Tag Archives: Guest Post Interviews

Speaking to the Dead: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

3 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication, which was released in 2013.  It is a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including the present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book in a blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for sustained periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1985 volume The Unwomanly Face of War (У войны не женское лицо), recently translated into English and republished, which uncovers the role of USSR females in the Second World War and the subsequent silence of their contributions, alongside 1997’s Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва),  a volume which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  That book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) was due to be published in 2017; the volume looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless, there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field.  It is one I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends describing their experiences of encountering human skeletal remains within archaeological contexts and how it inspires them – into careers, into dreams, into labours of love and worry.

A two-part previous edition of this series focusing on the life and thoughts of archaeologists can be read here and here.


The author’s monologue

– Buried and cremated, dismembered and decapitated, axial and axis, perimortem and postmortem.  The language we use to describe the dead can seem cold and clinical, a hidden distance in our lexical choices to keep the emotive at bay.  If we think of the skeletonized dead as people, with their own lives, thoughts and memories, instead of objects taking up space on the finds shelves or boxed silently away, it is perhaps then we remember that the past is not so different, not so foreign to the present.

Fragments of crania, rolled across my open palm for tactile inspection, used to remind me of the intangible border of death.  Reminded me that I too would die.  Bone, that wonderous structure of both flesh and stone, reminded me so vividly of what it is to live.  Having broken many of the elements within my own skeleton, I could feel kindred to those naturally fractured fragments before me, couldn’t I?

That decisive snap, the innervation of electric pain that contorts to dull throbs . . .  What I thought I knew, I desired to know in more depth.  My own experiences of skeletal breakages and repeated surgical interventions, my own handling of the blade cutting into flesh to show bone the sordid light of the dissection room.  The smell of my anatomical guide – the paper protected by clear plastic wallets, but the pages of which had nevertheless become permeated by the chemical smells of preservation.  These were the experiences that pushed me on.

From excavation to analysis, pulled from birth to death anew.  A whole new context of meaning imbued by the discipline of archaeology . . .  These were my dreams, the dull and long-drawn out thoughts that lay behind daily concerns and speculations.

What do others think, how do others interact with the skeletal material that represents an individual, a population, a species?


The illusion of mortality and the fickle nature of finality

Gabriela H.  Late twenties.  Post-doctoral researcher.

– I don’t know what drew me into studying skeletons – it was not the morbid aspect for sure.  I have never been to a funeral, and I don’t feel a pang for skull-themed aromatic candles spread around the house.  I might be ‘in search for a stable ground to step on’, as a psychologist once told me . . .  I don’t know if that is true, it might be, but it might as well have something to do with people.  I like people, and have always been interested in watching them, in understanding their passions, actions and thoughts.  But I should probably bear in mind that these are dead people.  Most of the time I try to ignore this though . . .  The image of a crime movie in which body parts are stacked in jars on shelves comes vividly to mind, and the comparison is rather worrying to be frank.

However, aren’t we (those studying the dead) caught in this eternal (no pun intended) puzzle?  Between having to acknowledge that these are dead people – that on the lab table and on the museum shelf it is death and mortality looking back at us, confronting our own fear of death.  Or seeing them as mere bones, objects that are there waiting for us to turn them into ‘high-impact’ articles?  Boundaries, and absences are unsettling: someone has forever disappeared, though some part of them has been left behind.

‘It is the living who expect insights from the dead’ a friend once told me, and he couldn’t have been more right (as you see I am trying to avoid saying ‘dead right’).  As a ‘dead bodies’ practitioner I think this line cuts to the core of the whole challenge of writing narratives about them – what are we hoping to achieve?  I think most of the times we are unsure, but it is rather hard to be sure about something like death, isn’t it?


On the joy of working with the hands and the truth concealed

Abigail L.  Mid-twenties.  PhD candidate.

– I often miss working with my hands.  The hours spent staring at a screen or trawling through journals are necessary for research, but they make me realise that the physicality of handling human remains, the engagement that comes with examining the material myself, is what really helps me to understand my subject best.  Carefully sorting through someone’s bones removes the abstraction of talking about statistics, trends and probabilities, and brings it back to the individual level, the only one that we can really identify with.  I gain satisfaction from the ordered and methodical work; the rest of my time is spent chaotically moving between tasks and failing to cross anything off my cluttered stacks of physical and digital to-do lists.  With the bones, I arrive early and skip lunch to give myself more time to work slowly and carefully.  I don’t feel the need for the extended walks around the park that my ‘office work’ prompts.  Almost everyone else smokes.

