Sunday, 2 August 2015

The roads to Volterra

Roman theatre from the Pinacoteca

This summer’s major trip to Italy was a week-long round trip from Rome to Volterra. This trip was financed from the grants from Västeuropastipendier and Enboms donationsfond from the Swedish Kungliga Vitterhetsakademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters). I got these grants and a third one from the Gihls fond in order to realign the Stockholm Volterra Project from an educational summer course with scientific content into a proper research project. This journey around Lazio and Tuscany was a preparatory visit in order to form and plan collaborations and discuss our fieldwork at a later stage during the academic year 2015/2016 with the authorities in Volterra.

Scaffolding stored in the BSR

Our small group consisted of three people: I who had organised all by booking the car and hotels and making all but one of the appointments, Professor Arja Karivieri from Classical Archaeology who is the main responsible for the Volterra research project and an ancient DNA expert Christos Economou from the Stockholm human DNA laboratory. We had five very pleasant days that also allowed me to assess the different routes to Volterra for further planning.

A site model in the Superintendency laboratory in Ponte di Nona

The fact that Director Kristian Göransson was on summer holiday in Sweden allowed me to swap a visit to the Swedish Institute in Rome to a courtesy visit to the British School at Rome. When stepping in, I was encountered a huge mountain of different parts of scaffolding stored into the entrance hall. This felt more a building site than a research institute. Half of the School is behind scaffolding and I could hear the voices of Italian workmen together with the sounds of advancing work. Apparently, there is a big green sustainability renovation project going on that will cut electricity and heating consumption by 25 %. The rooms will be warmer in the winter and the majority of the work will be concluded this summer; updates can be found in the BSR blog. The BSR also has a new cook. This brings in mind the time when I was finishing the excavations at Cisterna Grande in February 2008 and simultaneously managing the work of the Roman pottery and CBM expert Phil Mills in Civita Castellana for the Nepi Survey. He could not work on Fridays when the museum custodian was not working and arrived to the BSR for weekends. I joined him for a dinner every Friday he was in Italy and was faced with the fish suppers. Well, Fridays are Catholic fasting days and we had many pleasant evenings before I returned to the northern suburbs for Saturday mornings’ excavations.

From Frescati to Frascati - DNA experts Flavio and Christos

The following day we had meetings in the Superintendency compound in Ponte di Nona and the University of Rome Tor Vergata in order to discuss possibilities for future collaboration between anthropologists and the ancient DNA laboratories in Stockholm and Rome. We had a fruitful meeting at the Superintendency with the Head of Anthropology Paola Catalano and her team. Then an Italian ancient DNA expert Flavio De Angelis presented us the Tor Vergata laboratory facilities, parts of which are in Frascati. Since the Wallenberg laboratories where the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies is based is located in an area called Frescati and the new university buildings are raised in Albano, this seems a collaboration that is meant to be. Before heading to Volterra we also had a pleasure to meet briefly the Head of the Centre of Molecular Anthropology for ancient DNA studies Olga Rickards.

Porta Etrusca depicted in an ash urn

From Rome I drove us to Volterra. I learnt that I should not take the inland route in the evenings, since the sun almost blinded me when we turned towards Volterra. With pedestrians and other cars on the local roads, this is something to be avoided. However, it was sunny and lovely in Volterra and our visit got a pleasant start with a meal in the restaurant with an Etruscan well (actually Medieval). The following day we had a meeting with Intendent Elena Sorge from the Superintendency in order to pencil the future GPR surveys and another one with Director of the Pinacoteca Alessandro Furiesi.

Inside Tomb of the Caecinae

We also had time to introduce the main sites and museums to our new member Christos. We started with the Pinacoteca and continued later with the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum. Since we had a car, we could go to see sites that are slightly apart and difficult to cover in one day. Thus, we had an opportunity to visit the mounds at Il Portone and have one of my little adventures, this time concerning a car wheel and a rainwater channel that had opened to the widening of the road, meant for parking. Luckily, the other visitors and bypassers helped to sort this out in no time and we could marvel a multichamber tomb and the round tomb of the Caecina family, similar to the famous Tomba Inghirami, reconstructed in the Archaeological Museum in Florence. We could also visit Porta Docciola with its fountain and go and photograph the large collapse hole Le Balze from the north-eastern side of the town.

