Sunday, 22 December 2013

The miracle of the TAG-On-Sea

This time TAG in Bournemouth brought about something I did not believe was to happen ever. I was in the winning Antiquity Quiz team; still those eight words make me smile Mona-Lisa-smile. Since those two team members who actually knew most of the answers did have their Antiquity subscriptions, I was the most vocal member of the team lacking it and thus landed myself a free Antiquity subscription for a year. We had not even considered the possibility of winning, so we had to go through the negotiations about the destiny of the free subscription AFTER our win. The subscription came on top of the Antiquity mug and the photo that the editorial secretary took (see below - you can find it in their Twitter feed).

Our winning team

Those who are regular visitors in the Theoretical Archaeology Group conferences know that the quiz is perennially won by the team in which Colin Renfrew is a member. I can remember only one time when another team managed to bag the win. That time the winners had Andrew Fleming and Chris Scarre in their winning tean. The former was in our team this year as well, so we had some hope, but did not really count our blessings. I had mentioned in the pub where a group of us – most of us from the CAA-UK scene – were having our hamburgers that I am pants in the quiz and just does not know the random Neolithic monuments across the counties that crop up in the questions. I reckon we could not have done it alone without our senior members. I did know exclusively the answer to two of the questions, but that would have not got us very far...

On a more serious note, our session went fine, even if Phil had to do the school run duty and the session chairing was my responsibility. The discussions on the taskscapes were vibrant – although I was the only speaker who did not get any questions. Either I was so clear or unclear in my comparison of taskscape and ceramiscene. Tim Ingold himself was telling us how he imagined the concept of taskscpae and how he has occasionally checked what people have been doing with it. To his slight dismay we archaeologists are discussing maps with it, but that seems to be what archaeologists do. Tim was also pointing out to the future and suggesting that a mesh may be a good analogue for the way people go about long lines in the landscape.

The session stayed very discursive until the end. The numbers of listeners dropped dramatically after the lunch break, but only the anthropology session seemed to have decent numbers. At the beginning both Colin Renfrew and Julian Thomas were sitting in the session, not to mention a wide audience of other known academic figures, regular TAG visitors, students and foreign visitors. The numbers did drop after the morning coffee, but we still got the Antiquity editor in exchange of those who had headed to the other sessions.

The overarching theme of the 20 years of taskscape session was the interaction of past and modern archaeological taskscapes. The research process was considered a modern taskscape that revealed information on past temporalities and activities. Chronologically the papers ranged from the Stone Age [lithics] by Astrid Nylund to the 1950s [nuclear observation points] by Bob Clarke. The pottery papers were in the afternoon, but considering the questions the systematic XRF study of pottery and clay sources in Tavoliere by Keri Brown reached a knowledged audience and I and Phil can appreciate the ceramiscene interpretation of historic pottery kiln by Matt Edgeworth exceeding the boundaries of the kiln itself. The latter again juxtaposed the excavation by the now extinct BUFAU unit with the activities related to the kiln site. Now we can only hope that the Nordic TAG session will be a similar success and we will end up with a good publication (or two).

Otherwise the running themes of TAG included some good archaeo-astronomy and some very imaginative fictional archaeo-astronomical interpretations and different takes on anthropology and material culture. The catchphrases of the days were the assemblage, meshwork and networking. These concepts will undoubtedly live until the next TAG and beyond.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

For eternity

I felt today truly humbled. I followed many other people from the Stockholm University to Aula Magna on this early Sunday morning in a pilgrimage. Like them I wanted to see the most famous physicist alive, the person named prominently in the ‘Big Bang Theory’, the man behind the Higgs Bosom... I mean the Higgs Boson. The whole hall was full and nobody followed the polite hope that people would not use mobile phones or cameras. One man in the row in front of me had a video camera. Actually, the Nobel organisers had already admitted in beforehand the unavoidable by encouraging people to twitter from the occasion. These contradictory wishes were not unexpected – we had all come to honour the luckiest scientists ever and wanted to record it, but the Nobel Prizes hoped to get there first.

Englebert & Higgs on December 8

Higgs and the Englert & Brout team who came to the same conclusion independently just slightly earlier, but their paper came out so late Higgs was not aware of their work thinking that their institution specialised totally to something else, had to wait for 40 years before anybody could built an instrument that could prove that this specific shot-lived temporary boson existed. Their line of research was very unfashionable in the early 1960s, but now they have seen the evidence (see below) that their theory is not only a theory but an explanation. The blip in the readings in 2012 in the famous Large Hodron Collider rewarded a long wait during which Robert Brout had already left this reality and could not be there on the scene when Englert and Higgs received a standing ovation from the full house. Considering this, the organisers who tried to show Higgs the timing cards would have probably been unwise to try to stop him. This was their true moment in the limelight after many years of patience. Einstein only had to wait for 17 years for his Nobel prize.

Emeriti presented two different approaches to the presentation of their finds that basically outline the same principle that there is a momentary break in certain conditions in the symmetry in the sub-particle level and the energy is absorbed in/by this boson. Or along those lines – it is about 30 years since I did my advanced physics. Higgs has never read an e-mail and logically does not give PowerPoints. On the contrary, Englert could master his PowerPoint presentation effortlessly. His task was to explain what they found out. It was all very well-presented, but most people were there for one presentation only (even if many students had packed lunch in order to hear the economics – I had decided to improve my economics and do a free museum visit instead). We started to photograph The Man from the moment he stepped to the room and continued when he started to read his paper the manuscript of which was beamed onto the screen. He took the trip down to the memory lane. How he had missed the night-time wine-fuelled discussions, with wine Higgs had provided, between other physicists in the first Edinburgh summer school since he had other things to do and missed an opportunity to help to fix a mistake in another physicist’s unpublished paper. How the series he was writing to was shipped to him and he got the important papers a few months late from the State. How this publication published his outline, but refused his proper mathematical presentation of his idea. When he got around sending it to America, the Englert & Higgs paper came out on the same day. This he heard twenty years later from the famous physicist who peer reviewed both papers. This was like Pamela Smith’s Personal Histories, but in physics, not in archaeology.

The proving blip

This was the great historical moment of my week. I did hear a good presentation of another topic of eternity – how to keep the memory of the sites with radio active waste. Similarly, the ATLAS project had its big event and stirred heated questions. But of those another time. Now one just has to think, if there has been a moment of such rewarded patience in archaeology. Carter was looking for the Tutankhamen’s tomb (or any remaining tomb) from 1917 and 1922 and was literarily on his last leg with the funding when they found the first steps. That find was glorious, but we will see, if the new methods can help to prove some theories to the reality in the past.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Amazing results from Finland

This week I attended the Archaeologist Days (Arkeologipäivät) of the Archaeological Society of Finland at the Konnevesi research station of the University of Jyväskylä. The experience was very enjoyable – I had not seen some of my colleagues attending for 15 years and there were a large number of archaeologists I had never met. My stay was slightly cut short by the rush to my aunt’s bedside, but I manage to hear about the exciting research projects especially in the central and northern parts of Finland. These areas seem to be the destinations of the pioneering settlers after the last moments of the last ice age and the finds from many sites testify of the eastern contacts and origins. The new co-operations across the borders and the new scientific methods allow tracking the movements of raw materials and technologies from east to west.

The exciting contacts are not restricted to the earliest Mesolithic in Fennoscandia or northern Finland only. An archaeo-chemist from Helsinki, Elisabeth Holmqvist-Saukkonen, is studying the movements of corded pottery vessels and grog between Estonia, Finland and Sweden by studying fabrics and grogs using SEM-EDS and PIXE in order to first separate between the clay mass and inclusions and then tracing the main components and trace metals. Her preliminary results show, how the Swedish and two separate south Finnish groups cluster differently, and how both vessels and grog seem to have moved from Finland to Sweden. A Swedish colleague had earlier suggested a Finnish connection in the diffusion of the corded ware to central Sweden due to the differing decorative systems between Sweden and Denmark and the similarities between Sweden and Finland. Absolutely riveting stuff.