With long periods where I am kept in the office, the growing anticipation of these sparsely distributed tangible interactions with my subject sometimes leads to frustration.  Missing limbs (misplaced in the last decade; “I’m sure they were on display once”); a severe case of mould spreading through the axial skeleton; another “sorry it was lost in the war;” a set of misidentified and mis-catalogued remains that belong to some other site (which one, though?).

My recent osteological work has been characterised by dismay . . .  I’m concerned by the mishandling of human remains in museum and university contexts, but I can’t talk about it as I’m still relying on the goodwill of these institutions.

I can discuss general access issues and curatorial ethics in my thesis, but I can’t refer to my personal disappointment over being prevented from doing something I enjoy.  Is it even okay for me to enjoy this work?  To enjoy sorting, measuring, and recording human remains?  We are supposed to be enthusiastic about our research: engagement, outreach, impact, et cetera.  But people don’t always want to hear the specifics.  I was recently asked (by a palaeoethnobotanist) what I do to ward off all the bad Juju I must be attracting . . .  Alongside my enjoyment, if that is allowed, I also feel a deep anxiety about getting something wrong that I don’t feel in relation to other areas of my work.  It doesn’t seem to go away with experience.  Another topic with no real home for discussion.

My main anxiety at the moment, though, is in relation to my future employment prospects.  While the practical work is what sustains my interest, I also know I need to develop other research interests, other skills, other areas of expertise, in order to compete for jobs.  Most of these keep me inside.  I am increasingly realising that I will soon have little choice in the matter.


The search for identity in a modern context

Richard Smith.  Late forties.  Recovering field archaeologist.

– I’ve long been intrigued by the idea that for many people outside of the profession, the chief occupation of an archaeologist is digging up skeletons (at least for those who don’t think we’re looking for dinosaurs).  To be honest, that aspect probably played into my own set of disjointed reasons for wanting to become an archaeologist . . .  There is something very reassuring about seeing archaeologists carefully excavating away soil from around a skeleton – you know you’re seeing some ‘proper’ archaeology!

And yet, I had worked for more than 20 years as a commercial field archaeologist before I got the opportunity to excavate a ‘classic’ laid out flat skeleton.  It’s not that I’d not been doing much, but every site I seemed to work on was composed of pits, ditches, post-holes, and the like . . .  It’s not like I didn’t encounter human death in those years, but it was invariably in the form of cremated remains, frequently having undergone heavy comminution.  Say what you like, but it’s hard to perceive the humanity in the occasional flecks of white in a black and grey soil.

All that changed for me when I ended up working on a 19th century urban graveyard that was being cleared to allow the church to rebuild, expand, and cater for its dwindling flock into the 21st century.  For someone only used to human remains in the form of gritty powder, coming face to face with a skeleton was nothing short of shocking.  After two decades in the profession, I thought I was well beyond romantic notions of imagining myself into the lives and situations of my ‘subjects’.

But here I was, carefully scraping around a rib, an eye socket, or a femur, wondering about who this person might have been or how they lived their lives.  Admittedly, this was rather short-lived as some of the burials contained their original coffin plates that had their names and dates . . .  Some we eventually were able to track down to published obituaries only to find that they were all wonderful people who were sorely missed by all who knew them.  I wonder where they buried the bad blighters that everyone was glad to see the back of?


The author rejoins

– An historical aside:  ‘Do not divide the dead!’  A Soviet saying dating from the Second World War.  The blurring of lines between the immensity of the Jewish loss of life, and the death wrought across nationalities and ethnicities, versus the continuing vulgarities of Soviet antisemitism post-war which culminated, but did not end, with the Doctor’s plot of 1952-53.

Dividing the dead into known and unknown, into memory and out of time.  The question we never really ask is how much do we need to know, what can we afford not to know?  The almost intangible nature of truth, hidden within the Haversian canals and housed in osteons, each containing a multitude of experiences.

