goes along with that), and to pretty much everyone you can think of who isn’t involved firsthand with research itself or affiliated to an academic or scientific institution.  From politicians who implement international and national regulations and guidelines to families who want to learn more about a specific disease and health treatments, those individuals who want to make informed choices but find that knowledge and research is locked away behind paywalls each and every day unless you can afford to pay a substantial sum for access, or are a current university student or researcher and have validated affiliation.  Those higher education institutions themselves are, of course, paying heavily to maintain access to the journals for their students, researchers and staff members.

Lets not twist words though, Sci-Hub infringes copyright on a huge scale by illegally granting access to the articles it has access to.  This goes markedly against the grain of academic publishing, where normal publishing procedures include authors, the creators of the content and research, handing over scholarly copyright (and sometimes even money!) to the publisher as part and parcel of publicizing their work to the wider academic community.  It is also a world where paywalls are de rigueur across access to many articles published online in academic journals.  (This is, as SVPotW points out, the opposite of creative copyright where the author of the work generally retains copyright).  Access to both full journals and individual articles can be costly, as are annual subscriptions to such material.  Academic book publications, both single authored and edited volumes, are also noticeably expensive, prohibitively so to individuals who are merely interested in reading about a subject in greater depth and to students who receive little public or private funding.

But since this is a blog primarily interested in archaeology and human skeletal remains from the past, let us first take a look at a few bioarchaeological examples to see how much it can cost to access knowledge within the discipline. Afterwards I’ll discuss some options available for both the reader and researcher of such material with regards to accessing and producing the material.

To Buy or Not to Buy: A Bioarchaeology Example

A book I have recommended on this site for budding bioarchaeologists, The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict (ed. by Knusel, C. & Smith, M. 2013, published by Routledge), costs £150.00 in hardback or £142.50 for a Kindle e-book (who needs good quality images!).  Another book I have mentioned on this site, and which I do heartily recommend, is Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains (by Martin, D. L., Harrod, R. P. & Pérez, V. R. 2014, published by Springer) which, in hardback, retails for £84.53, paperback for £36.99, and in Kindle e-book form for £35.14.  All of these prices are taken from a popular online source of cheap books.  They are not cheap.  They are even more expensive on the publishers’ homepage (again, for example, the Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach publication retails for £117.00 on Springer’s own site for both hardcover and paperback volumes, or you can purchase individual chapters for £23.94).

Life at the Trowels Edge: Archaeology as Employment

It is a notorious joke that archaeology, as a commercial sector and as a profession, can be poorly paid compared to similar skilled sectors even though the staff are often highly educated and indeed highly skilled.  It is worth checking out Doug’s Archaeology entry on British Archaeology Jobs 2014-15 for a glimpse of the bounties that await those who dig, analyse or plan for a living, but remember this is before any consideration is made on the physical and mental toll that life as an archaeologist can take on a person over time.  (On a related side, currently archaeology isn’t very diverse either).

Although the archaeology commercial and academic sector is the target audience for such specialized publications, academic books (minus popular archaeology books) and journal articles can be, and are often are, prohibitively expensive to a large proportion of its core audience, as exampled above.  There are of course exceptions to this, but they are rare for seriously detailed archaeology publications.  The below (Figure 1 & 2) is something which I find frankly ridiculous and leads me to wonder if anyone buys an academic article from the publisher themselves, or whether the paywall is just there to part the fool from their money?

book review 31 50 dollars

Figure 1. To access this book review of Barrett & Armelagos’s  (2013) An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections on the International Journal of Palaeopathology’s (IJPP) journal site costs $31.50 (£22.26) for a one time download of the article. (Click to enlarge the image).

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Figure 2. To buy a firsthand copy of the An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections book online (with free international postage) it costs $27.15 (£19.99), a saving of $4.25 (£3.06) on accessing and reading the book review if you were not subscribed to the International Journal of Palaeopathology (or a member of the Palaeopathology Association for $65.00/£45.94 for a years subscription, which includes access to the IJPP). (Click to enlarge the image).

