Sunday, 31 May 2015

Blood on ruins

Overview of Palmyra (photo: wikimedia/AZ)

I probably should have written about Palmyra last week as were many of the bloggers I know. Nevertheless, there were other topical events in my archaeological life and now one has seen what has been happening.

It has been busy for the colleagues who are known Middle East experts. Professor Kevin Butcher has been doing rounds in the BBC news, website and radio in UK and Sanna Aro-Valjus has been interviewed in radio, TV and major journals, sending photos on Facebook from the World on a Visit event from Helsinki in Finland where some Syrians had their own stand plus writing her blog. In Sweden various classicists have revisited ruins, Palmyra and other related matters. On the world level, there have been interventions from UNESCO and different seminars and workshops. People are engaging, informing, trying to affect world opinion and to safeguard sites.

In the end, the most interesting thing about the threat to Palmyra (and other sites in Syria and Iraq) is not as much we archaeologists condemn the threats and destruction or what IS, the icon clashers, are actually doing and how they use it to their propaganda. No, it is the kind of attitudes and feelings become expressed and are resurfacing.

Theatre at Palmyra (photo: wikimedia)

The most difficult ethical dilemma for any archaeologist and heritage professional is the question raised in one Guardian blog: “is saving priceless antiquity as important as saving people?” This is a question we have to be pondering, since it is the one countless minority peoples and the citizens of Palmyra may be asking after the pillaging, rape, murder and beheadings. Apparently, the theatre in Palmyra was used for public executions the city dwellers were forced to witness. Nevertheless, the ruins are essential for the trade and subsistence economy of the town. When there will be peace, the standing ruins will bring the tourists.

It seems to be in a fairytale land far, far away, when I and my future husband were working in Syria and visiting with the rest of the crew Aleppo over one weekend. Some of us were staying in the mythical Byron Hotel, made famous by Agatha Christie, and making leisurely walks around the castle, archaeological museum and city gardens and having a group visit to the Jewish quarter. One of our group hired a big old-fashioned taxi and did a day visit to the ruins. I now wish that in the future we could make the same ride.

Back from the memory lane: the important question came with a chilling request. The coalition forces have to bomb the IS troupes and safe-guard the town and ruins. This brings an additional dilemma for an old peace activist (or at least sympathiser) like me: are the ruins worth killing people for? These people seem to have no mercy or respect for human life, but should we choose the same road – for some stones? Would the bombings have safeguard the citizens in Palmyra? Have they really had any deep effect in the expansion of the Caliphate? In any case, the eagles of the war action now can also refer to world heritage in their backing statements. Clearly, the IS does not let be without a fight, but whose responsibility that fight is and will be?

Funerary relief from Palmyra (photo: wikimedia)

Sadly, I cannot give the ultimate answer – even from my part. It is a complicated issue, but there is probably no true archaeologist whose heart does not bleed for the loss of our common heritage and the possibility for the future generations to understand the past life and be awed by the ruins in their genuine surroundings. The ruins in Syria bring hope of some kind of unity when the country and its countless communities have been thrown apart. Palmyra and other marvellous world heritage sites can bring civic pride to all parties.

The lesser question is the rise of the voices being relieved that at least some of the heritage from Palmyra and other places in the area are in the European and American museums. Nevertheless, the memories are short. It was just about 75 years since most of the European museums were in danger. Still today countries such as Germany and Russia are puzzled or in loggerheads over the collections that have not been found or returned. I can only refer to a certain amber room or Troia objects. Recent news stories have described elderly art hoarders and the return of single art works back to their original Jewish owners or their families. Can European museums take a moral highground? Can we think that we have more right in the west to own the past? Somehow colonial narratives creep back. Nevertheless, the feelings of relief are often genuine in the face of loss. But the future solutions can be more about sharing than exclusivity or giving antiques trade a surface of respectability.

Lion statue, allegedly destroyed, from Palmyra (photo: wikimedia)

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Central Mediterranean on Gordon Square

The annual Central Mediterranean Prehistory Seminar seems to grow bigger and bigger and become better and better. I could not make it to Newcastle last May – and I wonder if I am on their e-mail list since I tend to be prompted by Cambridge – but this year’s offering was packed with interesting talks and nice posters. Since it took place in London, there were more presenters from other countries than usual. It was truly a mini international conference on Mediterranean archaeology.

