Sunday, 6 April 2014

Empty museum

Recycling my local Metro too early had the consequence that I did not know much of the events of this weekend in Stockholm. Nevertheless, just because I had decided to go to see the Kastellholmen off Skeppsholmen where I had never walked before meant that I managed to walk into the event of the weekend. The National Museum, Stockholm’s main art museum, devoted to the old European art, has closed and is about to go under a major renovation project in order to bring it up to the modern standards in security and otherwise.

Exhibition hall

Nowadays all major excavation and building project have open days where these projects are presented to the community and different stakeholders. Even if there were some very fancy printed leaflets around, most of the posters were simply A1 printouts and many of the smaller posters just A4s with handwritten texts. I assume this is a way to bring that sense of the moment and familiarity of everyday life into the event, although one must say it was very much cheaper this way. The museum had been emptied of all the art works, all the tills had gone and most of the specially built displays had been dismantled. In a few rooms some of the old displays and signs had been left in order to underline the change that is around the corner.

Museum Chief's former office

It was marvellous to walk around the empty rooms and wonder the many classical features of the architecture and the painted murals of the main staircase. Many of the rooms open have never been open to the general public. The emptied rooms included the former workspace of the director of the museum, the paper preservation halls and the research library. All these rooms happened to have marvellous views over Skeppsholmen or the Royal Castle. No wonder the internal workings of the museum are to move somewhere else and all these marvellous rooms become part of the exhibition space or different cafeteria or restaurant areas.

Former paper conservation laboratory

This eagerness to open the whole building to the general public raises one important question. Where are the conservators going to go? When I asked this from the black-coated person – one of the army of ‘guides’ from the restoration and building company of the Swedish state – in the former paper preservation laboratory, he did know. He said that they have been told that the conservators will move outside the city. However, when I asked, if these will be new purpose-built premises, he said they had not been told. In an empty building the restoration of which had been decided at the government level and that is filled with posters telling us how this is an important part of our Swedish heritage, this raises uneasiness.

Empty offices

The commercialisation of most cultural experiences and activities is quite alarming. The University libraries are renovated with more words spent explaining the new online facilities and cafeteria places than is used to describing the improved preservation of collections. Now here we have a museum that ‘oursources’ its conservation work somewhere nobody knows where. At the moment everything is on the neighbouring Skeppholmen, but this is not a long-term solution as the ‘guide’ explained. This shows that showing the collection and serving the viewers food is seen as the core activity of the museum, but the preserving the collection and making sure it will be presentable, is apparently an afterthought.

Former research library

Everywhere in the posters the visitors were told how the renovation work will open the museum and bring the light in. The film shown in the auditorium showed literally sunlight coming into a classical exhibition room filled with white marble statues. Maybe that will be all they are showing, since the last time I checked oil paintings and the direct sunlight do not go well together. Maybe they have some new technological solutions that allow to get rid of the dimmer rooms where the most valuable paintings are held and allow both the works of art and the visitors to thrive in the modern airy spaces. Otherwise museums have been taken over by management consultants who hope that they can pull the rabbit out of the hat...

PS. Apparently the renewal of windows includes some new high-tech material that takes away the harmful rays. Let's hope it will be a success. And not just expensive.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Applying – a job and a project on its own

I will have two major things in my life for the spring and summer ahead of me. Firstly, I have to proceed with the essential publications I need to get out. Secondly, I have to fit in my summer holiday allowance, i.e., about four weeks over summer. Wait a minute! I have actually more things, since I also have to work around the Volterra field school, the remaining teaching related to it during the summer term and then – the dreaded bit – try to have some work lined up for the next winter. Is that five things? And I could actually add some more, even if the dealing with the family responsibilities goes with the summer holiday allowance...

The last matter – trying to come up with work/money/position for the next winter has taken a disproportionate share of my time recently. This is partly because the high season for hiring is early in the year for the next autumn and partly because that is the application season in Sweden. Talking about the academic landscapes. The wry highlight of the last two weeks is dealing with a major application from start to finish in basically 24 hours. I started around late morning on a Thursday and finished the following morning after proofreading my own text. This included editing my CV and publication list to the format and length required and calculating a budget. I did have to wait until late afternoon for the head of the department’s signature, but that was out of my control. Meeting schedules, you see.

The major project has been the second round of an application process at Oslo. I must admit that even if I did know from my earlier Finnish experience that one should have work certificates – automatically provided by the Universities and available easily after finishing even a short contract in the Nordic countries – I had wilfully ignored the whole matter, since there is no tradition for them in England. The reference tradition means that you ask a couple of people who have followed your career for certain stretches to guarantee that you are not making things up in your CV – even if choosing and showing off in a positive light is allowed. Now it was retribution time...

In principle, I had less than a month – or actually in two and half weeks – to create a portfolio that gives evidence of all I had done to that point. This resulted with fervent e-mailing exercise to those parties I had taught for and worked for. I was tracking down people to Brasil and other places in order to have a scanned file of a few months exercises. I managed to do it, although it turned out that any evidence for those computer courses at Cambridge are in my old handouts gathering dust in Leicester. With the change of management system, all earlier computer records at Cambridge had vanished seven years ago. Ironically, this job is in Digital Documentation, so I got more experience than I could have hoped for!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Agathe - It is easy when you know how

This week left me almost speechless in admiration. I attended themed open lectures and a workshop on Digital documentation in archaeology at the Uppsala University and saw something truly original. The first to present was Bruce Hartzler from The American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), who presented the digital documentation system he has developed for The School using iPads and Apple apps. Nevertheless, his system is unique, since he does all the essential coding himself and can create what he sees fit and his colleagues need. Basically, he has a system, where he combines hand-drawn plans, scanned as base maps for the system, vectorised basic forms representing contexts and colour-coding representing chronology. Then using web graphics style area and point links he has linked pages from field notebooks and iPad held notes to these plans. He can also show the simple vectorised plans in section and the movement I saw was something I have not seen in any other system. As said, the coding is his.

ASCSA web site

Why he is not a more widely known is probably down to the fact that he came to The Americal School as a classics student and has only attended one international Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) Conference, namely the one in Herakleion in 2002. His classical background and lack of deeper knowledge of wider archaeology became apparent when he himself was totally ignorant who Ian Hodder and Michael Shanks are during our discussion when I asked him about him potentially collaborating with other America-based researchers with different reflexive web applications. His solution does create the kind of reflexive multi-author recording the theorists have been talking about and their teams have been trying to create, but he came to it through practice. He needed to make records of old Agora notebooks that splendidly cross-index finds and structures. Sadly, this singing and dancing iMap version is not running on the Agora excavations web site, but the Agathe database is still a very good record of one of the most important excavations in the Mediterranean at

Naturally, Bruce’s system has some apparent drawbacks. It works extremely well for Agora and other American excavations in Greece and potentially most of the classical excavations. However, it requires all to be done on Macs and iPads and quite sizable continuous infrastructural financing. It is also totally reliant on him, since he has not trained anybody to help him or be able to continue his work. He has been at the Agora since the 1990s so he knows the work practices and material he is dealing with, but he also knows his computing. He has been programming since he was a teenager. I hope they are making notes on him and videoing his programming and working styles at the ACCSA... The most creative archaeological computing person I have met this far.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

From Serieteket to scientific archaeology

This weekend saw the International Women’s Day that is a big mimosa-laden celebration in Italy, where this year Giulia Bongiorno suggested that state would start to pay for housewife’s for their housework – a payback for the all work they do in order to keep the country running, children fed and husbands in ironed shirts. As Barbara Ellen suggested in the Guardian, there is a danger this is and will be what women are supposed to do as opposed to both men and women support to do care work...

Nevertheless, the comics library Serieteket organised together with some of the embassies in Stockholm a French comics festival. In the similar manner as a week earlier, when I heard Brian Talbot talk, I just needed the toilet in the Kulturhuset, but walked about inside near the main entrance and sat down. I did wander in and out – it was the best sunshine around for weeks and boy I need fresh air after all this sitting at the computer – but was so impressed I returned for more this morning for brunch. Yesterday we were entertained with the theories about Ottocar’s Sceptre depicting Romania (they do like their country to feature in all main cultural genres these Romanians), although I could name a couple of Balkan pre-WWII kingdoms that could have merged in modelling Syldavia. Nevertheless, Romania had a big pavilion in the Paris World Exhibition in 1937, so this is plausible. For me the most interesting events were about this Sunday morning.

First Marguerite Abouet was telling about Aya de Youpogon, the comic she writes about a teenage girl and her friends in a specific neighbourhood in the capital of Ivory Coast. It was made an animated film lately and it competed in the latest César Awards, even if it did not won. She was a revelation as was her cartoon Akissi, short comic stories about a small African girl being naughty and mischievous – and sometimes just unlucky and things happening. It has actually been translated into English, but I have now a signed copy in Swedish.

The day continued interestingly with a discussion about comics publishing between Julie Delporte (Canada) and Xavier Löwenthal (Belgium). Comics publishing is absolute niche, so they are hit by all the latest trends quickly. Crowdfunding is apparently so last decade and self-publishing is in. However, what they are actually doing is holding money earning ‘second jobs’ and concentrating more on the things they really want to do – on real paper and a book-shaped 3D print. Somehow sounds familiar and probably nearer home in most archaeologist households in these days of vanishing humanities funding and rumours about university cuts... Amazing thing was that we were about six to listen to this. Where were all those hipster publishers of Stockholm to get the latest whiffs from the world?

EUROEVOL's self image

This week’s absolute archaeological highlight was a ‘postseminarium’ in the Tennstoppet restaurant. We were only a few, but the food was good, company was good and the discussions flew effortlessly. I had lost the plot during the second half of the Kevan Edinborough’s talk about the EUROEVOL project while thinking how they had used C14 datings as proxies for the amount of human activity in Europe by collapsing all the dates from a site into one from every phase. Thus, they practically were plotting sites with potentially more precise datings than most of the pottery dates (not always, though). However, when contemplating this, I lost the other half Kevan was more interested in on the new research on the knowledge transfer. Mathematical, yes. Exciting, yes. As existing as the discovery that sugars may be used to recognise different food stuffs and that certain cheese and its making process can go back to the Stone Age I heard about a day earlier. Riveting stuff. Not all archaeological, but new ideas, influences and knowledge of the world bucket loads.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Back to the basics

This week I have been busy turning my back momentarily to settlement archaeology and my overlong draft of an article that I have to return during the summer in order to take up funerary archaeology and face a series of manuscripts, some from other people, some wholly or partly written by me, that take me to the world of funerary archaeology. Yes, it is time to get the Remembering the Dead project done and dusted. Although there are drafts, there is also quite a lot of work ahead. Well, I must be honest – even if I am not working on pre-Roman settlement archaeology, I still have to at least plan to do some new analyses in order to fix two large holes in our Roman publishing programme for the Nepi Survey Project.

This is the time of the year when many organisations look for personnel for the next winter or different foundations have their application periods. This means that one has to start dreaming up projects that may never really see the light of day, since the financing bodies think there are more important things to fund. It is the time for blue-sky thinking and if not pies in the sky then at least proposals and plans to paper one’s walls with many times over. Nevertheless, instead of dwelling in what may be, may to come or might have been, I can marvel at the research one of my colleagues is carrying out at the moment.

Polygonal columns in situ (photo: Therese Paulson)

On the paper the title ‘Polygonal columns in ancient Greek architecture’ may sound traditional and even uninteresting in the modern archaeological world of identities and networks. However, sometimes one has to have a simple project in order to be able to find truly new things. Nobody has really paid any attention to polygonal columns and I as one has to admit that it would not ever have occurred to me. However, this state of uninterest means that Therese Paulson has an original research topic nobody is studying at the moment. She has already travelled around Greece in search of polygonal columns in order to record and measure them, since most of the time the best records she gets in old publications is a rare sentence that “there were some polygonal columns”. No numbers, no descriptions, no measurements. Thus, her first task is all about very basic research and basic data collection.

Tessa presented her preliminary results from Greece in our research seminar at Stockholm and it all sounded very interesting. Not only are these columns distributed across the then Greek world but they also are more common in specific regions. Tessa herself has been emphasising the economic aspect in choosing this column type in different kinds of buildings. After all, carving a, let’s say, 8-sided column instead of seeing the trouble of fluting the column fully saved time and can be economically sound. However, there may have been local, aesthetic preferences, too, although there is nothing wrong if the economic explanation can be proven.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Away from my beaten track

It is somehow embarrassing to admit that when one comes to Stockholm as a Finnish tourist with a Finland ferry (or Sweden boat, if one takes a Finnish point of view) one’s view of the town is limited. Depending on the reason from the travel, i.e., if it is for pleasure, shopping or cultural pursuits, the underground will take one to the Old Town and its restaurants, big department stores around Slussen or to the Djurgården or beyond, if one goes to different museums. If one comes from Turku/Åbo, one tries to kill time at the railway station or McDonalds, and if one comes from Helsinki/Helsingfors, one is lucky to leave the boat before it leaves again, if the evening before has been especially ‘eventful’.

