Thursday, 28 June 2012

Summer season of archaeological news

Summer is a good time for archaeological news. Very often there is less happening in the world with different parts of the western world having summer holiday season at different times. The midsummer bank holiday means the start of the holiday season in the Nordic countries and the closure of the north in July, and UK and southern Europe close in August.

Even if the excavation news are not flooding in, yet, we have been served with further interpretations from the Stonehenge Riverside Project and Roman finds from Japan. The former news reinterprets Stonehenge as the ultimate monument for world peace, even if only in order to unify Britain. The latter find has been seen as a sign of the Romans in Japan. The beads (see above and below), with a hole through the middle, were made with a multilayering technique where craftsmen covered one layer of glass with others and often sandwiched gold leaf in between. Three glass beads were discovered in total. They came from the fifth-century Utsukushi burial mound in Nagaoka near Kyoto and they were probably made at some point between the first and the fourth century.

Even if the glass beads from this Japanese tomb show the existence of extensive exchange networks in the ancient world, it is quite unlikely that there was a direct contact between the Roman Empire and Japan. The Romans did reach Afghanistan and built outposts there so a meeting post somewhere in Asia could not been impossible. However, by the fifth century AD these kind of contacts are unlikely. During this time the Roman Empire had practically fallen apart, which suggests that the beads had taken some time to reach the shores of Japan.

Nintoku-ryo Tumulus (Emperor Nintoku's burial mound)

The mounds in the Kyoto area from which the beads were found were huge (see an imperial example above). The sheer size shows that they belonged to the highest section of the society and suggest that the exotic finds did have extra value that made them fit for important funeral assemblages. As an Huffington Post article points out, there is one Indian Buddha from the Helgö island (in Sweden outside Stockholm) that was an important Scandinavian trading post in the sixth century AD. These finds show that the period saw at least single objects travelling vast distances along the exchange networks, perhaps changing hands regularly in gift giving or exchanging knick knack. Nevertheless, these can be classified as exotica reaching their ultimate, distant final destinations.

The Helgö Buddha and other objects

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Day of Archaeology 2012

Friday, the 29th of June will be the Day of Archaeology. I have now volunteered to a web project that records what different archaeologist all around the world will be doing on that particular day. The results that will be uploaded onto the web on that day or during the following week will give a snapshot of the landscape of archaeological work in progress. I was first a bit unsure since what I do at the moment is far from exciting – unless you find a picture of a computer screen turning you on. I will be likely to be working on an article, digitizing pottery drawings or, if I will be extremely daring, having a trip to the University Library or Classics library to check some references or knocking up a couple of GIS illustrations at the Department. However, the organizers saw this scenario ‘exciting’ since it involves something else than fieldwork, although I am not sure if they are expecting literarily to get a photo of a laptop with Word or AutoCad open on my home office table. This will be a quite likely outcome...

I was told about this web project by the local archaeological officer who together with the local Portable Antiquities Scheme officer took part last year. Their contributions will be representing work that is going on within our council. Since the Day of Archaeology this year does not coincide with the British Festival of Archaeology between the 14th and 29th of July, their work will be less connected with the series of the Leicestershire events during that week. It will be interesting to see if their posts this year are to involve a lot of interaction with public and photos or videos to show them involved in archaeological dissemination. Their last year’s contributions concentrated on the Hallaton Treasure and finds work. Finds Liaison Officer had cunningly ‘outsourced’ her contribution.

Last year there were contributions from places as far apart as Iceland and Tokelau in the Pacific Ocean. There was tattooing in Hawaii, conservation in Ecuador and guiding in Zimbabwe so the breath of topics was the widest possible (see the map of posts). One has to admit that the contributions concentrated to the Anglo-Saxon world. The showcase selection on the map of posts provided contained only one posting from Africa and Asia respectively. Central and Southern America were represented by three posts. However, all the contributors will be presented in a photo wall. Even our Institute for Archaeologists had an entry. Due to the timing, many of the 2011 contributions involved fieldwork, although there were surprisingly many university teachers, museum professionals and students presenting their institution and work there. Thus, the photo wall allows a scene for positive ‘advertisement’.

If you are interested to join the Day of Archaeology 2012, you can go and check the project web page or join up by e-mailing There seemed to be anything from the descriptions of desk-based postgraduate study to voluntary work and videos so everything seems to be counting. I even found a photo of a laptop with Word open from last year – not to mention the illustrations of computers with digital archaeology work. However, I may be considering timing my visits to see a couple of collections for potential teaching or similar in a convenient way to show something more interesting than my normal duties. It is a pity that my visit to Rome will take place at the very beginning of July...

BAJR lap top

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The unbearable lightness of archaeology

No matter how interesting archaeology is and how intellectually rewarding it can be, sometimes real world seems to catch with it and deem it less worthy when weighted against the events in the real world. Lately, a few discussions I have had over a cup of tea have involved meditations on the situation in Syria and a selection of pretty pessimistic predictions of the possible outcomes. Even if I only ended up working there for one season, I could see how exceptional history the country has and how versatile its communities could be. Now I can watch the TV news only with a deep feeling of sorrow.

When I have discussed with people who have been working in the Middle East for decades and have long working relationships with local archaeologists, museum professionals and workmen, I can only guess how they feel at the moment. If seeing sectarian violence raising its head and another country being ‘iraqified’ is heartbreaking for me, I can only guess how those experienced archaeologists must be feeling. The government in Syria did not bring freedom of speech to the masses or freely elected leaders but it had created a country where the Sunni, the Christians, the Shia, the Jewish and the Alawites were living peacefully in a lay country. No matter how the situation will pan out now, the relationships between different communities will not be trusting or carefree any more. Some groups already have blood in their hands.

