Tag Archives: Guest Blog

Guest Interview: Turbulence Ahead? Introducing Archaeologist and Agitator Spencer Carter

28 Jun

Spencer Carter.

Spencer Carter is a freelance commercial and community field archaeologist, prehistoric stone tool specialist, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and member of the Hatfield College Senior Common Room at Durham University, as well as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (FSA Scot).  He is presently Archaeological Project Officer for Breedon Group’s Black Cat North (there’s a large metal black cat on the A1 roundabout, for whatever reasons) aggregates quarry, Bedfordshire, along with involvement in other community and commercial projects.

He studied archaeology at Durham in the 1980s and, after an extensive business career, currently researches the early prehistory of north-east Yorkshire and Teesside.  He was recently chair of the Teesside Archaeological Society, sits on the committee of Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire and the council of RESCUE: The British Archaeological Trust, as an advocate for our archaeology, heritage-at-risk and the profession.  He’s an affiliate member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA), passed the CSCS health and safety test, and knows the colour of various cables and fire extinguishers.  “Quarries”, he notes, “offer endless, visceral, mind-bending experiences within the bund-bound anonymity of a developer-led engagement”, adding “all name-dropped characters in this interview are likely fictional or caricatures rendered by misrepresentation”.

Spencer maintains a professional website at TimeVista Archaeology and an informal Mesolithic archaeology blog at Microburin. His Twitter ID is @microburin.

banner

These Bones of Mine (TBOM):  Hello Spencer! Welcome to These Bones of Mine and thank you for joining me today.  We both have a shared enthusiasm for the heritage and archaeology of the North of England, alongside our prehistoric passions, but for those of us who do not know you, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to find yourself in archaeology?

Spencer Carter (SC):  Hi David, it’s a pleasure to be interrogated!  I think the journey of self-discovery, more so in later life, is perpetual and the convoluted steps to where I am today are likely unconventional.  Let’s see. Born in pre-decimal 1966, I grew up on Teesside, the southern borders overlooking Roseberry Topping (our local Matterhorn), the Cleveland Hills and North York Moors.  As kids, we spent a great deal of time outdoors—a farm near Northallerton, in Wensleydale, on the fabulous coast around Whitby and in our local corn fields, woods, streams and bogs.

Sadly many of those childhood wild places are now housing estates or festooned with dog-poo bags, mounds of beer cans and vodka bottles, although my ‘thinking tree’ survives (barely, as an ash) still displaying the now-distorted carved initials of our tribe.

“I will be an archaeologist!” Teen rebel, Nunthorpe School 1981. © Evening Gazette.

Somewhere in that jumble of experiences a connection with the landscape was forged.  A fascination for why things are as they are benefitted from frequent primary school weekend walks and map-reading.  I’ll admit to having an ordnance survey map fetish of sorts (as well as Munsell soil colour charts) and refuse to entertain GPS in the car.  I spent my early years collecting fossils from the beaches, beaches before plastics, accompanied by an Observer Book of such, until I’d pretty much identified and catalogued everything one could find.

We were also a family who visited our many ancient monuments, the cathedrals, castles and abbeys for which northern England is renowned.  Hopefully some folk will remember the rather austere blue-covered Ministry of Works guides?  What started a rumbling, I suspect, is twofold: Sunday afternoon trips to Hadrian’s Wall; being unleashed on my own into the moorlands on my bicycle, phoning home from an iconic Gilbert Scott telephone kiosk as far away as I could reach, in order to cause alarm.  I think the greatest round trip, about the age of twelve, was sixty miles and then a significant period of recovery.  The finding of a flint microlith, a composite projectile armature, on a lonesome ramble, figuring out what it was, triggered something extraordinary that persists today.  THE MESOLITHIC was reborn!  A local retired dentist-and-genealogist added fuel to the fire by gifting a duplicate set of the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.  You see where the carnage began, a misspent youth?

Early Mesolithic microlith, a projectile point of Deepcar style from Eston Hills, Teesside, ninth millennium BC. Image credit: S. Carter.

People who know me, and to the frustration of my parents, teachers, attempted-managers and similar victims, will understand that “The Spence Will Never Be Told What He Cannot Do”.  It’s like the “DO NOT press the big red button” principle!  Imagine then, when asked pre-teen by a teacher “what are you going to be when…?” (I still haven’t adulted at fifty), and upon announcing in a loud, clear and determined voice ‘I am going to be an archaeologist’, to then be admonished “don’t be so daft; there’s no future in that; do something sensible like engineering (or even bricklaying, or as a female, secretarial work)”, what The Spence did, in gritty rebellion?  I began digging at the age of twelvish, surveying at eleven.  We don’t talk about the chemistry set.

Temptation!

Having completed the weirdest mix of clashing A-Levels that I could muster, I studied archaeology at Durham University under the incredible stewardship of Prof. Rosemary Cramp (by whom I am still occasionally scolded, but less today about “being too thin”) when the department was on Saddler Street.  The room I used to do post-ex work in – plans and sections – is now, appropriately, the roof terrace of a pub.

Our class graduated, pre-email and computer, in good form and yet, after a final digging adventure in Iron Curtain Poland with Anthony Harding, I ran away to London on a 125, sat on a suitcase in the vestibule, having made mum cry and having negotiated a handshake from dad (and £20 for my train fare home upon “inevitable failure”, which I still possess).  That mum had transformed my bedroom into some kind of plant sanctuary merely accelerated the need to run.  What I recently learnt is that somebody forgot to ask me to consider staying on for a Masters. Perhaps that’s just as well, David?

Durham University dig in Poland, 1987.

What then followed has been twenty-odd incredible years spanning an aspirational role (sic) as a box-packer of the first UNIX software (we don’t talk about Linus Torvalds, damn his open source) in a Soho basement to, ultimately, managing international teams of customer service and support personnel, trying to keep sales people out of prison (99% successful), across twenty-three time zones, and the privilege of experiencing the extraordinary evolution of computing, email, the Internet, web-services (the world’s first online pizza order—then inevitably delivered to the wrong address in Santa Cruz, CA), and social media.  That said, traveling 80% of the year until dizzy, being chased around Moscow by armed security (and I’m sure filmed in the hotel room, certainly followed around), shot at in Sao Paulo Brazil (wrong turning in a taxi), and ultimately eliminated for being too expensive and over forty, are experiences only enjoyed after a number of years of reflection, and some counselling.  More importantly, THE MESOLITHIC (and archaeology) never died in the corporate soul.  So I think the question, David, is probably “how you came to re-find yourself in archaeology”?

I took voluntary redundancy six years ago (ageism is pernicious in hi-tech), spent three months asleep or staring at walls, determined to write-up and publish some flint finds, and knew nobody in archaeology although I hadn’t ever stopped reading.  Where to begin, when so many seemed to be leaving the profession?  How much had changed?  What survived the big crash? How would one build acceptance and trust, a network of friends?  Should I take a job at Sainsbury’s (or retrain as a bricklayer), now too old to heed the teacher’s advice?  I also wonder if one is ever not an archaeologist even when pursuing other career paths.

“Who wants to be an archaeologist?” Kids finding bling during the Lost Village of Lodge BIG DIG, Nidderdale 2016. Image credit: Jim Brightman, Solstice Heritage.

TBOM:  I think many can emphasize with the thought of being an archaeologist whilst pursing other career paths, even as there is an upturn in the archaeological sector currently with the boon of infrastructure projects in the country.  Your recollections of family journeys to historic and natural environments of interest certainly remind me of my own family’s trips – perhaps we can blame them for leading us down the archaeological track!

I’m keen to hear how you built up your contacts within the sector though after having such an illustrious and globe-trotting career in the tech sector because, as many can testify, it really is who you know and not just what you know, especially within our sector which can be quite small!

SC:  I’ve got to say, David, that 2011-12 was a strange and disconcerting place to be, having turned my back on an ostensibly successful career, albeit one that was having an adverse effect on my health—having an ECG was a levelling, alarming event.  I could also hear my late dad’s remonstrations in my head, to persist with a sensible job, but as I’ve mentioned, I’ve never been one to be told.  I was determined to re-evaluate life’s values, declutter and simplify, try to take some risks in the sense of “life is too short”.  Sorry for the cliché.  My usually sanguine GP put it directly: “you’re not going to be around much longer if you carry on like this”.  Luckily, I still had enough savings sufficient to relax for a little while, not including the £20 that dad gave me back in 1987 at Eaglescliffe railway station on an overcast afternoon as mam wiped away her tears.

