Sunday, 27 September 2015

On Watling Street

It has been lately suggested that I should use a common hashtag, used by many archaeologists that study Roman roads. Call me old-fashioned but I just do not get myself using regularly items that contain a concept for rude movies and other adult entertainment. No matter if I am talking casually on Twitter about tombs or other things I feel passionately about. I do understand it is an inside joke and meant to emphasise the awesome qualities of the photo attached, but after testing it once, I have just decided to convey awesomeness otherwise. Not for me. No #tomb***, #road*** or #wall***, I am a Finnish feminist.

Earlier during the summer I was about to write about Roman roads, but then Syria took over. This week I did my casual Twitter following of a conference some of my friends were invited to give talks in. This Past Communities & Landscapes conference was all about my favorites, landscapes and identities, and it related to the EngLaId - English Landscapes & Identities project, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and run at the University of Oxford. The project uses the data from different research collaborators, such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), the National
 Mapping Programme of the English Heritage (now Historic England), Archaeology Data Service (ADS), British Museum and different Historic Environment Registers. It aims at analysing change and continuity from the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1500 BC) to the Middle Ages, up to the compilation of the Domesday book (c. AD 1086).

In his opening talk Chris Gosden presented a map that used the project data in order to present archaeological complexity. Here the density of different site types stand as a proxy for complexity in a long-term time scale covering the whole study period of the project. Thus, the key areas defined by the project as their main key study stand out - as seem to do the Roman roads of Watling Street and Fosse Way. The complexity of these two areas will come as no surprise and probably as a default, since the Roman roads were lined by rural sites, villages and inns, not to mention the hierarchical settlement pattern with luxurious villas and palaces for the top echelons of the society. However, it is interesting, how clearly this complexity can be picked up from a big data survey.

This summer I went for a picnic with my son to Wall village to see the local remains of Roman baths and mansio. The weather was not the best, but it was not raining. Nowadays, A5 bypasses the village, but the original line of the Roman road still runs through the village and from the slope next to the pub it was possibly to see how the modern busy road continues to join the different parts of England as it did two thousand years ago. This village was once a Roman minor aggregated settlement called Letocetum and had it been the right weekend (of course, I was there in the middle of the week), I could have entered the small volunteer-run museum.

From the graveyard to the ruins of Letocetum

Wall is a lovely place, worth visiting for the little Victorian church alone. This church of St John was drawn by Moffat and Scott and finished in 1843. Sir Gilbert Scott became the leading architect of the Gothic Revival and the tense atmosphere is clear on the spot.

The church of St John dominates the ruins

Sunday, 20 September 2015

By the river Bytham

Things do not always go to the plan and last Thursday things were not turning out as expected for the Leicestershire Fieldworkers’ lecture event in the Jewry Wall Museum. Not only was the equipment playing up, but also the person giving the presentation had had a long day and the PowerPoints did not play ball. Thus, instead of hearing about the LiDAR survey across Bradgate Park and the specifics of the University of Leicester project there, we got a presentation about the Palaeolithic and the earliest humans in Leicestershire and Rutland. It was slightly unexpected, but in the end we got a fascinating story from Lynden Cooper – even if the only presentation he could find was originally meant for local primary school teachers. It had the Bradgate Park test pitting in it.

The river Bytham and Brookesby

I did not know that we living near Bradgate Park are living along the Pre-Anglian river Bytham – if not actually in the river. Archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) visit Brookesby Quarry every week until there are no more Ascheulian deposits to be found. This is a site that shows that the Palaeolithic people did not only make stubbornly hand axes no matter where they were, but adapted to the local geology. When they had flint or perhaps rhyolite from Wales, they made a proper hand axe, but otherwise they just kept knapping the local quartzite and selected flakes chopped from cores to have knives to cut their prey.

Coring in Brookesby Quarry (image via ADS/East Midlands research frameworks)

The other Palaeolithic sites were considerably younger. The second site presented, Glasdon, could have been one of the last places for the Neanderthals. This site had earlier activities with now-exotic animals roaming in Leicestershire. Woollen rhinos wandered in the landscape near a hyena den. A field day for the zoo-osteologist when he could use the Africa pages of his reference book.

The third site was from the period of the famous Cheddar caves in the south-west. This site also brought us to the original topic of the evening, the Bradgate Park project. In 2001 the unique open Creswellian site, culture named after the famous cave art site of Creswell Crags, was found eroding down in Bradgate Park. The change of management in the deer park meant that there was interest among the managers in archaeology alongside natural environment. Thus, the management plan, mostly funded by Natural England, incorporates also assessing the archaeological assets. In 2014 archaeologist from the University could made tiny 50 cm x 50 cm test pits when the bracken had been cut back and find out that some of the cultural layers were still there. This week the work is starting again and perhaps in the next few months we will learn much more about this exceptional place.

