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.

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.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

RACed and TRACed? Part 2


The cast gallery at Sapienza University

Are RAC and TRAC different? One assumes that the first is for established professors, and so it sometimes was in Rome, and the latter is for new currents in recent research, organised by PhD students, postgraduates and early career researchers. On paper part of the programme was so: there were Mediterranean-wide topics on ports and trade in sessions organised by illustrious professors and researchers and other overview sessions describing research over Roman Britain, Dacia (more or less modern Romania) and Lusitania (Portugal) in the RAC, where as in the TRAC sessions discussed for example Marxism and gender. There was also Session 1 in the RAC that introduced the new research initiative to bring the materials from the Pontine area, Tiber valley and suburbium all together in collaboration between the University of Groningen, Sapienza University and the British School at Rome. However, in places, it was impossible to say outright which conference you were sitting in. Considering contemporaneity of the themes, the sessions on Sensing Rome and that on Urban Streets as Communication Spaces could have been in the TRAC as well.

My conference started with supporting my fellow Swedes and listening the first two papers in the Beyond the Romans: what can posthumanism do for classical studies in a disappointingly sparsely attended session (to start with). Irene Seisvold (University of Gothenburg) outlined the general themes in posthumanism, emphasising human’s place only as one of the historical actors and agents on the planet. Linnea Åshede (University of Gothenburg) gave the first case study with a talk on Priapus figures. She emphasised the relations between art and viewers and the qualities the works stand for. She stated that the most important point in time is during encounters when different identities and agencies meet and create actors and cause effects. They prompt people to position themselves – both in the past and present.


Landeschi in the Sensing session

From posthumanism to Interdisciplinary approaches to ancient Roman diets. Among the talks I heard the most interesting and thought provoking was Emily Holt’s presentation (SUN Buffalo/Museum national d’Histoire Naturelle) on ‘Animal consumption: social inequality and economic change in a non-elite area of Pompeii’. The results from the Porta Stabia project did show how the nutrition changed over time. Holt wanted to know if the economic growth of the Early Imperial times had positive effects on food consumption of the average Pompeians. Her research methods included traditional bone figures, micro remains from flotations and SEM-identified egg shells. Her results were mixed. On one hand the lower class Pompeians got more and better meat from younger animals, but the cuts were poorer. Marrow provided calories (which she took as a good thing, even if I do think remembering that within the Victorian times bone samples, evidence of eating marrow shows deprivation) and pigs were the preferred eaten species. She interpreted this mixed bag of results as a sign that more meat was on offer, people could afford cheap bits, but the selection was limited and they were priced out from buyng meatier and plumper cuts.

From inequality to Marxism. Some of the later papers apparently left people wondering where the Marxism was, but the session started with a more traditional note with Steve Roskams (University of York). He made it clear from the start that he believes that mode of production is defined as a way the elite sustains itself. However, his presentation was a historiography of different approaches to modes of production in economic history of the Roman Empire and his own review of the attitude towards social relations. Interestingly, he reviewed Greene and Aubert ducking the issue. In practice, he seemed to be advocating historical materialism as a tool of analysis of social relations and viewing change as dialectical process, i.e. how social contradictions, consequences of inequality and conflicts were resolved or not resolved in the past. The two following papers had the interesting premises and some interesting interpretations on variations and multivocality of eastern European Marxism (Emily Hanscam, Durham) and how in the DDR classical archaeology was perceived as bourgoise and could live in the form of economic history (Paul Pasieka, DAI, Rome). Pasienka also gave an overview of Italian Marxist archaeology that he buried ca. 1992 with the demise of Dialoghi d’Archeologia. Both suffered from the poor acoustics of Aula III that did not enhance presentations read from paper.


Veitch’s aural GIS maps

My personal highlight of the conferences was the TRAC session Method matters that emphasised archaeological methods in constructing historical narratives in Roman colonisation studies. The big idea of the Leiden School of field survey interpretation is emphasising vici, i.e. the larger rural settlements, villages, and their importance instead of standard independent colonist farms in local settlement patterns during the early colonial period. It is interesting how persistent the idea of nucleated village is in central and southern Europe. In northern Europe a dispersed village is a norm during the historical times (as are free peasants), so I have advocated the dispersed village model since my PhD. In early urbanisation in central Italy, though, but different settlement models should be revisited clearly more. Damjan Donev’s talk on interior Balkan areas was interesting, but it was Anita Casarotto’s presentation (with Pelgrom and Stek) that compared the legacy data from Venusia, Aesernia and Cosa that really got me going. Point density analysis suggests that southern areas were different with more clustering. Jesús Garcia Sánchez in his exciting talk was comparing functional distributions of pottery and different architectural ceramic materials. It is nice to know that not only our ceramiscene, as also presented in Rajala and Mills's poster in the RAC, highlights the ways survey material can be used further. However, in addition, he compared these distributions to geophysics, especially resistivity. His results seemed to go together. It was interesting to see a cleaning take to surveying areas where vegetation covers the surface: scrape the grass off from a systematic point sampling area.