An archaeologist’s mam, during Wimbledon week.

I think trouble started when I committed to work on three or four thousand Mesolithic lithics—flints—that I’d recovered from excavations on the North York Moors, a rescue dig in a rapidly eroding area, with features, and charcoal, in hearths.  I rented an office unit in North London and laid out all the flints, also reconciled with a 1:1 scale site plan drawn on a huge sheet of B&Q plastic.  That’s twenty rather ridiculous square meters, now folded up in the under-stairs cupboard.  Other than the office folk looking at me in a satisfyingly troubled way, at first, through the open door, I ended up offering guided tours of a hunter-gather camp, replete with hearths, and flints in a millennia of ziplocks.  Incidentally, the office was burgled twice, the door kicked off its hinges, but not a single flint was touched.

Nor can you take the Mesolithic out of the Spence; you can only have him sectioned.  I’ve now added thirteen radiocarbon dates for the Late Mesolithic and Neolithic transition in north-east Yorkshire where there are essentially none so far except for Star Carr, one from Nidderdale in the Yorkshire Dales, one from a fish trap at Seaton Carew, and one from peat around a stray serrated flint blade in a bog.  I funded most out of redundancy money, topped up by the lovely folks at the North York Moors National Park—Graham Lee, now just retired.  I’m not very good with waiting, and the gestation period for radiocarbon results is not particularly pretty in my household.  That’s probably why I live alone these days?  I did a brilliant radiocarbon course at Oxford last year and, after a lab tour, I can now understand why.  The machine also issued an alarm and promptly broke down, Bayesianally.

All spread out in the lithics lab.

However, I still need to publish the 14C results once I’ve re-assessed all the flints and feature associations, with great caution since some of the calibrated dates are effectively right at the transition to the Neolithic, essentially overlapping with early Neolithic ones from Street House, Loftus, on the coast between Saltburn and Whitby.  I’ve been digging there with Steve Sherlock and friends, of Anglo-Saxon Princess bling in a bed fame, for the last few years—clay in clay on clay, under clay, generally.  As of last year, we’ve added Teesside’s oldest “hoos”, dated to around 3700-3900 cal BC, to the mortuary structure and long cairn excavated in the 1980s.  It’s as if the hunter-gatherers were hanging on, stubbornly roasting their eco-nuts, in an enclave on the uplands while the grain bashers ground their cereals on the coast, and threw a few pots around, Grimston style.  Some things have not changed on Teesside.  Anyhow, I digress: it’s the quarry syndrome.

The stage is set for a Day of Archaeology blogpost in 2012.

I knew nobody, David.  I’d never really had time to engage with any organisations, societies or events in the heritage and archaeological world.  That had to change.  I’ve also always been a believer in the fundamental importance of people-networks, surrounding oneself with the inspirational.  I’ve learned in the last six years, if nothing else, that archaeology remains a world of “who you know”—yes you’re right there, as well as what, as I aspire to CIfA accreditation in mi’steel toecaps and hi-vis hard hat (the sensible one with steam-vent holes on the side, four squids in a B&Q sale).

The soul has always been in North Yorkshire and the north of England, despite subsisting in the Smoke for twenty-odd years.  So, off I trotted to York for a social media course hosted by CBA Yorkshire.  It wasn’t a big turnout, maybe a dozen folks.  I felt rather shy (which means I talk too much, ironically).  But I met Paul Brayford, then chair, Kev Cale, a community archaeologist for whom I’ve now delivered lithics training—for feisty school kids and the local society ahead of leaping around in ploughed fields.  I also met the lovely Pat Hadley who was, at the time, engaged in Mesolithic stuff at the University of York.  And I learned about WordPress blogging.  The microburin Mesolithic blog was born soon after.  It was Pat who mentioned on Facebook, one weekend, the first Wild Things Palaeolithic and Mesolithic conference at Durham.  “Why don’t you come along?” he nudged.  “Crikey” I indigested, “an academic conference”.

I swung to and fro, procrastinated with professional finesse, booked myself into mam’s airBNB sofa hospitality, and got myself a train ticket.  I actually ended up staying in my old university college room, Hatfield on the Bailey, and wondered how a human being could occupy such a tiny space, and a George VI period bed, for so long, as I consumed a newspaper-wrapped fish and many delicious scrappy chips in a stottie, alongside a dollop of mushy green squidge: perfect.

Wild Things was sublime.  The roll-call of new friends—including your good self—and acquaintances, kind introductions, compelling conversations, was mesmerizing, and immensely confidence building.  I could talk Mesolithic.  I can, and I will.  It was a pinch-yourself experience to actually have a poster at the second follow-on conference, where I met Harry the Fish (now Dr Robson) from York, amongst many miscreants.  Indeed, the Star Carr gang with whom I’m still largely in touch (I dug there for two seasons, mostly in rain, with Tim Schadla-Hall in the 1980s, a friendship recently reconnected; he marked my dissertation), are such a fab bunch of people.

Seamer Carr excavations which included test pitting at Star Carr, 1985-6. It rained every day except this one.

Actually, it’s the connectivity—as well as shed-loads of fieldwork and training refreshers, CPD if you will—that carried me to the point of having the confidence to re-position my LinkedIn profile away from corporate soundbites.  It’s now years since I last typed “reach out to” or “stretch goal”, since I toyed with a Boston Square or Nine Grid employee-eliminating value matrix.  I’d rather have a natter these days and pop a date in my diary, less “calendarizing” another human being.  I’m proud of quarter-of-a-century of business, and obviously you can’t delete that from a CV.  However, changing the job title to “Archaeologist”, hitting <save>, was a nervy moment—but a commitment to making a massive career switch a reality, engineering a new, or at least re-invigorated life.  That’s a lifestyle without money or luxury of course, one almost entirely coated in mud, infiltrated by gravel, but at least my heart thumps with a passion again.  And I’m not short of a ziplock or sharpie; yet I can whine justifiably.

It’s also about trust, David, frankly—building trust versus being perceived as a loopy crank.  Trust then has a direct, proportional relationship with self-confidence.  I’ve never been afraid to speak up, about advocacy—human, LGBTQ, social, archaeological—but with the concomitant fear of saying something stupid.  It’s a difficult path, but I’d rather take some risk in being a fool than a timid, subservient follower of others, or fashion, like bell-bottoms.  The sense of “no such thing as a dumb question” (and if you don’t know, ask) has generally worked, most of the time anyway.  Dark humour helps.  While I’m not altogether comfortable with being middle-aged now, there is some advantage in the silvering hair (Prof. Cramp’s “my, what an interesting hairstyle”) and an excuse for a goatee.  I guess I’ve also had my hedonistic years in 1990s Soho.

It’s been quite a revelation to be able to shake the hand of somebody I would have doffed my cap to as an awfully juvenile undergraduate.  The generosity and friendliness of the folks in archaeology, academic and commercial, by and large, has been the most delightful experience.  Nonetheless, the pay sucks.

Commercial archaeology: section drawing at -5°C with steel toecaps frozen to the gravel.

While this interview is feeling like a meandering autobiography, sorry, there are a few other key activities which have been important.  Serendipitously, as is often the case, I ended up volunteering as editor of CBA Yorkshire’s annual journal, now refreshed and eye-catching, and sitting on their committee, as I still do.  Editing and the diplomacy of sometimes having to turn down an article—not often though—is hard work.  Just when you thought you had a basic grasp of English grammar, hyphenation, conditional subjunctives, words contrive to prove you wrong.  Editing is also supremely rewarding, and printing things is almost a fetish (yes, another), if nerve-racking.  Whenever I open a page, the first page I open, the typo leaps out, laughs at you before slapping you in the face.  However, I think I’ve always been addicted to the smell of old books, journals, bindings—as well as the hot-off-the-press satinesque sensation of fresh ink and glue.  I’m also probably the only child who had chewed off the corner of his WH Smith logarithm booklet—the corner with the cosine I needed in the maths exam—fool.  Knowing Yorkshire, knowing Yorkshire folk and knowing enough about Yorkshire archaeology to be quite dangerous, my tenure has been an incredible opportunity to forge many friendships in that community, as well as with the other regional groups and “corporate” CBA.