LaPio project (settlement pioneers in Lapland) and Nordic Blade Technology Network study the earliest blades in Finland from c. 9000 BC and the movements of raw materials from the east. Similarly, Sarvinki project and the Neolithisation of North-Eastern Europe (c. 6000 – 2000 BC), are looking for eastern contacts and early pioneering life styles and materials in the central and northern Finland. The latter project has received relatively large grant from the Academy of Finland and will compare well-studied assemblages from Finland and Russian Karelia. It seems that the southern Neolithic is not the only source of influences and the Neolithic package is different in different areas. The project has just started, so we will have to wait for deeper results for approximately three years.

It was exciting to see how well the archaeologists working for the Forest authorities in Finland have managed to use laser scanning data at the macro level. Naturally, as Jouni Taivainen explained, not all monument types are recognisable from the data, but they definitely help to isolate tar extraction and charcoal burning sites and Second World War installations. Sadly, the great Bronze Age cairns disappear to the background.

In addition, the results of Mikael Manninen about the change of contacts and cultural make-up between the White Sea and inner Lappland during the cold event c. 8900 BC was highly important as well. However, those results will be published to the wider audience in the Monographs of the Archaeological Society of Finland, so they will be the topic for another blog in January.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Nordic Theoretical Group Conference 2014: head to Stockholm!

I and Phil Mills are not only running the 20 years of taskscapes session in the TAG-On-Sea but will also be running a more general Landscapes of temporality and activities session in the Nordic TAG at Stockholm, since I am already here and the conference happens to fall to the last days of the Easter leave from school, so it will be possible for both of us to be here. Probably have to start considering childminder service for the day of our session. We will have to split the reception duties, since one of us has to be putting our son to bed and stay in the suburbs.

Naturally, the session will have to have general appeal and be open to as many researchers, students and field archaeologists as possible. The pool of archaeologists is smaller and even if the Easter time allows potentially lovely spring trips to the archipelago or Medieval towns outside Stockholm, the lure of ‘theory’ is not coupled with the Christmas disco...

Our session will aim at discussing the ways we archaeologists interpret landscapes and use archaeological distributions within different theoretical frameworks. We hope that people will bring up all kinds of –scapes and –scenes defined by archaeologists, and explore different theories and methods we use to make sense of material culture and landscapes. I have started to ask different people to contribute and hope we can cover various aspects of both Nordic and Mediterranean landscape archaeology in order to create a proper mash-up.

Irritatingly, some really good conferences are running simultaneously, so there will be nothing about Gamla Uppsala or Finnish ‘giants’ churches’, but if I am lucky sealscapes and chalcoscenes will feature together with long-term use of rock art sites, colonial Mediterranean landscapes and Pompeii. We have not decided what we are going to speak ourselves, but naturally, it will be something ceramiscene related. Let’s see, if somebody than Phil can provide the talk on tiles.

Our session will be the only pure landscape one, but there are potentially quite interesting things happening with the non-visual rock art session, material citations, applications of colonial archaeology within Nordic context and the theorisation of poverty and wealth. To be totally honest, I am not totally sure about the concept of a flat ontology. The session description makes sense, but I assume no being can be totally flat, only condensed. Some sessions have a slightly déjà-vu flavour – Olsen and memories, anyone (notice the unintended irony in my statement I only noticed after writing that: does Olsen do irony too?) – but there is a lot of novelty in the suggestions. What is probably missing, is the sense of fun and experimentation of the ‘original’ TAG during the office hours. A Nordic TAG is a much more sober and serious affair, although the soberness does not extend to the evening program. The party is to be the one truly frivolous item in this conference. Trust me, I know who is planning it! (NOT me)

Check the sessions yourself: click here.
If you are brave, check the prices from here.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

What is AKS? Defining a discipline

The acronym AKS describes something that does not really exist in many other places in the world. A freestanding academic discipline dedicated to the study of Ancient cultures and society, a.k.a. classical archaeology and ancient history – without Classics that are placed in different Department within Humanities at Stockholm and other Swedish Universities. Every four or a couple of years, the members of staff, PhD students and researchers come together to a conference that was held this year at Gothenburg.

For a new postdoctoral researcher coming from abroad this two-day conference gave a crash course of the content and breadth of the discipline, current research, challenges and achievements. It gave a possibility to meet the coming director of the Swedish Institute and see all the professors – all female – in one place at the same time. For myself the most important thing was to hear want the other researchers, including the PhD students, are studying.

The packed programme was criticized in beforehand, but for my purposes, i.e. presenting myself and learning the basics of the discipline in its Swedish incarnation, this intensity was a plus. Many of the questions discussed during the second day, including the content of the doctoral taught component, where such that I did not and could not have anything else than a preliminary opinion, so two days of discussions of streamlining of the researcher courses would have just taken time from my own work.

A more relaxed moment at Makrakomi (photo: Swedish Institute at Athens)

The PhD students and researchers presented topics that emphasised mainly the archaeological and art historical aspects of the research. Landscape archaeology and spatial questions got a prominent presentation in the talks of Axel Frejman (Uppsala) and Anton Bonnier (Gothenburg), basing on two important Swedish research projects at Labraunda and Makrakomi respectively. More topographical topics were presented in the talks of Patrik Klingborg (Uppsala), Fanny Kärfve (Lund) and Robin Lönnlund (Gothenburg), speaking about the Greek cisterns, the entrance mosaics and the function of Pompeian domus and symbolism of Greek akropoleis respectively. The more art historical themes were discussed in the presentations of Linnea Åshede (Gothenburg) and Julia Habetzeder (Stockholm). The former PhD student studies the hermaphrodites in [Roman] classical art whereas the latter postdoc tries to develop an intertextual way of studying Roman ideal sculptures. I myself presented my current work on the pre-Roman inscriptions in central Italy and Sujatha Chandrasekaran (Gothenburg) discussed her research in the eastern Black Sea region. We were the guest researchers of the conference and the only ones who gave their presentations in English.

The discipline tries to feed discussions through thematical networks and groups, although some have been more successful than others. It is clear that the gender studies, Greek religion and Roman studies have enough active researchers, many in the nearby universities, so co-operation is possible especially in the Uppsala-Stockholm and Gothenburg-Lund axis. Let’s see, if any of the new announced ones will be alive in two years time in Lund, when the discipline comes together the next time. Then the focus will be on the research presentations.

Saturday, 9 November 2013


Anyone has walked around the ruins of Portus near the Fiumicino airport outside Rome appreciates how the sheer size of the harbours and ports has been among us for millennia. Even if the history of popular air travel has not even reached a century, flying has left easily recognisable structures all over the world. Yes, I admit that in many far-flung places the air strips are just that – strips – in the jungle or a flat area along the coast. However, the largest airports fill hectares and the support structures around them are huge. Drive to Heathrow and try to find your way around different hotel areas and parking lots!

Now when I live in two different countries I get to visit different airports every month. Just in last two weeks I have familiarized myself with different terminals at Stockholm, landed to Birmingham and flew off from the City airport. Birmingham airport became most memorable because of the late coach that risked me catching my connection and getting home in time, whereas Stockholm Terminal 5 was huge with row after row of fashion boutiques but a ladies toilet with only two booths. And one of the booths had the only baby change facilities in the toilet. Next to a coffee shop. Long way from the next ladies toilet. Had to be a male architect!

City Airport in Google Earth

The real revelation was the City airport in London. I admit I took the advice from some random web site for face value and ended up doing a longer journey than I should have, but I was amazed by the landscapes I could see from the Dockland Light Railway. For the first time I saw the profile of Canary Wharf in real life with the skyscrapers rising high. Suddenly I passed the Millennium Dome – I mean the O2 Arena. It was as pointless-looking as in the photos or Google Earth but bigger. One passed the Thames flood defences and numerous shining funky town houses, old sugar factories and wasteland. Then there was the airport itself. Just an airstrip and a ‘box’ along the canal side. I have to go again just to marvel the river and the changing urban make-up.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Mummyfried Tutankhamun

The latest scientific archaeological news from the Egyptological front concerns my all time favourite pharaoh Tutankhamun. When a teenager, I was carried away by those lovely colourful picture book about Tutankhamun’s treasure and found the whole uncertainty of his family relations intriguing and thought-provoking. It was somehow soothing that the only more or less untouched pharaonic tomb was saved by the obscurity of the figure who was buried and the way Amarna period was put aside from the official histories of the land of two Egypts. In addition, my relatively religious upbringing made a period when the Egypt went monotheistic appealing.

