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...?

Friday, 27 May 2016

Book reviews

I am currently on sick leave and will be until late June. I will resume my blog at a suitable moment when I feel better. In the meantime, you can read my latest book review on Walsh's Consumerism in the Ancient World in Arctos 49.

I have a recent book review in Antiquity as well, on the volume on the tribal area of the Vestini in the Samnite area.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Galway was sunny!


Students posing and showing the poleholes of a circular residential structure

Last weekend's Conference of Italian Archaeology saw me giving two presentations and chairing the Roman session. There were a huge amount of interesting papers on funerary archaeology. There was exciting new site work from the Italian colleagues, presenting the finds from Pontecagnano, Cumae and Capua among the places mentioned most often. Naturally, I did not hear much of the southern Italian sessions, but what I heard as part of more thematic sessions, they provided interesting novelties from all over. Nevertheless, settlement archaeology was not totally forgotten and the large Dutch Crustumerium project presented their latest finds by Peter Attema.

Highlights were so many they are almost impossible to present, but Phil Perkins did the first presentation of the new Etruscan inscription of Poggio Colla, a site where he collaborates with the American field school of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project. The find was beautifully presented in press coverage, such as the Archaeology magazine. This find came from a secondary setting, incorporated in a wall, and its meaning may remain uncertain, although scholars are working on it as we speak.


Indegenous metal object from Megara Hyblea

The Have you said métissage, acculturazione or hybridization? session brought together French and Italian archaeologists and anthropologists among others. One of the highlights came from the École Francaise, when Reine+Marie Bérard presented the few indigenous finds from the necropolis of Megara Hyblaea. The finds of indigenous metal objects came from the children. She assumed that the children could present mixed identities, while the potentially indegenous mothers may have had to follow the Greek rite for religious reasons. In this session Pithekoussai and its international community was presented, too. Valentino Nizzo on Constructing Deathscapes presented also a thorough review of different theoretical approaches while was one of the most interesting presenting mixed communities.


Nizzo on Pithekoussai

Elsewhere Sarah Willemsen and Tanja van Loon presented how radical reform of ritual practice, when people moved away from wine mixing and banquet vessels to nothing. The connection to drinking and libation rituals and different kinds of feasting changed. Anna Rita Russo's presentation of aes rude from tombs of Pontecagnano showed how the weights relate to monetisation of Italic tombs while the finds relate to hands and double pots.

One of the most touching moments was the session to celebrate John Wilkinson's and Ruth Whitehouse's work. Their former colleagues remembered their contribution to the Accordia Research Institute and Ruth's students Carrie Murray and Lucy Shipley brought gender views prominently into the session.

However, now back to recuperate and more the next time...

PS. I did forgot to thank Eóin O'Donoghue who was delightful and helpful all the way. No rainy day - even if there were clouds.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Space Archaeologist and History Guy do the Vikings


The main team at the site (image linked from the Guardian web site, Freddie Clare/BBC)

Some time ago I wrote a TV review on Space Archaeologist’s and Dan Snow’s, aka History Guy's, programme on the Roman Empire. I had wanted to like the programme, but there were aspects that seemed to make the narrative simplistic, basically simplifying archaeology and hyping up the findings and methods. Last week’s programme on the Vikings, the Vikings Uncovered on BBC1, even if it was much more balanced and improved from the Roman offering, still had some of the formulaic TV speech that does not make archaeologists happy: everything significant is named as ‘clues’ and different uncertainties or facts or hypotheses or conclusions are repeated and repeated and repeated again and again. I cannot remember, if ‘mysterious’ featured. The programme also seemed to enforce the perception that archaeology programmes on BBC are predominantly headed by non-archaeologists, albeit people working in the related fields (e.g. Dan Snow, a historian, and Professor Alice Roberts, originally a medical doctor and lecturer in human anatomy, in Digging for Britain). However, Space Archaeologist is an archaeologist with a PhD in archaeology and the advisors included Dr Karen Milek, an expert in scientific study and fieldwork across Scandinavian Viking world and its archaeology.

