Sunday, 1 January 2017

Best in 2016


The hafted axe from Must Farm
(Cambridge Archaeological Unit, linked from the BBC site)

This is the time of the year when different organisations and media outlets have been naming the most important archaeological sites or finds. When looking at Britain there is no match to Must Farm, the water-logged Bronze Age sites named a northern Pompeii. The site was destroyed in a fire and the remains that collapsed into water have revealed unexpected insights to the daily life and technology, including all the wooden details of then everyday. This site was Heritage Daily’s number 1. The number 2 went for a Swedish find, albeit in Greece. The archaeologists from the University of Gothenburg have found an unknown Greek town from Thessaly.

Must Farm was also BBC’s number 1. They also acknowledged the start of the Anthropocene from AD 1950. However, they also pointed out how human activities have influenced environment long before modern times. It is suggested that the beginning of agriculture meant that the World was warming up already then thousands of years ago, perhaps leading to an avoidance of a new Ice Age.

On the Live Science web site the list of the finds of 2016 is naturally deprived of Must Farm, being a company with a major presence in the States. They do have offices in Europe, In the UK, Germany, France and Italy, but their list if filled with the more main stream, ‘exotic’ archaeological sites, including the reopening and the study of Jesus’s tomb and new piece of the Dead Sea Scroll. They also list the youngest individual mummified in ancient Egypt, a perhaps 20 weeks old foetus in the collections of Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. They also notify El Castillo pyramid at Chichén Itzá including three pyramids one above each other on the same spot ranging from c. AD 600–800 to the date just before year AD 1000.

The reality is that it is very difficult to surpass Must Farm and its hafted bronze tools and other magnificient finds. However, Must Farm is only one of the nominees for the Current Archaeology Awards 2017. You can go and vote for the innovation of the last 50 years and the book of the year among different categories, voted by the general public. In that way, you can participate in archaeology right at the beginning of 2017.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Tweeting and advocating (a TAG story)


A tribute to David Peacock

The week before Christmas is the time for the annual Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) meeting. This year we left it to the week before to actually decide which one of us will go to Southampton. In the end, I headed there, since I did not have any holidays left to cover the childcare and I thought that the conference and the DigiTAG 2 session there would be a good vehicle for the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) live tweeting session. After all, the DigiTAG sessions are organised in collaboration between the CAA and TAG and the first session took place in Oslo in April. This time the session was all about storytelling, ran this time as previously by James Taylor and Cara Jones, but also of the more serious business of knowledge creation.

Due to the need to be the whole day in the same session in the middle day of the conference and my interest in the Archaeology is a political matter session, I ended up hearing practically none of the random papers about the less known archaeological areas or regions that are the main feature in my usual TAG experience. There would have been a very interesting session on Following things in motion with everything from the sarsen stones from Stonehenge to how to be an Egyptian mummy in Victorian Britain as well as copper and colonialism together with druids, if all the papers took place as intended. There were the usual cancellations and overlapping papers, which meant that I could not hear the Tintagel Castle paper that was moved to a time I had to take my train.

Even if I could not hear everything, it was a TAG that gave a lot to think about. It was also an event to celebrate the 50 years of the Southampton department. This celebration took the format of a Personal Histories debate with all the big names in the panel, including Lord Colin Renfrew, Tim Champion, Mike Parker Pearson and Simon Keay. Since the admired pottery specialist David Peacock had recently died, the discussion was very polite and sober. The most colourful piece of information was Tim Champion’s acknowledgement that the Class of 1979 with Mike Parker Pearson and Tim Darvill, both in the panel, was the most competitive of all. The discussion was also guided by a PowerPoint presentation, prepared by Joshua Pollard and Andrew Jones, the organisers of the debate.

Before the debate there was Rosemary Joyce’s keynote Antiquity lecture that was given on a subject not expected by the organisers. Much of the conference was about art and visualisations – there was a Sightations art exhibition with the sessions attached as well – they had hoped to get a lecture on figurines. Instead, we all heard about nuclear landscapes. This sounded very familiar, since Cornelius Holtorf has a project on nuclear waste deposition, but Joyce’s paper gave a unique insight to the concepts behind the suggested deposition sites in America. It was all about how to make universally conveyed a message that these sites are beyond touching. It was interesting to know that archaeological sites had been used as examples of long-term preservations and the winning concept included a rectangular ‘Stonehenge’. After this double event, I and our friend Mark headed to get our complimentary glass of wine in the reception, sponsored by the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA).


Tara in a remote mode

My live tweeting could have gone better, since I lost the signal in the middle of the session (I should not have left it to the guest Cloud service to host my tweeting), but at the beginning I was on the money. Luckily, there were others in the session who were copiously tweeting, so I could retweet the most essential content in between. The highlight of the session was Tara Copplestone’s remotely delivered paper on the Playful Past, Storytelling through Videogame Design and Development. It discussed the matter of the position of the creator in forming archaeological stories and described how the process of creating multiple videogames engaged the PhD author with the problems of coding, storytelling and archaeological process in consecutive steps during the development. The paper took form of ‘live’ doodling so it was well-executed on all levels. Naturally, it was impossible to be positive about Matthew Fitzjohn and Peta Bulmer’s LEGO creations for primary schools or be mesmerised by digital funerals by Audrey Samson. Similarly, Paul Backhouse’s presentation showed how much creativity there is in Historic England.