The charred mummy (photo by PA)

I remember from the previous Tutankhamen news when his mummy was scrutinised in Egypt that he had broken thigh and one of the theories of his untimely death was that he simply got a blood poisoning after his badly broken leg infected. Now we hear that actually his heart was not buried with him – a detail unheard of with the other pharaohs. Besides the missing heart his breast plate was not there and the ribs where broken on one side. The car crash modellers promptly modelled chariot crashes and confirmed that this looks like his chariot hit him and crushed his chest. The boy pharaoh was thus just a typical silly boy. Racing with other boys and while making daring moves made one move very, very wrongly with catastrophic consequences.

Nevertheless, even more sensational was the news that among some bones among the possessions of the original excavations was a small piece of pharaoh’s flesh. From this piece of evidence – and from the notes of Carter – the scientist could conclude that the mummification was botched and the oils used in the process combusted. The boy pharaoh was slowly cooked at +200 degrees Centigrade. He definitely was not a lucky boy.

One of the joys of life in England is to observe the bad puns delivered by the tabloid newspapers. Mummifried currently tops the list and shows how some archaeological finds have truly captured the imagination of the public in the long term. I doubt the cultural diversity in the areas with early Latin colonies will not raise any kind of acknowledgement in any kind of press. Luckily, I am likely to find academic publishers for my less pun-filled ‘news’.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Vänner och ovänner – friends and enemies

My research in classical archaeology and pre-Roman cultures has always been inspired by the different methodologies developed for Mediterranean archaeology and inspired partly by archaeological fieldwork and prehistoric archaeology. I have now been introduced much more art historical study of classical archaeology and a couple of recent sessions in the research seminar at Stockholm have shown me very concretely how this line of research comparing different reliefs and motifs developed in the late nineteenth century.

First Julia Habetzeder discussed Friedrich Hauser establishing the Neo-Attic reliefs as an object of study and then Ulf R. Hansson explained how Adolf Furtwängler was a guardian of the classical ideal in the same way as Winckelmann was a hundred years earlier. Both applied copy criticism, first outlined by Furtwängler when he tried to reconstruct the original Greek art work from the Roman copies and then used by Hauser in order to track the originals the Neo-Attic reliefs were copying. Nevertheless, these methodological advances were not the most interesting thread that came out of the talks.

A Neo-Attic Gradiva

It turned out that both men were very disliked during their time. Naturally, Furtwängler was admired and respected for his academic work by many of those who did not like him as a person. However, Hauser seemed to have been mainly disliked and even if he was very productive a proper job escaped him. Furtwängler found refuge in the court in Munich and ended up running all the fine royal collections and museums in that University town.

Maybe there were some nice and amicable archaeologists in the late nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the fiery aspects of these characters are not unknown in modern archaeologists either...

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Not a skull but five

Normally, when you get news about the early humans, somebody has found a large fragment of a skull and announces that [hardly ever s]he has found a new species, related to modern humans, from about a million years ago. Very seldom do you hear anybody announcing they have found five skulls, and even if they are different, they are of the same species. In the last decades the human early history has been fragmented between different early species and the theory of a single line of evolution has fallen out of favour.

The skull from Dmanisi

That was before five Homo erectus skulls from Georgia were published in The Science. The founders suggest that, since these individuals come from the same period, they must be of the same species. They probably belong to Homo erectus and some of the African Homo habilis skeletons may actually belong to the same species or subspecies presented by the Dmanisi find. This argument allows allowing early humans more variability than normally assumed. However, since the boundary between different species is proven by their inability to mate between each other and produce viable off-spring, this crucial criterion cannot be shown or denied for these new finds. We cannot observe them in the past in the same way we cannot observe Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis in potential action. In that discussion arguments have been split between those who think they could mate and they who thought they did not. The amount of the genes we share with the Neanderthals is quite low allegedly.

I have always been fascinated by the early human species and this news story refreshes some memories of reading too much of Lucy during my teenage years. The fascination did not lead to any concrete attempts to study the Paleolithic period, but remained ‘academic’ and an interest. In this newest story it is the early variability of the early Homo that is astonishing. They managed to settle and move into very different landscapes and climates and showed the kind of variation this new Georgian study suggests already 1.8 million years ago. They had to be versatile in order to succeed in the face of the new.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Nice cairn – no burnt bones

Even if I am here at Stockholm in the discipline of Classical Archaeology, I do like to go to listen some talks in the research seminar of the Archaeology Department. I did hear Gavin Lucas present his new thoughts of the contemporeanity the other week and last week I head a very interesting case of the Bronze Age burial cairns and stone settings without any burnt bone in the Mälare area.

A cairn in Sweden

PhD student Annar Röst is carrying out a microarchaeological study (see Fahlander 2003) of three burial ground in central Sweden during the latter part of the Bronze Age. This area was part of the ‘northern Bronze Age’ with much fewer bronze objects than its southern, richer equivalent. The dead were buried in the large stone cairns, some with a set stone ring lining the edge of the cairn. The burials were normally cremations with a pottery vessel as an urn or grave-good and some with small bronze objects. Recent decades have seen a huge increase in the excavation of these sites for rescue and development purposes and with the enhanced excavation methodology it is possible to get more information out of the grave finds.

The recent studies have shown that the stone setting types were more varied that previously thought. There were smaller types, rectangular settings and the reuse of natural stony areas for burial purposes. One intriguing fact is that not all cairns or settings seem to contain a burial, or they contain much less bone than could be expected to result from a cremation of an adult body. Thus, with the help of Lecturer Jan Storå Anna has looked at the types of persons buried and the proportion of the bodies found in the cremations.

The results show that there is a tendency that the largest and most symmetrical circular cairns have most bone and more bronze objects. However, some of the large cairns are without bones and there are bronze objects in some of the smaller settings as well. Nevertheless, the ‘imperfect’ cremations tend to concentrate in the smaller settings, and there are children and even a dog buried as well. This all shows a strong case of core trends and considerable amount of variability allowed in the past.

The real challenge for Anna will be the comparison of these three well-studied burial grounds to the 200 others that sometimes have been studied in the early 20th century and even earlier and cannot provide the same detail. My guess will be that she will concentrate on the statistical relationship between the presence or absence of burnt bone and bronze objects and the type, size and form of the stone setting. However, setting a database of 200 sites will take some time, when you want to include all the cairns and settings in a group. Anna will be soon two thirds into her PhD, so let’s hope she will manage (or some Masters student will do part of the background studies), so that the wider context will be studied with the same ambition as the microarchaeological investigation.

Fahlander, F. 2003. The Materiality of Serial Practice. A Microarchaeology of Burial, Gotarc serie B 23. Göteborg: Institutionen för arkeologi.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Pompeii of the North? Perhaps not

It is quite common to hear sweeping comparisons of townscapes or archaeological finds to Rome or Pompeii. Most are probably familiar with the Athens of the North – Jyväskylä due to its University architecture designed by Alvar Aalto and placed on a hill overlooking the town – and the Venice of the North – St Petersburg or Stockholm depending on your preference of watery surroundings. The latest Pompeii comparison is in Öland. An island less known for its volcanoes.

However, this time it is not only the Nordic newspapers telling me that, but also the constantly surprising archaeologically active Daily Mail. On the closer inspection this find is hugely interesting and important – not the least because it reminds us about the existence of ancient warfare and the violent end that waited many. As the newspaper tells us has been a site of large massacre that encountered men, women and children c. 1300 years ago. So far five bodies have been uncovered and they had clearly been slaughtered in their house. The house was inside a fort that was never used again. As Daily Mail quotes Helene Wilhelmson, an archaeologist from Lund University:“It's like Pompeii: Something terrible happened, and everything just stopped.”

A skeleton being excavated (photo: Daily Mail)

This is part of the reason for the comparison, but not the only one. As the Populär Historia tells us the site in the Rosendal Iron Age village has been studied and excavated for four years. What has stricken the archaeologists is the variety of the remains and the unusually good preservation of wood material. There are also well-preserved stone foundations. This unusually good preservation is another reason the Pompeii comparison.

