Saturday, 24 January 2015

From ChrisFest to Nepi

An evening view from Villa Lante

My work trips to Rome seem to be every time huge whirlwinds of activity and experiences. This time it is even more so, since I have managed to pack into a week serious pottery work, meetings with Swedish and Italian colleagues, library work, two half days in Chris Wickham's Fest-do and finally a trip to Nepi to see the new communal museum. Every single part of the week has been interesting and eye-opening - even the one involving moving builders ladders and being covered in dust while passing the honourable bishops and representatives of religious orders in the Finnish Institute after a busy morning in the 'Archaeological Lab'.

An impromptu meeting with a Swedish colleague separated me from the wine reception in the BSR during the ChrisFest, but one has to grasp an opportunity when it knocks. This meeting saved us from Skyping or taking trains at a later stage, so running away before the prosecco was for the common good - or this I tell myself gritting my teeth. However, the two visits to the conference underlined the difference historians and archaeologists have. While archaeologists rarely part from their visuals and PowerPoints, the pure historians stick to reading their prepared texts. Not necessarily reflecting the general feeling, since after all, I missed two whole days of langobards and even Medieval Iceland, my highlights were the topographic memory at Cosa and Alatri as presented by Lisa Fentress and the talk on early Medieval gardens in Rome by Caroline Goodson. Both by archaeologists with nice images and maps together with PowerPoint slides on ancient text excerpts and, crucially, new ideas and information about appropriation and food security. Elsewhere in the conference there were also interesting details to be learned about the shortages of olive oil in the early Medieval world.

Medieval art in Civita Castellana

The short stays in the ChrisFest gave food for thought for Volterra and the trip to Nepi gave food for thought for the history of the wider region. Museum Director Stefano Francocci had already earlier asked me to visit the communal museum of Nepi, since I was not in Italy when the big opening took place a few years ago. Now he kindly changed his working hours and came to guide me and my Finnish historian colleague who specialises in Roman religion. Thus, after seeing the museum the exhibition, which is of unusual quality for a local, communal museum with both Italian and English texts and reconstructions and multiple displays stretching from the Orientalising cemeteries to Lucrezia Borgia, I asked about the possibility to visit the local catacombs of Santa Sevinilla. Stefano did come to guide us personally, which just shows his generosity.

Stefano Francocci guides us in the catacombs

The catacombs are small but well presented and since my earlier visit at the turn of the Millennium the church had been renovated and the area of the whole inside floor had been excavated. This had allowed to expose the original entrance to the inferior corridor and some graves on the rock surface. The catacomb dates to the fourth century AD and has also some Medieval paintings, so it has not really been totally forgotten. The stories about early martyrdom and other features are examples of the topographic social memory Lisa was talking about. The similar catacombs in Sutri, Bolsena and along Via Amerina (not open or available currently for visit) show the strength of the late Roman settlement in the small towns of the Viterbo region. My colleague Marja-Leena Hänninen was really pleased - especially, since afterwards we visited the cosmatic cathedral in Civita Castellana and saw reused sacrofagus as an altar, Roman inscribed tomb stones, Medieval sculpture, the crypts and the beautiful cosmatic floor and portico outside. After a busy week, a work trip was not really a work trip, but a pleasure with a friend.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Archaeologist? A charted archaeologist?

In the wind-whirl that seems to be my normal work week - 200 georeffed surfaces on top of planning applications, preparing a work trip to Rome and checking references - I noticed that the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) I am a Member of has changed its name officially to the Charted Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA). The Institute has officially got its charter from the Queen, so I am now REALLY an archaeologist - apparently. There have been a series of e-mails on how beneficial this is, but I assume I am not the only one who has to have prioritised keeping all the plates in the air and skipping the messages to be read at a later stage - the job newsletter, though, has seldom got more thorough 'find-and-search'. However, now archaeologists in Britain has an official entity that can say who has the level of professionalism to be employed as a professional archaeologist. And it is not necessarily the degree that counts, what what is your 'craft', your experience in it and your of 'craftmanship'.

I have recently written about the situations where a Finnish research student has suddenly found herself in between the categories and different practices in different countries. However, the issue of who is an archaeologist is a wider one. The postprocessual archaeology at least in its one form promoted relativism, so anybody who can considered a stakeholder could be an archaeologist. The discussions of the politics of archaeology and the access to archaeology has been an issue for a longer period now. And now we can give our comments, since before Christmas Cornelius Holtorf announced a theme for a coming Special issue of Journal of Contemporary Archaeology.