The unstable political situations bring stop to foreign expeditions in different volatile countries. Anybody who was as blue-eyed as to have wished that the Bush family’s long-term project in Iraq would open the country’s fabulous archaeology to the scholars could have not been more wrong. The collections were trashed, the sites flamethrewn and different buildings bombed or blown out. Nothing makes an easier target in a dangerous country than a locally well-known and instantly recognizable foreign archaeological team. I have heard of a few teams in different countries who have lied low for some time when drug traffickers or other dangerous groups had visited an area.

In a country such as Syria were a huge amount of sites – including Ugarit, Palmyra, Tell Braq or Crac des Chevaliers among many others – has value for world history any conflict can have far reaching consequences for archaeology and museum collections. Naturally, the discontinuation of research projects is a blow to the individual careers of highly competitive archaeologists. However, ethically, these losses have to be considered, even if enormous in the case of world heritage, to be of lesser importance than a potential loss of human life and the potential tragedy of losing one more country to the dark depths of civil war and carnage. Europe itself has been unable to avoid bloody ethnic wars and atrocities in the 1990s so how could the area as volatile as the Near East.

From the beach

We did work next to a beach site with party boats, countless chalets, a long row of souvenir shops and people happily having their day by the sea. The site was used by local tourists but it may be eerily quiet today. One could see Turkey from the beach, and a number of Christian villages are located in the area. The area is relatively near of some of the northern trouble spots but should be peaceful at the moment. If only the worst could be avoided and not only the archaeology but all the citizens and communities could be safeguarded.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Street parties and feasting

This weekend saw street parties up and down United Kingdom. We attended one in Aylestone and the grey skies over us did not burst to rain – unlike the next day on Sunday. We enjoyed a plentiful potluck lunch with sandwiches, sausage rolls, pizza, crisps, fruit and cakes, flushed down with squash or carbonated drinks. The PA system was blasting music from the yesteryear and the children had a bouncy castle. The street was closed and the bunting suggested the type of the festivity. It was the Jubilee weekend after all.

Aylestone (photo by P. Mills)

I really enjoyed the event although I am from a republic and prefer elected governance through and through. Nevertheless, there is something comfortably traditional and simultaneously unbelievably naff in the remaining royal houses. We do need some froth in our lives and the monarchs have curiosity value if nothing else. During this Diamond jubilee in this particular street party the atmosphere was not brilliant but it was more to do with the grey weather. If the party had taken place the previous hot and sunny weekend the people would have been singing and dancing along the road.

I was left wondering if there will be any archaeological reminders from this street party. Everything was removed from the spot afterwards and the bunting will come down eventually. The modern dumps are not in the back gardens so there will be no feast deposits on the spot or nearby unless people forget the decorations in their gardens. However, in the landfill sites there will probably be a layer of masks with royal faces, bunting with Union Jacks and paper napkins and table cloths. These days there will not be huge piles of bones or pottery shards or oyster shells as there once was.

The papers will feature the Jubilee and leave fleetingly a material memory of the street parties. Most of the memory has moved to the digital domain, though. This blog will live in a virtual landscape and similarly the video films and photographs from this particular party are digital. The garbage archaeologists of the future may find perishable remains from the depths of the landfill sites but even the historical knowledge of the event is moving to the world of the pixels. No glazed beer jugs or painted pottery in structured deposits down the road afterwards. Just structured landfills further afield with plastic blue, red and white party hooters and files saved perhaps fleetingly in the World Wide Web.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Archaeology and text

I managed to visit briefly a three-day conference at the Classics at Cambridge on archaeology and text. The organizers Sara Owen and Henry Hurst had done their utmost to create a friendly atmosphere so that the different parties, the historians, classicists and archaeologists, would not confront each other but discuss with each other. As Sara was commenting, some of the earlier meetings on the matter had been much frostier events.

Sadly, I could not attend on Wednesday when the full day was discussing the theme due to having attending an informal prehistoric Central Mediterranean conference on that day and having to do other things the following day. Luckily, I managed to squeeze two entertaining papers to my Friday schedule. Two female scholars kept me interested in merging textual evidence and material culture studies in their very different papers.

Susan Sherratt from Sheffield had a run through the trade and gift references in the Iliad and Odyssey but then went on to discuss the distribution of Middle Eastern faïence and other early Orientalising exotica in Greece. In the end she also discussed the possibility that the northern Aegean distribution of early wine amphorae with concentric circular decorations and that they presented a sign of early trade in the area. The involvement of the Phoenicians naturally is based on literature and circumstantial evidence.

Lin Foxhall from Leicester presented some ideas from the wider Tracing Networks Project and discussed her own research on the indigenous and Greek loom weights in the Megaponto area. This was interesting both as a critique of maintaining strict disciplinary boundaries in the network research and as a presentation of very interesting case study on cultural interaction and the selection of influences according to one's own cultural preferences. It was puzzling to hear that different scholars in archaeology and ancient history ended up writing two books on network analysis without any connection in their actual material and apparently being totally unaware of each other writing on prehistory (Knappett 2011) on one hand and on ancient history (Malkin 2011) on another

Even if these papers partly discussed more abstract topics, trade and female networks, they still had a landscape dimension. Ancient trade involved large areas across the Mediterranean from its part. Weaving is very localised activity but when the weavers were located in neighbouring communities but presented a distinctive material culture the research has its spatial dimension by default.