On Teesside I re-joined the archaeological society too, and turned up to monthly lectures, ribbing one of the more vocal members for exploiting me as child labour in the 1980s—when “worms froze to my trowel” in a kind of allegorical Laurie Lee rosie without cider-esque way.  It wasn’t long before I was co-opted onto the committee, and ultimately arm-twisted into becoming chair—damn it.  Volunteering is like a Dyson—involuntarily sucked in and churned around forever without a dust bag.  However, we reversed the declining membership, refreshed the committee, and established an Internet presence—a website social media and mail-chimping.  “Thank god” somebody posted “TAS has entered the twenty-first century!” What was also been satisfying is the sense that despite over two elapsed decades, I was still known to many, as if there hadn’t been a hiatus.  In fact, Blaise Vyner, former Cleveland County archaeologist, mused that everybody thought I’d graduated and been sucked (sic) into the bowels, or consumed by the infinite bureaucracy, of what was then English Heritage.

I lasted a year as chair of TAS but, having succumbed to the ‘advocacy’ bug—inevitably with a political bent—it was clear that ventures beyond an annual lecture series were not entirely everybody’s cup of tea, although I valued and enjoyed developing the speaker portfolios.  The mileage every month from London was also the equivalent of driving to Hawai’i and back.  I’m still a TAS member of course, and pleased to be involved in some of their upcoming fieldwork this year, as a flinty specialist, soon to be announced.

New friends: “You’ll be Spence, then?” Street House, Loftus 2014.

If there’s time and space later, I’d mention the crucial role of social media, and of blogging, and syndicated blog referencing, as an icebreaker strategy.  It’s always a joyous thing, with all humility, to feel a tap on the shoulder: “are you Spence, Microburin?” whether at an event, a conference, a training course or on a dig; occasionally in my local Sainsbury’s superstore although that might have more to do with past misdemeanours in the days before integrity.  Of course, there’s also the tribal ritual that is the annual Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) event, and the associated flu pandemic, the wonderful Day of Archaeology blogfest, and I have booked this year’s CIfA conference in Newcastle.  Now that I recall it, back in 2012, it was at a then IfA’s Diggers’ Forum day at MoLA-on-Thames that it dawned on me how little some things had changed in archaeology—the profession as it were—pay, conditions, benefits, ludicrous minima, intra- and post-recessional carnage and, well, to read that there’s a shortage of experienced archaeologists in the commercial sector.

Out and about: Prehistoric Society trip to the Bronze Age site of Must Farm in 2016 with the fantastic Mark Knight, bobble hat, centre. Image courtesy of the Must Farm excavation team.

Nor have impenetrable theoretical papers dropped out of the periodical arena, despite paywall protection.  Oh, and I’d add the chilling horror of how relatively little practical fieldwork training there appears to be for many undergraduates. My Durham course required a substantial proportion of fieldwork during almost every vacation, as a mandatory part of the final honours degree.  There are still, it seems, many irreconcilable, post-processual and contradictory home truths. So I wrote an article. It was published. And now I am on the inside of commercial archaeology, with more poorly-remunerated work lined up, for better or worse, for sand and for gravel, and impregnable boulder clay.

TBOM:  I have to say you sound pretty well integrated now – and you’ve also given me a renewed vigour for my own (pre)historic region. I think that, with your experience of coming back to the world of archaeology and re-connecting with both the professional network and research interests, therein lies a truly useful road map for individuals wanting to kick start an archaeological career.  We both know it takes dedication, groundwork and time to get to know people, to join associations or societies, and to attend events and workshops.  The ability to master new skills is also a bonus, particularly one in archaeology where it seems each archaeologist has their own specialism (or two) and focus area.

How have you found being on the numerous boards and advocating for the archaeology and heritage sector though?  Has there been any particular differences on national boards compared to more regional or research specific associations or societies, for instance?

SC:  I’m not sure I’ve been on a sufficient number of councils and committees to form a representative view, but I can acknowledge the diversity of interests, demographics, degrees of health and challenges.  There was a particularly insightful conference hosted by CBA in York in 2013 where a large number of county societies and local history groups gathered to share their experiences, successes, and their difficulties.

Council for British Archaeology Groups conference, York 2013. © Council for British Archaeology.

There’s a useful distinction to be made, in general, between the more traditional ‘heavy-weight’ organisations like period-based or county-based groups, organisations geared to advocacy like Save Old Oswestry and, closer to my home area, Hands On Middlesbrough, and organisations built around fieldwork, almost inevitably supported by the Heritage Lottery.  There’s diversity too on the national scene. I’ve been a member of CBA, both national and regional, since a teenager.  While some of the regional groups, again very diverse in nature, sometimes struggle to differentiate their roles, and of course to adequately resource their ambitions, I’ve always seen CBA as an impeccably diplomatic organisation navigating between (or above) national politics and policy, and the convolutions of the volatile sectors across academic, commercial and public domains.  While I respect the diplomacy, I sometimes wonder that it is perhaps a little too discreet, careful to balance differing positions if you will.

For that reason, and spurned on like many of my peers by the last couple of general elections, I joined RESCUE for different reasons, as an ‘activist’ counter balance.  It was a little daunting to then be invited to join their council committee but satisfying in the sense that I believe campaigning and having a voice requires something a little more provocative—challenging intransigence and the status quo.  Advocacy can be a-political in a party political sense, but for me it is inevitably politicized at both a local and national level.  Austerity is a choice, a set of policies, attitude and dogma, and so its impact in our world of archaeology, heritage and place-making, and the decisions around investment or attrition, are absolutely political.  I also prefer to be a voice on the inside of an organization, like CIfA for example, than whining from the outside: “having skin in the game” from my distant business-speak past.

Teesside Archaeological Society lecture, here with Gary Bankhead talking about his medieval finds from the River Wear in Durham. Image: S. Carter.

The mixed fortunes of the more traditional societies have seen some difficult decisions being made around financial wellbeing and their existing membership – and their ambitions to address a still very much white, middle class and aging demographic.  Some are more savvy around trying to address, evolve, and frankly market, their offers while others perhaps struggle to maintain their value (and for whom) in an Internet-dominated digital world.  Nor does one size fit all in the sense of risking the alienation of a proportion of the in situ membership. The ability to maintain a dedicated headquarters without a sufficient income stream has affected a number of societies, such as the Yorkshire Archaeological (and now also Historical) Society, as has the ever increasing cost of print and postage, and hosting events.  Recalling the CBA conference I mentioned, almost every organisation recognises the desirability of increasing the diversity and sustainability of their subscription base—age, background and ethnicity, from cradle to grave if I can phrase it like that. From personal experience, not everybody is keen on advocacy work either – having a voice – versus a genteel lecture-based agenda and occasional forays into the field “in suitable footwear”.

On the other hand, Web-based technologies have revolutionized the ability for groups to reach, at least in principle, larger audiences.  Yet the presence of somebody on the committee with the technical ability and, importantly, the time to exploit the online, and largely free, tools is a very practical challenge.  This is also an area where consistency and follow-through is important in order to build, maintain and grow an audience.

So the strength and weakness of a committee or board of trustees often relies on the passion and energy of a spirited individual, or a few members, on that committee.  Even for organisations, charitable or otherwise, with a constitution, there is often a gulf between the need to rotate the management team periodically, usually every three or four years, and the willingness of the membership to get involved with both its strategic direction as well as its day-to-day operation.  While it is rewarding, it is, in many senses, also a very time-consuming commitment.  It is tremendously easy to get drawn in and less easy to extract oneself or find a line of succession!

TBOM:  I think anyone who has ever sat on a committee, or a trustee board, knows that the vibrancy to achieve the aims and continued function of the organisation can be tough, but it is very much necessary in order for them to remain dynamic.

I’ve read your recently published article ‘Middlesbrough has no Archaeology? The Unique Archaeology of Teesside‘, at Hands On Middlesbrough, on the real wealth of archaeological sites within the local region.  As I reread it now I am again stunned at the sites on my doorstep from all periods, a few I have had the pleasure to excavate at or to analyse the human skeletal remains, but more I have only passed in the car, sometimes unknowingly.

Also mentioned in the piece is the scrapping of the AS and A Levels in archaeology, anthropology, and classical civilizations by the AQA exam board in the United Kingdom without any form of consultation.  I’ve been meaning to write about this for my site, but I am stunned once again reading it, especially when the fruits of such programmes as Operation Nightingale (where ex-service individuals who have been traumatically injured are given the opportunity to learn new skills via archaeological practice) are reaping rewards with the approach.

Spencer, you have mentioned the importance of advocacy for the heritage and archaeological environment, both between the practitioners and their representatives, and the public and elected officials, but how can this be implemented on the ground, so to speak?  I guess I’m also asking how you are approaching this, with the development of your knowledge and now extensive experience and contacts within the region.