This find that Populär Historia calls ‘agrarian Pompeii’ is however more like some hill fort sites elsewhere in Europe that show signs of the ‘last battle’. The nine skeletons discovered in a section of ditch around the fort at Fin Cop in the Peak District tell of the similar situation as that in Sweden, even if the bodies were not inside the houses. And these were not men, but women, children and teenagers as the Daily Mail. At Ham Hill the evidence suggests that hundreds of dead bodies were stripped of flesh and chopped up as The Independent told us. Thus, even if the Swedish Migration Period site is a few hundred years younger than the British Iron Age forts that fought the Romans, they still are the better, if not less glamorous and internationally recognisable than Pompeii.

Friday, 27 September 2013

About Frontiers

Last weekend was all about frontiers – or at least boundaries or borders in the widest sense. The conference took place in Cambridge, but most of the subject matter was central Italian and related to the Frontiers of Etruria project Simon Stoddart is currently running. However, penultimate paper was about the afterlife of the Antonine Wall and what a rather splendid paper it was. It was fascinating to hear that after the withdrawal of the Romans behind the Hadrian Wall the use of Latin continued in the area between the walls even if the burial customs and such were similar across the whole Scotland mainland. Only later with the Christian church the Latin legacy reached other areas.

Not that the people knew what the humps and pumps running across to the narrowest stretch of land to the Forth to the Clyde was. It was just a general monument left by distant mythical creatures; only relatively recently archaeologists and historians could ascertain the character of the remains after the chance find of an inscription that mentioned the Emperor.

Most of the conference there were two sessions running on, so one could not hear or see everything. In addition, I and my husband were both presenting papers, so I spent some quality time with my son as well during the weekend. However, I managed to get my own goals covered and could ascertain that at least one of my research ideas is not covered by anybody else and the other will work to an extent. Only to an extent, since I was unaware how large field projects the Dutch team at Leiden is carrying out in the Apennines in order to study Latin colonies and their settlement patterns. Nevertheless, now I will able to streamline my own plan to a more realistic extent and do the core parts of my comparison of the Archaic and Late Republican occupation around Nepi.

The main result of the conference was that I seem to join the fine Finnish tradition of epigraphic research. Not that it is or was my primary aim, but the recently published studies make the epigraphic material an obvious choice when one wants to study cultural interaction in central Italy between the Archaic and Middle/Late Republican period. This relates to my promotion of the study of mental distances, e.g. relative closeness and distance between communities and groups in central Italy during the pre-Roman times. Now I have made the final touches to the article that presents this concept in its archaeological form to the reading academia; I think there is hope that the article and the volume it is part of will come out in the spring.

Tombs at Cerveteri

Nevertheless, some of the papers seem to support my suggestions. Frederik Tobin from Uppsala has found out that the tombs at San Giovenale presented architecture from both Tarquinia and Cerveteri. This suggest that either the tomb architecture is not as directly connected to the political power in the Etruscan past as it has been thought or that the communities in inner Etruria were not under strict rule of one of the large city-states on the coast, but could interact with and between them. Similarly, the material culture from the northern Faliscan area may suggest the same thing.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Free for this month!

Stockholm is full of wonderful museums and art galleries and I see as one of the perks of my stay here the possibility to revisit Kulturhuset, Medelhavsmuseet, Historiska Museet, Medeltidsmuseet and the Wasa ship. However, the problem arises on a Sunday after a busy period, when you do not really feel like be thoroughly inspecting the displays – as you should when you pay in order to get in.

I already had had a quick trip to the Kulturhuset, but those exhibitions were closed or closing, so there was not going to be anything new there. I knew that Medelhavsmuseet is not too taxing and the Cypriot collections are unusual outside the Cyprus itself. However, I was feeling like just tipping in and browsing a bit in a cultured surroundings.

Personalising Bronze Age burials

Luckily, before heading to the centre I checked the local free Metro and realised that Historiska Museet is under renovation and free for the whole September. It was interesting to see the totally new exhibition. Last time I had been in the museum, there was a traditional beginning and then a 1970s bright colours before the Viking highpoint at the end.

Now the exhibition was totally different. One of those displays where you have a lot of visiual ideas and a narrative that avoids archaeological jargon and tries to be as easily understandable as possible. The displays also tried to make the past approachable so that the individuals were brought to the front.

There were no specific culture names or distribution maps. The prehistory was presented as a series of personal stories and circumstances (a ritually killed and buried girl, a man with Roman contacts, an aristocratic woman from early Middle Ages) or specific sites. The problem was that since the period information was almost lacking, it was very difficult for a non-Swedish archaeologist to compare material to for example Finnish or Mediterranean material from equivalent periods. I did my courses in Scandinavian archaeology so long ago that it was impossible to use this exhibition as a quick refresher course.


I really liked certain parts of the exhibition – such as the airport lounge with different gates with announcements to the past and mini-exhibitions discussing topics such as the use of the past in propaganda. However, I cannot understand why there were no maps. It would have been nice to see the distribution of the rune stones that were well displayed or something connecting Vendel tomb to the wider funerary landscape. Sometimes displays become so generic they almost use same universal characterisations from one period to another. Sometimes a few references to the Bell Beaker Culture could tell more about the past than very simply worded panels.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The power of words

During the first two weeks in Sweden I have managed to put together enough material in order to present a paper in the Frontiers in the Iron Age conference in Cambridge next week. I will undoubtedly return to the themes I will talk about when commenting on the conference in two weeks time. In any case, I have to prepare the material better before I publish anything, so this will be a longer research process for the future, but I have some interesting questions to discuss.

Alongside preparing this talk I went and listened other people giving talks. In Stockholm I heard in the researcher seminar an interesting talk about the classism in nation building in the 19th century Europe, delivered by Athena Leoussi, a sociologist from Reading. It was fascinating to hear that the English presented themselves as the successors of the ancient Greeks, the most racially advanced humans so far. This was because they considered themselves tall and blond Anglo-Saxons, belonging to a northern race similarly to the Scandinavians. The French on the other hand perceived the Greeks as splendidly dark and olive-skinned and saw themselves as the torchbearers of the Greeks of the southern France. Both ideologies had practical consequences with the emphasis on the beneficial effect of fresh air and sports. The English developed rugby whereas the French emphasized the importance of the Mediterranean sun and exercise. Then there were the Germans, but the talk contrasted the English and the French.

The cover (by J. Karydakis)

The other splendid event was the book publication at Uppsala. For a prehistorian, a book about zooarchaeology would not be anything unusual, but the scholars involved in classical studies have only recently realised on the basis of bone evidence that the reality of animal sacrifice and ritual customs and the related feasting is much more versatile and interesting than can only be understood by reading the texts. There is still a perception that the texts are paramount, but it is clear that the time is near when the archaeological material will be paramount when studying these themes in classical archaeology. Bones, behaviour and belief is a good start.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Swedishness through time summarized in two bedrooms

Sometimes the interior spaces can define a national character and rarely more so than when I arrived to Sweden. I spent my first night in a B&B in the city centre where the furniture and decorations were very much in keeping with the 18th and early 19th century styles. This is the romantic intellectual royal past of wooden houses, wooden furniture, pastel colours and tiled fireplaces.

The other Sweden, more modern one, is summed up by the IKEA overload of my student flat. When black is the brightest colour of your own space, you know that you are living in a minimalistic flat. I do have a lovely view over the inner archipelago and I can see swaths of coniferous mixed forest from my window, not just modern blocks of flats and old villas from the turn of the 20th century.

This is Sweden – modern, efficient, affluent and cute. I can hardly wait to take a Finland ferry!

(To see the outer archipelago and the open sea)

Sunday, 1 September 2013

I have landed!

Just a quick note to say that I have been too busy to write my blog. I had to give a student who failed his essay a supervision in order to explain what will be required to make it better amongst the preparations for my son's first school day and writing and submitting quickly a grant application. Then I had to pack my most crucial notes and memory sticks together and spend my Sunday travelling to Sweden. After a long day I have arrived to a B&B where my room is from a 18th century classical dream. Nice wooden bed, tiled oven and soft colours. A bit of romanticism before heading to the Stockholm University tomorrow and getting the keys to my work-away-home pad in a student accommodation block,

I will have a year long contract with the university here and do my research in classical archaeology. I will undoubtedly also take part into the NTAG 2014 that will be here in Stockholm in April. It will be a year full of work and travelling between UK and Stockholm, but I hope it will be worth it. I hope to finish a series of publications within this time.