Intertwining with Session 1 I was dropping in and out from Beyond hybridity and codeswitching TRAC session discussing new approaches to the Late Hellenistic archaeology. Raffaella Da Vela’s (Universität Bonn) gave a very interesting case study of studying cultural identities with Social Network Analysis (SNA). It was fascinating to see how density, centrality and clustering changed from period to another. Later in the session there was an interesting talk from Claudia Widow (also Bonn) about Samnite brick stamps and coin hoards. I chatted with her later in the conference and it turned out that she was actually studying the architecture of the temple sites. Nevertheless, the origins of the coins tell something – if not about the origins of the audience, then about the contacts along the line.


Children and houses

On Friday, my favourites where the Sensing Rome and Urban Streets sessions. Naturally, I enjoyed giving my talk – especially when the audience increased by the door. The strike action in the morning affecting public transport delayed many people. Luckily, I had to come during the guaranteed rush hour traffic earlier. With only 20 minutes to use, I decided to give an outline of my theoretical model and some key points from interpreting inscriptions and funerary architecture in my study area across central Italy across the chronological disciplinary boundary between Etruscology and Roman archaeology. I missed the early Sensing session due to my own talk, which I had apologised in advance to Eleanor Betts, but got a short summary from my Finnish colleagues in the audience. Even if I do like the Pompeian tabernae and Giacomo Landeschi is my colleague in Sweden and does brilliant 3D work, this time around my favourite was Jeffrey Veitch’s (University of Kent) talk ‘Structure of Noise’ presented a kind of acoustic GIS maps of the decibel levels across rooms and spaces in Ostian houses that showed something new about the interplay between sounds, architectural elements and building materials.


Simelius on peristyles

Anette Haug's and Philipp Kobusch'sStreets provided us with ideas about looking for children and their possibilities in mobility and interaction in Pompeii (Ray Laurence, Kent), discussion about Bourdieu’s habitus in different types of inscriptions (Peter Keegan, Macquarie) and election notices and graffiti hotspots in Pompeii and the importance of larger private houses plus secluded spots in the case of graffiti (Eeva-Maria Viitanen, Helsinki). Which reminds me that I did not say anything about Samuli Simelius’s (University of Helsinki) peristyle talk. Well, it was interesting, but more interesting was his comment in the Villa Lante residents’ kitchen before leaving from Rome: “I feel I may have caught something, a conference cold”. Yes, I did, too, but it became a ‘back from Sweden to UK’ cold. Sigh – where people come together, there is a cold. Leicester, the most diverse city in UK, my home town, is also the home for more variety in cold bugs than anywhere else in the country. Thus, beautiful minds from all over came together in Rome, discussed and had lunched and dined – and Leicester got one bug more.


I apologise all my readers for my failure to have pictures of female speakers this time. In some cases, I just did not think about it, I was dealing with the initial net connection, the battery was flattish or I was unsure if I had a permission to photograph and in one case the photo I had uploaded to social media was commented in a way that I thought it may be better that I do not plaster it here. The all male panel was not intended (I am sure you have heard this excuse before).

Sunday, 20 March 2016

RACed and TRACed? Part 1


Reconstruction of Portus as presented by S. Keay during the key note talk

The Portus trip at the very end of the Roman Archaeology Conference in Rome went more or less pear-shaped from my part, but otherwise I enjoyed Rome in March as one could be expected to. I was suggested in beforehand that a conference this big may be irritating and tiresome, but even if I missed some talks due to people dropping out and the schedules being tinkered at the spot, the general feeling was as sunny as the weather outside on most days. The real problem, and really down to myself, was being at Sapienza University at time early in the morning. This in turn turned me into an old lady by Friday evening, so instead of any Mostra opening or TRAC party, I and my colleague Eeva-Maria Viitanen who had her talk last in the conference on Saturday as one of the handful delegates, we headed for a quiet dinner near Doria Pamphilia.


Well deserved thanks to Chiara Maria Marchetti

Generally, the conference was well-organised and the things that went slightly awry were nothing in comparison with one truly chaotic conference I have attended in the past. All the rooms had functioning laptops and projectors, there were plenty of nice students to help us and the conference secretary Chiara Maria Marchetti was an ever-present fixture everywhere. Things got sorted promptly without delay. The poster session advice however changed along the way and there could have been signs on the walls to guide the delegates to the right lecture rooms, not only in the conference booklet. At the beginning I was a bit out of my breath – mainly because I came to Rome after a quick detour to Florence – but the coffee breaks and lunches were served also in the Museum of Classical Archaeology among the casts of the statues, which gave grandeur to the proceedings. It took a couple of hours to get going and by picking up interesting lectures and themes from both the RAC and TRAC I created a versatile programme.


