Sunday, 28 June 2015

Open day at lady Grey’s house

She may have been a queen only for nine days during the 16th century and her home may lay in ruins, but a field school open day in a sunny deer park with fabulous views and picturesque ruined towers makes a wonderful family day out that could have made Lady Jane Grey proud. Phil had already been summoned to see the slates and the bricks on Thursday, but now on a warm Saturday we came the whole family to see the development of the new project and get a glimpse of the structures below the turf.

Find specialists discuss finds and training sessions

What a difference a new park manager makes. Last year, when Phil found a Roman rooftile from the brook in Bradgate Park, the manager was truly interested. The recent start of the Lottery Heritage funded Charnwood Roots project by the Victoria county histories at Leicester meant that the Bradgate House and its environs were a natural location for the Leicester field school to move after many successful years at Borrough Hill Iron Age hillfort on the exactly opposite side of Leicestershire. The first stage of preparations had included a survey of the park and a Lidar prospection from the skies. Thus, the department could target an interesting selection of trenches both inside and outside the House and at other locations.

The trench inside the House

Two posters pinned at several locations detailed the progress so far and the combined results of different surveys, including geophysics. There was a general information tent nearer the main entrance almost next to the ice cream sellers that told about the projects and finds. In addition, there were further activities behind the House ruins with certain aspects of early modern life re-enacted, meant for the general public and the members of the Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC). There were also guides in finer, upper-class period costumes at the chapel.

We could smell the dung...

For me the true novelty was the realisation that there was a Medieval moated house slightly further away from the main ruins towards Linford Newtown, the village moved from the site of the manor house in the past. I had noticed the humps and bumps, but the slight elevation of a squarish site had escaped me and Phil, since only now the hay and grass has been cut. The park management has also carried out cutting back brambles, so everything is more visible now.

Can you spot the moated site?

There will be further site tours on the 11th of July as part of the Festival of Archaeology and the excavation news are described in real time through Facebook and Twitter. The University web site gives limited information with main communication happening in social media (links provided there).

A trench within the moated site

The excavation site can be approached by foot along the public footpaths across the fields, potentially following a Roman roadline from Anstey where the city buses 74 by First and 54 by Centerbus stop. If anybody wants a lovely walk on a sunny day.

The trench in front of the house

Next year will also see a community dig in Bradgate Park - following after a recent one in Anstey. Stay in tuned.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Heading online again

Hadrian's wall (photo: wikimedia)

The intensity of the first four months of the year meant that I had very limited time to prepare for my [at least temporary] return to home workwise. In addition, the first twenty days or so I spent using up the reminder of the workshop grant from the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and was trying to have a head start in rewriting and corrections several articles. I also needed to prepare the poster for the London conference. In reality, I really should have needed a holiday, but I managed to deal with the invoice from Archeologia e calcolatori, plough through other people's drafts for book chapters and write a book review before really starting the rewrites while sending off selected job applications. Then, it was suddenly midsummer.

It was the normal researcher's life: some "we regret..." messages, no name in one grant list and waiting games. And suddenly very good news about the small grants and one medium-sized research grant I had applied during the spring that mean that I will spend a couple of weeks in Italy with a team - at some point(s). Now I just have to drum up more work for the rest of the year and try to sort out different timetables. And wait for November.

In any case, I will put my community and local archaeology hat on again in Britain during the autumn and run the Googling the Earth course in the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge again. This will be great fun for me - and hopefully for the students as well. The good part is that it is online, so I can do some other work normally. I will also hear about the many marvellous sites different people are working on and discuss landscapes and online information. What could be better!

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Hoard on show

On a recent trip to Birmingham I could finally see the Staffordshire Hoard with my own eyes. This hoard is remarkable in several different ways. Most importantly, it shows how this can go horribly nicely with metal detector finds, Not only was the find duly reported to the finds liaison officer of the Portable Antiquities Scheme who contacted the county archaeologist who visited and assessed the site shortly after the find. The immense importance of the find was immediately spotted. Not only that but the location was kept secret and the site was properly excavated before the hoard was announced a Treasure at the coroner’s inquest. The Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent councils agreed to acquire the treasure that was sent to the British Museum to be valued. Grants and record donations from the public guaranteed that the hoard could be placed on show in the Birmingham Museum.

The sad detail is that the Birmingham Archaeology, which excavated the find spot, has since ceased to exist due to its closure by the University of Birmingham. It is sad that commercial activity that effortlessly links to the research efforts of different universities has not been valued recently, but a business that follows the cycles of the building trade can look every now and then less lucrative, but when a unit hits rich, it hits news gold. Nevertheless, now the objects in precious metals are in the safe hands and conserved by the Barbican Research Associates.

Even if the hoard clearly is made up by scrap metal meant to be recycled, the sheer beauty of the Anglo-Saxon art work is breathtaking. I have always admired the inlaid red garnets and gold designs. The most stunning objects are displayed in their own treasury and some items, such as the largest cross, are also reconstructed, due to their original folded and stripped off quality. There is also a partial reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon house with benches and games as much information as you can give of a find that has apparently been dug into the ground in a forest to be safe. There were practically no archaeological features in the field where the find was made and objects needed to be excavated and lifted with the help of a metal detector. The displays include also some other Anglo-Saxon finds from the area plus a model of a house excavation. The videos of key persons who dealt with the find giving their spoken insights add to the more personal feel.