I hope to be more archaeological in my next posting when I have hopefully 'conquered' Skatteverket and found my way around the campus and the department.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Temporality of it all

The rare beach days this week reminded me how most of the everyday and special day activities we do do not leave any traces at all. The repetitive actions that the persons do purposefully for their own leisure may disappear in moments, be over in minutes and leave no trace. Some of these special landscapes are transient, such as the beach establishments. In some countries these have permanent structures, but in some places, such as Jersey, they are just rental services that pile their merchandise overnight under tarpaulin. In the morning they place their beach stretchers in pairs with or without an umbrella in order to lure the customers to take a seat in their comfort.

Sand castle being wiped away

Many of the families were making sand castles like we were and these castles were wiped out by the high tide. During the hours leading to the low tide the life guards and the surfing board and banana boat adventure renters kept moving their Jeeps and stacks of boards and kayaks nearer to the waterline. Not trace of these tracks were visible the following day and the narrow stretch that stayed above the water was covered by windblown dry white sand. You could see how the same meaningful actions were to follow each others partly by the same people and partly by the passing tourists from one day to the other.

This intentionality probably defines best the temporality as meant by Ingold in his seminal 1993 article. Our task will be by Christmas to define properly how this taskscape is different from any ceramiscene we have been discussing - even if the taskscape was one of the inspirations behind the ceramiscene as a concept. This example of temporality does show that my love for lazy beach days is not for vain!

Friday, 16 August 2013

Preparations, preparations

My long longed for holiday is almost here. Three nice days in the Channel Islands preceded by a visit to see the in-laws. I hope it will be sunny, so we can go and drive around the island and perhaps see some archaeology as well. I can only wonder how different events during this year have shaped my immediate future and changed my focus slightly after I did not get a local community archaeology placement.

I have suddenly realised that my next temporary step will be just two weeks away. For a year I will get a steady salary, but spend periods of time away from home. However, I have to make frequent visits in order to keep the family life going and probably to do some library work.

I am actually getting quite excited, since I will look at some new questions, while preparing old projects for a series of publications. I will be able to look at the issues of boundaries and population movements that will help me to see my old projects in a wider framework, slightly stepping out of my normal chronological boundaries. The discussions I am going to make are self-evident – so self-evident, I am surprised I did not realise to work on them earlier. However, it just proves how dangerous the period boundaries are for archaeological research, easily ghettoing researchers’ thinking. However, part of the landscape pondering will be so self-evident, it must have been written already millions of times. Nevertheless, I am likely to make a couple of newish comparisons and points by looking at the matters through the material from the Nepi survey.

I have started to use a library database in order to know what I will have on hand and what I have to check here before going, what I will try to get bought to the central library or revisit later at Cambridge. I spent yesterday in a soul-destroying job of scanning sections from an important book that will not be available in the whole country and I already know a couple of basic series I will have to visit in another town. I have also a list of some selected copies, memory sticks and data CDs I cannot live without, and I am praying that this laptop on its last leg will manage to carry on for a couple of months more, so I can use the programmes and data and I will not have to reload everything.

I have started to do some background reading and start some very basic tables in order to be ready to give a presentation in September. I have promised to say a lot and I will definitely be able to give an idea what I will be writing in the next 12 months. However, time will fly and one has to start to think where to get the money from after the 12 months. Exciting times, scary times...

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Combining new and old

Apart from continuing working apparently endlessly towards the publication of my old work, I try to incorporate parts of it to some new research I will be carrying out next winter. Admittingly, to a degree this new research is based on the analysis of the existing data I will get around preparing into publication together with my pottery specialist Dr Mills. As a ‘protohistorian’ specialised in prehistory and early history, the background reading is quite fascinating, since I also have to read some historical research. Most of the preparations for a major article will start properly in September, but I have been reading one of my old favourites in order to get my head around the general historical narrative spanning 300 hundred years or more.

However, before getting any more involved in looking at any landscape issues I have to finish with an article I have promised in writing in an article that is coming out later this year. This will be published in a proper internet format, so I actually have to figure out what kind of sub-chapters I want to present to the reader. I myself do not appreciate too much scrolling, but these things are changing now that people are using tablets. Since the format will be in HTML and not in pdf that just recreates a traditional article, I could be experimenting, but that would require redoing the images I have already prepared. Seems slightly redundant, but I have to see what the peer reviewers and editors have to say.

It has been quite interesting to learn that the publication that previously wanted to have a proper pottery catalogue now wanted to have a general article. On the positive side, this means that the change of editors does mean that they bring their personal vision to the proceedings. On an even more positive side, it means that I will get two peer reviewed articles out of the work I thought will result with one. The downside is that I do have to edit the same raw material twice and create two different products. In addition, I do have to do it fast, since first the shortest of the summer breaks and then the 1st of September and nearing alarmingly.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

A good and bad example

I do not wish to come across as a TV reviewer, but I have spectacularly missed both the Festival of Archaeology and the Day of Archaeology this year, so I will write about the two classical documentaries I saw this week. Anyway, my day of archaeology seemed to be a déjà-vu, since I was proof-reading the article I was preparing last summer on that particular day. Not really progressed far, have I? I did not exactly have a riveting subject for a Day of Archaeology blog.

X Tomb in Rome (with M. Scott, photo by BBC)

First I want to moan again about the ‘mystery’ formula the TV producers are using when approaching archaeological topics. The totally mesmerising find of X Tomb in Rome was turned into a ‘Who were they’ mystery that was not. I missed a bit from the beginning of the documentary and did not know where in Rome the site was. When it became clear that the place was on Via Nomentana and next to the Catacombs of S. Agnes and the mausoleum of S. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, it became apparent that the origin of the deceased was not exactly a mystery to the French team excavating at the location. I quite like the presenter, Dr Michael Scott, and I am sure this story would have had legs as an interesting story without the artificial structure of the programme.

It was hugely interesting to see the skeletons piled up on top of each other, often in groups originating from certain frantic periods of action and spanning a couple of hundred years until about the end of the third century AD. It was mesmerising to hear about apparent shrouds that gave the bodies mummy-like appearance. Some of the burial cloths had gold threads sown or woven into them, so these were no paupers. Many bodies had ground amber around them. The burial customs are known from North Africa, with similar mummy-like bodies found from Tunisia and Algeria. The ancient DNA of the pathogens preserved by tiny amounts of blood in teeth showed that some of the larger simultaneously buried groups resulted from the epidemic of so-called Antonine Plague.

This was all very well, but the almost casual dropping of the fact in the end that the area by the Catacombs was the burial ground of the equites singulares, the cavalry arm of the praetorian guard that Constantine abolished, since they had supported his rival Maxentius. These elite horsemen came from different parts of the Empire, including North Africa and Central Europe that was also mentioned. Suddenly, the different complicated scientific analyses were not stabs in the dark, but very carefully considered methods in order to prove something that must have been obvious to the professional Romanists. The cemetery of the equites singulares was in use exactly during the time when the bodies were buried and where they were buried. Not a mystery after all.

Mary Beard (photo by BBC)

On the other hand, a good example was provided by Mary Beard’s documentary on Caligula. She had her own approach that was highly source critical. She suggests opinions that the emperor had been slagged by the following generations in order to explain the killing of the emperor. However, she did not discuss the possibility that Caligula may have been mentally unstable and therefore became difficult for the others in the elite to bear. Nevertheless, we did get an interesting discussion, without endless mysteries and with visualisations of the boat finds at the Lake Nemi about the luxurious life the emperor led. Mary Beard suggested that in fact there was just more of the same for the state and nothing changed with the new government and Emperor Claudius. However, it is very difficult to say anything certain without new literary sources, although the contemporary sources do not emphasize any incestuous events. Nevertheless, the juicy stories of a decadent emperor are much more interesting that the power struggles of slightly over-the-top spenders.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Done and dusted

Creating an online course that combines critical thinking with teaching new computing skills was always going to be a hard call, but I think I managed to give most people valuable assets. Now when it is all over, I can assess how the course went and if it was a success or not. Naturally, I have to take into account that this course was not accredited, so no student had to do all the parts; nothing was totally obligatory, but in order to get a certificate, one had to be active.