So, what are some of the options available for the reader and for the researcher who want to use, access and contribute to making knowledge open access? And what is open access any-how?

Open Access: Bits and Pieces

A relatively new movement, generally titled under the Open Access (OA) term, has been slowly building across the globe since the coalescence of its origins across a number of public statements and conferences from various academic and institution organisations that were made in 2002-2003 (see OA history here).  Generally speaking, the open access movement sees the paywalling of research as a major international problem as many researchers and non-researchers believe intellectual knowledge, and the information generated from scientific research (which can often be funded by taxpayer money via distributive research councils) more generally, should not be copyrighted and should be openly disseminated as a matter of course.  This involves both unrestricted access and unrestricted reuse.  I’ve stated that the movement, as academics would largely recognize the ‘Open Access’ movement, started in the early years of the 21st century yet it is also well-known that there have been various discipline, or research specific, open access track routes open for a good number of decades now.

What we have seen within the past few decades is a growth in the general international understanding of what open access is and what its general aims are.  With a number of major research journals (see a few paragraphs below) opening up their archives and making some of their current journal content open access, we are seeing a movement that has had influence on major publishers of research and influence on the researchers who both write and choose where to publish their research and how to publish it.  Not all research is capable of being openly published due to a number of reasons (again, some outlined below), but a general move towards the ability to freely access that information has taken hold within the digital age.  This is not without precedent or without congruence within digital media and the issues of access to that material – one only has to look at the damage that illegally downloading music and films has done, and continues to do, to those areas. (There is a handy metaphor here with the online music content providers of Tidal, Deezer or Youtube providing varying models of access – pick your poison!).  However innovation and invigoration can drive change within seemingly disparate media formats.

Open Access Button

From its launch in November 2013 the Open Access Button is an application aimed at enabling the public, students and researchers access to scholarly research and to report it when the research is blocked by a paywall.  The brainchild of Joseph McArthur and David Carroll, the Open Access Button aims to highlight to users were paywalled research may be legally available elsewhere on the web and also lets users report which articles are not free and for what purpose the individual wanted to access the paper (Figure 3).

Open access Button

Figure 3. The three stages of the Open Access Button and how it works. The button aims to promote the use of access to academic research across the globe. Image screenshot taken from website here. (Click to enlarge the image).

It really is that simple but this little button has been a fantastic addition to my own internet browser for when I cannot access research and I really do recommend its use.  The makers of the button, and the largely voluntary team that help keep it running, state that it is not a long-term solution and support advocacy to help promote the issues that open access faces within the academic and business worlds.

Academia & ResearchGate

There are also the social media sites available for scientists and researchers to join, in which the general public can also join or view research articles on.  Two of the most prominent and widely used are the United States based Academia.edu and the German based ResearchGate sites, both of which launched online in 2008 and which offer free access to researchers profiles where book chapters, articles, theses and dissertations can be uploaded, viewed and downloaded by the sites users.  Both sites are free to join and are geared towards similar audiences, including academic and corporate researchers and the larger medical world.  Academia boasts a total of 34 million plus academics using its website (as of March 2016) whilst ResearchGate has a user base of around 9 million plus (again March 2016).  Academia hosts more than 10 million plus scientific papers whilst according to the business fact sheet ResearchGate host 81 million plus publications.

It should be noted here that these sites operate as great content providers of published and non-published academic research, however not each title is necessarily uploaded as anyone who has had the frustrating feeling of finding a dream paper only to find the author hasn’t uploaded it will recall.  (Papers can be handily requested from the author themselves however).  The sites are also fairly great at leveling the playing field of being able to distribute unpublished research from relatively junior researchers, especially of theses and undergraduate/postgraduate dissertations, or the work of independent researchers.

As a pair the sites seek to distribute knowledge of scientific research and aim to help users of the sites to create research networks across the globe, which increase the spread and depth of knowledge.  Interestingly, although the Academia site ends in the .edu suffix it is not affiliated with any academic institution per se and instead receives a portion of its funding instead from venture capitalists or angel investors, just like ResearchGate, who invest in or provide financial backing for the company.

