Sunday, 23 October 2016

When soft is too hard

This week showed that Sweden is not the only country that needs petitions in order to save archaeology. Over the North Sea in England, the AQA exam board is culling its archaeology, classical studies and history of art A-levels. This is apparently not about money or concentrating on the hard core EBACC subjects. No, this is providing every student the best exam results they deserve. What the students deserve just do not happen to include the disciplines that tell about the development of the humans or their culture.

The reason given for the cull is that these disciplines telling the human story are complex and difficult to mark evenly. So, these disciplines that apparently belong to Gove's so-called soft subjects are so hard that they cannot be offered to the students, since it is apparently difficult to find talented markers. It is quite alarming that the cull may take away subjects that make students, teachers and markers to think, evaluate and argue. These one would imagine are skills that would benefit any students later in their life. In addition, archaeology is not just about humanities but has a lot of both practical and science content. It is something that can give something to any learner, no matter what their strengths are. That should help students to get the best exam results they deserve!

Luckily, all members of professional communities covering archaeology, classical studies and history of art have been vocal about the added value their discipline brings to the A-levels. Archaeology got Tony Robinson to tell about its significance. He called the plans to drop archaeology A-level "an assault to Britain's heritage". The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIFA) came out fighting and one can sign a petition online. The plans of scrapping have been described as "barbaric acts" target="blank" and it is true that in the long run these kinds of acts may lead us to barbary of a kind, if society does not educate rounded and skillful individuals. One just have to hope that the real reason for the scrappings is not money. These are minority subjects that take money to provide and mark their 'hard' exams. If only the money talk, it is one sort of barbarism when it hits the education system.

The petition against dropping the archaeology A-level has currently over 11,500 signiture. Maybe you can add yours?

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Another autumn, another petition

It seems that drama never really leaves Swedish Classical Archaeology. This year's petition is not about any of the Swedish Mediterranean Institutes but about the Mediterranean Museum in Stockholm. The politicians are suggesting to creating a new World Culture Museum out of the Mediterranean Museum, Ethnographic Museum and East Asian Museum. This is not really about their core activities failing but a shiny exhibition space making a loss. Thus, a rescue plan that would see building of a new museum and scarily vanishing of specialist expertise in any of these museums. The new curators would not be specialist in classical cultures or China but more general topics, such as gender studies. This is not bad in itself but why have collections when you have nobody who knows what the things are? How do you educate and help research effectively? Therefore I hope this petition to reach its goal and saving the Mediterranean Museum!

Currently there are just above 900 signatures. Maybe you can add one more using the link above...?

Friday, 27 May 2016

Book reviews

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

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

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Galway was sunny!

Students posing and showing the poleholes of a circular residential structure

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

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

Indegenous metal object from Megara Hyblea

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

Nizzo on Pithekoussai

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Space Archaeologist and History Guy do the Vikings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).