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.