Experiences for which the individual, partitioned by plastic context bags placed among kin, friend or foe, known or unknown, remain silent; they are ready instead to be analysed by the skeletal specialist.  The step by step motions of measurements and non-metric notes taken; occurrences of presence and absences discussed; the archaeological context pondered over.  Relationships are suggested and situations hypothesized, the motivations are almost always guessed at.

An archaeological aside:  ‘The dead do not bury themselves.’  The individual, either as a single outlier or as part of a larger assemblage, become detached from their lived context and are given over to the researcher with the status of temporary ownership.  The dead have already died and their active participation in life is now over, but still they speak to the living as arbiters of the present.

We are not just analysing ourselves when we look into the empty eye sockets of the dead, we are commenting on the past and the vast variations found therein.  There is no distance greater than between the living and the dead, yet there is no closer divide.  That is the juxtaposition lying in wait, entombed within the cortical and trabecular bone, trapped within the enamel and dentine, ready to surprise the unwary.

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Digging Up Time, Part 1: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

30 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication released in 2013, a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book in a recent blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for long periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book, of which I’ve recently finished reading for the first time, offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1997 publication Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва), a volume which I’m currently reading.  It is a book which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  The book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) is due for 2017, which looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field and I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends of their experiences of archaeology – as a career, as a dream, as a labour of love.

Part 2 can be read here.


The author’s monologue

–  We’re exploring the past to divine the future, turning over the topsoil to see what lies below.  The borders are closing, the opportunities to traverse and learn are being cut across the globe, and I find myself at a crossroads in my own life.  Do I continue to pursue meaningful employment in the field that I so desire to join or do I keep my passion to one side, preserved with all the joy intact but with little difference made to my bank balance?

I find myself in a non-archaeology community that cares little for my achievements or my dreams that have been achieved.  Instead I archive them within my own personal vault of fulfillment and seek the next challenge, doggedly pursuing what I see as a higher form of personal learning – uncovering the voices of the past, to gather and collect the tendrils of evidence, to disseminate the dead among the living.  In my defense I am giving life back to the lost.

Life has assumed the standard pattern yet I yearn to break free, to feel the mud underfoot, the rising sun casting a glint off the blade of the metal tool in a field of crops.  There is no shame for me to admit that I find myself in neither commercial archaeology or academia, I am between camps and of no camp.  I am free to wander as my desires so take me and as my time so dictates.  My work, not associated with my archaeological passion in any meaningful way, gives me the money for food, fuel and rent, and in return I give it the sweat, hard work and integrity as I can muster.  My dreams are my own though, lying so tenderly outside the realm of reality.

So today, my dear readers, we shall instead dip into the minds of others . . .


The boundaries of history as an illusion of the future

The Galleon.  Mid thirties.  Field archaeologist.

–  I started in archaeology a bit by chance.  I always wanted to be an archaeologist but I thought it was a secluded works, reserved for the best of the best.  When I met my ex-boyfriend he knew a guy that was supervising and I finally entered into this new magical world.  My surprise was that, once I started to meet people I realised that, unfortunately, they were not the best of the best but quite the contrary.  There’s good people, there’s bad people, and environment is everything if you have a shitty site.  I come from another country, I have more than 10 years of experience but I’ve been treated nearly everywhere as if I was a newbie.  If you don’t know the background of someone you should ask, that should be the rule.

Also, as everywhere, good workers are slighted and bad workers are promoted.  Even if this happens everywhere, this is quite hurtful when you see bad decisions being made which can affect our knowledge of the past.  The past is a limited resource.  But it is difficult and exhausting to fight against the ‘establishment’ because builders don’t give a shit about it, engineers don’t give a shit about it, and people in general don’t give a shit about it.  Yet everyone watches Time Team or laps up the burial of Richard III . . .

Well, people, the reality is different: it’s hard, it’s difficult, it’s not well paid . . .  But let me do my work!  In an era when nationalism seem to be rising let me tell you where you really come from.


On the sensation of discovering the new and the old – A personal turning point in a friend’s life

Charles L.  31 years old.  Former field archaeologist.

–  It’s a fairly long-winded story, but it goes back to an early realization as a kid that the world was not just self-evidently fascinating, but also a seemingly endless mine of stories, processes and worlds.  Delving into the past opened up incredible avenues for obsession.  Everything imaginable had a reason for being, and an intricate history woven through the chaos of time.