SC:  Advocacy or agitation, David?  In the present times of political austerity, I feel increasingly an agitator, and that archaeology is, and must be, inherently political—as I’ve mentioned already.  It has a cost and a proven return on investment and wellbeing, so it’s economic too.  There’s a good article on the BBC website about the challenges posed by HS2 and megaprojects.  I wonder if ‘advocacy’ has taken on a more passive meaning, over-used in a similar way to ‘heritage’ risking the de-coupling of on-the-ground cultural value from what the past actually contributes to communities and stakeholders.  I think a number of us felt uncomfortable with the recent British Academy report (not least with the make-up of the panel of experts) Reflections on Archaeology. It risks perpetuating hard-line boundaries between ‘public’, ‘professional’ and ‘academic’ and, for me, fails to reflect on the larger stakeholder diversity and interaction, although it recognises the need for greater cooperation. Even defining ‘public archaeology’, as distinct from ‘community archaeology’ is a contentious can of worms reflected in many a Doctoral thesis!

On that note, and having been able to attend the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists conference a few months ago in Newcastle, I particularly enjoyed the research of Gemma Tully and Tom Moore at Durham University on stakeholder-building around ‘cultural landscapes’, in both France and Britain: REFIT: Resituating Europe’s First Towns, a case study in enhancing knowledge transfer and developing sustainable management of cultural landscapes.  What started off as Iron Age oppida-centric became a much richer insight into public engagement, some transparent, some not.  Of particular interest, gleaned through extensive community surveys and interviews, are the different perceptions (and comprehension) about the stability and resilience of landscapes through time.  To quote from the excellent presentation, the project took “an ecosystems services approach to assess how stakeholders understand and manage cultural landscapes, integrating stakeholders’ perceptions into future management strategies.”

So having dug a trench for myself here, David—and not wanting to backfill it on myself—I think it might be better illustrate the power (and complexity) of networking around a set of inter-related causes and interests, archaeological, historical, environmental and utterly social.  And efforts bring us to Teesside again, the well-trodden woods and moorlands of a misspent youth.  Recent years have seen a rapid increase in vandalism, arson, illegal off-roaders which are causing irreparable damage to both the natural and archaeological environment of the Eston Hills – an outlier of the North York Moors sitting above the urban and industrial sprawl of Teesside.  By example, there have been over 16 devastating fires (and burned out vehicles) in April this year alone—that’s 60% of such events for the entirety of 2016!

With help from the Heritage Lottery Fund North East and Teesside Archaeological Society, I’ve been working with my friend and Durham archaeology student Adam Mead, and many others, on building a community project, for which Adam is director, to assess, sample and rescue the archaeology, but also to pull together the many stakeholders across the community to focus on sustainable solutions—with political momentum. ICE AND FIRE is making excellent progress, ahead of summer fieldwork, on rallying many voices, including the Friends of Eston Hills, around a single ‘landscape’ community cause.  Our aim is to try and turn around perceptions and behaviour, across generations and backgrounds, to make the destruction by a minority socially unacceptable.  From an archaeological perspective we have a unique landscape, and a wetland that holds great potential, dating back at least to the early Mesolithic in the ninth millennium BC! We know because flint artefacts are being brought to the surface by off-road vehicles, erosion and fires.  Indeed, if the wetland proves to date back to the end of the last Ice Age, the potential is both rare and very exciting.

What’s more, Media engagement has helped underpin a recent public meeting hosted by Redcar’s MP (now re-elected), Anna Turley who has been horrified by the carnage—and the very real risk to human life.  A great turnout, and vociferous opinions, were addressed to a panel which included emergency services, council representatives and community organisations.  The story is very much ongoing!  We also hope that this will form a kind of template set of options and case studies in building a stakeholder campaign against the seemingly intractable challenges.

There are a number of ways to get involved, both in the field as it were, but also in finds processing.  We have interest across the community, including school kids and a visually-impaired volunteer, and from the continent.  Diversity and inclusion are core to the project’s goals, and we hope it endures well beyond this year thanks to interest and support from Durham and Teesside Universities.  It would be great to see you around for a bit of flint washing and good humour! Teesside is on the map!!

TBOM:  As you know I hope to join the Ice and Fire project within the next few months, depending on my health, and I am very much looking forward to it.  From the regularly updated social media accounts to the community engagement and involvement, I’ve been impressed by what Adam, yourself and countless others have so far managed to achieve with the project.  It has been far too long since I have had the chance or opportunity to look at prehistoric flints and landscape features, and the opportunity to do so in my own backyard is a one that invigorates me.  To me this is one of the core strengths of archaeology as a whole – the ability to understand the (pre)history of a landscape and its people, from changes in population in the larger scheme of time to the minute aspects of change over a few years.

We’ve managed to cover a lot of ground during this interview, including the chance to highlight the rich cultural heritage of our beloved Teesside, but before we conclude our talk I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the future of archaeology as a sector.  What can up and coming archaeologists, students and volunteers do to help preserve, conserve and educate others?

SC:  Thanks, David, for the opportunity to share a personal side of a lifelong archaeological passion—the one you and I ruminate about for Teesside, and way beyond. Teesside is on the map these days!  I know that not everybody will share the same views, vistas into the past, largely white (male) and economically-priveleged historical narratives about our “shared” space.  However, the chance to be provoked—to think, assess and imagine ahead—is always cathartic. I hope this interview nudges some agendas forward, makes folk think.  We all need to transform our neighbourhoods to reflect what and who we are, together, every day.  Archaeology is contemporary, in this sense.  We constantly change and interact—as humanity does.  We need to be more confident, locally, to develop our heritage and socially-cohesive agendas here – what we value and what makes us part of the “same but disimilar community team”.

More recent media pieces perhaps assume varying degrees of doom and crisis in our sector.  We bleed into many others, unwittingly subservient to “lowest-cost basement” drainage ditches of archaeological sector undercutting—cogniscent of the folks who can’t sustain a viable lifestyle on this; such is our present political world.  That is what the media want and do, too.  I remain confident that our profession will play a key role in at least four ways:

  • Developing synergies—true investment and collaboration (howsoever funded)—between Communities (localism), local interest (representation) and campaign groups (gatekeepers for our environment against government folly) empowered to challenge bad planning decisions, and funded to explore and understand their (our) own place through time;
  • As part of understanding, with confidence, we recognise a joined-up approach to an ecological space that encompasses both climatic, natural environmental and human influences, sustainably—and not least lessons we can so definitely learn from the past (Brexit in mind);
  • Integrate present social realities that need to make inclusion, a respect for our continuous flux of incomers and outgoers (our dynamic communities), relevant, inviting and engaging;
  • Build our neighbourhoods around diverse cultural legacies—our own, like Teesside—but also of those from the most spectacular of global heritages too that back-challenge and ask for inclusion (challenging Brexit head-on).

TBOM:  I think there is a lot to chew over there and I wish you the best of luck with your engagement and research Spencer!  More importantly I look forward to joining you on the Ice and Fire project in the near future, ready to help make a difference to our local archaeological and contemporary environment for everyone.  Thank you once again for joining me today at These Bones of Mine.

Further Information

  • To learn more about the latest Mesolithic archaeology research and news, check out Spencer’s excellent Microburin blog.

  • Head over to TimeVista Archaeology to learn more about the commercial and academic research that has been carried out by Spencer.  TimeVista Archaeology is a freelance practice for commercial, non-profit and community-based engagement events who specialize in a whole host of archaeological-related fun.  This can include learning about and taking part in activities such as field archaeology events, providing expert help on social media outreach and the education of the fun and importance of lithic analysis!

  • Head over to the awesome Ice and Fire project homepage to learn about the heritage of over 10,000 years in the Tees estuary in north-east England.  This Heritage Lottery funded project unites a range of specialists to provide a community-led endeavor to ‘explore, record and celebrate over ten thousand years of human life, death, ingenuity and persistence’.

Advertisements

Guest Blog Guidelines: General Advice and Thoughts

3 Jan

This blog has always sought to highlight a wide range of subjects of interest within the remit of archaeology and osteology (and often outside of these boundaries).  Having had the luck to have continued to bring a variety of guest blog entries to the readers of this blog, I’d thought I’d share a few guidelines that I’ve often sent to potential guest bloggers for their information and digestion.  This is, in effect, an open invitation to those who are willing to participate.  I also thought I’d be open about the advice I offer in the vague and somewhat distorted hope that someone out there may well be inspired to host guest blogs of their own!

blogblogblog guest post

The downside of offering guest blogs! Both Digital Sherpa and Spin Sucks have some good advice for blogs offering guest posts, as well as highlighting the spam bots of SEO (Search Engine Optimization, normally spam advertising a company or products). If you have evidence of the health benefits of a chocolate only diet, please contact me! Image credit: Spin Sucks.