What we know is interesting enough. It is considered to be a ‘clean’ Creswellian site, so the finds are more or less in situ. It is defined by bladelet production and the finds include a Cheddar point and some scrapers and piercers that show that the activities at the site are likely to have been many-faceted. While all the other known sites from Britain are from caves, this is an open air site. It is very near the surface, just underneath the turf. That makes it so vulnerable in an extremely popular outdoors area.

Testpitting 2014

At this point Lyndon referred briefly to the Bradgate Park project as a whole. Currently, it is made up by three different things: 1) the LiDAR survey, 2) the test pitting and excavation of the Palaeolithic site, and 3) the field school studying the Medieval structures and the Tudor Bradgate House. At the end of the project these three lines of enquiry will be brought together and we will know more about the many landscapes of Bradgate Park, perhaps the only manor house park in Britain that never experienced the re-landscaping by Capability Brown into an English landscape garden

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Stonehenge II to the rescue

Stonehenge 1 (photo: P. Mills)

In archaeology we do not have Ant and Dec, but we do have our favourite Geordies, the Gaffney brothers, Vince and Chris. Both professors are now back at Bradford – and how successful their reunion has been! Recently, the Doggerland has been again in the news. Then, we got the sensational news from Stonehenge – Stonehenge II and its invisible stone lines underground.

Ant and... I mean Vince and Chris Gaffney (photo: ChronicleLive)

The University of Bradford is famous for its geophysics. The late Arnold Aspinall was a true pioneer of the archaeological geophysics equipment and use and the Gaffneys were his pupils. Alongside pottery distributions and geophysics, Vince is also one of the pioneers of GIS research and his book with Stancic on the island of Hvar is still essential reading, even if hardware and software have seriously moved on. He was also involved in the study of Forum Novum as part of the Tiber Valley Project of the British School at Rome where GPR was used extensively to find an amphitheatre, for example. Chris is a true geophysics specialist, as his long-term involvement with Time Team shows. Chris recently visited Finland and I heard only lovely things from my colleagues about his demonstrations during fieldwork at different important sites.

The reconstruction of Stonehenge II (Ludvig Boltzmann Institute)

In my New Year’s blog I was assessing last year’s archaeological finds and instead of emphasising the importance of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape project, I wanted to lift up the monitoring of the heritage in Syria. I still stand behind that personal evaluation, partly that sentence ‘they basically found a couple of pits – I am unimpressed’ blurted by one of my colleagues still ringing in my ears. Well, now the international collaborative project has found seriously more than a couple of pits. A whole curved line of stones, 30 intact, hidden below the surface using ground-penetrating radar. Some of these were up to 4.5m high. There were signs of 60 more originally standing stones, either fragments of them or the anomalies related to their wide foundation pits. The monument seems to have been demolished and redeveloped when the Durrington Walls 40-metre-wide superhenge was erected by the Neolithic builders. This hints to religious changes during the Neolithic period and continuous change in the Stonehenge landscape.

HOOOH comparison (images: the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape partners and HOOOH)

The announcement and the press release happened at the eve of the British Science festival in Bradford. It was ‘archaeology on steroids’ as suggested by Vince. One of the immediate reactions was Tom Holland’s tweet suggesting how foolish the tunnel option for the A303 will be in light of this new find. More importantly, the HOOOH, while trying to save the Old Oswestry Iron Age Hillfort landscape being cannibalised by development piece by piece, was watching, reading and reacting. The RESCUE had already pointed out in their scathing statement that the council had not carried out an archaeological evaluation – and in the light of this new find this seems a foolish disregard. Now the HOOOH has published a statement in Facebook where it declares just this lack in knowledge and reminds of the impressive group of scholars and backers who value greatly the whole landscape, ranging from Lord Renfrew to Professors Richard Bradley and Colin Haselgrove.

It is also interesting to note how the ‘business men’ behind these developments and councils forget the importance of tourism as one economic factor when discussing these monuments. Nobody will want to see the 117 houses planned, the visitors come to see Old Oswestry – and Stonehenge I and II – in its setting.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Blown away - into a sound of silence?

Palmyra in Google Earth

It was the eve of the Big Birthday of assyriologist and hittitologist Sanna Aro-Valjus when the news started to circle. On her birthday it became clear that we have lost the Temple of Bel in Palmyra in Syria. Another round of media attention, another round of interviews for the specialists. The complications of the situation are clear and the scholarly world is split: show we talk and share information of heritage in danger or should we be quiet, silence the IS and take away its propaganda outlet, cut the oxygen?