Returning to Sci-Hub & Digital Rights

Sci-Hub isn’t particularly a new site as such, nor has it moved into novel territory.  Rather it is both a symptom of the problem of academic publishing itself and it is a symptom of the greater role that digital media is playing in modern business practices, and the way that individuals and groups can circumvent both pre-digital and current business practices.  The issue of digital rights is an important issue to raise at this point, both in the specialized world that I am interested in (the discipline of bioarchaeology) and the wider world of how digital content and media is challenging traditional copyright law and the philosophical inquiry of intellectual ownership (not to mention testing the boundaries between the state and the individual).  Intellectual ownership is perhaps one of the most important points so far mentioned – lives across the globe are ruined due to the implementation of strict copyright laws in various countries, where individuals, such as Aaron Swartz and Diego Gomez, have been pursued by national agencies on account of sharing academic research in the public domain.

A part of this is the non-universal application of Digital rights management (DRM, sometimes labelled as copy protection) schemes which refer to access control technologies that are used to prevent the copyright infringement, modification and distribution of digital material and media formats (DVD’s, CD’s, e-books, etc.).  DRM controls are often used with academic publications or e-books where the reader is allowed a number of options to access paywalled research articles.  For example, the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology (Figure 4) offer a number of approaches to read research articles that it publishes on the journal homepage for those readers who do not have access to the journal via an educational institution.  The instant access options (see below) include the ability to rent the article for a set period of time, to being able to read it on a cloud system, or to download it as a PDF file and then being able to print and save it.

IjOA access

Figure 4. The instant access article options available to reader with no institution access, courtesy of the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. The source of the screenshot can be found here. (Click to enlarge the image).

It is worth mentioning here that the majority of articles and e-books are widely available in the EPUB or PDF formats, including the bioarchaeology e-books mentioned at the beginning of this post, from journal websites directly and from more commercially-minded book sellers.  Shockingly it is well-known that e-books in particular can be stripped of their protective DRM status using Calibre and shared illegally (or at least against the licence of the copyright).  However, you may also just want to save a copy of the e-book that you have brought with your hard-earned money on more than one device.  Perhaps even more damningly e-books can be purchased on sites, such as Amazon, stripped of their DRM status, and returned to the seller for a refund of the original price whilst retaining a copy of the digital publication, essentially ripping off the merchant and publisher (and arguably the author(s) themselves).

A growing number of academic journals are including Gold or Green open access models as a standard means of accessing the research that they publish.  Most journals archive their articles as a matter of course and some are now offering free access to those archives after a set period of time has elapsed (often a number of years in order to make their business model work).  This should rightly be seen as a positive move towards more open research and data.

Brief Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, I cannot in all seriousness offer any conclusion.  Academic publishing seems to me to be partly mad (for the researcher) and partly genius (for the actual publisher) (Figure 5).  Are sites such as Sci-Hub, Academia, ResearchGate, etc. a part of the solution?  Possibly, but I don’t think they are long-term solutions as such but they are vitally important cogs of the publishing machine, cogs that allow dissemination and access to the scientific and humanities research that is so often funded by public money.  It is also clear that there is a bafflingly broad range of payment methods for the honest purchaser of a research article – you really do have to shop around to find the best deal, if you are willing to pay an exorbitant price for a single article.

academic publishing 101

Figure 5. It can be hard to explain to family and friends the nature of academic publishing. When I announced that I was researching and writing a book chapter for a forthcoming bioarchaeology volume I was often asked how much I would be paid for this, either in an advance or as a percentage of the sales of the volume. I could only reply with a half grin at the thought of countless hours of my free time being spent on writing, and re-writing, the chapter for no monetary gain (the contract stipulates that, as an author of one of the chapters in the volume, I can purchase a copy of it with a 1/3 off – hooray! The book will be sold for around £80 or so in hardback form. Still, one of my dreams achieved. Image copyright courtesy of Kirsty Sedgman, source. (Click to enlarge the image).

But, what if you are an archaeological researcher and you want people to read what you have to say?  What if you want to reach a larger audience with your work because you think it is important, and you do not want it to sit behind a paywall in which only a relatively small number of people have access to it?

