Friday, 25 May 2012

Reusing Olympic landscapes

The previous week saw the Olympic flame arriving to England in a golden airplane. The Olympics are one of the events that were recreated in the late 19th century during the aftermath of the Age of Romanticism. The modern Olympics make a full use of the past site of Olympia, the site of the ancient, original Olympics. The Olympic flame is lit in Olympia and a series of modern rituals have been created in order to celebrate the event. We could see a glimpse of these a few weeks back.

The fire was reintroduced as a symbol of the games for the Amsterdam Games in 1928. The torch relay that transports the flame from Greece to the various designated sites of the country where the games take place has no ancient precedent and was introduced at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – a detail nobody probably wants to remember. Nevertheless, there was a religious procession leading to Olympia before the ancient game, so there is a precedent for a preparatory event that passes a landscape related to the Olympics.

The flame is lit using a parabolic mirror from the rays of sun at the temple of Zeus in the holy area of Olympia. The modern reenactment of the events includes not-very-flatterning dresses and frankly bizarre dance routings beamed all over the world from the ancient ruins of Olympia. Considering the amount of good news coming from Greece in the recent times this is currently a rare reminder of the cultural heritage we owe to this country.

Even if there is no continuity between the Games, since these were discontinued as a pagan event by the Christian Roman Empire, the use of the holy area brings the use of this heritage area closer to its earlier function than is normally the case. The Stadium is used as a place to follow the modern presentations and may be for a fleeting moment feel some kind of attachment with the Real Thing in the past.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Free access and paywalls

When the top university in the world starts to complain about something, you have to take it seriously. Harvard has started to complain about the high cost of the subscriptions of scientific journals. They say their library cannot afford these anymore. I did not know that the major scientific publications could cost libraries thousands of pounds. Even if some journals come out monthly, it is still a very high price for an issue. Since most of the work is done by the academics and peer reviewers, the publishing houses probably get their money with less of an effort than is the case with the other types of publishing. When any books are published the publishers have to review and edit them, but this is not true with the established journals.

I am myself an editor-in-chief for an open access peer reviewed online publication, the Monographs of the Archaeological Society of Finland. Since there is no subscription revenue and the Archaeological Society of Finland is not a rich society, this post is honorary and the society pays only any small fees for extra web storage space. However, the peer review guarantees the standard and the open web access guarantees the widest potential audience worldwide. Naturally, not all web users are interested in archaeology or northern areas, but the potential is there. Any reader can access the scientific articles published, in the case of the first volume a selection of highly interesting articles about Mesolithic lithic technologies in the northern Europe.

The free nature of the enterprise means that the workload has to be passed lower down the food chain. This means that the authors have to prepare their manuscripts digitally as far as they can, optimize and set the figures and create print/photoready files. With the modern word processing technology this is not a problem but requires the people preparing the volume to define the look and the settings of their publication at an early stage. If the authors are going to do the work, they have to know the page settings and the styles. This leaves the editors (if not the author of the monograph) with collating the files and checking that they have been created in a correct manner. In the case of edited volumes the editors also have to prepare any material from the less computer skilled academics. The editor-in-chief makes sure that the peer review is organized correctly and in a reasonable time with the help of the editorial board.

This all means that there is a lot of free work done at every level – or work that is covered by grants or salaries from the main job of the editors and authors. Nevertheless, the free access allows everybody, also those without a university affiliation to read high quality research and get up-to-date correct information. Free access means that the research potentially can reach the largest audience possible. Essential in the current academic landscape!

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The importance of geology

The mortaria workshop in Lincoln was very interesting and reminded one of a few basic realities in archaeology. First of all, the history of early mortarium production is little known. Mostly because the early production took place in the area were the castle and the cathedral stand and that naturally are off limits of most of invasive archaeology. This is a common problem in archaeology since later Medieval towns often cover the Roman and earlier centres in central and southern Europe.

