Tag Archives: Guest Interview

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

28 Jun

Spencer Carter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temptation!

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

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

Durham University dig in Poland, 1987.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An archaeologist’s mam, during Wimbledon week.

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

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

All spread out in the lithics lab.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Information

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

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

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

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

21 Jun

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Further Information

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