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.