My dad, also a huge fan of history, always endeavored to take me to historical and archaeological sites around the country, and whenever we were abroad, he’d always have several similar visits planned.  The feeling of utter scintillation when I walked down roads that had seen sometimes hundreds of generations of wear, or standing in the remains of a hillfort created by cultures both alien and continuous to my own . . .  It never left me.  The feeling that, anywhere you go, you walk through the echoes of millions of other stories; it turned the world into a magical, vibrant place.  I wondered whose story my essence would be floating through thousands of years from now.  The door to my imagination was permanently kicked open, to let the world in.

Skip forward twenty or so years and life had occurred at me.  I’d left uni with an okay grade and an unhealthy attitude to work.  I fell into a retail job, then, after that, a fairly uninspiring administrative job.  That child in me sat sulking in a corner of my mind, looking out of my eyes at spreadsheets and emails and pint glasses and insomniac nights and sadly fell to sleep.

I nearly closed the door of imagination.  February of 2009, my dad, frustrated, asked me what are you doing with your life?  What do you want to do?  I replied that I did not know, but that wasn’t quite true.  I knew I wanted to learn and learn and learn.  I wanted to write and write and draw and see and live again.  But all of that seemed so . . .  Unrealistic.  Childish almost.  I vaguely said I’d thought of going back to university, which didn’t exactly elicit a positive response, but he was open to the idea if I had a goal.  Initially I thought about a History MA, but decided against it.  No; I wanted to see it and feel it.  I wanted the hands on interaction with the past.  Turns out, I wanted to be an archaeologist.

So, I got onto a Masters and, with a jolt, my life returned to me.  Happiness, fascination, wonderment, hope, drive, purpose; it all returned to me in a way I hadn’t felt since childhood.  It was difficult but brilliant.  I was surrounded by wildly intelligent, funny, ambitious people with whom I made quick friendships.  The literature, whilst sometimes dry, opened my eyes to whole past worlds and interpretations I had never considered, and I was getting to write about it all.  Naturally, my first few papers were total garbage, but I got there slowly, and after a while I was interacting with the work in a way I had a grasp on.  I felt I had something to give to the field.

And so went one of the most exciting years of my life.  After the depressing lack of consequence from my first degree, my Masters was like a turbo-boost for the soul.  At the end of the year, I volunteered on a couple of field-schools and after a stressful time of applying to all of the archaeology units in the entire known universe, I landed my first archaeological job through a personal recommendation.  After all those applications, it came down to a good word from a new friend dropped to the right people.  It was a godsend at the time, and remained largely representative of my winning method for getting archaeological work.  It comes down to a very short and simple piece of advice: know people.

So, as I’m sure anyone who has worked in commercial archaeology is now thinking: perhaps this guy entered the field with an overly rosy view of things.  You’re absolutely 110% correct.  If perhaps I’d listened to a few more archaeological misery gutses, I might have had a slightly smoother ride.  Alas, I didn’t and therefore I didn’t.

My first job was actually a total joy, however.  It was only after a year or so that mission fatigue set in.  I started off on a wonderfully academic site with an extremely ingratiating and friendly unit.  I made a new city home and in the space of a few short months, accrued years of happiness.  I had great friends, a great home and a great title, one I really enjoyed: archaeologist.  Technically I was an assistant archaeologist, but I didn’t tell people that.

Some time, several jobs, mountains of financial uncertainty and seemingly centuries trapped outside in the bitter rain later, the shine had somewhat worn off.  Travelling around the country is all well and good for a while, but when it becomes constant, it’s not so well and good.  I have seen enough B & B’s to last a lifetime.  I could draw a good, accurate map of England’s mobile dead spots.  I have mattocked through ice on supervisory demand, destroying archaeology, and I have hoed away mud in torrential rain. Worse than all that, however, were the endless months alone in the middle of nowhere, watching a work gang open up pipe trenches.  Sends you a bit funny, months alone in the middle of nowhere.  Not good for relationships.  Or, y’know . . .  Sanity.

My bank account was permanently empty on account of extremely low pay and extremely unreliable work.  More than once I found out that work for the following week had been cancelled so, due to being on a zero hours contract, I simply wasn’t going to get paid for that week.