It is clear from the programme that the pottery studies are important at the moment: the seminar started as it finished with pottery talks, with La Marca et al. starting with the Early Neolithic in middle Adriatic and Fasanella Masci finishing with Early Iron Age Sibaritide. However, the seminar is a showcase for new or ongoing ERC projects and new or newly finished PhD theses. This year’s big projects included the FRAGSUS on Malta and ProCon on textiles, the latter having also contributed to the costs.

Curtraro on rock-cut tombs

Naturally, one’s own interests affect the choice of the talks that are memorable. I am sure those working in northern Italy found the case of Lugo di Grezzana in Bersani and Pedrotti’s talk engaging, but I was more interested in their general introduction to the emergence and distribution of anthropomorphic decorations in the Neolithic. The way the tradition started from the south-east and then reached northern Italy and Sicily as well and how the different styles, named as plastic, abstract, sculpture appliqué and schematic, had their own core areas in different parts of Italy was fascinating. The contexts were varied, although most of them had some ritual, funerary or production function.

I have recently been interested in chamber tombs, excavating some in the noughties at Crustumerium, and thus Curtraro’s discussion of the emergence of rock-cut tombs during the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods was very interesting. He was presenting new results from excavations in Apulia and Sicily and these have provided new evidence for the local origins of this tomb type. Historically, archaeologists have emphasized Aegean connection, but as Ruth Whitehouse was delighted to remind us during the seminar, she had suggested this autochthonous development in an article already in 1972 – and now there is solid proof for the argument. The chambers may have their origin in the Middle Neolithic funerary pits that reused functional storage pits cut into bedrock. In any case, the chambers seem to begin as individual tombs and later develop into collective burials with some astonishing disarticulation of long bones in Agrigento. The new data also suggests that actually the Aegean chambers are younger than central Mediterranean ones.

Danckers on terramare

I am not sure what our Italian colleagues think about Danckers’s critique of the periodisation of the Middle Bronze Age Po area, but at least he will be very aware after the Facies e culture nell’età del bronzo italiana? will take place in early December in Rome. He has recently finished with his three volume PhD on terramare in the Po valley and discussed the traditional narrative of the rise and collapse of these high-density settlements. He points out how the Early Bronze Age terramare were smaller and located at lower levels in the wetter parts of the valley. The Middle Bronze Age terramare lied on higher ground in the drier areas and they had large earth features, such as ditches and embankments. He was suggesting that the apparent emptiness during some of the subphases is down to the visibility issues and the reliance of the pottery datings on very distinctive handle forms that are not necessarily always present in archaeological assemblages. I am waiting with interest to see how the discussions turn out, but as one who has suggested hypothesizing and faced with polite reminders of the importance of physical evidence, I am not necessarily holding my breath with the apparent success. Nevertheless, continuous critical thinking and open discussion are important parts of academic discourse, so it will always be worthwhile to raise polite criticisms.

Skeates and Silvestri

Skates and Silvestri presented interesting new excavation results from Grotta Regina Margherita in Collepardo. This cave is one of two or so Middle Bronze Age caves in central Italy where disarticulated human remains have been buried in the deeper parts of the cave. In Collepardo there are also animal bones, but only near the entrance where a series of hearths were, so these seem to relate to specific cult activities or rituals. The very fragmented rare objects included some faiance beads of local central Italian production, which was an additional interesting detail of the cave. Nevertheless, the project is ongoing, so we will probably hear more, much more at a later stage.

Perego presented the new marginality network

After Forenbaher’s interesting presentation of stone cairns from Croatia – not unlike the Bronze Age cairns in Finland – and Perego presenting her own work on marginality in northern Italy together with a new network of project studying such matters, it was time for some textile research. Gleba and Harris’s talk was an agglomeration of their respective talks in the Rome workshop, which I have discussed briefly in the past, so Brown’s perhaps more poetic talk on the clothing combinations in Etruscan tombs at Tarquinia deserves more than a mention here. He is currently using hierarchical clustering routine in order to explore clothing and adornments and their change in tomb paintings. Currently, he has broken into scenes and types only from 50 scenes in 15 Archaic tombs from Tarquinia. However, if he manages to add also the later, more fragmented wall paintings and analyse and evidence differences or similarities between slightly different paintings. As one member of audience suggested, correspondence analysis may work also here.