One of the later kiln sites lie in the area where there were also kilns during the 10th, 12th and 14th century. The reason for this longevity became clear from the presentation of the local geological map where there was a narrow strip of a clay formation poking to the surface by the river valley. This outcrop was used for millennia. This reminds us of longevity of the exploitation sites of key resources. This has its implications on the knowledge of the earlier use since often the signs of earlier exploitation have disappeared or are in danger due to modern extraction.

The geology presentation

The type of clay available at any of the mortaria sources defined the outer appearance of the products of different mortarium workshops. Some of them have orangey tint due to the iron in the clay whereas the white clays that lacked the iron resulted with whitish vessels. This was also the difference between the local deposits at Harthill on one hand and Nene valley and Oxford on the other and helps to recognize the products of these most important workshops.

The later industries, copying the appearance of the Nene valley types can be separated from each others by observing their temper. Some areas are flint-poor whereas some had peat iron ore and this iron production fed to the related pottery production as well. The careful analysis of minerals and rocks used may allow a more detailed characterization and actually outdo the expensive scientific methods that promise much but cost a lot.

Geology defines other productions as well. The stones used to erect Stonehenge have been the object of study for a long time and may continue still even if Dr Bevins, keeper of geology at National Museum Wales, and Dr Rob Ixer of Leicester University, suggested the area in Pembrokeshire as the source of sarsens.

During even earlier times it was the occurrence of flint that was the defining feature. In the areas without flint the lack of the best source material for stone tools often resulted with brisk trade at some point with other regions with this material. Similarly, the circulation of obsidian in the Mediterranean is well-documented.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

What a difference 20 years make!

The last time I attended the Nordic TAG was in 1992 in Helsinki when the conference was small and Michael Shanks was giving a key note speech. After the conference the main question in the pub between the organisers was the name of the culprit for the dwindling audience in the conference. If I remember correctly there was a hiatus before the Nordic TAG took off again but I was then off living in Britain and visiting Italy regularly. In any case, I and one of members of the Helsinki NTAG organizing committee had a trip down the memory lane during the conference dinner.

After 20 years and a mandate as the editor-in-chief of a new web based peer reviewed monograph series I headed to the Oulu NTAG where I also hold an honorary post of a docent. I had my joint paper on a memory stick and newly Oulu based relatives to visit so I had plenty to experience and manifold tasks to perform. The spring was late with huge piles of snow laying in the woods next to the University pushed back from the parking lots with weather alternating between glorious sunshine and cold rain on different days. I had arrived to the conference a day late and after travelling over 12 hours. It only takes three hours to Helsinki but it is all connecting travel adds to the travel time.

On arrival I shared my late status with my former student friend who now works for the Forestry governing body and after that we headed to the different session according to our respective preferences. I was going to learn about the dissemination of archaeology – until I entered the lecture theatre and was encountering a session on Things. I had no problem with the change of topic. What followed was both useful and thought provoking about the possibility for Things to have separate rights to be preserved despite of their importance and human-defined value. The session suggested that our approach to archaeology and heritage is very anthropocentric and value-laden. Especially in postmodern thinking Things could not exist without human definition and construction.

The emphasis of this NTAG was on the study of northern areas, Sami, raindeer economy and soundscapes were popular topics and fit for a host city near the Arctic circle. However, there were odd presentations on the Medierranean and even more remote landscapes, such as Iran and central America. I went to hear my friend’s talk about Pompei and heard a well-established argument about the location of high-status residential buildings among the liveliest neighbourhoods in town. Personally, I presented ceramiscene and convinced a colleague to plan to apply the concept to one of his site with pottery kilns. Soon we will be able to have a session of our own!

The audience was much more multinational than 20 years ago. The common language was English, which meant that Swedish and other Scandinavian languages – not to mention Finnish – were not used in academic discourse. In a way this was a pity but on the other hand it guaranteed that the delegates from Russia, Estonia, England, Spain and the States could properly understand the proceedings. The multinationality fits both theoretical and arctic archaeology and the wide breadth of the papers and topic gave something to everyone.