Le Balze with Badia (left) and the church of San Giusto (right)

After a brief but intensive stop in Pisa we took Arja to the Pisa airport and I and Christos returned to Rome using the coastal motorway. Thursday in Volterra had been hot and dry, but on Friday morning it was clear that there had been a scirocco rain during the early morning and everything was cooler. Rome at the start of the August holidays was sticky and humid. After finding a petrol station near Portus and making our surprising way back to the terminal, I was wondering how the flight would turn out to be. There had been a grass and pine forest fire in Fiumicino on Wednesday and power cut at the airport on Thursday and these delayed some flights. My flight was late, but we heard later that this was due to swapping the cabin crews and planes at Gatwick earlier. Nevertheless, first we lacked the personnel to load the luggage into the hold and then the worker to tug the plane from the terminal had wandered off, so I was at Gatwick very late indeed. Luckily, I have not lost anything from my Interrail skills after it became clear that the hourly bookable Yotel was full and I had to wait for four hours for my 5.50 am first bus to Leicester. An old pro sleeps anywhere! To the hilarity of my husband, I also slept until late Saturday afternoon at home – to more simulate the student years.

Sunset above Volterra

Sunday, 26 July 2015

CHAP as I know it

A few years back I was getting more involved in community archaeology in Leicestershire, but then I was catapulted for 20 months to Sweden and lost somewhat from my sight the matters local. While I was away, the local parties in Beaumont Leys got the Castle Hill Archaeology Project (CHAP) going and dug their first test pit in 2014. This summer the project had a long weekend of activities near Castle Hill as part of the Festival of Archaeology that finishes this very weekend.

This being a school holiday season, I went to see the open visits on the Sunday with my son. The project had very considerately sent invitations to the local schools to be included in children’s book bags, so we were welcomed very generously. Not that there had been many visitors – the test pits locating in a plantation outside the actual Castle Hill, away from the occasional walkers’ eyes – but after we arrived there was a nice little group coming from the village of Anstey.

The view from Castle Hill

Castle Hill has had many uses and Beaumont Leys is famous mainly of its Iron Age sites, partly excavated as part of development work. It has earthworks, a squarish wall around an area on the top of the hill, similar to some other Knights Templar sites, and some other humps and bumps, sadly related mainly to the 19th century sewage works. The older structures have a connection to the Knights Hospitallers from the 14th to the 15th century, although much more exciting is its connection to the Knights Templar – however short in the 13th century AD. There are also Roman and Iron Age finds from both the earlier checks and found by CHAP.

Boundary ditch

The main idea this summer was to cut a trench through the ancient boundary ditch between Beaumont Leys/Leicester and Anstey. There were also displays of the site and old maps of the area and the park ranger Stefan, a long-term activist, had a folder full of recent material, such as the Lidar images from the University of Leicester (the Lidar data from the Environmental Agency will become open soon, so all with a suitable viewer will share the view of this site and others in the future). Sadly, the clay soil is hard and the trench was only started with the people digging it having to go away on Sunday.

The slates covering the ditch

Nevertheless, two test pits had been dug and there were bones and grey ware iron Age pottery for my son to marvel. The test pits were dug in places chosen subjectively, with one aiming to see to the Anstey side of the boundary ditch and the other lying in the wider area of the fish ponds drainage. The test pit in the latter area hit some kind of ditch covered with slates a gentleman was preparing to draw when we arrived. My son got his first real feeling of archaeology when cleaning the pit floor – not that his concentration stayed there long. He truly enjoyed the experience, though.

The future for CHAP may be interesting. They have approached tentatively English Heritage/Historic England on the possibility to do something within the Castle itself, a scheduled monument managed by the organisation. With their connections to Peter Liddle and a couple of us professional archaeologists in Anstey, I am sure they will have no problems to develop the project further.

