Sunday, 26 October 2014

“Taliban politics”, says Carl Bildt

Rarely you are suddenly facing a fact that is so gobsmacking, you have to check the date. No, it was not an April Fools’ Day on Thursday, Friday or Saturday, even if the new Swedish government had suddenly decided to cut all the funding for the Swedish Mediterranean Institutes by 2017 as part of their higher education policy. This decision came totally from behind the woods and came as a total surprise: nobody in their right mind had expected anything like it. The Swedish Mediterranean Institutes include those in Rome, Athens and Istanbul. The commentators in the Svenska Dagbladet and Dagens Nyheter, the major Swedish broadsheets, have been wondering especially the sense of cutting funding from the last one that spearheads the humanistic research into Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia and Islamic countries. In the current situation in the Mediterranean with the war in Syria and Irak and asylum seekers pouring in to Europe via Lampedusa in Italy we need to understand the region better and have outposts in the Mediterranean.

The Swedish Institute in Rome in the 1940s

I myself have been on a half-term holiday and taking care busily about the family matters and spending time with my son. I only noticed the alarming situation when spotting the mailings from the Antiquitas, the Finnish classical discussion forum in one of my mail boxes when sending e-mails. The check to Facebook and the Swedish classical studies group resulted with getting a link to the petition to save the Swedish Mediterranean Institutes. By the time I signed, 8000 people had done the same. After this I started to read the news coverage from the Swedish broadsheets. What an interesting reading it made!

It seems that the incoming higher education minister had no previous experience from the higher education – and neither did her political secretary. Somebody had decided that this saving of 22 million Swedish krona (about 2 million sterling) would not hurt Sweden’s reputation as a cultural superpower in any way. Somebody had not realized that, even if the institutes are foundations, they have next to none independent funding. There are no huge past will donations or such like, and all work is dependent on public funding. No money means closing down in this context. The new budget framework also came out just when the governing bodies of at least Rome and Athens Institutes had had their board meetings, where this kind of threat was not discussed. On the contrary, the meetings were in Rome and Kavalla respectively and celebrated the cultural heritage and achievement there in the Mediterranean. The Swedish government does not look like being highly competent here (this came just after the ‘traditional Swedish submarine hunt’ as well – coincidently, the cost of the hunt seemed to be the same 22 million Swedish krona).

The situation remains unclear, even if the higher education minister Helene Hellmark Knutsson started backtracking after remaining silent and not answering the enquiries about the matter. Since the funding for the institutes remains in 2015, there is plenty of time according to her to listen and hear criticisms on the the matter before the funding is halved in 2016 and abolished in 2017. This statement was considered cryptic and the matter worth backtracking by Anders Q. Björkman in the Svenska Dagbladet. There have been suggestions that this whole cancelling of funds is related to the building of a particle physics research centre near Lund, but the government has denied this. Ironically, the policy came from a government that tries to be seen as culture friendly - we have clearly a left and right hand situation here.

Personally, I am about to attend the Migration and the Mediterranean conference in Rome in a week’s time, supported and co-organised by the Swedish Institute in Rome. I also organised an international workshop in the Institute just a month ago, so I can say I have contributed to the work of the institute and understand its meaning in the modern world in the Mediterranean networks. In the conference I do speak about ancient matters, but power struggles during different periods are the background to the relevant discussions on asylum systems in Europe, Lampedusa and Syria. An Institute that organizes such a conference is not just some vanity project, but an organisation Sweden needs in the modern world.

The following sentence is left only to keep the historicity of this blog intact: "It is still worth signing the petition as long as the situation is unclear:
Save the Mediterranean Instituts petition". We won! The Swedish Government has now promised to provide state funding for the Mediterranean Institutes in the foreseeable future.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Across the Baltic Arch

This week saw me unexpectedly being a northern expert at Stockholm - thanks to my docentship at the University of Oulu that has resulted me keeping an eye on my colleague's work presented in a closed Facebook group and more widely in Facebook and different archaeological media. Speaking and reading Finnish is sometimes a plus, even if we Finns have to learn more than two languages in order to communicate properly in the modern world. My expertise had its use during the questions of Per H. Ramqvist's interesting talk about the large Recalling the past research programme that tries to shed light to the little known late Iron Age and Medieval period in Norrland, Lappland and elsewhere in the northern Sweden. This area was the meeting point of the Sami, Scandinavians and Finns during this period and very few archaeological monuments related to permanent [Scandinavian] farming communities are known even if there is an understanding that animal fur was one of the high-status exports during the time and there are unique farm stead of Gene (Ramqvist 1983) in Norrland and a few burial mounds and stray metal finds from the coastal area near the modern Finnish border.

