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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.

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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.

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Documentary on Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva

24 Nov

There was recently a documentary on Channel 4 (in Britain) that highlighted an individual with Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP), a progressive bone disease in which the bodies natural repair mechanism causes fibrous tissues (including ligaments, tendons and muscles) to become ossified when damaged or hurt.  Typically lumbered with the name Stone Man Syndrome, the genetic disease itself is thankfully very rare with a rough prevalence of around 1 in every 2 million people.  A total of 700 cases have thus far been confirmed out of presumed 2500 cases worldwide at the current time.  The disease is ultimately devastating for the individual affected as it can lead to full ossification of every joint in the body, whilst the ossification of the fibrous tissues is typically a very painful process.  A full introduction to the disease can be found here on the emedicine website.

The program, entitled ‘The Human Mannequin‘, dealt with teenager Louise Wedderburn’s attempts to break into the fashion industry, despite her having this terrible disease.  The information byline for the show asked if the ‘notoriously image conscious fashion industry (would) accept her?’.  However, as the program progressed, it was clear to see that Louise had the tenacity necessary and had started to make clear progress towards her ideal career by gaining work placements at well recognised fashion magazines, and by starting to make her name known in the industry through her fighting spirit.

This program clearly was not about the disease itself, but about one person realising their dreams despite the disease.  As such, there was minimal background information regarding the history of the disease or of the prognosis of Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva.  Instead this program helped to raise of the profile of a dynamic young individual who, despite having this disease, is determined to make the most of her life.  The viewer was allowed access into what life is like for a person suffering this disease, both for the drawbacks and the numerous hospital visits, but also for the everyday glimpses of how you can still live your life and make a positive impact.  I would wholeheartedly recommend watching the program if you have the chance.

Perhaps the most famous sufferer of FOP is a person called Harry Eastlack (1933-1973), who bequeathed his skeleton to medical science whilst he was alive in the hope that his bones may one day help future researchers uncover a cure or help ease the pain of fellow sufferers.  Dying just short of his 40th birthday through complications arising via FOP, Harry Eastlack had became entombed within his own skeleton towards the end of his life as every joint ossified and fused completely, leaving only his lips free to move.

A photo of Harry Eastlack’s back and ribcage, with evidence of excess bone growth and ossification of the muscles, tendons and ligaments (via IFOPA).

Today researchers and medical staff at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia and the Mutter Medical Museum use his skeleton to help test and compare lab results and learn and study about the effects of FOP via his remains; Harry’s skeleton is only one of the few existing skeletons in the world with FOP and provides a very important source of knowledge, both for the medical world and the general public.

There are no known instances of FOP disease in the archaeological record, likely because it is so rare and the fact that prehistoric/historic individuals would not have likely survived as long as individuals do today with the condition.  However it is worth reading up on the disease just in case, and I would, once again, recommend watching the program.  As so often in the fields of archaeology and human osteology, we only get to investigate the bones of the dead themselves, they cannot tell us directly their lives or suffering so we must, as osteoarchaeologists, beware of what the bones can tell us.

Further sites of interest: