Saturday, 24 January 2015

From ChrisFest to Nepi

An evening view from Villa Lante

My work trips to Rome seem to be every time huge whirlwinds of activity and experiences. This time it is even more so, since I have managed to pack into a week serious pottery work, meetings with Swedish and Italian colleagues, library work, two half days in Chris Wickham's Fest-do and finally a trip to Nepi to see the new communal museum. Every single part of the week has been interesting and eye-opening - even the one involving moving builders ladders and being covered in dust while passing the honourable bishops and representatives of religious orders in the Finnish Institute after a busy morning in the 'Archaeological Lab'.

An impromptu meeting with a Swedish colleague separated me from the wine reception in the BSR during the ChrisFest, but one has to grasp an opportunity when it knocks. This meeting saved us from Skyping or taking trains at a later stage, so running away before the prosecco was for the common good - or this I tell myself gritting my teeth. However, the two visits to the conference underlined the difference historians and archaeologists have. While archaeologists rarely part from their visuals and PowerPoints, the pure historians stick to reading their prepared texts. Not necessarily reflecting the general feeling, since after all, I missed two whole days of langobards and even Medieval Iceland, my highlights were the topographic memory at Cosa and Alatri as presented by Lisa Fentress and the talk on early Medieval gardens in Rome by Caroline Goodson. Both by archaeologists with nice images and maps together with PowerPoint slides on ancient text excerpts and, crucially, new ideas and information about appropriation and food security. Elsewhere in the conference there were also interesting details to be learned about the shortages of olive oil in the early Medieval world.

Medieval art in Civita Castellana

The short stays in the ChrisFest gave food for thought for Volterra and the trip to Nepi gave food for thought for the history of the wider region. Museum Director Stefano Francocci had already earlier asked me to visit the communal museum of Nepi, since I was not in Italy when the big opening took place a few years ago. Now he kindly changed his working hours and came to guide me and my Finnish historian colleague who specialises in Roman religion. Thus, after seeing the museum the exhibition, which is of unusual quality for a local, communal museum with both Italian and English texts and reconstructions and multiple displays stretching from the Orientalising cemeteries to Lucrezia Borgia, I asked about the possibility to visit the local catacombs of Santa Sevinilla. Stefano did come to guide us personally, which just shows his generosity.

Stefano Francocci guides us in the catacombs

The catacombs are small but well presented and since my earlier visit at the turn of the Millennium the church had been renovated and the area of the whole inside floor had been excavated. This had allowed to expose the original entrance to the inferior corridor and some graves on the rock surface. The catacomb dates to the fourth century AD and has also some Medieval paintings, so it has not really been totally forgotten. The stories about early martyrdom and other features are examples of the topographic social memory Lisa was talking about. The similar catacombs in Sutri, Bolsena and along Via Amerina (not open or available currently for visit) show the strength of the late Roman settlement in the small towns of the Viterbo region. My colleague Marja-Leena Hänninen was really pleased - especially, since afterwards we visited the cosmatic cathedral in Civita Castellana and saw reused sacrofagus as an altar, Roman inscribed tomb stones, Medieval sculpture, the crypts and the beautiful cosmatic floor and portico outside. After a busy week, a work trip was not really a work trip, but a pleasure with a friend.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Archaeologist? A charted archaeologist?

In the wind-whirl that seems to be my normal work week - 200 georeffed surfaces on top of planning applications, preparing a work trip to Rome and checking references - I noticed that the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) I am a Member of has changed its name officially to the Charted Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA). The Institute has officially got its charter from the Queen, so I am now REALLY an archaeologist - apparently. There have been a series of e-mails on how beneficial this is, but I assume I am not the only one who has to have prioritised keeping all the plates in the air and skipping the messages to be read at a later stage - the job newsletter, though, has seldom got more thorough 'find-and-search'. However, now archaeologists in Britain has an official entity that can say who has the level of professionalism to be employed as a professional archaeologist. And it is not necessarily the degree that counts, what what is your 'craft', your experience in it and your of 'craftmanship'.

I have recently written about the situations where a Finnish research student has suddenly found herself in between the categories and different practices in different countries. However, the issue of who is an archaeologist is a wider one. The postprocessual archaeology at least in its one form promoted relativism, so anybody who can considered a stakeholder could be an archaeologist. The discussions of the politics of archaeology and the access to archaeology has been an issue for a longer period now. And now we can give our comments, since before Christmas Cornelius Holtorf announced a theme for a coming Special issue of International Journal of Heritage Studies.

Now I have to quote direct Cornelius for his own words: "In recent years several archaeologists have stated, or implied, that “we are all archaeologists now”. On the one hand, this statement can be seen as democratizing the discipline and opening up the field of archaeology to contemporary society at large, in particular to all those who, like professional archaeologists, are interested in engaging with the material remains of the past. On the other hand, we have to wonder where exactly archaeological professionalism and their specific expertise lies if “we are all archaeologists now”. Are some people perhaps not archaeologists after all?"

I assume this blog does not open the invitation to the whole world, so I point out that his forum "invites archaeologists and others to submit responses to the short provocation contained in the first paragraph. Commentaries are welcomed in the form of short academic texts (1,000 – 3,000 words) or in any other genre suitable for representation in print, including drawings and images. We welcome especially original thoughts and specific examples from around the world. The best commentaries in terms of originality, diversity and depth will be published in a forthcoming Forum in Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. Deadline for submissions is 4 April 2015." If interested, find Cornelius via or google.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Treasure from near Aylesbury

I have recently observed and commented on the metal detecting hobby in Finland, so it is fitting that I make a few short comments on the Aylesbury treasure that made news at the New Year. This treasure consisting of Anglo-Saxon coins is one of the largest found and the Telegraph headline suggested that it is worth about 1 million pounds and consisted of 5,421 coins, the easily dated apparently from the reigns of Ethelred the Unready and Canute from the turn and the beginning of the second millennium AD. The treasure was found during an annual metal detector event organised by the Weekend Wanderers Detecting Club on December 21, 2014. The Daily Telegraph called it a 'dig', but a visit to a field where the group had been earlier could only called a dig after the find was made. The Daily Mail correctly writes in the text that initially it was a rally for the group - and the finder almost missed it, because the difficulty of affording the petrol. The group involved an archaeologist in the eventual unearthening of the hoard, but over 100 people attended the even, so the photographs in the Daily Mail show a somewhat chaotic image of the event, when the hoard was bagged.

The coin bags in a Sainsbury bag (photo: Weekend Wanderers Detecting Club/SWNS)

The Daily Mail article has a video link to an earlier coin hoard, this time Roman, that had an ad hoc grid created across the mass of the coins. The coins were there bagged by a grid square. The coins in Aylesbury were found in a lead container and the article has a still of the lead sheets with some coins visible. This photo had a scale and other photos (see above) were in separate bags in certain quantities, so similar gridding may have happened here as well. The archaeologist, a finds liason officer from the Buckinghamshire county museum, Ros Tyrrell, was interviewed, so there was a professional to oversee the recording.

It is clear that a large find has to be excavated soon, but it is a pity if in the hurry and in excitement nobody pays attention to the context. In the wider publicity it was not mentioned clearly, if this was a truly isolated find - or part of cemetery or a ritual site. A revisit to a same field suggests that there have been other finds, too. However, the organised Club guarantees that at least these finds are reported properly. The local newspaper told that Ros speant four or five hours on his tummy in the cold.

The manner this find was made has raised criticism among some professional archaeologists, and it is worrying, if the fields are emptied and nothing else is picked out. Especially, when short googling results with the information from the Looting Matters blog that the find was actually made from the area of a deserted medieval village (DMV) and a Medieval manor house. These kinds of metal detecting events would not be possible according to the Finnish law, for example, since you are not allowed to touch known archaeological sites in the Nordic countries. It is lamentable that limited attention is given to the context in metal detecting. Especially, when the find at Aylesbury was made c. 60 centrimetres deep... Could have been inside any ancient building!

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The most important archaeological find of the year?

The damage to the Great Mosque in Aleppo (photo: AAAS/BBC)

The New Year and the weekend before Epiphany means the end of the annual time, which brings a well-deserved break to my normal busy schedule. Today is one of the last days before the lull will finish with the start of the school term and the need to face all those things that will need doing this year. Interestingly, the start of the school year in Leicestershire will fall onto the same day most of Europe celebrate Epiphany, which means that I will be officially having a bank holiday in Sweden, but in practice starting my working year in UK. A bit confusing, but I will balance the hours when using them to cover for some mid-week flights.

The lovely nothing-muchness of the time at home at Christmas means that pretty much nothing has happened archaeologically in my life, but this gives a good opportunity to reflect on a couple of finds made recently. These actually relate to some of my recent blog entries, so I can comment with some personal reflection on the matters.

Images by the University of Birmingham (Heritage Daily)

Heritage Daily has compiled a list of the top 10 archaeological discoveries this year. Naturally, the meaning of these discoveries will be truly revealed with time, when their significance against the background of all the other finds regionally. One also has to take into consideration that the online magazine states that this list is based mainly on the trending results of their own site (plus the apparently subjective ‘magnitude’ of the find). Nevertheless, I must agree with their Number 1: the new digital map of the hidden archaeology of Stonehenge. I myself wrote about this map at the end of August, but I do not seem to have mentioned the fact that some of my colleagues have not been that enthusiastic about the total coverage of geophysical mapping. However, one person’s humble pit is another person’s interpretation on ritual practices, so I can understand if people working in places with standing structures or scanning physical objects do not find a few pits that exciting.

What will be interesting to see is what will happen next with Professor Gaffney and Stonehenge. Vince has had a long time relationship with this landscape – with Sally Exon, Vincent Gaffney, Ann Woodward and Ron Yorston’s Stonehenge Landscapes: Journeys Through Real and Imagined Worlds from 2000 probably not getting the appreciation it should have had. If nothing else, the BAR volume not only looks at the barrows – often overlooked in the Stonehenge landscape – but it also gives good basic descriptions of different barrow groups. I have used Stonehenge landscape myself in the course material of my online course and tried to remember to present all Stonehenge [field] projects I am myself aware of. Everyone of them has brought something different to our knowledge of this enigmatic landscape that almost everybody in the world knows. Thus, any new finds of Stonehenge are important and part of World Archaeology – even if I can remember how underwhelmed I personally was when I visited the monument the first time. But I was awed and continue to be awed by everything that is there with it in the Salisbury Plains.

Anyway, Vince has now moved to the University of Bradford and we will see what and where his and his collaborators studies will take him. Birmingham’s loss is for Bradford’s benefit – potentially resulting in consolidating an amazing world class department I wrote about in relation with REF.

Returning to the Daily Heritage list, depending on the view point, some of the finds were not as ground-breaking as suggested. Number 5, the ‘enigmatic’ Viking fortress, is not such a thing if one knows about Scandinavian archaeology, although it is marvellous that geophysics has helped to find a new Viking fortress after 60 years. Helen Goodchild and others can be proud of their work with the University of Århus. However, Number 3, the two Mayan cities found with Lidar, adds truly our knowledge of central American archaeology and show how these prospection methods help archaeology. Sadly, when even more sites are found this way, this method becomes a standard and the news value will diminish for the consecutive finds unless their validation brings up something exciting. However, Numbers 4 and 9, the two early hominid engravings will testify of the early capabilities of different species even if their dates may be contested and new finds may become the earliest.

Although it is important that Lord Renfrew and others pass the word about the destroyed heritage of Syria, it is an international emergency with the refugees (who in many news pieces have become immigrants) sailing increasing on boats the human traffickers leave heading to Italy and take the EU Frontex programme hostage that is the real story. This is a direct continuation of the problems outlined in the Migration and the Mediterranean conference in early November in Rome where I was a participant. Even if my heart bleeds knowing the damage at the citadel of Krak des Chevaliers and what happens to other monuments in bombings and assaults, it bleeds even more for all the displaced and desperate.

Krak des Chevaliers in fire (photo: Wikimedia)

Nevertheless, the assessment of the damage in Syria has been carried out partly through the use of Google Earth and Bing Map images, but partly through the US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, which has shared commercial imagery. I have myself promoted the use of the free resources and this shows how they can be used for a truly worthy cause – even if the in-real-time assessment is not necessarily possible for normal citizens. No matter what one thinks about the directions Google as a company takes, in this way their product is an instrument of good – if it will also stay free and online in the future (we all know what happened to Yahoo Maps). Perhaps this continued monitoring of heritage at risk and disappearing using shared free tools is the most deserving the most important archaeological find of 2014.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

More archaeology in 2015

I am on my annual leave and the only archaeological thoughts over the celebrations have dealt with the recent air photo interpretation of the Bradgate Park landscape and the apparently coming University of Leicester field school there. That will be highly interesting. Nevertheless, we have been enjoying Bradgate Park as it is - as a deer park for all Leicester towners and Charnwood people. Do enjoy your holidays while sharing a photo of snowy Old John tower. That shot is the last photo before the battery of my mobile phone went flat. Thus, I did not get the marvelous shot of all Leicester in different degrees of white below.

Happy New Year and more exciting archaeological events in 2015! I have eye-witnessed some unbelievably interesting things in 2014 and only wonder what will be around the corner next year...