A reconstructed house at Gene

Archaeology tends to be a national discipline and the research follows national [and language] boundaries. Thus, in most of the maps in Ramqvist's presentation the colours and symbols restricted to the area within the Swedish national boundaries and Norway and Finland were almost empty. However, this is actually far from the truth and I know that the last two years have revealed a new Late Viking Age inhumation burial ground in Ii in the northern coastal area in Finland. There are also plenty of both Sami monuments in Finnish Lapland (that starts basically where the Swedish finishes - a source of one stilted discussion at the department this week, since mentally I perceive Swedish Lapland as 'Norrland', since Finnish coast line is still technically northern Ostrobottnia, not Lapland) and the same stone settings plentiful on the Swedish side and connected to seal hunting are similarly plentiful also on the Finnish side.

I proceeded to ask if the University of Umeå that is running the research programme does collaborate with the University of Oulu, which has its seminar dig at Ii and has for decades studied northern Iron Age and Medieval period. The answer was delightful 'yes'. It seems that different projects and programmes at Umeå and Oulu discuss with each other and are in some kind of merging process. Thus, we can expect that in the future we will see distribution maps where there are colours and symbpls for example fpr different monument types and Sami placenames from both sides of the border.

Ramqvist, P. H., 1983. Gene. On the origin, function and development af sedentary Iron Age settlement in Northern Sweden (Archaeology and Environment 1). Umeå: Umeå universitet.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Landscape Archaeology Conference 2014 Part 2

A landscape: Stockholm from Skinnarbacken, its highest point

Now that I and my notes are in the same city and land I can write more in detail what I learnt in the LAC 2014. Since this conference was in Italy, many of the important sessions were run by famous Italian scholars. This meant a series of papers on relatively local topics. Not that my own paper presented really material from more than one place – I thus fit the Italian framework well – but it was an occasion to hear more about the research that is going on in different less ‘crowded’ research areas. This does not mean that all papers presented local case studies. The opening keynote lecture was by an earth modeller who is not an archaeologist but an environmentalist who is interested in how much prehistoric humans affected the general vegetation levels and climate. Jed O. Kaplan’s models suggested that most of the Europe was lacking wilderness by the Medieval period and the large scale influence on landscape fragmentation can be assumed for the whole Holocene. He suggested that the deforestation was a factum of most of Europe already by the Early Iron Age (1000 BC). This actually fits well to my own local example where the GIS models suggest that all suitable agricultural land was needed for cereal production by the Archaic period (500 BC).

Running conference in three different institutes meant that one had to spend more time consider the papers one really wanted to hear, since the move from one location to another always required exiting and entering institutes through a public road. However, it was clear from early on that there were generally less people in the Swedish Institute, which meant that it was the place to be at lunchtime. You needed to queue less and there was food left when you reached the table. The poster sessions were cosier and you generally discussed more with people. The queue to the toilet tended to be shorter, but not as short as in the Belgian Institute. Small things are important when you need to catch a paper in another building...

It is always a pity that people cannot come and read their papers and I have been sinner as well, even if I try to avoid the matter now as far as possible. It was interesting to notice that one speaker who had apparently fallen ill (or whose family member had) let read two papers in the conference: one should not have been read by anybody else, since the point was lost when the replacement reader monotonously ploughed through the text and the author was not there to explain the key inscriptions and patterns on maps freely. Contrarily, the latter one was clear presenting an interesting online Republican family name database with well-thought narrative arch and nice maps of individuals from Praeneste moving around the Mediterranean in the past.

I was hoping to hear a lot of GIS papers, but ended up sitting quite a lot in the ancient topography session. It was nice to give definite faces to some people whose work you have read for ages and there was extremely good papers, too. Sadly, not the one about the Sicilian find distributions. Apparently all distributions on the maps were random, but when I looked at them, terracottas and cooking wares definitely peaked in different areas. Did the author mean that the correlations between grids and numbers were not significant, or did he not want to interpret small variations? This way or that way, I hope he does not dismiss the evidence. However, the work at Verucchio was highly interesting, as could be expected, and the other Finnish input, the geophysical survey Jari Pakkanen runs at Naxos was just such an interesting piece of solid research with a mathematical twist in the end.