The next day I just marginally missed hearing a paper about Brexit. Nevertheless, the first paper I heard by Marjolijn Kok discussed openly the matter of hidden political acts in commercial contract archaeology. She was talking about Holland, but similar issues are faced anywhere where the commercial market has been embraced. The developers do not exactly want the archaeological service but take the lowest bidder and the existing theoretical environment means that the theoretical in archaeological is seen only to happen in the interpretation phase, not in the formulation of the methods and data collection. These issues and other stuff led her to leave her job – but not archaeology. Now she has been involved in contemporary archaeology in recording an Occupy camp in Rotterdam. The presentation can be looked for in academia.edu.


From Richardson and Lennox's presentation

Other highlights of the session included the discussion on public value in archaeology by Rob Lennox and the description of the experience of running the Local Heritage Engagement Network by Lorna Richardson and Rob Lennox. I know, they were the organisers of the session, but they had a lot to say. So much so that Rob’s carefully thought graphs had to be photographed in order to be appreciated later. The LHEN showed that while some campaigns did fine work, even if too late in the process, many volunteers are reluctant to act. This is partly to do with the fact that that is not why they are doing archaeology and do not see themselves as campaigners. However, local planning can be influenced only at the local level unless the policies change…

So, next year, it will be Cardiff and hubby’s turn to experience TAG and see the people we go for curry in TAG.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Christmas conference

Last week it was the time of the Department's traditional Christmas conference, an occasion to either discuss important recent issues or developments or present current research at the Department at Stockholm. This time we selected few presented our current research projects. I myself was discussing defining group identities whereas the other topics were varied both chronologically and geographically. Sadly, there were few cancellations, but I am sure we will hear about Ann-Louise Schallin's research in Greece or Magnus Enquist's ideas about evolutionary transitions at a later stage. Maybe in the next Christmas conference.

A few of the presentations were discussing the current DNA work in the laboratories. These presentations included Aikaterini Glykou's many studies on Baltic seals in the mid- and late Holocene. Her and her collaborators many methods include also DNA studies. Naturally, Anders Götherström presented the surprises from the ATLAS 1 and 2 projects and some idea were the human DNA studies are venturing at Stockholm. In addition, Maja Krewinzka presented a new and exiting project studying the multiple burials from Sigtuna. There was also a short talk on plant DNA: Matti Leino is carrying out some experimental work with charred grains. It will be interesting to see if he will succeed in pointing out the conditions where the DNA could be preserved.

A couple of talks discussed attitudes in the past. To start with, Anders Andrén presented his project on An Archaeology of Absence. This is an ongoing study on the archaeology of disappeared and non-existing Jewish communities in central Europe and Scandinavia. In his talk Arne Jarrick did not touch upon only Annalistic history writing but also gave a retrospect of his whole career as a researcher, from the starting points to the future lines of resarch. Frederik, on the other hand, told us about his project Materiella bilder for which he has just got three-year funding and in which he will try to outline past image programmes from the Bronze Age Mälare area. It was refreshing to hear about the rock carving tradition of central Sweden that is less well known than the southern Scandinavian and Norrland traditions.

Some project were site-based. Jan Storå presented his and Jan Apel's almost finished project from Gotland. Their study of the pioneer settlements show different adaptations for aquatic resources at different kinds of sites. In the other chronological end of the Swedish prehistory was the presentation of Sanby borg - a 5th century ring fort on Öland by Gunilla Eriksson. We learnt about the interesting life and death of this Iron Age site.

Geographically, the most far-flung place was Egypt. Åke Engsheden from our Section of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology was presenting his infrastructure project during which he will create a digital catalogue of Coptic ostraka. His examples presented a reminder of how the humans had very human relations even in the past. A very suited reminder when we all from different Sections of the Department got together in order to hear the diversity and variety of the archaeological research at Stockholm.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

The most materiality of all

It is again the time of the year that is the most materialistic of them all - Christmas. I was reminded this by my search for a small present for my husband. At Christmas we all embrace the materiality of things - and it is not only a negative thing, even if Christmas seems more and more commercial every year. However, in the darkness of Sweden the Christmas lights on balconies make a real difference. The many stars in the windows lighten the darkness. It is the time for candle light and the smell of Christmas trees. Suddenly, there are sellers in every suburb in Stockholm. Even in England the hubby has bought and decorated one. The family cat has only knocked it down once so far. These are the things a Christmas does not feel like Christmas. The candles, the Christmas tree, the presents.

The materiality of Christmas evokes the memory of the Christmases past and the rituals make us feel safe and content. I have spent some moments thinking about my Christmas card that will be sent through social media and its digital immateriality is a reminder of the materiality of the cards we will still send out. We have started to plan the most important of rituals: the Christmas meals. One for the Christmas Eve, one for Christmas Day and one for Boxing Day. I have already discussed the gingerbread making with my work colleagues and hope that this year's lot will be better than last year's. There is such thing as too much butter. Not to mention too much ginger and too much cardemom. Through the actions we live and relive the Christmases past and present. Through the ritual of the Christmas meals we join a long history of mid-winter feasting.