The book stalls among the cast collection

There were even special effects. In the Sensing Rome session the air conditioning in the Odeon was working on overtime and my choice of short-sleeved dress for my presentation day meant that I was quite cold before it was all over. There would have been a possibility to Hoff one session for being an all-male panel, but considering who were present, I decided that it was more important to bring in a female voice by making a relevant question and take part in discussion in Italian; I did get a very good answer. In general, there were plenty of female organisers – as in the Urban Streets session where Eeva-Maria was speaking – and there was a whole session for Sex, Gender and Family (see the session list).


The end is nigh at RAC/TRAC2016

Most importantly, in the opening address the Superintendency in Rome was thanked for our free access to some sites and we were reminded of the challenging times for heritage management in Italy. We were also reminded of the struggle many of our colleagues are having and there was a wish that the loss of colleagues that stood for their heritage was not for vain. This was nice to hear, especially since my colleague was just telling in social media the story of a female colleague that had to leave everything behind and flee for her safety.

The delightfully cheap conference dinner was an enjoyable treat, spent discussing with Peter Attema from Groningen and Simon Malmberg from Bergen. It turned out that the latter was very familiar with my research, as he himself suggested. He had been in the panel that had evaluated the candidates for a Mediterranean lectureship at Oslo and he was suggesting that my research was impressive. He also shared a taxi back to Gianicolo after a nice evening.

My Friday was busy, since I was live tweeting all afternoon, not only presenting in the morning – and we were literally running a chair-it-yourself session. The first speaker was a real star and started promptly on time and finished in a similar manner while giving a good talk on Urban Structure in the Graeco-Roman world. He even loaned me his watch, so I could time my talk. With his help and little assistance from the nice students, I managed to finish on the spot and hand the turn to the Vindolanda talk. As my friend suggested, we could have been pouring our content to the listeners without any regard, but we were very civilised.

I will come back to some of the highlights I heard in the Part 2 of my conference posts. I will also come back to the Archaeological Museum in Florence when I have a slot in my weekly blog.


Rome in March

You know, it was fun. The enjoyment was increased by being able to eat breakfast on the sunny mornings on the terrace looking at Rome at our feet. I am lodging next door to emerita Margareta Steinby who has every now and then commented delightfully the everyday happenings we have faced. Now I just hope for uneventful travel.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Waiting for... but reporting

Some week's are in a funny way without major reports for public domain. No matter how much one travels or works or does. This week is one of those while waiting for next week that will undoubtedly provide blog feed for a couple of weeks. I did work a couple of weeks home, do my presentation for next week, attend meetings in London and tweet from a lecture, travel to Stockholm and sort out some software issues there and visit a major shopping area outside Stockholm for some essentials. However, the matters discussed in the meeting are confidential, the tweets are out there to be looked for and the research will be reported in its due course. Last weekend's CAA-UK was already reported in last week's post. In a way it is all about waiting. Everything begins to be ready for the Roman Archaeology Conference and Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference next week.

In addition, I missed one of this week's major events at Stockholm, the latest from the Iron Age team working for The Atlas Project (or let's give its full name The Atlas of Ancient Human Genomes in Sweden) that tries to look for the population movements during the Swedish prehistory and for any hints of the stability or changes in populations during the key moments of transition. Naturally considering only periods when the burial rite was inhumation and we have skeletal remains. Luckily, the key team is located in the office opposite me, so I heard all about it the following day when I returned. It is all so red hot new from the presses that I leave any reporting to them via proper channels. I can only say that the things I heard will give new information on late Iron Age society.

It is a pity I missed the talk, but at least I had nice chats with my colleagues the following day. While they were discussing the Iron Age, I was reporting from a similarly interesting find, the Whitehorse Hill Cist in Dartmoor. This find in the blanket peat has revealed astonishing finds that have been presented lately in many lectures around Britain, as they were also in the Royal Archaeological Institute lecture on Wednesday. The cremation was excavated in a laboratory and it has revealed some unique features, including unusual preservation of organic matter, and many that are rare, but discovered in other parts of Britain as well. Some features just reflected what was common in the Dartmoor area in the Early Bronze Age. Of the unique features, the most unique were the pure tin rivets of an arm band and a bear's pelt. There was also a copper alloy pin and amber and shale beads in a colour-schemed neclace. The speaker, Dr Andy M. Jones, remindered us that a single flint flake, a common feature in the region, may have been the only object to be found in a burial without pottery had there not been the peat.


The bead necklace (linked from the Dartmoor National Park web site