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.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Palmyra recaptured: doom or hope?

Temple of Bel before and after
(linked from the Mashable web site, original Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

I was going to write this blog post about Florence and its marvellous archaeological museums, but once again, the real life events have meant that I have to postpone the cavalcade of beautiful photos and discussion of Italian input into different fields of archaeology to another day. Suddenly, Palmyra is 'free' again. Considering the social media and newspaper output, there is about two general lines of taking this news. Either we lament the lost treasures, which were many - and we do not yet know how many archaeological sites within were plundered and robbed - or we celebrate what is left. No matter how reconstructed it may be.

Not Florence, yet

I can declare from the start my point of view: I hope that we can take a hopeful view in the long term. Yes, there are heartbreaking destruction and two main temples are no more. However, the site still exists and now it will stand for resilience against parties that do not have respect towards the achievements of others or value of a shared history but only can prosper when bringing destruction and sufferance to others who do not share their specific point of view. The stones are still there - and we may be able to see the destruction as a monument to other people's care and ultimate sacrifice, pride and preservation of our common heritage. I am more shaken of the news of displacement, cruelty and pointless deaths in the desert.

Our shared heritage in the southern Mediterranean

However, what the future brings is still unclear. As it has been pointed out, the 'liberators' may not have always been such 'preservers' as they may now hope to be seen. We have broken countries, looted tombs, broken people and human sufferance that does not currently have an end date. The modern Palmyra is a ghost town, the bombed shells of houses standing as they do in Aleppo and other scenes of battle. When we can recapture personally Palmyra and other sites of world heritage across Syria and Iraq we do not know. The mapping of archaeology, the historic photo collections, the virtual reconstructions - there are many routes people have already taken and the destruction has woken a community. There may be more doom on the cards, but I see signs of hope.

The destruction in the Palmyra Museum is apparent from The Guardian.
The drone footage shows what is standing.
The before and after images are not a pretty sight.