The hoard is very popular with the visitors. Naturally, we visited during the half-term week, but most of the visitors were couples or groups of friends in their more advanced years. However, the children were avidly using the horizontal touch screen table and playing with the object info. Most visitors seem to pay close attention to different objects and not rush through. Nevertheless, I do not know how popular the Staffordshire Hoard Bath Duck, available in the museum shop, is with the punters but it made me smile.

This is all free and accessible to everyone. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery also has a marvellous collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art, which the visitors had to pass on the way to see the hoard. Not that one had to be forced to marvel the beauty of it. Let’s hope that the new government will see the beauty of it, too, and realise that the local government provides culture for everybody. If these riches are lost for the taxpayers, due to the continuous cuts, it would be a huge loss to everybody and deprive the nation of its heritage.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Academic archaeology to the shredders?

It has been scary to read papers and check the Facebook postings of my colleagues in different European countries. Be it Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden or Finland, the governments seem to be singing from the same song sheet: we need to cut and streamline higher education. It is interesting to compare Britain and Finland, which both have currently conservative governments and both countries try to cut spending in order to cut deficit. Both discussions have some unique and internally contradictory elements.

Naturally, in Britain the different universities are separate from the state, but the government is holding the money meant for teaching undergraduates and research. Or actually, they manage the system and simultaneously try to promote British education system to foreign students, a considerable source of funds for the university system and the country. When the country needs the money from foreign students, the government simultaneously keeps their numbers as part of potentially poisonous immigration statistics and ultimately part of immigration discussion.

Of course, 80% of teaching funding was cut from the Humanities during the last round of structural changes in university funding. The 80% is now supposed to come from the students, i.e., most pay it from their student loans. Thus, if your department can get the students, you may be OK. If you are not a Russell research university and your department is not innovative and famous, you are pretty much stuffed. Universities make increasingly all decisions on the basis of business reasoning, so that is why the King's wanted to get rid of the Classics. That is why the unpopular natural science courses are also closed. That is why modern languages disappear. These developments make one wonder how there will be enough science teachers? How businesses actually think to sell anything abroad in a way that takes into account cultural differences - that can be huge even in Europe? The more 'exotic' humanities are likely to survive only in the most prestigious of institutions. Some people wonder when people dust the 1980s plans for archaeology, when the number of departments was considered to be cut down to five.

The cull of smaller departments and more 'exotic' disciplines is in full swing in Finland. There is actually funding to reward universities for getting rid of 'odd' disciplines. The universities are branding themselves, which is not always bad. The University of Oulu where I am a docent decided to change the lectureship in classical archaeology into one in archaeology and ended up hiring a human osteologist. This is wise, since the department is famous for its osteological and zoological knowhow and the previous professor covered this subdiscipline. Naturally, they need someone teaching the matter. And the arctic emphasis of the university as a whole makes sense, since the Faculty of Humanities has a Sami research institute and it is located in the north. However, the Classical antiquity and Mediterranean studies come with built-in potential international profile - something all universities are after around the world.

My Finnish colleagues have been alarmed by the value statements by different members of the new government. First the finance minister was joking about abolishing the reason professors like their job, June, July and August - the only time the teaching stuff has time to do research. The irony is that without this research the universities do not have peer-reviewed articles in respected international series or books that are the basis of the financial share and funding. There seems to be very little understanding in the government how their own system of academic funding works. In addition, they do not promise any further funding for this new summer term or take into account that in many disciplines, such as in archaeology, students are getting work experience with the employers of their fields and earning desperately needed money to cover extra cost of subsistence. At the same time, the government says that the country has to become innovative. Well, how this is achieved is unclear if there are only one or two large departments in a couple of universities and the departments are in the traditional style led by one professor, so there is a big danger of monoculture developing. Branding makes more sense.

This all happens with a background in regional internal politics. There was a time in Finland where every region wanted its university - these do bring knowledge, skills, activities and jobs to a town. However, it seemed at least to me a bit dubious, if EVERY town needed an identikit university with more of the same. Now that road has come to an end and the institutions are united, departmental staff cut and central administration mushrooming. There are hardly more jobs for the many doctors the system creates. The recently put '10 years since PhD' threshold for much of the research posts does not give directions to people how they are supposed to survive when the lectureships and especially professorships are few. A doctor easily hears that they are overqualified. The hiring culture has to change and the careers in the administration, either at the universities or in governmental bodies have to be better signposted. Otherwise, the danger is that the spiral of cuts does not support job creation or innovation.

A feature of life is the unpredictability. We do not know what will come. Nobody could see that our assyriologists and Palmyra specialists do rounds to explain the situation and relevance of recent events. The current situation in Europe requires people who know from their own experience the Mediterranean world. We can only think of Lampedusa, Turkey, Syria, Libya, Iraq... In this world, cutting from things like the Dutch Institute in Istanbul seems silly. They may be studying the Hittites or the Ottomans, but a physical building means there are people who have been living in the region and there is an institute to hold different collaborative meetings with local colleagues. How can we predict where the innovative ideas come from?