For years people have talked Södermalm as an up-and-coming area – and with the Millennium trilogy it has certainly become world famous. Sadly, before today my main experience was the well-beaten track to the local waterpark/swimming pool. I had very little understanding of its history beyond a general idea that it is a hipster’s world nowadays.

Sofia kyrkan (photo: wikipedia, my phone battery died...)

After returning back to Stockholm and cleaning up my flat but before doing my weekly shopping, I decided to go and familiarize myself with the island. It is really an island. As for a tourist, the walk from Slussen to an area higher up to the other side of the cliff seemed out of reach and too far away when looking from the quayside in the Old Town. The Viking Line terminal, technically on Södermalm is cut away from the residential areas by cliffs and roads, so one always just whisked past it.

Today I got up from the underground and started exploring this island that essentially looks like central Helsinki (or vice versa). The stone houses from the late 19th century or early 20th century, some with beautiful Jugend-style decorations, turrets and balconies, line main streets and narrower lanes. The Sofiakyrkan has the same kind of early 20th century styling as does the Tampere cathedral with strong Jugend-influences and beautiful internal decorative details. The outside refers heavily to the medieval church architecture with clear early 20th century style. The location on top of high bedrock rock gives unique vistas across the island.

Historic houses (photo: Lasse Strömberg, Lasse's blog)

The bespoke boutiques, hipster cafeterias and bars, Urban Deli and the bloke working on the computer screen in a ad agency on a Sunday gave away the fashionable character of the area. Nevertheless, the historical reality of the poor area with small cottages for working families became clear when one walked along the fringes of the cliffs where the poor built their tiny homes. There a series of information boards told of tar workers and sailors who filled the island once – with an average 7 persons in every room! It is hard to believe that today’s poor cannot dwell here but populate the suburbs along the farthest underground stations.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Different circles

This week in addition to writing up an article and making library research for another one I went to a couple of research seminars and lectures in different organisations and institutes. This gave away something special about every institution I visited or I am loosely a member of.

First I headed to the Swedish Institute at Rome as a Stockholm University employer. I also worked an afternoon in the library, since not all books are in all libraries and sometimes you have to crisscross the city in order to collect all you need from the National Library or German Institute, if you are looking for rarer items. This time the Dutch book I needed was in my ‘home’ institution, so I could stay for a longer time and chat with Frederik, Eva and Anette. Part of the seminars in the Institute is in Swedish and this particular seminar presented a series of aquarelles painted by a famous Swedish architect in his more advanced years in Tarquinia. They were not particularly amazing, but the story about a close friend of the Swedish royal family the Institute wanted to keep in their fold was fascinating and the atmosphere in the seminar very cosy.

The following day I could attend the Wednesday dinner in the and meet my friend Elisa and her postdoctoral fellow contemporaries. The event on the day was the Rickman lecture and Professor David Abulafia was giving a talk on thalassocracies. This was a good lesson about the British mores and polite academic discussion in the honour of a passed-away scholar.

Professor Guidi preparing to talk

On Thursday I headed to the Museum of Villa Giulia for an Italian presentation on Veii. A team from the Pigorini Museum and the University of Roma Tre have started excavating a Final Bronze Age burial place with cremations. This cemetery obviously connects with the settlement on Isola Farnese and presented some interesting detail. The archaeologists and physical anthropologists had used CAT scanning in recognising the metal objects and bones inside the pottery urns, when possible. This helped in excavating them in the laboratory. The cremations included some very small children, which shows that at least some children of some status level got formal burials.

The presentations clearly present a new trend, since they were short, concise, well-presented and with lovely, partly personal photos of the people at work and the main results during the first season of excavations. The audience was mainly Italian; I spotted myself and Anette on top of a Dutch archaeologist who has studied in Italy and lived there for years. In the multitude of the overlapping programme – I could not stay in an interesting meeting about sensory archaeology in the Swedish Institute – means in Rome that sometimes very interesting and important results do not reach the international community.