Brown and Etruscan clothing choices

I myself presented a poster on my ongoing modelling in southern and northern Etruria and other posters promised interesting work on Archaic stone quarrying and wall building and archaeology of Lampedusa in the future among other topics. Otherwise, it was marvellous to see different friends from London and have a lunch and drinks with them. Afterwards we headed to a pub and later in a smaller group to a fish and chips restaurant on Russell Square. I almost forgot to get back to St. Pancras in time, so it was a day and an evening to cherish.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Portus life

Sometimes little things develop into bigger projects than one originally expects. During the last two weeks getting the keys and cards sorted took three days when people were busy, on a holiday or had to take unexpectedly a day off when a family member fell ill. Now getting a poster done will take two days, since naturally it was raining when I finished with the Central Mediterranean Prehistory Seminar poster when at Cambridge. However, the consecutive visits to Cambridge have meant that I have heard some maritime themed talks.

The archaeological talk calendar at Cambridge begins to look scarily busy and not all talks have had many listeners. However, the two talks I attended at the Classics were well-attended and I also managed to discuss some work matters when the right colleagues were present. But who would have missed a talk about ‘Living and working at the port of Imperial Rome’ by the Portus Project!

Trajan's basin (image: wikimedia)

This talk was about the Cambridge – Southampton excavations in the area of Palazzo Imperiale in Portus, the sea harbour built by Trajan next to the Claudian basin. Most of the work had been carried out by Tamsin O’Connell and Rachel Ballantyne, although the osteological work by Walter Pantano from the Superintendency of Rome got mentioned several time. Tamsin works with isotope analysis and Rachel with plant remains, so the whole talk was about humans and their food.

Skeleton at the Palazzo Imperiale excavations (image link to: HP/Portus Project)

Palazzo Imperiale excavations had two distinctive structures within the excavation areas: the Imperial quarters and a quay area. The most interesting finds, considering the human point of view, were the late Roman ones, when there were burials, mostly on the quay side but also inside the palace. When asked, Martin Millett could not ascertain, if the palace had become uninhabited by the late 5th century or not, but at least the palace walls had been standing until they were demolished in the mid 6th century AD when the area was between Ostrogothic and Byzantine interests among others. In any case, there were late opus sectile decorations, so the palace was maintained, although the quays did not function in the late 5th century AD.

Floating at Portus (image link to: HP/Portus Project)

The soil samples and flotation did reveal only small amounts of plant remains and most of the finds were not very exciting. There was a lot of grain, but little luxuries, but this may be understandable, since the things brought in in huge quantities were grain, oil and fish sauce (garum) – and the last two were inside amphorae. Nevertheless, the late 5th century AD saw the bread wheat being swapped for hulled wheat, thought to be of local produce. Instead of annona from faraway places, grain seem to have been imported from the Italian peninsula. At the same time, the diet of the people who were working in the harbour seemed to have changed.

The material from Imperial burials, coming from the Italian excavations, seems to show that the late-5th and early-6th-century workers ate less animal and fish proteins and potentially more pulses. These individuals laying inside the buildings were 87% men and mostly in their twenties and thirties, showing signs of heavy work. These people probably had died in industrial accidents and got their resting place next to their work. A huge downgrading for Portus from the well-organised 2nd century AD, think I. Nevertheless, highly interesting and giving a glimpse of the declining ‘centre of the world’.

The second maritime talk was given by Jean MacIntosh Turfa from the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Her talk was about the Etruscans and near my own interests. She even managed to mention Ras El-Bassit where I happen to have worked. Thus, I could not be without commenting this little detail. However, she was discussing Etruscan piracy, a historical perception of the Etruscans that I had not much paid attention. Nevertheless, stay calm, since her final conclusion was that this image was only that, some bad mouthing by the early Greek colonists to Italy. I am not sure how many people in the audience had doubted the Etruscan marine power in the 6th century and considered it as something less savoury than politics and trade, but at least to me the conclusions did not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, nice images of pirates and a fresh look at Parker’s catalogue of Mediterranean shipwrecks.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Kulturnatt: a visit to a real national museum?

The last weekend in Stockholm coincided with the local 'white night' or 'culture night' with all kinds of events and free museum access in some of the museums. After a not so thrilling Saturday afternoon logging in my Swedish tax return, it was nice to join a queue outside the Nordiska museet.

Konditori: free coffee!