We, as researchers, can take a stand against the locking away of the research that we generate by targeting the method of delivery of the research itself.  We could pick journals that support open access (journals such as the peer-reviewed International Journal of Palaeopathology which supports open access in part, or peer-reviewed Internet Archaeology, which is fully open access, others such as PLoS advocate open access via the use of the Creative Commons by Attribution licence with the authors agreement).  We can directly sell or market our research to the public and to interested researchers (see a previous post on Stuart Rathbone’s new volume, where you get to decide how much you want to pay to the researcher and publisher directly).  We can take advantage of new digital media, such as blogs or producing videos, opening up grand new avenues of academic and public interaction.  We could do these things, and we could do more to make our research accessible for the benefit of (almost) everyone.

But there is a sting in the tail of this approach.  No one researcher, if they are seeking a long-term career in academia, can do this approach alone.  Researchers need publications in journals where impact factors can be measured, where influence can be scored, where importance can be ranked.  Certain strands of research may be covered by legally binding non-disclosure agreements within public spheres, or may be curtailed by the ethical demands of the nature of the research itself.  The very existence of intellectual and image copyright in the digital realm faces huge challenges with unaccredited digital reproductions and illegal downloads littering the net.  (For osteo enthusiasts I heavily recommend you check out and join the pertinent Digital Ethics in Osteology JISCMail group for the establishment of a working group for best practice guidelines).  On top of this academia, as many know, can itself be relentlessly competitive which, together with the normal stresses and strains of a job which inhabits many roles under its terminology, can lead to rapid burnout through sheer exhaustion and financial worries.  What we publish and where we publish is but one factor facing the life of a researcher and sometimes we cannot control who has access to what, where, when, or why.

Further Information

  • The Open Access Button site can be found here.  Simply follow the instructions and add the plugin to your browser page.  Each time you come across a blocked, or pay walled, research article click the button to let the Open Access Button community know about it and have the site information indexed.  The button will suggest other possible accessible routes for the article, as well as alerting the community to your need to access the research. The data that you enter into the plugin, such as the reason for accessing the article and the location you are based in when doing so, will go towards helping build a global interactive map documenting the problems accessing research.
  • The Sci-Hub site can be found here.  Sci-Hub aims to eliminate all boundaries that stand in the way of accessing scientific research.  According to the website Sci-Hub has 47 million papers in its library and that number is set to grow.  Please be aware however that the site address may change or be mirrored elsewhere around the web, so it is recommended that a search engine is used to locate the current iteration of Sci-Hub.
  • The venerable social media sites for academics and researchers, Academia.edu and ResearchGate, are sites where individual researcher profiles can be created and where articles, book chapters and conference presentations can be uploaded for public view.  This is, in research consent to publish lingo, an example of fair use of sharing scientific work between an academic community.  The sites let you set up a profile of your academic affiliations and research interests, which help to find other individuals interested in these areas and forge research relationships across the world.  (Or leads to you intently refreshing your own profile page in the hope of enticing more readers to view your much-maligned undergraduate dissertation).

Help Wanted: Call for Feedback on the Online Index of Care Application

14 Mar

Any regular reader will know that I am particularly interested in physical impairment in the archaeological record, and the implications of this for the individual themselves and for the society that the person lived in.  Too often in the archaeological and osteological literature the individual care needs of those with physical impairments are cast aside.  As such it is with great pleasure that I highlight here the launch of a new online application entitled the Index of Care, as a key part of Tilley’s new Bioarchaeology of Care methodology (2011).

A recent article (1) by Tilley (2014) in the International Journal of Paleopathology introduces the Index of Care – an instrument still in the early testing phase which has been designed to help people think through the identification and interpretation of skeletal evidence for health-related caregiving in the archaeological record.

The Index, which leads the user through the four stages of bioarchaeology of care analysis, is the brainchild of Australian National University researcher Lorna Tilley (who was interviewed on the methodology for this blog last year).   Tilley says that, while she has tried to embody the theory of the bioarchaeology of care approach in the instrument and has found it useful in her own work (2011, 2012), she considers the Index itself an experiment.  ‘As far as I’m aware, this is the first time in bioarchaeology that an instrument for examining a behaviour as sophisticated as caregiving has been attempted.’  This is, in my eyes, what is very much needed when the osteologist considers what implications evidence of pathology may mean for the individual and society.