Now I have to quote direct Cornelius for his own words: "In recent years several archaeologists have stated, or implied, that “we are all archaeologists now”. On the one hand, this statement can be seen as democratizing the discipline and opening up the field of archaeology to contemporary society at large, in particular to all those who, like professional archaeologists, are interested in engaging with the material remains of the past. On the other hand, we have to wonder where exactly archaeological professionalism and their specific expertise lies if “we are all archaeologists now”. Are some people perhaps not archaeologists after all?"

I assume this blog does not open the invitation to the whole world, so I point out that his forum "invites archaeologists and others to submit responses to the short provocation contained in the first paragraph. Commentaries are welcomed in the form of short academic texts (1,000 – 3,000 words) or in any other genre suitable for representation in print, including drawings and images. We welcome especially original thoughts and specific examples from around the world. The best commentaries in terms of originality, diversity and depth will be published in a forthcoming Forum in Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. Deadline for submissions is 4 April 2015." If interested, find Cornelius via or google.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Treasure from near Aylesbury

I have recently observed and commented on the metal detecting hobby in Finland, so it is fitting that I make a few short comments on the Aylesbury treasure that made news at the New Year. This treasure consisting of Anglo-Saxon coins is one of the largest found and the Telegraph headline suggested that it is worth about 1 million pounds and consisted of 5,421 coins, the easily dated apparently from the reigns of Ethelred the Unready and Canute from the turn and the beginning of the second millennium AD. The treasure was found during an annual metal detector event organised by the Weekend Wanderers Detecting Club on December 21, 2014. The Daily Telegraph called it a 'dig', but a visit to a field where the group had been earlier could only called a dig after the find was made. The Daily Mail correctly writes in the text that initially it was a rally for the group - and the finder almost missed it, because the difficulty of affording the petrol. The group involved an archaeologist in the eventual unearthening of the hoard, but over 100 people attended the even, so the photographs in the Daily Mail show a somewhat chaotic image of the event, when the hoard was bagged.

The coin bags in a Sainsbury bag (photo: Weekend Wanderers Detecting Club/SWNS)

The Daily Mail article has a video link to an earlier coin hoard, this time Roman, that had an ad hoc grid created across the mass of the coins. The coins were there bagged by a grid square. The coins in Aylesbury were found in a lead container and the article has a still of the lead sheets with some coins visible. This photo had a scale and other photos (see above) were in separate bags in certain quantities, so similar gridding may have happened here as well. The archaeologist, a finds liason officer from the Buckinghamshire county museum, Ros Tyrrell, was interviewed, so there was a professional to oversee the recording.

It is clear that a large find has to be excavated soon, but it is a pity if in the hurry and in excitement nobody pays attention to the context. In the wider publicity it was not mentioned clearly, if this was a truly isolated find - or part of cemetery or a ritual site. A revisit to a same field suggests that there have been other finds, too. However, the organised Club guarantees that at least these finds are reported properly. The local newspaper told that Ros speant four or five hours on his tummy in the cold.

The manner this find was made has raised criticism among some professional archaeologists, and it is worrying, if the fields are emptied and nothing else is picked out. Especially, when short googling results with the information from the Looting Matters blog that the find was actually made from the area of a deserted medieval village (DMV) and a Medieval manor house. These kinds of metal detecting events would not be possible according to the Finnish law, for example, since you are not allowed to touch known archaeological sites in the Nordic countries. It is lamentable that limited attention is given to the context in metal detecting. Especially, when the find at Aylesbury was made c. 60 centrimetres deep... Could have been inside any ancient building!

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The most important archaeological find of the year?

The damage to the Great Mosque in Aleppo (photo: AAAS/BBC)

The New Year and the weekend before Epiphany means the end of the annual time, which brings a well-deserved break to my normal busy schedule. Today is one of the last days before the lull will finish with the start of the school term and the need to face all those things that will need doing this year. Interestingly, the start of the school year in Leicestershire will fall onto the same day most of Europe celebrate Epiphany, which means that I will be officially having a bank holiday in Sweden, but in practice starting my working year in UK. A bit confusing, but I will balance the hours when using them to cover for some mid-week flights.