Temple of Bel (photo: Wikimedia)

Cornell assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies Lori Khatchadourian suggests the latter and she is correct, if the only motivation for the Daesh is to irritate the west. On the other hand, it appears that the destruction of the funerary towers came only into light, because archaeologists were monitoring the Palmyra area and noticed that the monuments had disappeared. This act is more likely to be a result of plundering the monuments for illicit antiquities used apparently to fund the organisation. This motive for the recent destruction has been suggested by the Lebanese-French archaeologist Joanne Farchakh. Would the suggested media silence help or hinder the work people do against the spread of illicit antiquities originating from Syria?

Temple of Bel (photo: Wikimedia)

ASOR Syrian Heritage Inititative by the The American Schools of Oriental Research has written a very sensitive report about the destruction in Palmyra, not only the destruction of monuments and loss of cultural property, but also of human loss. This report is exactly the kind of monitoring by the specialists and heritage professionals as Lori Khatchadourian is calling for during the media silence. Nevertheless, if there is a media silence, how this information will be shared among the scholars in these times of Facebook and Twitter? Would it be totally beneficial, if the real damage is only whispered among the chosen ones in the back cabinets of the UNESCO or equivalent?

The illicit trade and trafficking are to be discussed in a conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, organised by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Sofia and the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research with the patronage of UNESCO. The Balkans are a major route for human and immobile trafficking and working together with the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture, the Bulgarian Interior Ministry, the Embassy of the Republic of Cyprus and a Dutch non-governmental organisation called “Walk of Truth” the Norwegian partners will try to find ways to stop the trade. The key note speakers include Dr Neil Brodie, a known specialist and researcher on illicit antiquities, and Dr Rubina Raja, a known scholar of history of religions at Aarhus, Denmark, so the potential is there, partly depending who are attending the workshops and roundtables advertised. It can raise awareness among the border guards, local professionals, auction houses and private museums and collectors alike. It will facilitate and increase international collaboration as well.

The preservation of cultural heritage, the combat against trafficking, the protection of refugees and multicultural tolerance are themes that join the positive voices in different discussions on Syria and the Mediterranean ‘migration’ crisis. Tim Whitmarsh and Tom Holland wrote in the Guardian about Palmyra as a symbol of syncretism and mutual tolerance, as a monument to all the Daesh seems to stand against. These voices definitely were worth reading and hearing in the current refugee situation.

In reality, it may in occasions be that the Daesh does not really care always what the West thinks. Part of the destruction may be for internal discussion and local politics. The Wahhabi Sunni ideology against worshiping idols has been used to explain the apparent disregard the Saudi government has shown to the heritage in Mecca and Medina. The original monuments from the times of Mohammed and his family members and disciplines have been erased in order to accommodate the crowds taking part in the Hajj, the pilgrimage described as one of the pillars of Islam. Temples and art are part of idols and in the case of Palmyra definitely built by infidels. The Daesh may need to be seen as pious. Locally, in Palmyra, one can only assume that the ruins are revered as a source of pride and livelihood for the town. Demolishing the main landmarks will show to the town people who have the power. Both of the two measures may be needed in order to maintain internal cohesion and ideological rigour within the Daesh. In these discussions, western media may be just noice, even if useful noice, if it helps to track the trafficking routes and safeguard other heritage sites elsewhere. The discussions have already brought about different archive resources on Palmyra, such as the photograph collection of the French Institute in the Middle East (IFPO).

The western cemetery area in Palmyra (IFPO)

Nevertheless, considering the voices discussing the past of Palmyra as a symbol of tolerance and a source of civil pride in a lay society in Syria, one can already perhaps dream for the future. This can also be seen as part of trying to celebrate the surviving Middle Eastern heritage as Khatchadourian suggested and as Aro-Valjus has done in her blog. One can dream of peace in Syria again. A return of Syria that had 1 million Palestinian refugees. A dream of a safe return for the refugees to whose plight the world has started to answer and has started to drop the heartless rhetoric of the right at the face of human suffering and the senselessness of the war. The refugees are now called refugees in the and one day they may be able to go back. One can dream of a time when the Temple of Bel and other standing ruins made to dust in Palmyra can be rebuilt. They will not be original, but may be destruction will bring cooperation and healing to Syria. It could be an act of rebuilding the society through rebuilding the monuments that stood for tolerance and multiculturality.

I am starting to favour the Middle Eastern name, used also by the French government, for the organisation behind the Caliphate – I do not wish to call them a ‘state’ in English nor blacken the name of the Egyptian goddess. Even if ‘daesh’ includes the word ‘state’, it is not directly recognisable to a non-Arabic speaker, and even if the word allegedly sounds like ‘someone who crushes something under the foot’, it sounds also very similar to ‘someone who sows discord’ – very fittingly in so many senses. It will undoubtedly be their downfall as well.

If you can Finnish, you can watch an interview with Sanna Aro-Valjus in the Finnish breakfast TV.