A Slice of Advice

First of all, thank you for helping to contribute to the blog site – without you the blog would not be what it has become.  Please use the guest blog entry as a chance to highlight and advertise your archaeological project and research, as well as a chance to promote and educate readers on the value and importance of archaeology and osteoarchaeology, from wherever you are from or have experience of.  The blog is a mixture of informal and formal approaches to a variety of topics in the above subjects – aim to inform and engage the audience and not to alienate them.  Please see the below tips as general points, as you will approach the guest blog in your own way (which is great!).  Once again thank you for taking an interest in These Bones of Mine.  I personally always welcome updates on your ongoing projects, as do the wider readers of the blog.

Basic Bones

  • Please send the guest blog in a Word .doc format and attach any images as Jpeg file formats (this can include photographs, diagrams, and/or graphs).  If images used are not your own, please ensure that copy right or permission to use the image has been attained beforehand.  This will be edited in Word and sent back for your edits/comments.  Once both myself and yourself are happy with the entry it will be posted onto the blog with appropriate categories and tags.
  • Word limit is generally kept at around 1000 words to 2500 words for the guest post entries.  Remember though that sometimes less is more, but complex topics may need to be introduced and discussed in-depth.  Please also note that interview style posts are often longer than this as they cover more topics in a back and forth active conversation, albeit sometimes in briefer detail.  Dependent on the guest blog, or interview, I am open for posts of up to 4000 words.

Meat of the Matter: The Content

  •  The content is up to the individual person and depends on the project or topic of the guest post.  This blog primarily focuses on the topics of archaeology, human osteology, heritage and human evolution.  As such these are the subjects that guest posts are particularly welcome in.  However, I am also interested in the wider aspects of the above topics and related disciplines.  These include, but are not limited to, forensic anthropology, zooarchaeology, anthropology and ethnography, amongst others.  I am also particularly interested in public outreach and multidisciplinary projects.  For a full list of subjects that I am interested in please see the Guest Posts page.
  • As the guest blogger introduce the topic, state the overall general aims of either the project or the research, indicate the timescale and your personal involvement.  The last point is important as this can help engage the reader on a fundamental level: what are your experiences of archaeology, how could I get involved?
  • Write for an interested and informed audience, but be wary that an academic approach to writing on a blog can potentially bore or isolate the intended or general audience.  I will hyperlink to any specialist terms used in the post (such as to either Wikipedia for general terms and background knowledge, or to a dedicated archaeological site for specific information).  Remember the people who read These Bones of Mine are already interested in archaeology and osteology, so don’t worry about how specialized your topic is (though this can be a tricky wire to navigate).
  • Remember that as the guest blogger you yourself will be representing what you are writing about. If in doubt please contact either a project or academic supervisor if you are not sure that the information you are writing about is meant for public consumption (or is under commercial constraints, for example).  If you have conducted original research and are looking to publish your results, please remember that a blog post probably isn’t the ideal way to break a new methodology to the world, lest another researcher claim credit on your behalf.  Remember this is a fully public blog!  But please also see this as an opportunity to communicate on a big scale to an international audience (typically a ‘front page’ entry will get hits from people just looking at the site, and hopefully you may get an email or two if someone is interested in your research!).
  • At the conclusion of the post I will add a Further Information section, a set of links with a short introduction on where to go next to learn more about what the guest post content was on.  The post ends with a bibliography in the Harvard style that will be compiled by the guest blogger themselves, although I will edit this if necessary and add relevant hyperlinks.  Remember that Open Access articles are appreciated by the general audience as many who read the entries will not have access to specialist journal articles.

The Fantastic Format

  • As already mentioned above book and article references are welcomed (especially Open Access sources) and the referencing system used on this blog is the Harvard method, as is generally typical for archaeology as a discipline in the UK.  I will hyperlink the reference to an online source if there is an open access publication – otherwise I’ll link to the publisher’s website, google books, etc.  (Heck, even Amazon sometimes lets you read a few pages for free!).
  • There will be an introductory paragraph about the author of the guest post, citing their background in commercial, voluntary and/or academic archaeology and related experience.  Further to this general interests that the writer of the guest post has can also be included, if necessary.  I will likely write the introductory paragraph, so please do feel free to add any information on non-archaeological interests or links to personal and academic websites with the body of your guest blog entry.
  • I will do the final edit of any guest entry submitted for this site, but I will show you this before it goes on the blog to enable you to edit the guest blog entry again if necessary.  I will also highlight when the guest blog is published on the blog itself (but please be aware it will look different on the blog than on Word!).  Editing is available anytime and I am very happy to update old guest blogs to reflect new projects, publications or positions, etc.  (As much as I enjoy writing posts for this site I do find writing to be a slow process and editing myself a necessary, but painful, evil.  In contrast to this, however, I quite enjoy editing other guest blog entries and interviews).
  • Diagrams, pictures, and photographs are highly recommended as they help break up the blocks of text and are very useful to engage the audience; they are also great at communicating complex ideas simply.  Please be aware of copyright with any image and I will credit the image appropriately to either the author of the guest blog or to the recognised copyright holder.

Style: Keeping it Simple

  • Remember that there should be no pressure for writing the guest blog entry as there are no deadlines.  Please see this as an opportunity to highlight and promote the value of archaeology to an international audience, specifically breaking down the barriers between access and availability – of both the archaeological information and of access to that information.
  • As such, please feel free to stylise the post as to how you see fit to see how effective you think it may be.  Think about the audience you are wanting to reach and why –  it is the public, the academic, or the commercial spheres of the archaeology sector, or is it a mix of these audiences?

Who Can Contribute to These Bones of Mine via a Guest Blog?

Anyone!  I’ve had feedback from a few non-archaeological or non-osteological minded friends now about this blog and they say that sometimes it can be a bit too academic, a bit too dense and special interest in scope.  This has always been the risk in trying to combine both my personal and professional interests, alongside my experience of academia itself.  However, I do also try to vary both the tone and approach depending on the topic of the blog post.  I realize I am reaching out to an audience that can be tiny – osteoarchaeology is not of primary concern to many people, nor is it a vital subject that is widely taught (as much as it pains me to say that).  I’d argue though that it is diverse, that it is interesting and, finally, that it is relevant to the world at large for the very understanding of our species (hence this blog).

As such I am interested in hearing from potential guest bloggers from all walks of life, not just those from academia.  If you are a volunteer, a commercial archaeologist, an undergraduate or a early career academic, perhaps a member of the public with an interest in heritage and archaeology – if you have something to say then I will consider it.  I may not always accept, but I will be interested.  I am particularly interested in hearing from people who are on the margins of society (this includes those marginalized in the world of archaeology, be it in the commercial, academic and/or voluntary sectors).  I am particularly interested in hearing from early career archaeologists or osteoarchaeologists.  If you are struggling to get an archaeological PhD position, struggling to get onto a Masters course due to funding, struggling to get a position post-PhD and you have something to say about your research, your experience, your knowledge, then yes, I am interested in hearing from you.

Do not be afraid to contact me.  The archaeological record does not belong to one person, one nation or one ideology.  It belongs to humanity, as a gift from humanity.

Final notes….

A final point is to note that I cannot, nor will not, offer any monetary incentive for a guest blog.  Furthermore, a guest post entry will not be hosted here to advertise a commercial venture where profit is the only aim, nor will anonymous ghost authors be accepted (i.e. SEO spam).  This blog is pretty much free via the wonderful people of WordPress and I, for one, very much appreciate their hard work.  One final remark: in archaeology, especially in UK archaeology, your name is your currency and reputation.  Always be careful!

For previous guest blog entries and interviews please do take a minute and have a look at the growing collection here.  As always I owe a debt of gratitude to the people who have already contributed, many thanks!

P.S. I also do interview style blog entries where a conversation between myself and the interviewees is conducted via email.  If this interests you please feel free to contact me via a comment below or this blog’s email address on the About page.

P.P.S. It has been a while but I should (honestly!) have a few posts up soon.  Time seems to be passing quite regularly – a belated happy new year to the readers of this site!