The conference ran a competition for PhD students, a.k.a. young researchers (when will they have a ‘thank you that you still bother come up with new things, darling’ award for us slightly frustrated golden oldies?), notified some researchers I had noticed in the conference. One of the poster awards went to a female PhD student,Felicity Winkley, who had already flown back in the afternoon, which I communicated to the organisers. She studies metal detector finds and was generally fun to talk to. The runner-up award in the paper competition went to another female PhD student from Glasgow, Francesca Scalezzi, whose hair took the centre stage during the presentation. Do not take me wrongly, her paper on the use and data entry classification of legacy data was excellent, but her hair did need drawing back constantly and even so stayed hovering above her notes most of the time. A true performance on so many different levels!

The great papers I enjoyed and that were relevant to what I do were the discussion of sensitivity analysis by Marieka Brower Burg, the latest on the salt production and transhumance in central Etruria, read very quickly indeed by Franco Cambi and Gijs Tol’s paper on how Groningen projects in the Pontine Region try to incorporate inscriptions in their study. Gijs also spotted important points from our paper and got the very important amphorae observation as an answer. We will need to look at that thing elsewhere, too.

However, this was a conference of meetings of old friends and giving faces to people behind different work. I did meet ‘the poster lady’ in flesh, saw Michael Tiechmann and Thomas Whitley after so many years and shared a taxi with Jari after a decade or 15 years of no see. I discussed a couple of times with Matthew Fitzjohn and heard the latest from Gianna and family and Liverpool. Every meeting, not to mention spending time with my Swedish colleagues from the Swedish Institute, Riksantikvarieämbetet and Uppsala University, made the conference fee worth every euro.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Things are not as they used to be

As my notes of the Landscape Archaeology Conference are in Stockholm, I have to leave the conference reporting to another week. Just when I had needed the notes in order to cover for a quieter week that has seen me to start writing our joint article for our edited volume and finalising a presentation to yet another workshop where I will be one of only three people looking at Mediterranean migration from an ancient viewpoint. The other talks will undoubtedly include words such as 'Lampedusa', 'Syria' and 'boat' and make our contributions look slightly 'lighter' at the face of modern suffering, even if old power politics have relevance in today's world as well.

I will start with a lament of an grumpy middle-aged archaeologist and proceed to the remembrance of those who are not among us any more. I will first do my best J C coffee room impression and then pay attention to those who did their share there [relatively] quietly and make huge contribution and those who did not quite get to make everlasting contribution before the time was up.

My grumpiness is related to the fact that it seems that current students do not take student-run conferences - even if on the postgraduate level - as studenty as they used to. They do not pay attention to normal fieldwork/holiday times and are beginning to show the tendencies of the more 'serious' conferences. In the past seem to be those times when the postgrads were begging for papers long into the spring and all flowers could flower. No, now it seems that it is perfectly OK to announce the call for sessions in August so that most people miss the call when facing their mailbox at some point in September (when it was too late already). The result is that the two sensible sessions with the themes I and many others could contribute to are closed sessions and our suggestions will go directly to the general session - that will be huge on the face of the lack of sessions with general theoretical discussion potential. To keep the form, the deadline for the papers is at the end of October, almost five months before the conference! In any case, it will probably be lovely in the end. At least it is at home so we do not have to go anywhere and we may be able to get a babysitter even if I have to fly to another conference a day after.

After releasing my grumpy old lady, I release another feeling of age: the sadness when your friends disappear from your side. Our common friend lost her battle towards cancer so rare the doctors at the Addenbrooks Hospital were unsure about it. We followed her brave messages on Facebook from the hospital bed and tried to give our cheers, but when the words 'decharge plan' came up, I started to fear the worst (coming from a medical family makes me sensitive to euphemisms). We are lucky that another friend managed to pull it through, but increasingly good friends and those who were at the University with us have succumbed to all kinds of ends. For some, there have been kind obituaries, but some others left before they could finish their studies or PhDs or other major professional merits. However, they do live in our memories.