All but one got the certificate. The only one who did not, only logged in once. May be I will hear in the future, if the contents were unexpected (it is totally conceivable that some people may consider the course to be more about the sites and they could just consume maps and imagery other people had prepared instead of participating in exercises), may be something happened. At least in England the weather became unusually splendid and truly hot, so the student may have decided to vanish to the seaside instead of ‘slaving’ week after week in front of a computer and putting some hours into learning.

It is clear that all ‘certified’ students at least checked the material every week. Some made comments to the discussion forums and two thirds sent me back their mini projects for comments. All those received were good in different ways. The project work made it clear that probably those who had some kind of degree in archaeology got the most out of the course. However, even the self-confessed technophobe did get important cues how and where to look for information. The best of the project work added to personal projects students are actively carrying out in their own regions. In fact, one of the projects presented original work. It will be of wider interest for British archaeology and I wonder, if we will find the results in an article in the future...

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Vampires in archaeology

While reading student assignments, I was amused by a newspaper story reflecting the July mid-summer news draught. Archaeologists in Poland have made an announcement that they have found vampire burials. The interpretation why these particular burials would be those of vampires rests on the fact that the skeletons have their skulls between their thighs. A fact undermining this sensational interpretation is that there were actually gallows near the excavation site in the past, as reported by a local paper and the Guardian, so at least I can come up with a likelier option. They probably were bad people, but vampires – I do not believe so.

However, it seems that the vampire burials are relatively common in eastern Europe where the folk tradition includes undead sucking blood from the living. However, the examples from Bulgaria have had iron rods stuck in their chest, which kind of conforms with the way to kill a vampire. One can only imagine what kind of mass hysteria can break out when for example a mentally ill individual with gum disease or tuberculosis attacks somebody trying to bite them. This kind of situation is perfectly plausible, so with strong superstitious beliefs a community may resort to nasty ways of getting rid of a troublesome individual.

Nevertheless, the undead are now fashionable and different tv series presenting vampires or zombies or both, as Becoming human on BB3 did, are fourteen a dozen. Humans are fascinated by an idea of eternal life and the complexities related in The returned, partly acting as allegories for racism and xenophobia amongst us as In the flesh did. Many archaeologists are looking for their Tutankhamen’s grave – or at least a possibility of gaining media attention and funding for their project.

On a serious note, there seems to be a vampire landscape forming. If these individuals deceased in unusual ways were thought to be vampires in the past, remains unclear. At least the different stories from around Europe, including Italy, reveal the extent and geography of modern contemporary archaeological vampire narratives.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

20 years of taskscapes

This year I and Philip Mills will organise a session 20 years of taskscapes: from temporalities to ceramiscenes in the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in Bournemouth. If you have missed the advertisement for this year’s TAG, you may not be alone, since you may remember from my earlier blog post how we were tracking down this year’s site at the beginning of the year.

This year TAG will be a TAG-on-Sea. Naturally, since it will be in Bournemouth. However, I assume there will be no beach weather on December 16–18, 2003. Considering the previous years’ weather around that time of the year, we may even see some snow. This did not do too much harm to the Durham or Bristol TAGs I remember from previous years. The TAG 2013 web site is now up and running with all the information on registration and submission you will need.

If you are interested in taskscapes, we are happy to consider any papers sent to the conference organisers for consideration for this particular session. Our session is advertised on their Submit a session/paper page. The session addresses two different themes. Firstly, the importance of taskscapes in archaeology and their application to the study of cultural landscapes; Secondly, the developments of the taskscape concept in the last twenty years. We are interested in papers that will evaluate the concept of taskscape as related to heritage, landscape and material studies from any region and for any period. If these themes are of interest and you will be available on the given dates, send the organisers a title and abstract and we will come back to you and your theoretical and methodological ideas.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

RIP Mick Aston

After moving house and finally getting the broadband reconnected, I managed to update my blog. During my enforced break from blogging among the sea of cardboard boxes some archaeological news have reached us. On one hand the University of Leicester is to continue the study of the Greyfriars in order to study some other graves under the car park and on the other a Durham student has found a head of a statue from a Roman shrine. However, the biggest news during the last two weeks has been the demise of Mick Aston.

Mick Aston (centre) with his Time Team colleagues

I did meet Mick Aston personally several times at Bristol when I was studying for my MA in Landscape Archaeology. When I arrived to England, I was totally ignorant of Time Team, since it had not travelled to the Continent, yet. I was wondering the knowledge of geophysics my fellow English students seemed to have. I only understood after viewing the programme.

Since I did not take part into Time Team, I only met Mick in some departmental functions and trips that were part of my taught course. We visited the Shapwick village, the site of the project Mick ran for decades, where he personally explained the history of the project and the resulting depth of knowledge of that village.

He was a gentle man, liked by the PhD students who helped him in his media research. His wild hair and colourful jumpers seemed to be part of his role, but also implicated his jovial and relaxed nature, which was not some added 'pepper'. We all witnessed how Time Time slowly withered away. It was a pity his last year was filled with some controversy and ill health. However, his legacy in British landscape archaeology will live on.

If you have not read Mick Aston's famous text books, Landscape Archaeology: An Introduction to Fieldwork Techniques on Post-Roman Landscapes (with Trevor Rowley) from 1974 and Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape Archaeology in Local Studies from 1985, you can introduce yourself to his speciality by reading this short treatise on the Medieval landscape in Somerset.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Early experiences from running an online course

The greatest surprise this far when running my Googling the Earth online course is the amount of 'proofreading' it requires. In the end it is not enough that you come up with an idea, sell it, prepare the material and hand it over. One also has to make sure that it is correct, since the lovely people in the e-learning department do not know the subject matter. In the end, the person who has created the material knows the order it has to be presented for a maximum learning effect and how different parts (podcast, audio PowerPoint, web pages, exercises and links) link and build up into a learning experience.

I have realised that I have probably included too much content into the course. This is quite normal for an academic archaeologist; you just think the amount of basics people have to grasp in order to be able to process certain new topics. However, the learners probably do not have too many hours per week for studying, so I hope I have not prepared too much to be ploughed through. On the other hand, one had to prepare for a situation where you have a novice in landscape archaeology who wants to use different online resources and give them enough of the context in order to be able to carry out and understand the exercises.

Designing the exercises was also a little daunting, since some of the course participants are really active in their part-time study or have membership of different fieldworker or archaeology groups. If they are really computersavvy, they can do exercises really quickly. There may also be some topics they consider knowing enough and they skim the content and choose the exercises they have been looking for. This makes it a difficult balancing act.

The most unpleasant thing is checking the sound tracks. I am not used to listen to my own voice and I am sure one picks oneself all those awkward pauses, hesitations and scrambled words to the maximum effect. Luckily, there are the bullet points to read for the students and in places it sounds OK. It is a pity I did not have the instruction book for the audio recorder, so I did not try forwarding or rewinding the tape. Next time I will do more retakes!

Even if we do have a discussion forum, I do not have direct contact with the students when they are doing the exercises. Thus, any sticky points will come out only later – and only if they comment on them. In this type of course they do most of the work themselves. Luckily, they will send me a very short mini project of their work at the end, so I will know if they found it useful and learnt new skills. If so, I will be content.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Secrets of the Stonehenge skeletons

I finally had an opportunity to see the Stonehenge documentary, repeated on More4 in a comfortable 9 o’clock slot recently. Even if at the core of the programme there were some interesting hypotheses, some better established than the others, some of the attention ended up directed to a series of design choices that clearly were made by the production company and outside the powers of the archaeologists.

We all have probably recently been complaining about the irritating re-enactments in archaeological documentaries. There are the pretend ancient Egyptians in their thick black wigs carrying bowls in dark corners or sitting on replica chairs when intriguing modern classical music is playing. There are the screaming attacking armies of the barbarians, Persians and/or Celts. There are the Iron Age People cooking in their woollen clothes in a dark round house, when the smoke is quietly floating around, while a voiceover keeps repeating the same mysterious lines over and over again. However, this time the budget may have been smaller than normally, since any alive re-enactors were replaced – by shadow puppets. The kind of puppets you see in the south-eastern Asian displays. This was a true novelty.