The lovely nothing-muchness of the time at home at Christmas means that pretty much nothing has happened archaeologically in my life, but this gives a good opportunity to reflect on a couple of finds made recently. These actually relate to some of my recent blog entries, so I can comment with some personal reflection on the matters.

Images by the University of Birmingham (Heritage Daily)

Heritage Daily has compiled a list of the top 10 archaeological discoveries this year. Naturally, the meaning of these discoveries will be truly revealed with time, when their significance against the background of all the other finds regionally. One also has to take into consideration that the online magazine states that this list is based mainly on the trending results of their own site (plus the apparently subjective ‘magnitude’ of the find). Nevertheless, I must agree with their Number 1: the new digital map of the hidden archaeology of Stonehenge. I myself wrote about this map at the end of August, but I do not seem to have mentioned the fact that some of my colleagues have not been that enthusiastic about the total coverage of geophysical mapping. However, one person’s humble pit is another person’s interpretation on ritual practices, so I can understand if people working in places with standing structures or scanning physical objects do not find a few pits that exciting.

What will be interesting to see is what will happen next with Professor Gaffney and Stonehenge. Vince has had a long time relationship with this landscape – with Sally Exon, Vincent Gaffney, Ann Woodward and Ron Yorston’s Stonehenge Landscapes: Journeys Through Real and Imagined Worlds from 2000 probably not getting the appreciation it should have had. If nothing else, the BAR volume not only looks at the barrows – often overlooked in the Stonehenge landscape – but it also gives good basic descriptions of different barrow groups. I have used Stonehenge landscape myself in the course material of my online course and tried to remember to present all Stonehenge [field] projects I am myself aware of. Everyone of them has brought something different to our knowledge of this enigmatic landscape that almost everybody in the world knows. Thus, any new finds of Stonehenge are important and part of World Archaeology – even if I can remember how underwhelmed I personally was when I visited the monument the first time. But I was awed and continue to be awed by everything that is there with it in the Salisbury Plains.

Anyway, Vince has now moved to the University of Bradford and we will see what and where his and his collaborators studies will take him. Birmingham’s loss is for Bradford’s benefit – potentially resulting in consolidating an amazing world class department I wrote about in relation with REF.

Returning to the Daily Heritage list, depending on the view point, some of the finds were not as ground-breaking as suggested. Number 5, the ‘enigmatic’ Viking fortress, is not such a thing if one knows about Scandinavian archaeology, although it is marvellous that geophysics has helped to find a new Viking fortress after 60 years. Helen Goodchild and others can be proud of their work with the University of Århus. However, Number 3, the two Mayan cities found with Lidar, adds truly our knowledge of central American archaeology and show how these prospection methods help archaeology. Sadly, when even more sites are found this way, this method becomes a standard and the news value will diminish for the consecutive finds unless their validation brings up something exciting. However, Numbers 4 and 9, the two early hominid engravings will testify of the early capabilities of different species even if their dates may be contested and new finds may become the earliest.

Although it is important that Lord Renfrew and others pass the word about the destroyed heritage of Syria, it is an international emergency with the refugees (who in many news pieces have become immigrants) sailing increasing on boats the human traffickers leave heading to Italy and take the EU Frontex programme hostage that is the real story. This is a direct continuation of the problems outlined in the Migration and the Mediterranean conference in early November in Rome where I was a participant. Even if my heart bleeds knowing the damage at the citadel of Krak des Chevaliers and what happens to other monuments in bombings and assaults, it bleeds even more for all the displaced and desperate.

Krak des Chevaliers in fire (photo: Wikimedia)

Nevertheless, the assessment of the damage in Syria has been carried out partly through the use of Google Earth and Bing Map images, but partly through the US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, which has shared commercial imagery. I have myself promoted the use of the free resources and this shows how they can be used for a truly worthy cause – even if the in-real-time assessment is not necessarily possible for normal citizens. No matter what one thinks about the directions Google as a company takes, in this way their product is an instrument of good – if it will also stay free and online in the future (we all know what happened to Yahoo Maps). Perhaps this continued monitoring of heritage at risk and disappearing using shared free tools is the most deserving the most important archaeological find of 2014.