Castle Hill site:
Historic England entry
Pastscape entry

The tomb and the monument

My other chap of the week was Richard III. I finally managed to visit the Cathedral on another day than Sunday, when they tend to keep it closed from tourists for services and such like. The tomb was simple but monumental. The week brought the news that the Visitor’s Centre nearby had missed its visitor target of 100,000. I just hope that the future expansion and revamp of the Jewry Wall Museum, with the old Vaughan College property purchased by the City developed, will lure the tourists. At least the site will improve, when the nice museum is not shadowed by the sad, abandoned college building.

The installation before reburial

Sunday, 19 July 2015

When in Bristol – in praise of regional museums

Entrance to the Museum in Bristol

I had just managed to visit the Newarke House Museum in Leicester with my son, when the news reached me that the city of Leicester considers selling the property to the De Montford University. The venerable Peter Liddle delivered a link to the petition, which I duly signed. As I also signed the petition against the closure of the Snibston Discovery Park by the very same Leicestershire County Council that some years ago ‘let Peter Liddle go’. As the petition made clear, the last thing Coalville needs is more housing in the area that is now the Discovery Park and the conservation area. It is a declining place, a former pit town, with little hope if Snibston goes. Some people will stay and commute to Leicester and East Midlands Airport to work, but no groups will come to marvel the place for any reason. Similarly, the beautiful fashion collection will be placed behind a lock and key.

Shaun the Sheep

Similar news of selling museums and closing doors come from places such as Lincoln and the heritage professionals try desperately to remind the decision makers how much cultural economy actually creates wealth. Nevertheless, with the conservative government wanting to create a small state, it will be difficult to keep heritage going. If there will not be enough money for the NHS, what hope do archives or museum storage have? Somehow the government seem to hope that ‘community projects’ (i.e. people doing professional work for free) will rescue the sector, which after all is dear to many party supporters. In the end the question is, whose responsibility is our past and heritage?

The mound frieze

Which kind of entity will be responsible for saving the memory of the past generations to the future? Will it be private beneficiaries? Will it be the private citizens? Will it be the local companies? Will it be the multinational corporations? As UNESCO and other organisations acknowledge by making agreements with countries and governments, this responsibility lies with the STATES. If the state cannot fulfil its functions, it will be neither Great nor Britain, since the memories will be lost. It is quite sad that one has to remind people about the fundamental responsibilities while they are hoping to engage the public with the discussion of the urgent problem of aggressive seagulls – while museums are closed, planning departments are strained under work, Greece is going down, young doctors will be forced to work unsocial hours and parents are not allowed a say in the status of the local schools (when did ‘forced’ action become the default policy for everything? What happened to ‘local empowerment?). Some people seem to get their priorities just right...

The Nimrud frieze

Anyway, let’s remind us what marvellous things our museum sector has and does. I had to visit Bristol this week for a job interview and after a long time could pay a visit to the local Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. I admit, many of the older collections in this museum originate from the colonial times, but who could not marvel the impeccable Egyptian collection or try to trace the puzzle of the origins of the Nimrud friezes. When a small room in a museum allows local children the same kind of attachment to the origins of our Western Civilization as the British Museum, isn’t it wonderful? The items, such as a Benin head, may have been taken and sold without the consent of the real owners, the peoples of different colonised countries, but their sheer existence allows important discussions to take place in the class room locally and raise awareness of contemporary issues.

Benin heads in Bristol

I wandered through the displays of local dinosaur finds and thought that my son would love to be there as well. I encountered the Victorian and Edwardian paintings and was thinking how this collection, even if smaller than in Birmingham, has some pretty beautiful examples of Pre-Raphaelites and even a nice piece from my all time kitsch favourite Alma-Tadema. There are Pissarros from France and paintings from Gainsbourough and others from the 18th century, not to mention Elizabethan portraits. Even Martin Luther is there on the wall. Where did the 19th century sense of providing citizens with educational experiences disappear? The high-class members of societies and corporations may have been slightly patronising, but they put together beautiful collections to show city-dwellers.