The documentary also kept repeating the same shot of Mike Parker Pearson walking among the stones of Stonehenge and observantly look up to their top parts. This section reminded me in an unintended manner of the movie Plan 9 from Outer Space. In that movie, voted to have been one of the worst ever made, a section with Bela Lugosi, then already deceased, and some other shots were reused continuously. However, this documentary I was watching naturally was light years better than the movie, but the continuous repetition of the same scenes hints that the programme uses the building up of intrigue techniques that repeat same questions, such as ‘why did the use of Stonehenge stop so abruptly’, before the ad breaks. The continuous repetition also suggest that there was really material for a 45-minute documentary, but the programme had to cover a certain slot. Although there is always more than 45 minutes worth of stories from Stonehenge!

On the positive side, it was crucial to get a neat summary of the findings of the excavations of the Aubrey Holes in this programme. However, some of the arguments were surprising - although the script must have been edited by the production company. The programme makers suggested that before the Riverside project people did not know that the first Stonehenge did not have the stone circle with headstones in the middle. However, Atkinson had already written in his book in the 1950s that the first Stonehenge was a simple henge with a ditch. The important Riverside novelty was the observation that there were probably bluestones instead of wooden poles in the Aubrey Holes. This is a true novelty, but not the same thing as them finding out about the simple first henge for the very first time.

I really appreciated the study of the reburied cremated bones from the Aubrey Holes. That must have felt like a very daunting task at first, but the cleaver use of ear bones as the marker of the number of individuals was impressive. Nevertheless, I am not sure how the presence of burials of both men and women together with children was evidence for the existence of a special religious order at Stonehenge and the members of which were buried there under the first simple stone henge.

Another thing that made the re-excavation of the Aubrey Holes bones remarkable was that every single director of the sub-projects of the Riverside project took turns in carrying out the humble duties of excavating with trowel.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Central Mediterranean Prehistory Day: from Sardinia to the Balkans

Just when I had started to wonder, if I remembered correctly and if there was a Central Mediterranean day in May, I received an e-mail containing the programme of the research day at Cambridge. I had originally other business on that day, but it was cancelled I could have now given a paper. However, the programme was full, so I could relax and listen what other people had prepared for the day. It was a very interesting day, presenting a few of the new ERC funded projects and a lot of Sardinia.

Even if I am not going to lose my interest in English landscape, the things have taken an unexpected turn in such a way that I will mainly concentrate on central Italy the next academic year. This is not bad, since I have still a lot to prepare for publication and this spring trying to improve my teaching portfolio has taken most of my time – when I have not been finishing money applications or articles to be sent for peer review or to be submitted. At least those hours spent in writing hypothetical research proposals have not gone totally in waste. For 12 months from September I will concentrate on Archaic and colonial geographies. Not that I won’t be following a side project as well on my spare time in order to improve my chances in multidisciplinary discussions...

EUROFARM project web site

The Central Mediterranean Prehistory Day was during the same week as the social media and public archaeology workshop that I wrote about last week. This Mediterranean research day was not without its fair share of computing. EUROFARM project headed by Marc Vander Linden is going to model the early streams of neolithisation along the Mediterranean coast and inland in the Balkans, where these different innovative strands are the nearest in Europe. Craig Alexander, when not working with rock art, will be doing GIS for the archaeometric XRF project in the Neolithic Tavoliere, whereas Francesca Fulminante was presenting her network analyses. PROCON project, directed by Margarita Gleba, will not model as much as many other projects, but study textile economy and urbanisation extensively using different kinds of analyses, targeting especially visual media from 1000–500 BC. They try to find new methods to deconstruct iconography along the process.

Unusually large part of the day was devoted to Sardinia, which was delighting, since the archaeology of this island is not as familiar to me as it should be. We heard Guillaume Robin’s presentation about studying Neolithic art in the rock cut tombs whereas Florian Soula was mapping the meanings of the Sardinian standing stone phenomenon. Luca Lai tried to look at the short and long cycles of different cultural chronological groups and how the subsistence basis and cultural manifestations fluctuated accordingly. Fascinating. Especially when some authors tried to get away from the pre-Nuragic/Nuragic separation, whereas the others used it in a more traditional manner, for example when tracking the trade in the eastern Mediterranean.

I also learnt what the Rome researcher at the British School at Rome will be studying: marginality. It will be interesting to find out if Elisa Perego manages to explain why northern Italian late prehistory seems to have much more marginalisation in its funerary customs than the central Italian ones. However, we may not have observed the material with her eyes, yet.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Archaeological social networking – from the Tyneside to Africa

Why is it that sometimes there is absolutely nothing happening, but then there are a couple of days when everything is happening? Last Saturday morning I did not only take students to the Museum of Classical Archaeology, but also missed a social networking workshop in the McDonald Institute. However, I managed to get to the Institute just in time for the free lunch to face the programme I missed. Luckily, I have been following the Personal Histories project, so at least one talk was on a familiar subject that was not so horrible to miss. In addition, a short section of the Tony Robinson talk I could not attend was played as the first thing after lunch – although it was cut short by the Archers theme tune belting from one iPad in the front row.

I was unfortunate to miss the presentation/comments by the outreach officer of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit and the similar talk by a young woman from the Suffolk County Council. Outreach work nowadays involves blogging, tweeting and Facebook pages. Much of the funding comes from the developers and in the museum frameworks the social media output has to be presented as relevant.

A project worker from the Newcastle University has been studying the involvement with social media of different museum audiences in the Tyne and Wear area, who basically consider Facebook pages as one kind of marketing. To her surprise most of the interaction happens with the people who live locally in the north-east – not with the interested people from farther away. She also found that those visiting a local Roman fort, related to the Hadrian’s Wall, were also interested and involved with the archaeological subject matter, not only visiting the museum as ‘entertainment’. It was a revelation to me how low proportion of the people visiting these museums is from outside the area. The Baltic is not among these council-led museums, so some of the north-eastern museums have slightly more nationwide standing.

Arbeia Roman fort (Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums)

One of the refreshing features of this workshop was that there was also an active participation from the Anthropology. The organiser Matt Davis is collaborating with professor Moore and he used to be the Assistant Director of the British School in Eastern Africa, so this partly explains. His presentation that made clear how important innovation mobile phone is in Africa and how much innovation is also happening in Africa crating different services was a revelation. He has now a group of local assistants who map local archaeology and heritage with GPS and use web interfaces. They have just realised that actually they could probably do all the data collection with the smartphones the assistants have started to buy.

That is definitely the future – as long as there is network coverage. On my way by train to Cambridge I lost the contact and could not read the Guardian online. Then I heard in the Watchdog programme that my network provider has been decomissioning mobile phone masts in the country side - thanks! However, in Kenya, in a country where getting a landline phone is painfully laborious, the masts are popping up everywhere and the assistants get their payments by a text message.

Another issue is, if the Google services stay free. Clearly, the firm that ‘does no evil’ is moving towards a service model that requires payment. The free Google books are nowadays rarer, but the advertisements for buying different books from the Google Play are very visible. The participant from the ADS (Archaeology Data Service) was suggesting that the free base mapping may soon be history after a certain number of free searches...

Sunday, 19 May 2013

An archaeologist needs a car

The sad truth is that an archaeologist without a car is like a cyclist without a bicycle. I was reminded by this fact by the break-down of my own car and the resulting whizzing around with public transport and taxis. Of course, this happens during the week when I am truly travelling up and down the middle England and juggling teaching and other appointments between Leicester, Cambridge and Nottingham.

A fieldworker is better off with a car, unless one is working as a digger or supervisor who gets a vehicle the unit has hired or can have a lift provided by the unit. Most sites are not conveniently by the bus routes or near train stations, but can be in the middle of the vastest countryside. Even reaching and visiting a nearby country park with archaeological features could take miles of walking on a Sunday.

Even if you can only get the detailed physical knowledge of landscape when walking over ground – even if one is not doing sensory or phenomenological archaeology in the way Christopher Tilley has advocated – actually reaching that landscape is normally succeeded most conveniently and safely by driving there. Not to mention carrying the equipment around.

The good part of this enforced use of public transport is that I had not to think about where to park in Cambridge – a city with a notoriously large area with streets that require residential permit for workday daytime parking. I will also get a closer idea of the physicality of Nottingham, even if I will be hiking through the northern suburbs in a hurry.