Interview with Paul Koudounaris: Behind the Lens

5 Feb

Paul Koudounaris is an art historian based in California, USA, who specializes in the documenting and photographing the use of human remains in sacred contexts, especially in ossuary and charnel houses.  Perhaps best known for his two books, Empire of Death (2011) and Heavenly Bodies (2013), Paul gained his PhD in art history from the University of California Los Angeles in 2004.  Paul’s personal website can be found at Empire de la Mort, which contains a whole host of information on upcoming talks, books and an extensive selection of his stunning photography.


These Bones of Mine: Hi Paul, thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  I recently had the great pleasure of watching you speak at the University of Sheffield on the topic of your latest project ‘Heavenly Bodies’, the so-called saints from the catacombs, but for those that don’t know of your research interests how would you best describe your previous and ongoing work?

Paul Koudounaris: I basically study the use of human remains in sacred contexts. Heavenly Bodies was my second book with Thames and Hudson, and it was a study of the skeletons of supposed martyrs taken from the Roman Catacombs starting in the late sixteenth century, and magnificently decorated with jewels. The book that preceded it was the Empire of Death, which was a study of ossuaries. By training I’m an Art Historian, not an archaeologist or anthropologist, and it’s important to note that because my primary interest has always been in documenting how what I am studying fits into the visual culture of its period. I’m not trying to come up with a provenance for these bones, that’s outside of my skill set and usually not terribly relevant to what I want to probe, which is what people saw in them at the time, how and why they decorated them, or decorated with them, and what that meant.

rothwellkouddou

A beautiful photograph of the stacked crania and long bones from the medieval Rothwell crypt at Holy Trinity Church in Northampton, England.  Rothwell is only one of a few surviving English charnel houses and is currently being assessed by a team from the University of Sheffield for best conservation methods and examination of the skeletal remains.  (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

If by training I’m an Art Historian, I have to also fess up that by nature I am something else–by nature I’m kind of a dilettante. I came into Art History through the visual arts, before I went and got the PhD I used to do assemblage sculpture and installation work, and while the rigor of studying the material for the two books was important to giving the subject matter meaning, it also left me kind of cold. It’s for that reason that the next book will turn out to be radically different. Both of the previous books are very photo heavy–they need to be, the images themselves are an important part of the story–and I do all my own photos. There was an interesting personal transition for me in completing those books: when I started, I thought of myself as an Art Historian who did photography, now I think of myself more as a photographer who does Art History.

For that reason, I wanted to do a book that would allow the images to break free of the need to conform to the text. The text was crucial to the two books, but it was also tyrannical when it came to the images, the text dictated how the images needed to be used, where they could appear and in what context. But the next book, which will be much more global (including copious material related to the veneration of human remains I have shot in Asia, South America, Africa), will be formatted in a very different way. The images themselves will construct the story–they will be arranged based upon their aesthetic qualities, and the text will be made to conform to them. This will allow different, maybe more romantic and imaginative connections. There is no reason why, say, a decorated skull from Nepal cannot sit alongside a painted skull from Austria, other than the fact that the previous texts wouldn’t allow that. But this time the images will be laid in first, and I have instructed the designer to simply leave me blank text boxes within the layout, and it will be my job to go back in and construct texts that will link these images together. In essence, we’re working in a way that’s exactly opposite of how we had worked before.

TBOM: I think anyone who has read any of your books, or has come across your photography work before, will recognise the fact that you have a real passion and skill for capturing the innate character of your subject.  Do you ever feel a personal connection to what, or who, you are photographing, or is the act of photographing itself a sort of personal veneration of the object or individual?

Paul: That’s a great and complex question. I find the term “innate character” a bit tricky, but what I try to capture is whatever I feel is most expressive about a site or skeleton, based on my own innate, intuitive reaction. With the charnel houses, I figured out very quickly how to take great looking pictures of them–if you have the right equipment, it’s not that hard, there are just a handful of technical things that are important. But shooting that way, just to make things look good, gets rhetorical. When I was shooting Empire of Death, it was important to me not just to shoot to make things look good, but to walk into a place and try to assess my own reaction to it–or rather, what my reaction would have been had I not already visited scores and scores of other charnel houses. That’s not easy to do, to try to erase your own callousness towards the subject matter and look at things with fresh eyes. But that was the goal, to try to retain some freshness of vision to shoot each site so that it expressed whatever impact it might have had on me, had I walked in totally naive.

Munich-Germany-big-1024x682

A photograph from the 2013 Heavenly Bodies book, reported to be the Saint Munditia, the patron saint of Spinsters, in Germany (termed the Katakombenheilige).  Notice the fine silk screen, exquisite metal work and re-made eyes.  (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

When I was shooting Heavenly Bodies, each time I would come to a new skeleton, I would try to come up with a single word that best distilled what I felt it expressed. So some conjured for me the idea of pride, others loneliness or abandonment, others humility. Of course, the skeletons express none of these things, these are my own reactions to them, but it was important to me to get a simple and clear sense of what I was receiving from them, and then try to capture that single expression. It was a terribly hard task–if shooting charnel houses is, as I said, relatively easy if you have the right equipment, shooting those skeletons was torturous at almost every turn. They are awkward items, the angles are invariably difficult, the lighting is horrendous, and worst of all the vast majority are encased in glass shrines that cannot be opened without breaking them–so not only are you dealing with issues of reflection and glare on the glass, the glass itself could be upwards of 400 years old, so not only dirty, but filled with defects and divets I would have to somehow avoid. You’re not asking about the photography on a technical level so I won’t go into detail on what I had to do, but as I said, it was very, very difficult to even get a shot in many cases, and even more so to try to get any kind of expressive effect.

To me, though, that is where artistry lies–not just reproducing the object, but responding to it. That approach has puzzled a lot of people, frankly. People at the sites were expecting someone who was simply interested in studying them as historical objects, and in such a mindset, pretty much any picture will do, and the optimal quality to be striven for is clarity. But I was doing something else, trying to find some expressive quality–as I said, it was often puzzling to people. Many thought I was just nuts, because I might be walking around a site or staring at a skeleton for long periods of time not doing anything, just staring, or spending long amounts of time making tiny adjustments with the camera or lenses or filters. Is it a form of veneration? I don’t know. Maybe. I think it’s a form of respect. I think it’s also a form of bonding. I don’t know about veneration. The thing to remember, though, is that all those pictures are my own reactions to the objects or sites, so there is a level on which they also serve in an inverse way as portraits of myself. Anyway, long answer, but as I said, it’s a complex question.

TBOM: I very much like the idea that it is a form of bonding with the subject, especially in the case of the saints in Heavenly Bodies.  It has been noted that you are also keen to study the burial places of animals, especially pet cemeteries.  Are you fascinated by the human-animal relationship through time and do you regard the burial places as outpourings of human grief for animals or as examples of demonstrative wealth?

Paul: That’s another complex question, more complex than I would have thought before I had started looking into pet cemeteries–and yes, I have become rather fixated on them lately. You mention the “human-animal relationship through time,” but we need to be aware of how that relationship has evolved, and how it varies historically and cross-culturally. It’s a very hard evolution to trace, since it is not something that was typically documented in texts. In short, what we call “pets” were basically an invention of the nineteenth century, particularly in France and the UK. OK, sure, people had always had domestic animals, apparently dating back to prehistoric times–I say this because graves have been found containing people and animals buried together, so presumably in such cases there was some domestic relationship between them.

But what we call a pet–the way we conceive it, the way we treat it, the way we feed and groom it–is as I said something that really starts in the nineteenth century. I wouldn’t even use the term “pet” for animals before then, because to me that term has a cultural specificity. Well, it’s a long story, obviously. But when it comes to pet cemeteries, not surprisingly they also start in the nineteenth century, and not surprisingly then they also start in the UK and France. They start with the modern conception of pets. Animals were buried before then in their own graveyards, this dates back again to ancient times–but a place like Bubastis, where cats were mummified in Egypt, was not a “pet” cemetery, because of course these were sacred animals.

Anyway, regarding the burial places, they likewise have a different meaning depending on the culture and era and the way the animals were conceived, but one interesting thing I have noticed about the modern pet cemeteries is that they really aren’t examples of demonstrative wealth, which seems counter intuitive. To some extent they are I suppose, because the very poor are excluded due to cost, and the very wealthy have greater means to memorialize their animals, but by and large wealth has nothing to do with it–it’s more a question of the attachment to the animal, and whatever ritual its owner feels is necessary to gain closure.

a-1024x682

Unknown individuals at a Ruamkatanyu skull shrine in Bangok, Thailand. As part of a charitable foundation that provide coffins to low-income families, the skulls are the patrons of dead paupers and unidentified individuals that symbolises the value of the work that the foundation carries out. (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

I have been talking to a lot of people who work at and have animals at pet cemeteries, and even gone to some vigils at one here in LA (they have a monthly candlelight vigil). I have yet to come across anyone I would consider in the top-tier economically, but have found many people whom I would consider no better than middle class. They have no interest in demonstrating wealth or status. Like I said, the decision to memorialize in a cemetery is due almost exclusively to attachment to the animal and the need for closure. It’s love in very pure form. Sometimes in a frightening form because it can be obsessive, but it’s based in love, and, with the filters we use for grieving humans removed, the emotion is often raw and poignant to the point of pain.