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Reconstructing a conference, REF and other fragments

This week has seen me not going to the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference at Manchester. This was an interesting experience, since luckily a colleague seem to have been constantly tweeting and now afterwards blogging about the experience. I have reconstructed my own conference from Facebook postings, scrolling through the tweets with #TAG2014 hashtag on Wednesday, getting comments via e-mail from colleagues who were there and help me with peer reviewing and now reading the blogs. As with my comments in my other, more personal blog, this does not replace the physical experience of actually being there (as Skype does not replace hugs at the bed time). Nevertheless, all this belated virtual attendance means that I managed to work on organising peer reviews for a book, dealing with peer reviewing abstract for a conference session, working in the libraries at Cambridge and looking for digital data instead of being 'tired and emotional' after the TAG party and travelling on trains just before Christmas. On the minus side, I could not hear much of the MesoNeo session, since people dealing with Medieval or Roman archaeology seldom follow such things.

NOT this year

The other matter to follow through Twitter and different online media is the REF results that were announced on Thursday. I did forget about the thing until the end of the day, but managed to scroll through #REF2014. All Universities tried to find something positive to announce, even if the results may have been a disappointment. Oxford came out of the exercise as the leading university and Cambridge has to give place to UCL. In archaeology, the analysis of the results is made more difficult by the fact that archaeology is place together with geography and environmental sciences and only the separate figures are given to a selection of different universities on the results page. These mainly include the so-called leading universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Durham, but there is also Chester with its own archaeology figures. Comparing different figures the REF pages give, one can gather that archaeology at Oxford has amazing impact figures, but Cambridge, Oxford, Reading, Sheffield, Leicester and Durham among others have very high numbers of 4* and 3* papers and UCL leads in Environment with Cambridge and Oxford slightly farther behind. As an itinerant postdoc, I do not have to worry about making part of such comparisons, but it is interesting to know what one has to take into account if one worked at a university. The truth is that in the age of diminishing research funds, the future will bring the concentration of research funding to Oxford, Cambridge and UCL. It will be revealing to see if the amazing departments at the universitites that do not hit the highest figures, continue to get funding for their archaeology...

Then, I out my inner grumpy middle-aged person again. Could all conference organisers, please, start to plan the deadlines with a calendar in hand? Organising a full automated online abstract review from start to finish during the two mid-weeks in December? When there is a conference season in UK and Italy and the people in the Nordic countries start concentrate on organising family functions at the start of the annual leave? We made it but only by ignoring a missing peer review and not having time to fathom the finesses of the rules or the interface...

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Stonehenge Apocalypse

I have made a conscious choice (and actually cannot escape statutory childcare and school run duties when at home) not to go to the TAG this year, since I do need a break from serious conferencing - no matter how much I would have liked to have my annual curry dinner with friends and go and chat about work with certain parties that seem to be there according to the long and comprehensive program. Now, I actually have to do work. Write up things, go to the library, peer review and seek peer reviewers. There is also more stuff for the MASF editorial board coming for approval, so it is better to party less, let my Antiquity free subscription to be passed to the new happy owner and leave all the theoretical novelties to the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference 2015. Which will bring about an interesting balancing act happening during the same weekend as my son's birthday. Thus the last postings of the year will take a slightly lighter topics than the end of the universe as we know it (a.k.a. the potential, now-not-happening closure of the Swedish Mediterranean Institutes), island archaeology and Stonehenge landscape.

Which actually are exactly the topics I am going to talk about in more general, although lighter terms. My husband's annual 'cult movie night' exposed us this year to Stonehenge Apocalypse, the movie so laughable that you are literally speechless for a moment after it. It is from 2011 - with all the production values and CGI and VFX of the late 1980s. The main actors and actresses are famous for those American scifi series. Certain elements even apply some of the production choices of that famous Bonekickers British tv series. I am not sure, if the same special archaeology consultant was used here - but I hope not. The trailer brings in mind all those exploitation movies from the late 20th century - and the movie is a rip-off of any 2012 or Mayan apocalypse storyline.

Since this blog is ultimately about landscapes, I just point out a few of the most intriguing facts about the movie. No, I am not going to dwell on how they found Egyptian remains somewhere in the central states in the US or that Teotihuacan, the Pyramids and Stonehenge are mysteriously connected in volcanic action or the stones of Stonehenge move around. No, I was looking at Stonehenge itself and its landscape.

Before seeing this movie, I was totally unaware of the fir trees lining the horizon in the Stonehenge landscape. I was also totally unaware of the plastic texture of Stonehenge and the very-thin-indeed lintel stones. The dark coniferous forest and the flat lands could have been in southwestern Finland, but my guess is that more common destination of the American movie makers - Canada. This could also explain the unexpected vision of a basketball hall in an assumed British school. Plus all cars driving on the right side of the road and the steering wheel locating in a similar manner on the left-hand side in all 'British' army vehicles in the movie. Maybe I will not comment too much the underlining darker details seeing the African-American main archaeologist baddie siding with the generally 'Middle-eastern' crime organisation baddies... Truly speaking, a gobsmacking fail on all fronts.