I had chosen this museum of the possible ones, since I could not remember if I had visited the place after my childhood. As a museum presenting Swedish folk customs and national ethnographic collection, I had a faint memory of all kinds of rural objects, albeit presented in a slightly more uplifting way than during those days in Finland. Nevertheless, a memory of a lot of 19th century furniture did not exactly get me running to the entrance in enthusiasm. I had noticed, though, that recently their exhibitions had been relatively interesting, currently showing the history of sugar (thus the open mouths in the retro posters).

Coffee lecture

For the evening, the museum had put up a traditional Swedish cafeteria in their huge entrance hall. We who were the first managed to get small marzipan cakes and cocos balls with our free coffee, but they seemed to run out very quickly. There were all kinds of programme in the entrance hall as well. I walked by when an ethnologist was explaining the details of Swedish coffee culture. Sadly, I had to disagree with her, since I am quite sure that the special traditions of coffee shops did exist in Finland as well. Coffee is as important in Finland, if not more important, but naturally, the Swedish urban culture has always been richer than in Finland. But there is no visit to my family without drinking copious amounts of the stuff - and we the Finns consume more coffee per capita than any nation.

Sami exhibition

My visit to the Nordiska came at an interesting moment, since the following week Sanne Houby-Nielsen gave a talk in the Section of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History. Even if this originally Danish archaeologist has recently worked mainly in the museums and headed until a few months ago the Medelhavsmuseet, her own field of study is in classical archaeology and at the Department she was discussing the excavations at Chalkis. This was the talk I did not have time to sit through, but I did go to the Greek restaurant for a dinner. What an interesting night it was. Much of the discussion centred around her new job and the enthusiasm she seems to hold towards the potential the museum has. Not only to be a true national museum with huge ethnographic and photographic collections and other historic archive material, but fascinating objects, such as jewellery, toys, clothes and whole rooms and small buildings on show, but also a possibility to take part in current discussions about identity, e.g. the Sapmi. I had to reconstruct the topic of her actual talk the following day in the coffee table (fitting!).

From the Nordiska my way continued to the Spritmuseum, which was amusing for a couple of seconds. Maybe I should have come for the exhibition of the Swedish blue movies six months earlier, but there is only so much Absolut art I care to see...

My night finished to the ground floor of the Kulturhuset that has a lovely cafeteria. The food was nice - and it turned out a swing or pop choir did have their supepr there, too. We had some surprise entertainment. But the cafeteria was handy also for the stage of the local music high school. To finish with the Swedish ethnographic theme, I heard some beautiful a cappella folk songs both from Sweden and America. For some songs one of the ladies (the blond on the left) had even written the score. Powerful stuff!

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The last days of Stockholm

Similarly to many of the previous arrivals my last return trip to Stockholm of this current researcher contract coincided with some drama. The time the Swedish Mediterranean Institutes were in danger is probably such an unexpected series of events that it will be remembered for a long time – and not just by me. Sadly for me, this time around the drama that was unfolding was not something I observed, affecting other people, but sad, unexpected things happening within my own family. Nevertheless, the sheer enormity of the workload numbed the feelings of loss and the social media uploads and contacts from different family members kept me aware of the events.

The last eight and half working days presented a carefully timetabled flurry of things. There were two major grant applications to sort out, a report to finish, a tax return to log in, workshop material to be sent to the agreed open access journal, Archeologia e calcolatori, to name the most urgent matters with immediate deadlines looming. Luckily, there were also a few good research seminar presentations to hear and a pleasant postseminar in a Greek restaurant - after a talk I did not have time to listen, but even a stressed researcher has to eat... Everything was so intensive that there was little time to panic for the future or let any blue mood set in for long. The things were to be packed, the flat was to be cleaned on the last day and the table was emptied. Anyway, if the first day in the home office was any indication, at least momentarily the workload stays heavy. It also turned out that the last day at work may not have been such a thing. Frugality comes with silver linings apparently and the wolves have been sent packing at least for a couple of weeks.

Virginia Piombo presents Massimo Osanna

The most amazing coincidence was the fact that my last full working day before the Valborgsafton coincided with the talk of Massimo Osanna, the soprintendente of Pompeii. His presentation was the last in the series organised by the Italian Cultural Institute in Stockholm in collaboration with the Lund University and the Millesgården museum in Stockholm, celebrating the occasion of the Pompeii exhibition describing the Swedish Pompeii project. This was the last in the series and sadly the only one I could make. The other talks were at the times when I either was away or frantically finishing off one of the many grant applications. Luckily, much of the digital content had been presented in the CAA conference in Siena by Niccolò dell’Unto, so I had got peaks into the fantastic subject matter.