A painting by Alma-Tadema

This was repeated all over Britain during the Victorian times. Flinders Petrie’s expeditions to Egypt were financed by these regional museums and that is why you have these beautiful Egyptian collections in cities like Leicester. Then you have the Pre-Raphaelites in Birmingham and German expressionists in Leicester again. Derby has its Wright collection and Etruria its potters. Are we heading towards a new dark age when this all is lost? Collections need dependable funding for decades, not project funding. This type of monies comes only from a state and official bodies, not fickle private donors.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Brownfield sites, Old Oswestry and planning challenges

The problem for archaeology in England is that with the exemption of the Scheduled Monuments the value of archaeology is not really enshrined in law as it is in many other European countries (and actually Scotland, too). The status of archaeology is dependent on planning guidance - and this can be changed with the whim of any government. Relatively recently in 2012 the guidance did change from the Planning Practice Guidance note 16 (PPG16) to the National Planning Policy Framework - together with the government stating that the planning proposals must be accepted if they promote growth and development. This has made opposing not so clever developments - like the ones planned onto the floodplain plus adding to the dire traffic conditions during the rush hour in our village - very difficult. The local councils can just demand restrictions and different work, such as archaeological surveys, trial digs and excavations to be carried out, if required. Not to mention all other kinds of matters related to contamination levels, drainage, local amenities, such as money for school expansion etc. etc.

The Planning Guidance now presents archaeologists with a true challenge in the case of Old Oswestry. In the new Shropshire Council’s Site Allocations and Management of Development (SAMDev) Plan does contain a series of new developments nibbing into the surrounding countryside around this most beautiful of the Iron Age hillforts. In addition, the words 'and their setting' has been quietly dropped from the conditions and statements into the significance of different heritage assets. As we landscape archaeologists know, it is not just the site itself, but its context that is important. The Council for British Archaeology has luckily been stepping in to the campaign to try to keep Old Oswestry and its setting intact, so that the future generations can marvel it without houses a few hundred meters apart. Luckily, the hillfort has many friends such as Rescue.

Another clear threat to archaeology - at least industrial archaeology - is the suggestion of the automatic planning approval for all brownfield site proposals. This was cunningly communicated on a Friday, so any opposing stakeholders could only log in their concern later during the day - or during the night. At least they are not eroding greenfield sites automatically, but with the brownfield sites there is the additional issue of contamination. I just hope that the overstretched planning departments will spot the dangerous levels of industrial chemicals, so one does not end up having whole communities placed on top of rubbish and endangering the future generations. Alongside potentially rubbishing the past.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Festival of Archaeology in Britain – why not in all countries

If anybody has followed by Facebook sharings, they will know that I quite regularly share items on Syria – for obvious reasons. Little did I know how important archaeology was going to be when I scribed those words back in 2012. However, since my current research is mainly on the northern side of the Mediterranean, I cannot articulate anything any better than has been done just a few days ago in the Conflict Antiquities blog. Read it and spare a thought to those trying to salvage something in very difficult circumstances and propaganda videos a plenty.

Nevertheless, I noted yesterday that the Head of the Council of the British Archaeology tweeted that he will be in Leicester at the University to the regional launch in Leicestershire of the Festival of Archaeology, to go national on July 11. Facing the house looking like a dump and the weekly shop and having to go around with my son, I decided to let the matter be and just try to attend the final open day in the Bradgate Park next weekend, coinciding with the national launch. After being away for much of the early year, I have to give some time to more mundane matters while not knowing what the future holds – even if those floors look actually worse after mopping them!

Rare occasion: Castle Hill open - for the Festival, too?

Nevertheless, the beginning of the Festival got Phil to ask about any Festival in Finland. I had to say that there is no such thing, even if public archaeology is becoming more visible with the events such as the public excavations at Jokiniemi near Helsinki with the Heureka Science Centre, restarted after a long break last year, and at the Kierikki centre in the north. The contemporary research such as the excavations at the last hanging site in Oulu, the activities of the Museums at Tampere or the study of the near past as with the Lapland's Dark Heritage project, revisiting the Lapland war tap to the localised interest. However, archaeology has never been in the common consciousness as in Britain and Time Team was shown on a minor channel. A dedicated archaeology TV series was not a huge success, as far as I have heard.