For a couple of years, even the Chrismas advertisements in the television are becoming safe rituals. There is no Christmas Calendar programme in the TV in the UK so perhaps the advertisement are the forerunners of the festivities. I have kept my eye on the Swedish and Finnish offerings and hope that something can be seen when back in the UK. The flickering Christmas lights on a computer screen.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Sunday night drama

I have been following with half-hearted enthusiasm the ITV series of Tutankhamun on Sunday evenings. In a way it is a perfect Sunday night costume drama with Edwardian and early 1920s costumes, the Valley of the Kings as a backdrop, and the unimaginable treasures to be found. However, the last item is the real problem, since you know from the start what is going to happen. They are going to find a royal Egyptian tomb. An intact royal Egyptian tomb. So no nail-biting suspense there then.

It took Carter and his financer Lord Carnarvon a long time to find a tomb and the First World War ended their original exploration. However, the frustration has been very politely presented to say it the least. Maybe it is the lead actor for me, since the son of Jeremy Irons does nothing to me. I find his face lacking the expression of emotional depth. This I found again quite amusing yesterday when he tried to express his mind-numbing emotion and surprise after he had found the tomb intact and good mutter that he sees ‘wonderful things’. But maybe it is just me and Max Irons is not my cup of tea.

The emotional moments where over quite quickly, whereas I as a long-term Tutankhamun admirer would probably like to have the glimpses of finds in slow motion and the actual moments of findings to last as long as possible. After all, finding the riches had taken them two and half episodes and it was all done in the space of probably five minutes. Then they were carrying the finds out of the tomb and started to record and discuss the finds with the local antiquities authorities. So the climax of the series was over very quickly considering the time before the after.

This being a Sunday night costume drama it cannot do without romance and other intrigue. We get a good idea of Carter’s love interests over many episodes and the other matters than the tomb naturally are in focus when there is four episodes to be made in flesh. Naturally, this side of affairs is less familiar with the archaeologists who have been reading different treatises of the find and are more familiar with the photographs of the find than any liaisons of the heart. I am not so familiar with the background stories that I cannot assess how much of the drama is true and how much have been hyped up.

So, the series so far is mildly interesting, pleasing to watch, filled with talented actors and actresses including the staple feature of international productions, Sam Neill as Lord Carnarvon. It has been worth watching, but I have been dipping in and out without any guilt. The result of knowing how it all ends.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

When soft is too hard

This week showed that Sweden is not the only country that needs petitions in order to save archaeology. Over the North Sea in England, the AQA exam board is culling its archaeology, classical studies and history of art A-levels. This is apparently not about money or concentrating on the hard core EBACC subjects. No, this is providing every student the best exam results they deserve. What the students deserve just do not happen to include the disciplines that tell about the development of the humans or their culture.

The reason given for the cull is that these disciplines telling the human story are complex and difficult to mark evenly. So, these disciplines that apparently belong to Gove's so-called soft subjects are so hard that they cannot be offered to the students, since it is apparently difficult to find talented markers. It is quite alarming that the cull may take away subjects that make students, teachers and markers to think, evaluate and argue. These one would imagine are skills that would benefit any students later in their life. In addition, archaeology is not just about humanities but has a lot of both practical and science content. It is something that can give something to any learner, no matter what their strengths are. That should help students to get the best exam results they deserve!

Luckily, all members of professional communities covering archaeology, classical studies and history of art have been vocal about the added value their discipline brings to the A-levels. Archaeology got Tony Robinson to tell about its significance. He called the plans to drop archaeology A-level "an assault to Britain's heritage". The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIFA) came out fighting and one can sign a petition online. The plans of scrapping have been described as "barbaric acts" target="blank" and it is true that in the long run these kinds of acts may lead us to barbary of a kind, if society does not educate rounded and skillful individuals. One just have to hope that the real reason for the scrappings is not money. These are minority subjects that take money to provide and mark their 'hard' exams. If only the money talk, it is one sort of barbarism when it hits the education system.

The petition against dropping the archaeology A-level has currently over 11,500 signiture. Maybe you can add yours?

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Another autumn, another petition

It seems that drama never really leaves Swedish Classical Archaeology. This year's petition is not about any of the Swedish Mediterranean Institutes but about the Mediterranean Museum in Stockholm. The politicians are suggesting to creating a new World Culture Museum out of the Mediterranean Museum, Ethnographic Museum and East Asian Museum. This is not really about their core activities failing but a shiny exhibition space making a loss. Thus, a rescue plan that would see building of a new museum and scarily vanishing of specialist expertise in any of these museums. The new curators would not be specialist in classical cultures or China but more general topics, such as gender studies. This is not bad in itself but why have collections when you have nobody who knows what the things are? How do you educate and help research effectively? Therefore I hope this petition to reach its goal and saving the Mediterranean Museum!

Currently there are just above 900 signatures. Maybe you can add one more using the link above...?