Professor Osanna stroke me as an energetic and driven man with a modern vision for Pompeii. His talk gave a quick summary of all the phases in the research history of Pompeii, from the 18th century tunnels around the theatre to the main ‘beef’ of the talk, Grande Progetto Pompei, the Great Pompeii Project. Professor Osanna referred to the two allied bombings in August 1943 as the defining moment, the reason for much of the collapses and structural instability in Pompeii. The after-war reconstructions are the ones that keep coming town and risk the survival of the original ruins as well. For the first time in Pompeii’s history the whole Pompeii is being mapped for decay and different structural phases. 105 million euros granted in 2012 allows the maintenance of the entirety of the existing standing structures, the remedies for hydrogeological problems and the systematic restoration work to be in the heart of a Pompeii project. No piecemeal, no half measures.

The plan is extensive and already in full swing. The different sections of the project – Conservation, Usage, Knowledge, Health & safety and Public visits – cover the whole site with 55 projects started and 95 entered into the tendering stage. Naturally, according to the EU regulations the work is divided into the subprojects that are given to different companies through open tendering process to allocate the contracts. Thus, the digitalisation of the photographic archives of Pompeii, to be uploaded to the internet in eight months, is carried out by six different companies. The work plan, specifications and regular visits from a dedicated Pompeii archaeologist keep different subprojects coherent and harmonised. Similarly, all Regios will be surveyed and all signs of decay and different repairs will be mapped on photographs. The whole site perimeter gets new fence, lighting and CCTV cameras, so that the regular night-time visits will cease. The unexcavated areas are cored for hydrogeological and engineering purposes, the Soprintendenza offices will be finally renovated (they have been in temporary barracks since 1980s) and new access routes are created. There will be a series of different thematic round tours so that the tourists will be channelled to different areas to even the erosion and Pompei per tutti will enable disabled access at least to a part of the site.

The plan for the disabled access

Since 2012 there have been 13 more archaeologists and 8 architects to carry out the work after the 2010 collapse of the Scuola Armaturarum. In addition, the internal commercial arm of the Culture Ministry has provided 13 new guards who could help to keep open newly restored houses or spaces where the governance could not allocate guards, not previously opened to the public. One is able to visit Casa del Poeta Tragico, Terme suburbane and 11 other properties in Pompeii. Similarly, the restoration of Casa dei Vettii has been restarted and there are plans for the New School of Pompeii, to teach different archaeological methods and disseminate knowledge after the model of Fiorelli’s original school that opened in 1866.

What is truly amazing that the old policy of restricting the use of Pompeii material online has ceased. The photographic archive will come online and information of Pompeii and different tourist routes are presented in an integrated manner in cross media. This new embrace of open access naturally has also something to do with the European conditions for research and other funding (we all are pencilling our respective open access publication plans), but it is such a positive move. I can only remember the times when a friend could not present online his 360 degree photographic panoramas of the Pompeii house he was working at, since the cost required by the Soprintendenza was beyond any independent researcher’s capability to pay. Probably now the panoramas can be presented – if the technology has not become redundant, yet. Likewise, now it will be much easier for the Expeditio Pompeiana Universitatis Helsingiensis to publish their final report.

As a cherry on the cake, there will be a new exhibition to present the earlier pre-War phases of Pompeii research and excavations. This exhibition will take place in Naples between the end of May and the beginning of November. As Professor said, now it is time to visit Pompeii. The organisers of the RAC, take a note where to direct the archaeological excursion of the conference in March 2016, if in anyway possible. It is the golden dawn the continuation of which is not guaranteed. This is a normal fixed-term project: the extra guards disappear after one year. The maintenance work will be incorporated into the normal running costs after 2017 unless there is new money. Can the finances allow any way near this level of activity in the future? Only time will tell, but I have personally followed the slow decay of the Millennium walkways and outdoor displays at Crustumerium when there was no money for maintenance and the weeds took over. Nevertheless, no one cannot say that soprintendente Osanna does not try to capture the moment and try to sort out the extra finances for guides and maintenance.

Massimo Osanna kindly allowed to use these photos in my blog. Truly practicing the openness that he is preaching.