It wasn’t all terrible.  I still had some amazing times with amazing people.  I still saw fantastic things and some of the sites I worked on, even late into my archaeological career, are treasured memories for me.  The people are almost universally brilliant company, with whom I often laughed until physical pain.  Some of my all-time favorite conversations were out on rain-soaked fens, in wind that was trying to blow us over.

But my life changed.  I got serious in a relationship and being poor, stressed and itinerant were no longer compatible with personal happiness.  I had reached the end of my archaeological journey, and with an extremely heavy heart, I laid my career to rest.  Admittedly, I strung that process out – I didn’t know what I was, post-archaeology.  That terrified and depressed me deeply, and the year or so after leaving was a tailspinning, roller-coastering, gut-punch, vertiginous freefall of a time, but I made it through.

I don’t for a single second regret my time in archaeology, and some days I still miss it.  I’m forever glad I took the plunge, leapt for that childhood dream; it’s given me courage to do the same in different areas and aspects of life.  In a big way, it laid the foundation for my adult life.

Would I go back into commercial archaeology now, given the opportunity?

Not a damn chance . . .

Would I change anything, for better or worse, about my time as an archaeologist?

I would change nothing at all . . .


The light at the end of the trench or the beginning of a career never dared dreamed of

Natalie F.  29.  PhD Researcher.

–  Academic archaeology is a route that I happened to fall into due to a sequence of quite unlikely events, a great deal of luck and sometimes astounding timing.  As someone who has always had an inclination to play happily in the mud, and who loves the thought of bringing objects and people from our ancient past out of their tomb in the ground and into the light of modern day, I would never have thought I’d end up where I am; a postgraduate student who you sometimes have to prise out of the lab . . .

Originally, I was encouraged by someone to apply for an MA at my alma mater, which I did with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to make the cut.  My 2:2 meant that academia was theoretically cut off from me, the minimum being a 2:1 in seemingly most institutions; in theory, the ivory tower of academia was locked . . .

But I wrote my statement, stressing how much I’d loved my time there and archaeology in general, and sent off the application.  I expected nothing, nothing at all, but what I got instead was a phone call from the postgraduate admissions director for Archaeology saying that he was more than happy to push my application through the board.  So off I went, with an appropriate amount of imposter syndrome.

From there, two chance run ins, one when I was hunting down an elusive lecturer and instead found someone who would later be a very dear friend, and one at a launch party after far too much wine with a man who would again become someone I would care for and admire a great deal, led me here.  The first person pointed me in the direction of a funded PhD advert and the second gave it to me, I suspect partially as a way to get me to stop following him around and asking to play with the 3D printer.

So that’s where I found myself, suddenly a full-time researcher with no real idea what to do.  I knew that, sooner or later, I would be uncovered as a fraud; surely all these lecturers who had suddenly become my colleagues would know that I had no idea what I was doing, that I was just a lucky idiot?  But no, they didn’t.  Because the vast majority felt, and still feel, the same way.  The stresses and strains of academic research, anything from your isotope data hasn’t been done yet so you’re 5 months behind to the fact that people keep taking the tea spoons in the staff room, have different sources but are felt by everyone.  The genius who worked for NASA still gets stage fright, the cool, collected expert in her field sometimes cries by the shrubbery outside the building.

Academic research can often be stressful and isolating.  Particularly archaeology, I think, as everything revolves around the long dead; who they were, what they did, ate and believed.  We spend so much time looking backwards that it can be difficult, when the microscope won’t co-operate and everything’s going wrong, to notice the people around you in the present…  No matter how alone you feel, grabbing a nap in the staff room at 8 at night when all the world seems quiet, you’re really not.  Everyone understands, and occasionally leaves a cup of tea for you when you wake up.  There’s always someone who “gets it”.

I would never have guessed that such a real, strong sense of camaraderie existed in academia, albeit alongside some minor competitiveness; I believed, as I said earlier, that the door to the ivory tower had long since closed for me.  It came as a surprise, then, to find out that all I had to do was knock and the door would slowly start to open . . .


The author rejoins

–  These are just a few of the voices I have managed to curate views for.  We’re still searching for individual stories, so a second entry will be posted in due course.