Nevertheless, Dan Snow’s round tour of Britain was illuminating and Space Archaeologist’s search for differences in vegetation in the treeless turfed landscapes of Iceland and Newfoundland was methodologically rooted and developed further in the methodology of archaeological remote sensing. It is just the way she appeared in the programme to turn up without any preparations or reading, totally relying on experts on evaluating all aspects of northern Atlantic archaeology. There is wide literature on all matters Viking, also in other languages than the Scandinavian ones, one could turn to. In a way this reliance on experts was an improvement from the programme on the Roman Empire, where she was presented as an expert on every method possible, able to point out relevant features anywhere in the Mediterranean. However, now the emphasis seemed to veer slightly to the other extreme, not showing that a scholar can accumulate knowledge by reading and examining collections, even if it be said that it is safer to ask people with decades of experience of local geology and material culture – as the scientific analysis of some supposed iron slag and a rivet or nail showed. The team had excavated a stone and a piece of natural ore instead of definite evidence in Newfoundland. It was also nice that she showed that the research is a team effort at Birmingham in the States, so that she complements her strengths with those of the others.

The programme did omit some crucial facts that had emerged after they had finished filming. Not adding a voice over or a text board at the end of the programme on the new exciting facts gave an appearance that the team based their conclusions on the biased use of evidence. During the programme Space Archaeologist was developing through trial and error a way to observe potential Early Medieval turf-walled houses from space. The vegetation seems to thrive were the cut turf quadrangulars have been piled in the past and they have then turned into a soil having microlayers of mineral soil or, in the case of Iceland, volcanic ash improving the growth conditions. In Newfoundland the site had signs of fire and carbon samples had been gathered. The dating results shown in the programme seemed to date the place in the 17th century, but these were dismissed outright due to suspected contamination problems. Considering the evidence showing only heating natural ore at some point, this gave an idea that the makers wanted and accepted only one answer. Only by following the hashtag #VikingsUncovered Twitter feed the following day, I realised that they had received a series of results dating to the 9th century and slightly later afterwards. This omission left the archaeologists watching the TV show with a wrong impression – even if in the end the team had proven the Viking Age activities. Not all read the details of the pre-show press releases, since news about a ‘potentially important new Viking site in Newfoundland’ was circulating across social media some days before.

Even if The Vikings Uncovered was highly interesting, it was also slightly too long. Even if the best parts were the visits to the earlier excavated sites in Britain and L'Anse aux Meadows in America together with the delightful experts in Iceland, the slightly ‘Famous Four’ styled search for the Viking turf long houses dragged on and on. Again there were some slight comedy TV moments, when certain activities were performed for the camera. Naturally, jeeps were involved crossing beautiful landscapes and the camera followed a speed boat taking Sarah around the islands. In Newfoundland Dan Snow allegedly trekked for an hour to Sarah Parcak's excavation site. He had a crisp blue shirt, seemingly empty rucksack and brand new trekking shoes. He did walk into every puddle on the short trek he was shown to do. He paid absolutely no attention where he was walking. In real situation, his shoes had been flooded with steps one and two and the hour’s trek had been very inconvenient in the end. When he happily arrived to the small dig site, he seemed to have had no discomfort...

Finding new Viking sites in America is exciting by default, but the best parts from my point of view were those telling about the major sites in Britain. The digital visualisations of the Viking York, for example, were amazing. The stories such as the crushed skull in the Portmahomack monastery in Scotland, the major monastic centre of the Picts, showing clear sword cuts, featuring the interview of Professor Martin Carver, the excavator of the site and Sutton Hoo as well, really educated the viewer about the very limited evidence for the Viking raids. Similarly, the funerary evidence from the Viking Repton at St Wystan’s Church in Derbyshire was astonishing. The remains of entangled skeletons, making a reference to the burial, historically believed to have been one of a giant warrior, told a truly fascinating story of a war lord at death. There was slightly a sense that two programmes – one on the Vikings in northwestern Europe and one on the search for the turf long houses, both deserving a fair independent and intelligent presentation – were trapped in one maxi episode.

It was interesting to recognise an aesthetic style featuring nowadays in many of these big archaeology productions: archaeologists seem to be moonlighting as secret agents, working in dark basements for SPECTRE or some other mysterious organisations. Archaeologists sit with laptops at very small tables with one spotlight illuminating their tiny workspace. The spotlights light presenters’ faces in obtuse angles in the shade where they tell of scientific finds. It is all made for TV, but the simultaneous glorification and dumbing down leaves an archaeologist feeling a bit short-changed. This material – and the talented archaeologists and historians - were worthy of so much better treatment across two programmes. What a programme BBC4 had made out of this material. The kind of headed by Joanne Fletcher or Lucy Worsley – or more fittingly Nina Ramirez. As an archaeologist, one has a very specific view, perhaps even too critical, and thus, one is left wondering, if the Joe Public really enjoys the hype over a humorous, but informative and non-repetitive narrative.