TBOM: Could you tell me more about the monthly candle lit vigils for animals in LA?  Also have you noticed any obvious differences between modern countries for pet cemeteries?

Paul: Sure. They hold these candlelight vigils at night, once a month. Anyone is invited to come, it is a chance to speak about their departed animal–to help the person who lost the pet find some measure of solace and resolution in the company of others who are struggling with the same grief. After a person speaks their candle is then placed in a box with those of the others who have previously spoken, it’s obviously a symbol of solidarity. Pet cemeteries are odd places, because as I have said the normal conventions and formalities we have with other people are removed when it comes to animals–think about it, no matter how giddy I might be feeling, I simply can’t walk up to another person on the street and pat them on the head, pinch their cheeks, and start saying, “oh you look so cute”–but I can do that to a dog, so you can encounter pretty much anything when it comes to people grieving an animal. When it comes to these vigils, mostly it’s pretty straight forward and dull, but sometimes it can get very odd–the last one I went to, there was an elderly woman in a wheelchair singing “My Darling Clementine” to her dead dog in an operatic voice, it was like something from a David Lynch movie.

As for differences between cultures when it comes to the pet cemeteries, they’re really a very American thing–the vast majority of pet cemeteries are in the USA. I mentioned that they started in the UK and France, but the place they caught on is here in the USA. I am still not entirely sure of what that says about us as a culture, but my intuition is that there are two ways it could be interpreted. One is that we are simply more devoted to our pets, and thus willing to publicly memorialize them. I would have to somehow to find statistics on per capita expenditures on animal toys, accessories, and other related items to confirm if that might be true. The other way to interpret it is simply that, hey, it’s the USA, and we can create a commodity out of absolutely anything, we can even find a way commodify your dead dog. I have a hunch the answer will turn out to be the latter, sadly.

TBOM: As a part of the ‘Encountering Corpses’ art exhibition at the Manchester Metropolitan University in March, you are displaying some of your original photography from the Heavenly Bodies and Empire of Death books and presenting a talk about your work.  What for you is the driving force to document these bodies and the pet cemeteries?

Paul: Hmmmm. Well. What is the driving force that compels me to do this kind of stuff . . . to answer that properly would require deep introspection. On a more superficial level, I tend to be interested in things that have a profound, emotional meaning, but have fallen through the cracks of history. Of course, I have chosen *these* topics in particular, which I suspect appeal to me because in addition to their historical and emotional value, they also often have a surreal weirdness associated with them.

Fiesta_de_las_Natitas_La_Paz_Bolivia-19a

A still from the Fiesta de las Natitas in La Paz, Bolivia. The festival, held every November, is little known outside of Bolivia where the living commemorate the dead and especially venerate the skulls of the ancestors. Paul has written an informative article for the Fortean Times here on the festival and it is well worth a read. (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

To pry a little deeper, they all obviously involve death and remembrance, which is a topic I was obsessed with ever since I was a child. I used to try to talk to my mother about exactly what I wanted written on my tombstone (yes, she thought I was odd, and no, she did not particularly want to talk about that topic as it seemed to unnerve her). But it’s hard for me to come up with an answer beyond that. Obviously, we are talking about topics that are part of the great mystery that binds us all as living creatures–but there was no specific incident I can recall that would have made me any more macabre than anyone else.

TBOM: Thank you Paul for that response, I think a lot of archaeologists and human osteologists will agree that in a large part, the study of history, our interactions and thoughts about death and remembrance, all drive our passion for pursuing our chosen fields.  A final thank you for joining These Bones of Mine and for enlightening us to the worlds of Saints, pet cemeteries and your inner thoughts!  I look forward to the culmination of your next project.

Further Information

  • Paul will be appearing for a talk and exhibiting a number of his photographs at the Manchester Metropolitan University Encountering Corpses exhibition on the 28th of March 2014 (exhibition on from 28/02/14 to the 10/04/13).

Select Bibliography

Koudounaris, P. 2010. Skulls Cops and the Cult of the Natitas. Fortean Times. Accessed 05/2/14.

Koudounaris, P. 2011. The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. London: Thames and Hudson.

Koudounaris, P. 2013. Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. London: Thames and Hudson.

Guest post: ‘Thoughts from Amara West’ by Loretta Kilroe.

19 Nov

Loretta Kilroe holds a research masters and a bachelors degree in Egyptology from the University of Oxford.  Loretta’s specialism is the study of ancient Egyptian ceramics and post new kingdom ceramics specifically.  The main focus of her research is the aim to approach ceramics from a social context with an eye to using changes in form and context to make inferences about society.  Loretta is currently applying for PhD programs and can be found blogging at Cakes and Ceramics.

—————————————————————————————————————–

Often I find, when I mention working in Sudan, people zip straight to thinking of war or corruption. In the UK, people tend to be surprised when I rave about the wonderful hospitality, the delicious food, the view of stars in the middle of the desert, and particularly the rich archaeological sites, bursting out of the country’s seams.

When I finished my undergrad at Oxford, I was lucky enough to be invited to join the British Museum team in Amara West early this year, as an assistant ceramicist. At Oxford, most people studying Egyptology are linguists, but I found that getting to grips with pottery typologies was like another language in itself, and much more interesting in my opinion!

potsforconvention

Loretta and a selection of the ceramics and pots excavated from the Amara West site in Sudan.  Photography by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

Amara West is located just across the river from Abri, the largest town in the Nubian area, and just upriver from Sai, a famous site which inspired the development of the Kerma pottery typology. It is a late New Kingdom ‘colonial’ town, established by the Egyptians as part of their administration over Nubia, although the extent to which it was populated by Egyptians is debated. The British Museum excavation has been running since 2009, after a survey season from the British School in Rome, which identified key areas of the site. However the British Museum was not the first to discover the sand-coated town. Fairman excavated extensively with the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1920s and uncovered parts of the town and cemeteries as well as the Ramesside temple. The cemetery records are scanty however, especially since a few graves were only excavated to keep the workers occupied while finds were packed up for museums apparently! The BM’s research aims have steered in rather the opposite direction from this early work, and seek to find out what daily life was like in a town like this, instead of monumental architecture. And the dig has thrown up some beautifully touching examples of it: a treasured bracelet dropped on the ground and lost, yellow painted walls, a sealing in a house incredibly matching a scarab amulet found in one of the graves.

The dig team live close to the site, on Ernetta island, 20 minutes boat ride downstream from the old town. The experience of living there, I found, significantly informed my understanding of the archaeology of the town. I know anthropologically-informed approaches have been growing in popularity in the archaeological community (with all its usual controversy), but coming from the land of sofas and fridges, it is 100% useful living with people who understand the climate and how to cope with it. Thus mastabas (mud-brick benches against walls) which are outside all the houses in Ernetta, and in the courtyard, covered in a bright throw, are pretty much the same as those in the ancient Amara West houses. To keep water cool, it is kept in huge, porous ceramic pots, pretty similar to those we find in the sand. And the island is surrounded on its outskirts by date palms, which upon stepping out from, instantly leave you to the mercy of the sandy wind. Recent evidence has suggested that Amara was once an island and when the Nile moved course, the inhabitants of the town had to start building barriers before their front doors to keep out the sand.

lorettadighouse

The dig house, with the mastabas visible outside in the courtyard, resemble the buildings that were probably quite a common sight during the Amara West heyday.  Photography by Loretta Kilroe, property belongs to the British Museum.

One of the major questions dig members did keep talking about however, was how ancient inhabitants would have coped with the nimiti. If you work in Sudan, never mind the heat, the lack of electricity or the different food– little black flies known as nimiti will be the bane of your life. When the season gets hot, out they come in swarms, and crawl all over you all day in the sun. They bite, but luckily don’t carry any diseases this far north. It could get very irritating trying to draw a pot with nimiti crawling up into your armpit, and not being able to swipe them because the vessel was just in the right position! My personal theory is the cramped, smokey houses we think most people would have lived in, were perfect refuges against the flies who hate the dark and smoke.