It is also worth remembering that the number of professional with proper jobs is low, so one cannot expect them to have time to do everything during their working and spare time. I have heard that the enthusiastic hobbyists, such as the metal detectiorists, would like an instant reply – something they have got used to in their online lives and feel slightly disappointed when the thirst of knowledge cannot be fulfilled during the weekend. The numbers of events vary greatly in different counties in Britain, too. Living in Leicestershire and seeing Peter Liddle carrying the can constantly, even if not been employed as a county community archaeologist for ages, and The University department having been invigorated by Richard III gives us a slightly warped view to the situation in Britain.

A Festival of Archaeology in Finland? Perhaps it would help with the sweeping budget cuts that can be predicted to cultural activities...

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Open day at lady Grey’s house

She may have been a queen only for nine days during the 16th century and her home may lay in ruins, but a field school open day in a sunny deer park with fabulous views and picturesque ruined towers makes a wonderful family day out that could have made Lady Jane Grey proud. Phil had already been summoned to see the slates and the bricks on Thursday, but now on a warm Saturday we came the whole family to see the development of the new project and get a glimpse of the structures below the turf.

Find specialists discuss finds and training sessions

What a difference a new park manager makes. Last year, when Phil found a Roman rooftile from the brook in Bradgate Park, the manager was truly interested. The recent start of the Lottery Heritage funded Charnwood Roots project by the Victoria county histories at Leicester meant that the Bradgate House and its environs were a natural location for the Leicester field school to move after many successful years at Borrough Hill Iron Age hillfort on the exactly opposite side of Leicestershire. The first stage of preparations had included a survey of the park and a Lidar prospection from the skies. Thus, the department could target an interesting selection of trenches both inside and outside the House and at other locations.

The trench inside the House

Two posters pinned at several locations detailed the progress so far and the combined results of different surveys, including geophysics. There was a general information tent nearer the main entrance almost next to the ice cream sellers that told about the projects and finds. In addition, there were further activities behind the House ruins with certain aspects of early modern life re-enacted, meant for the general public and the members of the Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC). There were also guides in finer, upper-class period costumes at the chapel.

We could smell the dung...

For me the true novelty was the realisation that there was a Medieval moated house slightly further away from the main ruins towards Linford Newtown, the village moved from the site of the manor house in the past. I had noticed the humps and bumps, but the slight elevation of a squarish site had escaped me and Phil, since only now the hay and grass has been cut. The park management has also carried out cutting back brambles, so everything is more visible now.

Can you spot the moated site?

There will be further site tours on the 11th of July as part of the Festival of Archaeology and the excavation news are described in real time through Facebook and Twitter. The University web site gives limited information with main communication happening in social media (links provided there).

A trench within the moated site

The excavation site can be approached by foot along the public footpaths across the fields, potentially following a Roman roadline from Anstey where the city buses 74 by First and 54 by Centerbus stop. If anybody wants a lovely walk on a sunny day.

The trench in front of the house

Next year will also see a community dig in Bradgate Park - following after a recent one in Anstey. Stay in tuned.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Heading online again

Hadrian's wall (photo: wikimedia)

The intensity of the first four months of the year meant that I had very limited time to prepare for my [at least temporary] return to home workwise. In addition, the first twenty days or so I spent using up the reminder of the workshop grant from the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and was trying to have a head start in rewriting and corrections several articles. I also needed to prepare the poster for the London conference. In reality, I really should have needed a holiday, but I managed to deal with the invoice from Archeologia e calcolatori, plough through other people's drafts for book chapters and write a book review before really starting the rewrites while sending off selected job applications. Then, it was suddenly midsummer.

It was the normal researcher's life: some "we regret..." messages, no name in one grant list and waiting games. And suddenly very good news about the small grants and one medium-sized research grant I had applied during the spring that mean that I will spend a couple of weeks in Italy with a team - at some point(s). Now I just have to drum up more work for the rest of the year and try to sort out different timetables. And wait for November.

In any case, I will put my community and local archaeology hat on again in Britain during the autumn and run the Googling the Earth course in the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge again. This will be great fun for me - and hopefully for the students as well. The good part is that it is online, so I can do some other work normally. I will also hear about the many marvellous sites different people are working on and discuss landscapes and online information. What could be better!