Man Bac Burial 9 in situ

The individual who helped kick start it all: the burial of M9 in-situ at the Vietnamese Neolithic site of Man Bac.  This male individual, who has been diagnosed with juvenile-onset quadriplegia, is indicative of an active caregiving environment during his lifetime. (Tilley & Oxenham 2011: 37).

In particular Tilley emphasises the fact that the Index offers a framework for analysis –  it is not a formula.  The researcher works through the stages of the Index to help produce a framework of care.

Tilley states that ‘the Index is designed for flexibility, users decide what parts of the Index are relevant to their specific case study – and ignore the rest.  They decide how they want to use the Index – whether as a prompt to remind them of variables they could be considering in their research, or for detailed recording of evidence and conclusions reached, or anything in-between.’

The  Index of Care can be found online here and Tilley encourages all archaeological researches to give the Index a go.  The Index of Care is currently in active development and feedback is highly sought after to improve its design and operation.  Those contributing to this project will be acknowledged in subsequent versions for their help and efforts.

Notes

(1). It should be noted that I am named in the acknowledgments of the article for providing some early feedback on the article.

Bibliography

Tilley, L. & Oxenham, M.F.  2011.  Survival against the odds: modeling the social implications of care provision to seriously disabled individualsInternational Journal of Palaeopathology. 1: 35-42.

Tilley, L. 2012. The Bioarchaeology of CareThe SAA Archaeological Record: New Directions in Bioarchaeology, Part II12 (3): 39-41. (Open Access).

Tilley, L., & Cameron, T. 2014. Introducing the Index of Care: A web-based application supporting archaeological research into health-related careInternational Journal of Palaeopathology. 6: 5-9.

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.

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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.

A Stone To Throw: Upcoming Mesolithic Conferences

6 Nov

Two dates to add to the diary if you are a fan of the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods!  The University of Durham have announced the second Where The Wild Things Are 2.0: Further Advances in Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Research conference recently and MESO15: the Ninth International Conference on the Mesolithic in Europe have announced a date and location for their 2015 get-together.

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Wild Things

The University of Durham once again plays host to the ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ conference in early January 2014.  The conference takes place from Wednesday the 8th to Friday the 10th of January (with an optional extra of partaking in a meal on the night of the 9th) in the departments of archaeology and anthropology in the science campus.  The cost of attending the conference is £50 for regulars or £25 for concessions, unfortunately the early bird concessions date has already passed.  The conference will include talks by both post-graduate students and by established professors with topics from a world wide distribution discussed and ebated.  This includes, but is not limited to, talks on the palaeoenvironment of the Taung child, neanderthal survival strategies and funerary practices, human biogeography in Greece and Mesolithic flint scatters in northern England.  The full list and abstracts of the 27 speakers (not including keynote speakers) and poster presentations can be found here, but please note the call for papers has now closed.  I’ve booked my place and cannot wait to hear about the latest research.

MESO15

The Ninth International conference on the Mesolithic in Europe has been announced for 2015.  The conference has been slated to take place from the Monday 14th to Friday the 18th of September 2015 in the city of Belgrade in Serbia.  The deadline for presentation abstracts is the 1st of May 2014, and the sessions are split into the following research groups:

  • People in their environment
  • Colonization
  • Landscapes and territories
  • Settlements
  • Technology
  • Regional identities
  • Social relations and communication
  • Rites and symbols
  • Transitions
  • Current research

The registration fees for the conference are €160 for regular early bird registrations (up until April 2015) with the prices rising to €190 after this period, although there are student prices available and cheaper concessions for eastern European attendees.  The registration cost includes a fantastic trip to see the Danube Gorges and the chance to go the museum of Lepenski Vir, an outstanding site of the European Mesolithic period.  This is a wonderful opportunity to get to grips with the international research on the Mesolithic period and remains on my wish list.