Now I applied for my research masters planning to study grave good groups, particularly ceramics, from the late Old Kingdom, to assess levels of state control in a time they were traditionally assumed to be weakening. So it is quite by accident that I ended up specialising in a period over 2000 years later, the Third Intermediate Period. I never found the later periods of Egyptian history compelling until I started looking at the pottery actually. In Sudan in particular, towards the end of the New Kingdom Egyptian-style pottery tends to get pretty ugly-which is what I absolutely love for some reason!

The pottery in the town levels at Amara currently being excavated, dates through the Ramesside period. Pottery evidence in the villas built at some stage outside the town wall indicates these were built in the later Ramesside period, evidently at a time when there was thought no need for defenses. The problem arises when you approach the graves. Many of them date to the Ramesside and late Ramesside too, like the town; but some date to the Post New Kingdom (Third Intermediate Period in Egypt), a time when there are no occupation levels in the town. This is a conundrum which the research team, and my own research, try to address.

villa (1)

A villa at the Amara West site in Sudan partially uncovered.  Photograph by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

For the two month excavation period, I was responsible for the cemetery ceramics excavated from Cemetery C. The team alternate excavating between the two cemeteries on the site; D is located on an escarpment and was the ideal location for elite burial. The remains of a pyramid tomb was actually found by Fairman in this cemetery, and although all the graves have so far been looted in both cemeteries, enough broken material remains to piece together some idea of the wealth of this little community. The items in the graves also reflect a fascinating hybridisation of identity within the town, with artefacts from both the Nubian and the Egyptian cultural tradition often found side by side. Egyptian scarabs and painted coffin fragments have turned up, as have miraculous remains of woven baskets and eggshell jewellery.

Post New-Kingdom/Third Intermediate Period pottery is understudied partially because this damage to contemporary occupation levels is quite common, so there are a lack of stratified deposits to learn from. However, in the case of Nubia, the decrease in variety as well as quality perceived has led to many interpretations of Nubian society as breaking up after the Egyptians left. The ceramics at this time are certainly very different from the blue-painted vessels and carefully formed jars of the 18th dynasty. Beer jars, one of the most common vessels in both cemetery and occupation levels, become so poorly made, they cannot even stand upright, and the bases are squashed by fingerprints. Red-rimmed bowls no longer have a neat little border, but the red quite literally dribbles everywhere. And by the time we get well into this pre-Napatan phase, pilgrim flask handles are stunted pieces of clay squashed onto the neck, useless for holding.

mydesk

The desk and work station at the excavation, full of ceramics and pots ready to be described and analysed.  Photograph by Loretta Kilroe, property of the British Museum.

All these features are often dismissed as resulting from potters disinterest in aesthetics or the loss of technical knowledge as society broke down. However when I was in contact with examples of these vessels, I came to the conclusion that this view was distinctly limited. In Egyptology, ceramics are typically focused on in answering chronological questions, but my thesis sought to challenge these boundaries and discuss what social changes these ceramic shifts could indicate. The developments I suggested are too long to go into much detail here, but as a summary, I believe they reflect the changing purposes of these culturally Egyptian vessels when used by an increasingly hybridised society. Nubian pottery focuses much more on decoration than perfect wheel-thrown forms, and thus I believe the dribbly red rims become a deliberate aesthetic feature. A rare hybrid bowl lends support to this theory; hand-made and fired according to Nubian techniques, it was nonetheless shaped and coloured as a standard Egyptian bowl, indicating it was an imitation–and the red rim distinctly dribbles. At another site, Hillat el-Arab, later beer jars are replaced in graves by pilgrim flasks, suggesting that the reason beer jars could no longer stand up was because their use was obsolete.

I hope to be talking about this development with red-rimmed bowls at the Current Research in Egyptology conference this April at UCL, so come along if you’re interested in finding out some more detail about what can, when summarised, sound like a bit of a crackpot theory!

Nileandmountain

The Nile river, the lifeblood of Egypt and Sudan.  Photograph taken by Loretta Kilroe.

Research at Amara West is due to continue for the foreseeable future –a Collaborative Doctoral Scheme has just been awarded for a scholar to research the use of colour in New Kingdom towns with Amara as a significant case study– and there are still villas and graves to uncover. Together with the early New Kingdom site of Tombos further south, the increasing influx of archaeological projects in Sudan is shedding new light on how we understand New Kingdom expansion and the development of the later Napatan state. Meanwhile, I hope to return to Sudan one day in the near future–it is without a doubt the high point of places I have excavated!

Further Information:

Bibliography:

Aston, D. 1996. Egyptian Pottery of the Late New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period. Tentative Footsteps in a Forbidding Terrain. Studien zur Archáologie und Geshichte Altágyptens 13. Heidelberg: Heidelberger Orientverlag.  (An excellent typology for the Egyptian Third Intermediate Period).

Bader, B. & Ownby, M. (eds.). 2009. Functional Aspects of Egyptian Ceramics in their Archaeological Context: Proceedings of a Conference held at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, July 24th – July 25th, 2009. Leuven: Peeters. (One of the ceramic studies focusing on a social approach).

Binder, M. Spencer, N. & Millet, M. 2010. ‘The New Kingdom Cemetery at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia14: 25-44.

Binder, M. Spencer, N. & Millet, M. 2011. ‘Cemetery D at Amara West: the Ramesside Period and its aftermath’. Sudan & Nubia16: 47-99. (Open Access).

Spencer, N. 2009. ‘Cemeteries and a Ramesside Suburb at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia13: 47–61. (All official British Museum team publications).

Spencer, N. 2010. ‘Nubian architecture in an Egyptian town? Building E12.11 at Amara West’. Sudan and Nubia14: 15-24.

Spencer, N., Woodward, J. & Macklin, M. 2012. ‘Re-assessing the Abandonment of Amara West: The Impact of a Changing Nile?‘. Sudan and Nubia16: 37-43.

Spencer, N. 2013. ‘Insights into Life in Occupied Kush during the New Kingdom: New Research at Amara West‘. Antike Sudan. 23: 21–28.

A Clarion Call For Guest Blog Entries

19 Apr

Archaeology, and all of it’s related disciplines, heavily depend on collaboration between various people’s, projects, institutions and countries worldwide.  Blogging can play its part in informing a new audience of goings on, recent finds and new approaches in research in various disciplines.  Blogging can open up research projects to the public and allow opportunities for various sets of people with broad-based skill sets to inject their own knowledge into projects, often in new and interesting combinations.   Science is an inclusive discipline and encourages a broad audience to digest and produce results based on research and experiments adhering to a peer review process.  An interesting example comes via John Hawks own advertisement of the Malapa Soft Tissue project, a project which aims to investigate hominin skin preserved from a 2 million year old site in South Africa, and openly calls for people to join in the research.

These Bones of Mine hopes to introduce the basics of human osteology to a new and disparate audience, whilst also discussing and highlighting interesting news from the archaeological world and beyond.  I also hope it to be a site where information can be passed on to interested sectors of the internet audience.  Therefore, I heartily welcome guest posts on a range of topics.  These include, but are not limited to, the following range of subjects:

  • Osteology (both human and animal)
  • Archaeology
  • Physical Anthropology
  • Archaeological Practice (experience of fieldwork, units etc)
  • Prehistoric Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Palaeoanthropolgy
  • Ethnography
  • Palaeontology
  • Medical Anthropology
  • Zooarchaeology
  • Palaeobotany
  • Genetics
  • Palaeogenetics
  • Forensic Anthropology

Alongside outside subjects such as Human Rights Issues, Heritage at Risk, Cultural Sociology, and Literature or Music.  Any subject within these titles will be considered, and I am particularly keen on prehistory, human osteology, and the effects of an holistic and multidisciplinary approach to the research of archaeological remains.

Please feel free to email me at the following address with ideas for blog posts: thesebonesofmine at hotmail.com

Do not be offended if the subject matter is not appropriate or if I do not reply quickly the academic year is quickly filling up with approaching essay deadlines, dissertation research  and conferences to attend.  The guest posts should be referenced as appropriate (Harvard style) and not extend beyond 2000 words.  Images are welcome, as is the inclusion of the writers own thoughts and interests.  I cannot offer any monetary funding, nor will I openly advertise commercial or private sector companies.  Thank you for your time.

Previous guest blogs include the following (top most recent):

Further updated posts can be found on the ‘Guest Posts‘ tab.