The drawback is the cost of taxis when reaching Madingley Hall where I was videoing messages for the advertised Googling the Earth course. This was best to be done in the premises, where I could operate a proper video camera with lights and professional voice recording system. The member of staff checked the result on the spot so now all messages are safely stored, so all material for the course is now prepared. But it would have been so much easier to drive there than drag all my luggage from a taxi to taxi after a couple of days in the city.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Searching for free resources

Preparing teaching has kept me extremely busy and together with balancing the family life and other aspect of life has kept me away from my weekly blog. As was to be expected, some teaching was cancelled; it has been a steep learning curve how much own initiative and publicity one should actually do for courses. Nobody will enrol to your courses unless they know they exist. I got tangible help for a course in Nottingham that starts tomorrow - and it shows, since it is happening.

I have recently spent a lot of time searching for archaeological resources in the web in order to help people to find materials for studying landscape archaeology and/or archaeological sites both locally and worldwide. The resources are plenty, but one has to know where to look for them, and some of the earlier resources have disappeared or have so many broken links they are practically redundant. Free satellite coverage is here, but the free availability of printed material seem to have shrunken somewhat – no matter how many open access publications have been presented or how much of the historic content of some journals are becoming available.

However, one has to admire the wealth of resources made available by the English Heritage. Not only do they run databases, but there are the presentations of the sites they manage and the pdf copies of many of the past reports and publications. These materials are easiest to find when you are searching them from the sites in question. It is so easy to get lost in the search engines with all the books in Amazon filling the list of the resulting entries. One has to guess the most efficient search words and combinations in order to catch the right resources and move between different search engines. Sometimes I miss the search engine from the ‘prehistory’ of the net, Infosearch; it used to provide relevant quality answers consistently.

If you want to know what I have been doing, please, check the taster for my online course 'Googling the Earth' using the text link or the image link below. If you are seriously interested, check the details immediately from this link. It costs £220, but I will be available for support, discussions and tips online during the 7-week run of the course (contracted hours, so I will not be constantly available online, but keep an eye daily during the work days).

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Business of a blog writer

There are weeks when it is easy to find a topic to write and a time slot to do the writing. However, there are weeks when almost every moment is accounted for for more important basic duties. Yes, I am dealing with landscapes, but the matters relate to the teaching to be prepared or to the future articles or talks to be prepared in the future. The coming two weeks look daunting, even if it is unclear if everything in the books is going to be realised. In any case, I have to finish with my online course that is going to happen in early June. If you want to learn more about the landscape and how to use Internet to collect information and map sites, consider the Gooling the Earth course at the Institute of Continuing Education.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Greek ruins and the Turkish reign

Apart from the sublime Life and death in Herculaneum and Pompeii and Ice Age Art exhibitions the British Museum had a special exhibition on watercolour paintings painted in 1805 – 1806 during the travels of Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi. Many of these were interesting, but even an archaeologist has to admit that one art work depicting the Sounion temple looks unmistakably like another painting of the Sounion Temple. The most interesting pieces depict landscapes with a visible change.

Edward Dodwell, Simone Pomardi, Panorama from the top of the Mousaion Hill, Athens. Watercolour, 1805

The painting from Acrocorinth definitely presented a landscape more rural than today, whereas the standing remains of the temple of Aegina were covered by bushes. The temple at least used to be a clean cut heritage site for the visitors to admire. The exhibition also presented panoramic watercolours of Athens and what the difference. Athens today – even if with the continuous recession due to the economic collapse – is a buzzing city that climbs up the hills around the low land along the coast. The Athens of Dodwell and Pomardi was a small village with some Balkan type houses around the area were the Agora once was. It was small and pitiful and nothing like the mighty city-state of the yesteryear. Pericles would only have recognized the ruins on the Acropolis.

So why did the artists and aristocrats suddenly turn their sights to Greece in the early 19th century? The obvious answer is the Napoleonic wars. The normal routes of the Grand Tour in France and Italy were blocked and the British turned to the area of the Ottoman Empire in order to visit the places mentioned by the ancient authors. The history of the Ottoman Empire is not very well known or recognized in the west, but it might be a good idea for many people to revisit the recent history of the eastern Mediterranean. The struggles between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans explain quite a lot of the recent bloody history of the Balkans. The history of archaeology also looks richer, when the activities of Osman Hamdi Bey, the founder of the Academy of Fine Arts and the first director of the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. His excavations in Sidon, modern Lebanon, were probably as imperialist and colonial than any of the period, but they still count among the important late 19th century excavations in the eastern Mediterranean.

Selfpotrait by Osman Hamdi Bey

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Long-term traditions through the Ice Age

As promised, I am this week reviewing the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum. This exhibition will be there until the end of May, so the first May bank holiday allows seeing both the Pompeii exhibition and this show on portable art during the Ice Age.

It is lacking the Venus of Willendorf, but otherwise a person in the know can spot many of the famous pieces from the widely-known caves and settlements across Eurasia. One could name check the Lady of Lespugue, the oldest known baked clay object, i.e. a female statuette from Dolni Vĕstonice, and the many finds from Kostienki. The wide distribution of the tiny female presentations with visible features suggesting plumpness, pregnancy and mature femininity from French caves to the sites in Siberia suggests shared ideas and exchange of ideas over large areas bordering the melting ice.

Apart from the female figurines the exhibition has an extensive collection of carved and engraved presentations of animals. The Ice Age hunters depicted the animals they were hunting, the mammoths, deer and bisons. The theme of the exhibition is the arrival of the modern mind. The cognitive capabilities and the first expressions of these is a worthy topic, but any presentation of the Neanderthals is lacking from the displays. The New Scientist blog suggests that the curator Jill Cook did want to spare the visitors from an avalanche of information on archaeological sites, chronology, modern humans and other lengthy topics, but perhaps some expansion of the subject matter behind the arguments presented in the exhibition about the emergence of our kind of mind could have been considered. The Neanderthals apparently did not create art as such, but it is known that they buried their dead with some offerings and ochre and this shows certain capability of grasping cognitive ideas. Most of the commentary on the modern mind also had certain tentativeness or uncertainty in it and different possibilities of interpretation were presented at length. There were also a few references of the importance of figurines as an inspiration of modern art. The Henry Moore Foundation had duly sponsored the exhibition and Picasso, Moore and Brassaï werer mentioned as some of the creators of minimalist female figures that emphasized a few key characteristics of a female body.

The female body and figurines did not only have a wide geographical distribution but the same themes, female body and animals, kept returning 25,000 years apart. Fertility and subsistence are key parts of human existence, so it is clear that the the humans have continued to represent the things that were the most important to them. The animal herds line different utilitarian objects from 20,000 years ago. The oldest presentation of an imaginary figure, the so-called lion man, has a considerable age, being dated to a period 40,000 years ago. This conceptual presentation predates the famous cave paintings with about 10,000 – 20,000 years, depending whose datings one is to believe.

Picasso's inspiration (photo by Jennings)

The exhibition design is minimalistic. A rare glimpse of colour faces the visitor in the art installation that tries to make tangible the confined spaces the cave paintings had been created in. There were hardly any seats and the shape of the area where the compilation of scenes from a selected number of caves was projected was awkward. This made it clear that the past art engraved or carved mainly onto or from bone, antler or mammoth ivory was the prime actor and the surroundings were not meant to outdo it.

Surprisingly, there was no paperback catalogue. The hardback volume was heavy, but the images were lovely. With a heavy heart I decided not to buy it. I wanted to visit other parts of the permanent exhibition plus visit the free In Search of Classical Greece exhibition, so I did not feel like carrying the substantial volume from one floor to another. In addition, one visitor was enquiring the possibility to buy a reproduction of the exhibition poster, but there were none. Another surprising miss of clear merchandising opportunity.

Interested in this and living near Leicester?

The earliest paintings
Tutor: Ulla Rajala

‘From Palaeolithic Altamira in Spain to Neolithic Çatalhöyük in Turkey and to prehistoric Scandinavia we will cover 20,000 years of monumental art. Learn the themes and settings of the earliest art work and discuss their meaning.’

6 meetings from Tuesday 16 April 2013, 1.30-3pm at Vaughan College, St Nicholas Circle, Leicester LE1 4LB. Full fee: £31.50. Free for those on means tested benefit (terms and conditions).

Easiest booking online or or call 0116 251 9740 (Thu, Fri, Mon, Tue mornings).